“Optimism, n.: The doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly.” Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Education is a project filled with hope. We stand, framed heroically against the setting sun and scan the horizon for new stuff to transform the tired, outmoded, factory clamour of the past and hope – oh, how we hope – that everything will be better. But our forward-looking, progressive stance means we can all too easily miss seeing a landscape littered with failed ideas and the scorched ruins of unscrupulous optimism.

Here are a couple of recent examples for your consideration:

The College of Teaching

Tom Bennett wrote about the increasingly embarrassing failure of the much-trumpeted College of Teaching and the commitment of those invested in the idea to plod listlessly on until the crack of doom in the mad hope that teachers will one day be convinced that what they really need, what will solve all educational ills, is an annual subscription to yet another authoritarian professional body. I remain deeply unconvinced.

Education technology

I wrote a 3 part exploration of how and why true believers in the power of digital technology to transform education take it amiss when anyone is even mildly sceptical. One of the most powerful motivations for embracing the new is, well, because it’s new! The EEF report on digital technology called this ‘the Everest fallacy’. They also pour scorn on the idea that, despite the failures of the past the next big thing is just around the river bend:

After more than fifty years of digital technology use in education this argument is now wearing a bit thin. We need a clear rationale for why we think the introduction of (yet another) new technology will be more effective than the last one. The introduction of technology has consistently been shown to improve learning, the trouble is most things improve learning in schools when they are introduced, and technology is consistently just a little bit less effective than the average intervention. [My emphasis]

This tendency to will improvement and transformation into existence just because we want it to work was the topic of Rob Coe’s 2013 lecture, Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. In it he points out the failure of this approach:

Despite the apparently plausible and widespread belief to the contrary, the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing. Much of what is claimed as school improvement is illusory, and many of the most commonly advocated strategies for improvement are not robustly proven to work. Even the claims of school effectiveness research – that we can identify good schools and teachers, and the practices that make them good – seem not to stand up to critical scrutiny. Recent growth of interest in evidence-based practice and policy appears to offer a way forward; but the evidence from past attempts to implement evidence-based approaches is rather disappointing. Overall, an honest and critical appraisal of our experience of trying to improve education is that, despite the best intentions and huge investment, we have failed – so far – to achieve it.

I think the way the growth mindset is interpreted and enacted betrays an unscrupulous optimism in many setting: we wish so fervently for all to achieve that where we don’t end up merely mouthing homilies, we fool children with the toxic belief that everyone is special and all should win prizes.

None of this is to say that hope is harmful, just that it can infect our thinking in subtle but pernicious ways. I wrote here about the ‘best case fallacy‘, the beguiling idea that because we all mean well, because we want so much to be right, that all will be well, whatever our endeavour. Roger Scruton calls this, “a kind of addiction to unreality that informs the most destructive forms of optimism: a desire to cross out reality, as the premise from which practical reason begins, and to replace it with a system of compliant illusions.” How delighted we are to cross out reality and dwell in the shining spires of a perfect future where all our happy dreams will be realised… soon.

This is where optimism becomes unscrupulous. The power of positive thinking is the power to blind ourselves to reality. The unscrupulous optimist is a gambler and, like all gamblers, convinced they can beat the odds. Too many in education have calculated the best case and refused to acknowledge the worst. Failure to prepare for the worst is a certain form of insanity.

Instead, we should always seek to dwell in a world of constraints. Whenever we try to change those constraints we should know that the attempt will be difficult and the consequences uncertain. We would always do better to adjust ourselves to reality than expect reality to warp at our whim.

Optimism is a constant temptation – of course we want to believe our ideas will work and our good intentions will win through, but such wishful thinking is dangerous, possibly even poisonous. To be clear, I’m generally an optimistic chap. I tend to act as if things will turn out for the best, and sometimes they do. Even when they do I can look at my three-quarter empty glass as half full. This is a trait I try to fight.

The most unscrupulous of optimists will believe they are somehow capable of overcoming all of the impossibly unpredictable pitfalls and so guarantee a less than optimal outcome. The unscrupulous optimist will read all this* and triumphantly cry, “But I’m a scrupulous optimist!” and continue blithely trailing havoc in their blissful, ignorant path.

Pessimism is a useful trait for teachers. Judicious pessimists know all too well the mess we can make when we hope all will go well, and they actively anticipate – and so often avoid – failure. For those of us who acknowledge our all too human fallibility, here’s a checklist of questions we might use to help us avoid unscrupulous optimism and prepare ourselves for the worst rather than wishing for the best:

  • What is the real root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
  • Have you considered other possible reasons for the problem?
  • Have you sought out sources and evidence which contradict your beliefs?
  • Have you allowed for dissenting opinions to be voiced and considered?
  • Have you considered the weight of time, resources and credibility you or others have already sunk into this course of action?
  • Are you viewing the motivations and capabilities of yourself and others realistically?
  • How might groupthink and other social biases be influencing your decisions?
  • Have you encouraged others to criticise and suggest problems with your plans?
  • To what extent is your decision based on an unproven opinion?
  • Might your decisions be anchored by possibly irrelevant information?
  • Do you really understand the data you’re using to inform decision-making?
  • What perverse incentives might you be creating?
  • Certainty can blind us to alternatives. How confident are you that your decisions are correct?
  • What would be the consequences of not taking this course of action?
  • Have any other schools tried this course of action? How many were still doing it three years later? What were the results?
  • Who could you ask to help you spot the biases and flaws in your thinking?

*Actually, the most unscrupulous won’t even bother to read it.