The Thinking Cycle: why education is a battleground, and what to do about it

Education is a battleground. Public statements on schooling frequently insult dissenters, whilst civil disagreements on Twitter spontaneously combust into name-calling and bullying that puts our profession to shame. Like many battlegrounds, the soldiers on this one are often guilty of forgetting why the battle is being fought. Quick to pounce on any indicator of hostility – an innocent deployment of a loaded word, or a well-meaning opinion on a contentious topic – we have created caricatures of ourselves, and use these shorthands to distinct friend and foe.

The dominant fields of thought in education are popularly considered to be traditionalism and progressivism, and generally defined in terms of the issues they disagree over . My contention is this:

Traditionalism and progressivism are manifestations of two competing approaches to scientific reasoning, and will become more pronounced as the scientific aspects of education develop further. To be able to navigate the disputes that will ensue, and know when to leave our natural positions in favour of compromise, we need to understand what these approaches are and how they shape our thinking. Both approaches have merits and flaws – to dismiss either outright is foolish.

Mechanisms vs systems

There are two approaches to scientific thought. The mechanistic approach seeks to break processes down into smaller chunks, and understand each step of a causal chain to learn the precise mechanism that leads from cause to effect.  The systems approach believes that certain properties only emerge at the system-level, and so some knowledge cannot be gathered by looking at the smaller parts – no matter in how much detail you look.

Neither of these approaches is universally ‘correct’. Through history their respective powers have oscillated depending on which was most able to generate the next breakthrough. For example, physics, though dominated for much of history by the mechanistic drive to look at the next smallest thing, had a resurgence of systems thinking after the discovery of quantum theory. Without mechanistic thinking we would not know about the existence or behaviour of fundamental particles, but without systems thinking we would not be able to link their behaviour to the phenomena we see in the observable world. Systems biology is also undergoing a resurgence at the moment, and is proving an incredibly popular option on many university courses.

There are times when the dominant theory endorsed by one approach is simply wrong, and is eventually abandoned in favour of another. However this does not mean that the approach itself is wrong. Science progresses by resolving individual disputes and selecting the best theories, whilst preserving the approaches to thought themselves.

The dichotomy in education

The battleground in education is too often defined by the micro-level disagreements, which mask the underlying approaches to thought that are the origins of these disagreements. I prefer to follow these definitions:

Traditionalism: a preference for mechanistic thinking, or solving problems by looking at component parts to explore observable chains of cause and effect

Progressivism: a preference for systems thinking, or solving problems by looking at properties of entire systems rather than smaller causal chains

Mechanistic thinking: striving to understand the components of learning

Mechanistic thinking digs deeper into the processes of learning. Its natural instinct is towards some kind of experiment with falsifiable hypotheses, and ideally work with quantifiable data. It believes that by learning more about the intricate parts of learning, we will be able to adapt our policies and practice to benefit children. Without mechanistic thinking we would lack these insights and be unable to intervene effectively in the processes of learning – just like early medicine was fixated on the system at the expense of understanding the causal chains.

However mechanistic thinking has its flaws. A whole is often more than the sum of its parts, with certain properties only emerging at the system level that are not observable in the mechanisms themselves. Mechanistic thinking risks missing these, and so maximising the effectiveness of individual processes without actually maximising the end result for the child.

Systems thinking: striving to understand the child as a whole

Systems thinking looks at the overarching behaviour of the child as a whole. Its natural instinct is towards more qualitative research over a longer period of time, and will happily look for effects that cannot be quantified. This does not mean that they cannot be understood scientifically, but that they need more complex techniques as they deal with more complex systems than the individual processes of mechanistic thinking. Without systems thinking we would lack insight into the emergent properties of systems (that only appear at the system-level) – which would leave our knowledge of mechanisms divorced from our observations of reality.

However systems thinking has its flaws. We can only learn so much about a system without understanding its components, and knowledge of details does allow us to develop a greater knowledge at the system-level. By casting aside mechanistic inquiry as reductionist it risks missing out on these details, and so halting the growth of our understanding.

The thinking cycle

Every scientific field is subject to a natural “thinking cycle”, where the influence of these two approaches oscillates and they alternate in dominance. Each takes its turn as the revolutionary, that steps in and makes a much-needed change to overthrow the complacent orthodoxy of the day. We need eras of mechanistic dominance to dig deeper and learn more about the processes of learning. However between these we need eras of systems dominance to link our discoveries and make coherent theories of children’s’ whole development.

