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Education, Procedure, and Justification: Something's Missing

"Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob."

-Seneca in Letters From a Stoic.

Very few people understand their own views regarding education. I think that this is neither good nor bad on it's face, but it is the case.

I have recently had conversations some of the most influential and well-regarded leaders of education reform in Denver--a city which is currently a major reform hotspot--and they candidly report that they don't know where to start when it comes to the question, "What should the educative experience look like given our current context(s) of academic inflation and new conceptions of society/internetworking?"

We in education can talk about pedagogy, curriculum, classroom management, and so on forever. We can even give reasons as to why we hold the views that we do.

"We backwards-plan lessons using a gradual release model because the process ensures that we end up at the measurable outcome that we intend, while scaffolding instruction in such a way that students develop independent control over the content or skill."


"We focus heavily on classroom culture at the expense of academic content at the beginning of the year because it is absolutely vital for the rest of the year. Without good classroom culture, instruction is ineffective, engagement is low, behavior is unmanageable, and so on."

Both very, very true. But we need to realize that we are engaging in a social science, whether we want to admit it or not. As social scientists, we need to understand our practice. The problem is, we don't.

As a result, our practice of education is disturbingly incomplete.

Here's why:

When we practice any form of science, we need to be able to justify our practice. The two examples above are not justifications, they are procedural reasons. They are procedural reasons in the same way as this:

"In chemistry we use beakers to contain liquid because if we didn't use them, the liquids would be all over the counter and our lab would be a mess."

That is very, very true...but it also isn't meaningful if you care about whether or not that particular chemistry experiment is well-designed. Just because a chemist understands the reasons behind their procedures and can execute them flawlessly doesn't mean they're an innovative or excellent chemist.

If, on the other hand, a chemist understands the justifications behind an experiment, (s)he can design experimental practice in such a way that helpful outcomes result--by which I mean that the results of the experiment will help them to formulate further hypotheses to test.

An example of a justification (in chemistry, the poper term here is "chemical mechanism") in biochemistry might be an understanding that non-insulin-mediated glucose transfer into the muscles occurs when GLUT-4 receptors are activated via sustained muscular stress.

Using this, we might formulate a hypothesis that serum insulin spikes might be mitigated despite increased blood glucose levels by some amount of muscular stress. We cannot formulate this sort of hypothesis using procedural reasons because procedures are devoid of the real "stuff" of chemistry.

Same, same, same with education.

This is turning out to be a bit more long-winded than I had intended, so here's the point: we need pragmatist philosophy. And I do mean need, not want. Philosophy's job is to provide us with justifications. Unfortunately, most philosophy fails to be relevant--most philosophy except for pragmatist philosophy.

The immediate gut reaction is probably something like, "How is pragmatist philosophy relevant to education?" Well, the quick answer is that it is relevant by definition. If it's not relevant, it's not pragmatist philosophy. Here's the long answer.

As educators, we can argue over curriculum, pedagogy, classroom management, etc. on and on forever, but we're really just arguing about which beakers to use. Of course, I don't say this to minimize the importance of these sorts of things. If chemists didn't use beakers, they couldn't do their jobs either.

But it's important not to confuse the "beakers" with what really matters: justifications. So...

What does justification look like in education?

Well, unfortunately this will likely not make a whole lot of sense since my contention is that the education world doesn't understand how to justify its practices, but here's what a justification might look like:

"All foundationalist attempts at building functional conceptions of Truth and metaphysics fail for several common reasons, which means that all main-stream conceptions of normativity are no longer justified. In their place, we have an anti-foundationalist account of normativity rooted in problem solving activities within particular contexts."

Using this, we might formulate a hypothesis that knowledge is a byproduct of (at least) solving particular life problems, and we might design an experiment (like the program I set up at a high school, discussed in the link above) to reflect this.

We cannot formulate this sort of hypothesis using procedural reasons because things like pedegogical, classroom managerial, and curricular strategies are silent when it comes to these sorts of hypotheses...in the same way that discussions about the kinds of beakers chemists should use are silent when it comes to designing experiments about non-insulin-mediated glucose transfer.

It's apples and oranges, as they say. Or, "orange peel and orange flesh" to be both more accurate and more obscure.

So what?

Well, so what if we're not thinking about these things? These kids are mostly turning out alright.

Not everyone needs to think about these things, but if you care about changing what education looks like for the better, you need to. Its much easier to ignore all of this and just focus on procedure (including pedegogy, curriculum, etc. as I've been framing it), but again, we're arguing over beakers.

And one more thing--it's not that I think working in the education world is easy. It's an incredibly unbelievable amount of extraordinarily difficult work. In the past 5 days I've broken up several fights, been cussed-out multiple times, worked with kids with severe social/emotional behavioral challenges for several hours each day, dealt with a middle school girl war, and just today spent 2.5 hours driving around Denver to track down a student who stole a teacher's phone, and whose father, upon hearing what his son did, had one of the most disappointed, downtrodden demeanors I've witnessed. Oh and I'm also in front of a full classroom of kids 6 hours per day and spending countless hours per week planning and grading...and it's wonderful.

So I'm saying that education is an incredibly difficult thing to do with your life, but avoiding justification is the easy way out as far as necessary cognitive heavy lifting goes.


"Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob."

-Seneca in Letters From a Stoic.

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