17 December 2009

On a counsel of despair

Sean has done me the honour of a point-by-point rebuttal of some earlier points of mine; do read the linked post. He makes some very good points, and I don't think it's a good idea to get into an old-fashioned argument about them, but better to set them out before you and encourage anyone out there to respond to either or both of us.

Having said that :-)
  • My view of the both theoretical and practical impossibility of a universal model/template/method for teaching is not a counsel of despair; it's an invitation to relish a dance... Yes, I know it is task-focused and chemical engineering is hard (in several senses), but the dance is still there in the engagement and response with students' understanding (or failure to understand), and accumulating a body of practice wisdom about how to engage with both of those conditions. As Sean refers to his engineering expertise, I venture to suggest that it is not merely that teaching (and its admittedly patchy theory) does not live up to his positivist and pragmatic paradigm--but nor does his engineering practice, either (or that of any other expert).

  • And "2. Why do values and feelings matter in the context of engineering education?" You go with the "engineering is value-free" line here. I do not disagree, but the point relates to the human encounter which is  critical to teaching and learning, rather than the subject matter. Learning always involves feelings; boredom, fascination, frustration, achievement... and many more. They are not the prerogative of soft, humanistic topics. "I just can't get my head around these equations!" is an expression of feelings, and how a teahcer engages with it--ridicule failure and humiliate to motivate, or take the problem seriously and explore where the blockages are--are expressions of values in teaching. And so is the cost-benefit analysis a teacher engages in when deciding how much time to spend on helping an obtuse student versus getting through the syllabus. Values are not something we impose on our practice; they are implicit in it whether we acknowledge them or not.
Come on in, the water's fine! And the exercise will do you good!


  1. Thanks for your reply James. I also think that a universal theory of teaching is something which is very far away from us at present. Is it impossible to devise a theory of teaching and learning based in empirical truth? As of today I am aware of no proof that this is the case.

    Practically speaking, that such a theory would not tell a teacher what to do under every conceivable circumstance is clear. Even if it did, the teacher's personality would be a variable about which nothing could be done.

    But when "theory" is unsupported opinion, theoretical objections can be brushed aside.

    So there are admittedly limits to the practical application of even a perfect theory of teaching and learning, but not to even try to discover if there are reproducible laws of case and effect in the field, as we have despaired of the possibility of the existence of such laws is an abdication of responsibility if it is not a counsel of despair.

    I'm not much of a dancer, but I understand that there may be problems of communication between people. But to assume one again that these problems are practical insurmountable is to ignore ones everyday experience.
    Yes, there is a level on which people can not exchange so much as a fart. But to deny the existence of the ordinary world, where all is based on exchange is solipsistic.

    Yes, much of any professional practice is building reliable templates for practice based on experience. But if these are built on false theory, he provide the professional's needed confidence, but are as unreliable as those of the quack doctors of the past.

    I am unsure what you mean by doubting that what you refer to as a pragmatic, positivist model is sufficient to an engineer's professional practice. It is not only sufficient, it is essential.If an engineer started with any other viewpoint he would learn better. This is what matter teaches us.

  2. As I recognise no valid theories, I'm never arguing from a theoretical basis, and consequently often feel misunderstand when you accuse me of forwarding a theoretical case. Specifically here, I don't believe I'm going with a theoretical "value free engineering line". I'm pointing out a fact. Engineering lecturers are not charged with instilling certain values in their students. Fact.

    Does this mean that lecturers have no values,that the material being taught contain no implicit values, that n value judgements are made by the lecturer? Of course not.

    Engineering is not value free,even if we ignore those items which might be judged conspicuous by their absence. For example, engineers are taught to consider cost and benefit by means of discounting methods, which tell us not to worry about problems in he distant future. How this affected the decision to build nuclear power stations is not hard to see.

    Engineering lectures are not value free, but there is for example a UK professor of engineering who is a young earth fundamentalist nutjob. As far as I know, he doesn't shoehorn discussions of Darwin into his thermodynamics lectures.It is possible to teach technical subjects without bringing our political and religious views into things.

    Similarly, of course students have feelings about the material. Is it proven that responding sensitively to these ensures the best learning outcome? Not to the best of my knowledge. How can this be the case when military colleges do such a good job of bucket-filling?

    Isn't this belief an artefact of the overwhelmingly female make-up of the profession? Isn't this just a codification of traditional female virtues into professional standards? There's not a scrap of evidence to support this belief, and common life experience shows it to be false.

  3. Hi Sean,
    I often encounter students new to the subject of fine art who have an insatiable appetite and an unwavering desire to assimilate as many of the principles and processes of fine art practice as possible in as short a space of time as is available. There’s occasionally an associated feeling in such situations that the student wishes to be handed some kind of magic key to the subject which might encapsulate all of the many contradictions and paradoxes, complexities and nuances in a single totalising body of knowledge. As I'm sure you can imagine, at this point in time (and as may ever be the case with this subject), such a notion is simply that: a notion.

    While studying for a PGCert in higher education (as I am at present), one of the teachers recently said to us all that we should apply as many of the current theories of teaching and learning is possible. This approach makes "some" sense in that the suggestion is presumably that we should basically "suck it and see": to navigate our way through the different theories and apply what works and discard what doesn't. As a critique of this kind of approach your position is extremely powerful and very persuasive but I can't help thinking that what appears as your ultimate goal is one which envisions some kind of panacea which, like the enthusiastic art student, is practically impossible to even contemplate. This is not to say that we shouldn't strive for clarity and the elimination of bullshit, and it certainly doesn't stop us from interrogating unhelpful or uncritical advice from our teachers or from hoping that they might be a little more discriminating in their assessment of the theories that they offer for our consideration - not at all.

    From a slightly different perspective your comments remind me of a recent debate between, what I assume to be another Sean, and Sam Harris over a video of Harris on Ted.com: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2010/05/03/you-cant-derive-ought-from-is/
    It's quite a long winded debate and I've only really skimmed it myself but I think the contrasting viewpoints have a lot to say about your own position – especially the question as to whether it’s possible to “derive an ought from an is”.

    Another thing which strikes me as potentially very interesting is your perception of the role of such things as "elegance" and "beauty" within your own particular discipline and how these might be incorporated into the more pragmatic aspects of what you do? Such terms are certainly not easy to deal with (for many of the same reasons you describe) however, there's no doubt that such qualities and characteristics have a significant part to play in inspiring and edifying people with the desire to literally engage, both physically and intellectually, in this our strange and wonderful world of complexity.

    I'm also reminded of a very interesting essay ("Learning for an unknown future") by Ronald Barnett, who has often written about what he calls "supercomplexity": http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a758481275

    I know I’ve quoted Karl Popper to you before Sean but the following comes a close as anything I can think of to answering your position:

    “But although at first we have to stick to our theories – without theories we cannot even begin, for we have nothing else to go by – we can, in the course of time, adopt a more critical attitude towards them. We can try to replace them by something better if we have learned, with their help, where they let us down. Thus there may arise a scientific or critical phase of thinking, which is necessarily preceded by an uncritical phase.”



Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.