Learn to understand each other, but not necessarily to compromise

The message of this post is not to blandly compromise. There are correct theories and there are incorrect theories – the answer is rarely in the middle. However we do need to learn the discipline of adopting both approaches in our thinking. If mechanistic thinkers could step back and try to think of systems, and if systems thinkers could look deeper and try to think of mechanisms, we would take a great step forward in understanding each other and growing our knowledge about education.

6 thoughts on “The Thinking Cycle: why education is a battleground, and what to do about it

  1. teachingbattleground

    I don’t recognise this distinction at all. Plenty of traditionalists have been uninterested in a scientific approach to education, whether mechanistic or not. Frank Furedi springs to mind as a modern example, but philosopher opponents of progressive education like Arendt or Oakeshott have not shown an interest in this sort of model at all. As for progressive thinkers, I don’t think you’ll find any single coherent thread in their thought beyond their objection to traditional education. They have differed widely in what they think is wrong with traditional education. Some have objected to the aims. Some have objected to the teaching methods. Some have objected to the authority of adults. It’s not obvious which ones you think you are describing.

    1. jonpatrick

      If you concern yourself with contesting the descriptive accuracy of the nature of the disagreement, then further disagreement is inevitable. I would encourage you to try and bracket that and read this instead as a declaration of how discussions around education could, or ought, to be. Therein its utility lies.

  2. Michael Fordham

    An interesting analogy here to the sciences and I can see what you’re trying to achieve, but, as with Andrew’s comment, I don’t think it quite works. For me, the problem here is that your modelling above focuses solely on the ‘how’ of teaching rather than the ‘what’ of teaching. There are major lines of division between traditionalists and progressivists concerning *what* is taught – academic disciplines, cultural literacy, domain-specific skills, employment skills, generic competences, etc. Differences over views about what is taught (as opposed to how) are not accounted for in your model, and including those differences would strengthen your argument for its use as an analogy. A colleague of mine recently pointed out to me the common tendency at the moment to talk about pedagogy without an object, when really ‘learning’ always needs to take an object – that is to say, we are never ‘learning’ but always ‘learning something’ (e.g. maths, history, knitting) and the nature of the learning taking place – and the teaching that will bring about that learning – is intrinsically tied to the nature of the thing being taught.

    I wonder if your model has more applicability in a narrower domain – say educational psychology. There I can well imagine that the interplay between ‘mechanisms’ and ‘systems’ might work in the way you describe, but this is completely outside my area of expertise.

    All of this just makes me think (as per my recent blog post) that quite a few of the arguments about education occur because people come not just from traditional or progressive positions, but also from different disciplinary positions. A psychologist, for example, thinks about education in a quite different way from a historian, and the processes and knowledge produced within those two disciplines cannot be directly compared within one model (I would say).

    As an aside – is what you’ve said recognised as true by those in the history and philosophy of science? I’m not an expert but this reminds me a bit of Kuhn, and I think his model has been challenged many times? From a philosopher’s position, I find Alasdair MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’ and ‘Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry’ a powerful account and one which you might find an interesting foil for what you’ve written above.

  3. logicalincrementalism

    Traditional and progressive are folk categorisations – loosely defined in different ways by different people – so I don’t think mechanistic/ systems approaches can map onto them. But your point about thinking in terms of causal chains and at a whole systems level is really important.

  4. Gary Walsh (@GaryWalshCS)

    I think this post is great and this line of thought should be encouraged. Getting caught up in details about how or if this theory hangs together, or whether there is a valid correlation between the concepts of traditionalism/mechanistic and progressive/systemic approaches, seems to miss the point a bit. Ironically this a very mechanical way of regarding it, which seems to back up the argument itself!

    This post prompts me to consider intellectual virtues such as open-mindedness, empathy, curiosity and humility: the ability to flexibly consider alternative viewpoints instead of committing ideologically to our comfortable preferences (perhaps I’ve been influenced by the comment about MacIntyre above).

    I find the suggestion that we should commit to crossing those intellectual boundaries very welcome. Why shouldn’t a scientist be encouraged to think like a philosopher, and vice versa? We all have our disciplines, but there is not much to be gained by ploughing the same field over and over.

    The only cautionary note I would make is that some people such as Alfie Kohn suggest that progressivism is really a soundbite and is actually very rare.

    The contention is that we operate largely within a Victorian construct and the education system by its nature is very mechanistic and conservative – the reality being that liberalism, radicalism or progressivism barely get a look in.

    This post reads as though there is an assumption that there is currently a reasonable balance between traditionalism and progressivism in our system?

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