Review – Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction” part II

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Biesta (2020)

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

Part Two – How ‘what works’ obscures questions of values and the need for judgement.

Biesta would like us to consider the role of theory throughout the process of planning and carrying out research. He argues that, rather than take a confessional approach in adopting a stance or taking sides in a quantitative or qualitative culture war we should take a pragmatic (indeed Pragmatic) look at the purposes of any theory or approach we intend to use. Instead of seeing theory as representing truth we should see it as a tool, with uses and origins that we should also be aware of and investigate.

we need to be much more thorough in our consideration of the purposes of education than a focus on they body of knowledge that is to be transferred will allow. 

Crucially this means understanding the ‘question’ that the theory was an answer to, and much earlier use of theory in the process of conceptualising the phenomena under investigation. It also means moving beyond the objective and relative dichotomy and resisting the colonisation of professional action by a scientific world view. Biesta forcefully argues that in seeking to understand, and emancipate as well as explain, we can also make a claim to be thinking and acting rationally.  In open systems our understanding of, and the evidence we have gathered about what has happened in, the past is a valuable source of information in helping us understand our current position, and to formulate plans and react to the implications of our acts in the present.

we need to be more aware of the ethical and social costs of the mechanisms that we use to make education more systematic

For the profession the pragmatic approach means recognising that a focus on ‘what works’ means little whilst we leave unexamined the aims of education. It means that we need to be much more thorough in our consideration of the purposes of education than a focus on they body of knowledge that is to be transferred will allow.  It means also being aware of the ethical and social costs of the mechanisms that we use to make education more systematic. In highlighting three overarching purposes of education, credentialisation, socialisation and subjectification Biesta opens up a rich and exciting arena in which we can explore what schools are for, and enables us to address the question of what we lose when some purposes are squeezed at the expense of others or, using the striking metaphor of pasteurisation, when we try too hard to make schools work like closed loop laboratories.

What emerges from this consideration is the importance of the relationship between democracy and education. This awareness arises out of the observation that education is an activity constituted by its purposes, because children learn about society, their place within it, how knowledge is generated and how it should be applied, from the way we teach as much as what we teach.

This allows us a much more nuanced and much richer role for education as part of the life of the community than is allowed in a Hirsch-ian model of education as acquisition of enough knowledge to take part in democratic discourse later in life.  It also enables us to show how implied purposes are concealed in discourse about effective pedagogy, where ‘outcomes’ are treated as neutral and given rather than embodying underlying purposes of education.

Review – Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”

This image has an empty alt attribute
Biesta (2020)

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

Part One – The Problem with Cause and Effect

I’m often struck by the similarity of the messages that emerge from weekend conferences, mini-conferences, teaching literature and books. Whilst this clearly shows the emergence of a number of key ideas and evidence based practices, the extent that they can be rolled out, or are immediately useful to a range of practitioners across our profession is I think still in doubt, especially when one looks at the prescriptions more closely.

In order to make generalisable claims, the premises and principles of many of these talks, blogs, articles,  books and weekend conferences have to be abstracted, often to the point of genericism. This, in turn, tends towards the production of rather bland instructions to ‘check understanding’ or ‘sequence’ learning, ‘chunk adequately’, avoid ‘overloading working memory’, or ‘enable recall’. These become so broad in the attempt to make them applicable to all situations that they become empty categories – chunking becomes bullet points, recall becomes testing, sequence becomes the examination specification.

In this way empty categories are open both to interpretation (which is not necessarily a bad thing but can become wild and self-referential) or  to the imposition of interpretation in social or management hierarchies. Each can mean however that what results is either confusing or comforting mantra, or becomes inflexible diktat.   

Biesta’s new book is a kind of drawing together of some of his recent work, developing and bringing out conclusions from articles such as ‘Why what works won’t work’ (2007, 2010) into a powerful but in my view incomplete case for a pragmatic and democratic ethos of educational research and practice.  It is also a source of arguments against the imposition of generic intervention on the professional judgement of educators.

This book is an extended examination of the assumptions of an ontology based on cause and effect which underlie the calls for evidence based profession in education. To achieve this Biesta builds on a brief historical and philosophical investigation into the use of the concept of theory, exposing a search by humans for objective permanent truth, as ‘spectators’ of a universe that is separate from them in which science provides the ultimate form of knowledge because of this separation and the universality of its findings.

The recognition that such knowledge can only be generated in closed systems in which variables can be limited and controlled is well understood and accepted. The recent vogue (now in decline) for all pedagogical discussion and decision making to be based on evidence generated solely by the gold standard in research represented by Randomised Controlled Trials is evidence of the pervasive hold that it has taken in education. 

Instead Biesta argues for scientific knowledge to take its place as one way of understanding reality – one form of knowledge, gained from a particular form of interaction with the world. In the process he suggests that we dethrone it from its status as ‘pure’ knowledge of an unchanging eternal world ‘out there’.  The world outside the laboratory is not a closed loop. What is especially satisfying about Biesta’s analysis of the nature of the ‘system’ of education is not only the detailed consideration of its open, semiotic and recursive nature, or the recognition that our formal education system operates through mechanisms (such as timetables, behaviour and recruitment policies, marketing, textbooks, setting and streaming, homework etc) that attempt to simplify and create ‘quasi-causal’ systems in school.  The fundamental insight is that correlations, between action and outcome, occur as a result of “people trying to make sense, trying to communicate, trying to teach and trying to be taught” (p40) rather than these things just ‘working’.

The fundamental insight is that correlations, between action and outcome, occur as a result of “people trying to make sense, trying to communicate, trying to teach and trying to be taught” rather than these things just ‘working’.

This is not however a call for ‘anything goes’, for unbridled relativism in research, or for an ultra-progressive rejection of the systems and rules that help schools function. It is rather a call for a focus on ‘function’ or purpose in both arenas, and a recognition that in choosing particular tools or systems we risk closing off opportunities for wider understanding or obscuring or denying the relationship between education and wider social and political functions.