The limits of evidence

Posted on 01-03-2012

I was recently challenged to explain why I believe in a knowledge curriculum. ‘Do you want to just go back to the 1950s?’ said my interlocutor. ‘Aren’t you aware of anything that has happened in education in the past fifty years? Where is your evidence that any of this knowledge stuff works? It sounds like your ideal knowledge curriculum is based on ideology!’

I sighed, and embarked on a lengthy explanation of how I am very aware of many of the advances that have happened in education over the past fifty years, and that I am particularly excited by the breakthroughs we have made in understanding how the brain learns. I explained that all this evidence points to the importance of knowledge as the basis of all learning, and that it shows that learning knowledge is not the passive, routine activity it is typically characterised as. I gave a brief explanation of the working model scientists have of the brain and explained why this means we can’t just depend on ‘looking it up’, however efficient our computers are and however brilliant Google is.

I paused for breath.

The man was looking at me intently.

“Hmm,” he said. “But aren’t you worried you’re depending too much on science. I mean, it seems to me that your approach smacks of scientism.

He paused, as if he’d just dealt me a killer blow. And of course, he had. I really don’t know how to argue with people who complain that your approach isn’t based on evidence, and then when you give them the evidence, say that you shouldn’t depend on evidence.

The other irony of this discussion is one I explore in more detail here. It’s that those people who are the keenest to present themselves as being progressive and cutting-edge tend to be those who are ignorant of what the most progressive and cutting-edge research is saying.

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