I am not blind to the irony that my interest in the scientific method began shortly after the certificate for my postgraduate qualification arrived in the post. Indeed, it rather calls into question the expertise of those who kindly bestowed the award upon me. It also makes me wish that I had thrown myself rather more vigorously into my new hobby of researcher. For truly, Trudy, the scientific method is most alluring.
Essentially, the scientific approach is, rather counter intuitively, to look for evidence that what you are thinking is wrong. For those of you who are as new to the game as I am, this is called disconfirming evidence and was kindly bestowed upon us by the father of amyl nitrate, Karl Popper. Karl realised that there was a human tendency to think, “Well, if that’s happening, it must prove that this is causing it.” Really? he wondered, reeeeeeaaaaallllyyyy???? Time to think more along the lines of, “I think this is happening because of that. But might it not also be because of that? Or that? Or that? Or perhaps even that?” A scientific law is really just a hypothesis that has been pared of so many alternative explanations that nothing else seems to be a likelihood. Even then, thought Popper, we can only wait to be proven wrong as knowledge silently amasses in the collective consciousness.
Now, if you’re a masochistic teacher reading this managerial (regrettably not magisterial) blog, this will hopefully speak volumes to you because teaching (see recent post on formative assessment) is largely about this. We hypothesise that student A has got it but there may be a mountain of other possible explanations as well. Perhaps she copied, perhaps they hit upon it by chance, perhaps they are just regurgitating, perhaps they tried to say something else and accidentally said the right thing. Before you can say that she got it, you need to look for disconfirming evidence: she couldn’t have copied because this is a 1:1 class; she doesn’t seem to have hit upon it by chance because she used this language a number of times in different contexts; she doesn’t seem to be regurgitating because when I tried to tease her into giving me the wrong answer she stood her ground and explained her choices. On the balance of evidence, it seems most likely that she has finally understood. Hip-hip hooray!
If you’re a manager, Popper’s critical rationality is just as useful. As regular readers might be aware, middle management are given plenty of reason to question themselves. I think I struggle on, doing the best that I can. I have been accused of things that make my psyche droop and become all round-shouldered. Popper’s approach allows me to examine the accusations (and my own protestations of innocence) with a more critical eye. All accusations need to be able to provide a rational explanation for any evidence that seems to contradict them. Most recently, for example, I have been accused of failing to be supportive of a failing teacher. For these accusations to stand unsupported, an explanation is needed for documented evidence to the contrary. Because if there is some contradictory (or disconfirming) evidence that doesn’t seem to support the allegation and the allegation cannot explain this evidence away, then the allegation cannot stand.
Conversely, before one dismisses teacher X as a waste of a name and a waste of space, one has to take into account evidence that might not support this theory. He works hard enough and his students have never complained about him; au contraire, they are often coming into the staffroom to look for him. He seems to do nothing other than play Gangnam Style on YouTube in the classroom, but his students are making as much progress as students in other classes. He is always taking the students out on educational trips that you suspect are ploys to avoid doing any work, but the students have highlighted excursions as an enjoyable part of their experience. A teacher who works hard enough, doesn’t generate any complaints, seems to have a good rapport with his students, and keeps them amused throughout X hours a week doesn’t seem to support the hypothesis that they are useless. What other explanation can there be for their constant sickness, their late arrivals, their poorly prepared classes and their seeming lack of any pedagogical values?
Socrates may have been onto something with his theory that the unexamin’d life wasn’t worth living, but what he probably meant to say (but may have overlooked because of the concerns he had about the goblet of hemlock in his hand) was that it is the critically unexamin’d life that lacks any real purpose. We need to test our theories for disconfirming evidence and, upon finding some, we need to be prepared to abandon our theories altogether. We need to be honest with ourselves and accept that we are as susceptible to bias as anyone else. Here is a list of biases that would have left me unmoved but a year ago, yet now thrills me in the same way that being able to reel off a list of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order once did.
For now, I am going away to examine my theories that I work with psychopaths and sad sacks. I can’t shake the feeling that the unexamin’d life might be pointless, but is also much more comforting and protective…
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