“The grand perhaps! We look on helplessly, there the old misgivings, crooked questions are.” Robert Browning
Ted Hughes’ poem The Thought Fox is an attempt to describe the mysteries of the creative process of writing a poem. We can imagine him sitting at his desk, staring in the dark, slowly become aware of a flickering presence and the awareness that “something else,” an idea, “is alive”. Hughes imagines this idea as a fox which makes his way into his mind at first tentatively: “Cold, delicately as the dark snow, A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf” and then take hold with startling suddenness as “with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox [this idea] enters the dark hole of the head”. As a description of how we feel our way through ignorance and uncertainty and then grasp on to an idea, Hughes’ poem is an interesting metaphor for the way we seem to think about education research.
As the researchED strapline reminds us, research is often about ‘working out what works’, about finding answers and certainty. but as Nate Silver points outs in The Signal & The Noise, “Even if the amount of knowledge in the world is increasing, the gap between what we know and what we think we know may be widening.” This idea is expressed similarly by Michael Smithson: “The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends.”
The vast, black ocean of our ignorance makes us uncomfortable. Most of the time, we occupy the centre ground of the island of knowledge which things are safe – only rarely do we venture on the shoreline to peer into the void; the act of research and investigation is the attempt to spin knowledge from the straw of ignorance. As former US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, tortuously put it, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns.” Venturing too far into the ‘unknown unknowns’ is like trying to find a black cat in a darkened room. A task made especially difficult if there is no cat. Much easier to deal with, and concentrate on, what is already known. And when we’re certain of what we know we feel even more secure.
But there are, perhaps, some problems with certainty. On the whole, we’d prefer people were wrong than unsure. We punish politicians or school leaders for acknowledging that they don’t know and are much happier when they’re decisive, confident… and mistaken. This desire for certainty has an evolutionary advantage. We’re hardwired to see false positives. If on the savannah we see something that might be a snake, we’re much better off deciding it’s a snake and treating it as such. Natural selection weeds out the tendency to decide it might not be a snake because a false negative has far worse consequences. So entertaining uncertainty is uncomfortable; our minds will fight to feel sure. The moment we think we know a thing, we stop thinking about it. But if we’re unsure we keep mulling things over; we put them on the back burner; we sleep on them. When we know we often only remember that we knew, but forget the substance of what it was we knew. And when we have specialist knowledge or know a lot about a particular area or discipline we become increasingly focussed on what we know and lose sight of what we don’t know.
The literary critic Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay on Tolstoy which he entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. In it he draws on a parable from the Greek storyteller, Archilochus which can be summarised as, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin uses this as an analogy to describe the way different writers think:
For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
Nate Silver observes that foxes know more about what they don’t know. Although the dichotomy between hedgehog thinkers and foxy thinkers is almost certainly false, we might categorise the two extremes of thought like this:
We’re all somewhere on the continuums between these extremes but perhaps the more specialised your knowledge, the greater your tendency to think like a hedgehog. Silver suggests that although “Foxes may have emphatic convictions about how the world ought to be… they can usually separate that from their analysis of the way the world actually is and how it is likely to be in the near future.” Hedgehogs, on the other hand, “take a prejudicial view toward evidence, seeing what they want to see and not what is really there.”
So, what’s all this got to do with educational research? Well, this quote from Jamie Holmes’ article, The Case for Teaching Ignorance sums it up:
People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.
Education is complex. And the more I learn, the more complex it becomes. For instance, Laura McInnerney’s excellent researchED session on group psychology opened up fascinating new areas of my ignorance and has already provoked a whole stream of new questions which I’ll try to sift through over the coming months. Complexity is ever at odds with certainty. Professor Lee Shulman encapsulates this nicely in The Wisdom of Practice:
After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching… is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.
What teachers do in classrooms contains so many imponderables that to reduce it to a set of certainties or a formula is tempting but, ultimately, impossible. We can say, these are the sorts of things good teachers seem to do, we might even reasonably say, you might like to try doing this, but we ought never say, this is what you should do.
All this is more problematic by our utter inability to reliably identify good teachers. While statistical studies reveal that some teachers must be better than others, we’re hopeless at being able to pick out good teachers at an individual level. All the tools we have, observation, students outcomes, student surveys, are flawed in different ways. But this doesn’t stop us from feeling certain, from feeling as if we can intuitively ‘just know’ who is a good teacher and who isn’t.
This leads some people into the misguided belief that any attempt to hold teachers accountable for their performance is wrong. Trust, they say, is the vital ingredient. THis thinking can lead us into seeing trust and accountability as polar opposites:
Let’s imagine a scenario which demonstrates the dichotomy between these two extremes. On the one hand we might believe that teachers should be free experiment & develop the best ways of giving feedback in their context. But on the other we might worry that Ofsted will evaluate progress by checking if there is pupil response in books so therefore we need to make sure teachers are meeting this expectation. As I say in my latest book, “arguments polarise because the most interesting thinking often happens at the extremes. The middle ground is exactly that: the meeting of two competing principles. You can always choose to do a bit of both A and Z, but they will be diluted. The answer is rarely in the middle, but it can come from integration.” We could try to bend these competing concerns back on themselves like so:
This could offer us the synthesis that teachers should be allowed to explain how their practice has resulted in their pupils’ progress. I’ve written before about how we might improve accountability systems to result in what I’ve come to think of as ‘intelligent accountability’, but it might be worth reiterating that without intelligent accountability we become more concerned with ‘looking good’ than ‘being good’. Teachers improve when they feel trusted, supported and held accountable.
Acknowledging uncertainty can lead to better decision-making. If we could think a little more like foxes and little less like hedgehogs we might stop making some of the grosser blunders we’ve become so used to in education. Don’t forget to look at what you don’t know rather than just considering what you do, and always remember, you might be wrong.
Samuel Butler points out exactly where I could be wrong: “There is one thing certain, namely, that we can have nothing certain; therefore it is not certain that we can have nothing certain.”
If you’re interested in reading further on these topics I can recommend the following books:
- Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How it Drives Science
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
- John Kay, Obliquity
- Robert Proctor & Londa Schiebinger, Agnotology: The making & unmaking of ignorance
- Nate Silver, The Signal & The Noise
And of course, What if everything you knew about education was wrong? by, er, me.
And here are the slides I used: