01 February 2012

On Franklin's Gambit

Thanks to Jim Hamlyn's intriguing review, I have just finished reading John Kay's Obliquity. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about it as Jim is--it's easy to read, but also repetitious and wordy, almost padded. Nevertheless, it is the book I have been looking for, for some time, because it addresses an issue--namely tackling problems and challenges indirectly--which has interested me for some time, and to which there has not really been an accessible introduction I can point other people to, and say, "It's all there!" There's been a series of books, largely by economists (as Kay is), perhaps most notably by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2008), which touch on similar areas, but without the clarity of focus Kay brings to bear.

Kay starts thus:
For over ten years, I built and ran an economic consultancy business, and much of our revenue was derived from selling models to large corporate clients. One day, I asked myself a question: if these models were helpful, why did we not build similar models for our own decision making? The answer, I realised, was that our customers didn't really use these models for their decision making either. They used them internally or externally to justify decisions that they had already made.

They were playing what I now call Franklin's Gambit, after the American polymath Benjamin Franklin. He wrote: 'so convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.'
In my early days teaching, when we actually had long summer breaks, I moonlighted for a small management consultancy. I was so naive, that I reported back to the boss after a few days on an early assignment, that I didn't know what to recommend to him (the boss) to advise the client. He laughed and said, "You don't understand! The client has always already decided what to do. He employs us to give him good reasons for doing it, so your job is to go back there tomorrow and find out what he has already decided."

Today I was approached over the net by an overseas researcher seeking the views of academics on the various competing taxonomies of education objectives, helpfully accompanied by a handout summarising the models he was investigating. Some were familiar, and there were two I had never heard heard of; most were horrendously complicated. They were just unmanageable, and I couldn't imagine anyone actually using them. I thought, "these are not designed to be used. Despite appearances, the only person (if anyone) who got anything out of these was the person who designed them." That is not to say that the exercise of designing them was not useful, as a way of clarifying the designers' thoughts--it's just not directly communicable to other people.

I'm an unregenerate builder of conceptual models; my Doceo site is full of more or less half-baked ones, which people do occasionally tell me are useful, but I do try to keep them simple, with a focused and limited range of convenience.

...but even then, I suspect that most of even those are employed in the service of Franklin's Gambit--just seeking a legitimation for what someone was going to do anyway.

Which rather puts most educational theory in its place.

So now I've got to work out how to respond to 29 Likert-scale questions on learning taxonomies...

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:31 am

    Thanks James,

    ...so the thing I have noticed so often in educationalist circles, and had been calling "post-hoc justification" has another name.

    Combined with confusing the possible with the true, and a background of political correctness, this is a reliable bar to anyone ever discovering an acknowledged fact about teaching and learning.


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