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

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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 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.

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