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.