Changing paradigms

Much of science is based upon sets of ideas which are generally accepted and which provide good explanations for how the world works. These theories are not dogma; they change when overwhelming evidence emerges which renders them no long viable. We then move from one paradigm to another, say from a Newtonian view of the universe to one in accordance with Einstein’s ideas. Let us look at a couple of ideas which fit in perfectly with modern paradigms; one in the field of medicine and one in education.

In medicine, we believe that smoking cigarettes tends to shorten lives by bringing about lung cancer, heart disease and various other illnesses. The link is not obvious, because these disorders typically take decades to emerge and so we only found out for sure when a lot of people’s medical histories were checked. This does not mean that every smoker will die young, nor that no non-smoker will die of lung cancer. Somebody who lives to a ripe old age while being a heavy smoker does so in spite of, not because of the habit. In education, there is a definite link between high quality, structured and compulsory teaching from a young age and future academic achievement. There is a similar link between the early acquisition of literacy and later academic history. Again, the link is not at once apparent because these consequences also take years to appear. As with cigarettes and lung cancer; there are exceptions. Some people might end up going to university without having been taught methodically. These people are, like the old man who smokes eighty a day with no apparent ill effects, exceptions. They have achieved academic success not because of, but in spite of, the educational treatment which they have received or failed to receive.

Every so often, somebody comes along with ideas which challenge prevailing paradigms. When this happens, the onus if very much upon those with the new ideas to demonstrate that these ideas provide a better explanation for the world than those currently being used. Some people today claim that HIV is not caused by AIDS. Others believe that smoking does not cause lung cancer. There are also those who believe that structured teaching tends to prevent academic achievement rather than promote it. Beliefs such as these are not rational or scientific. I do not propose to reference this article, this is after all a personal blog rather than an academic journal, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against any of the above ideas. Because there is no proper evidence to support either the belief that smoking does not cause lung cancer or the notion that structured and compulsory teaching does not tend to produce good academic results, those championing such things fall back on anecdotal evidence and deny the very need for properly conducted research. We see this with crank cures for cancer, where belief and faith are more important than objective research into the efficacy of what is being claimed. We see it too in some strands of home education, where anecdotal evidence is all and the necessity for research is similarly denied.

What is wrong with anecdotal evidence? Well, I had an elderly relative with a very heavy tobacco habit who lived to old age with no apparent ill effects. I also know somebody whose daughter was a life-long non-smoker and yet died of lung cancer. These cases are freaks; they do not cause me to doubt that smoking is strongly associated with lung cancer. We similarly hear of cases where children have been denied regular and systematic teaching and have then gone on to university. These people too are freakish exceptions. They have succeeded despite, rather than because of, their childhoods. We have good reason to think that this is so. First, because of the fierce opposition among those who embrace such unorthodox educational methods to any sort of objective examination of what they are doing. We know it secondly because the same few cases are paraded over and over again to prove that this type of education works. It has all the appearance of a crank cure for cancer, where most of the patients die, but the few survivors are paraded endlessly to prove that the treatment is effective. This has more in common with the sale of snake oil in the old-time West than with any modern education theory!

When it is claimed that a prevailing paradigm is faulty, and this applies to celestial mechanics, medicine, education or anything else, the onus is upon those making the claim to provide the evidence which backs up their belief. There would be nothing wrong with my claiming that Einstein was quite wrong about relativity and if I came up with a theory which made predictions which could be tested and checked, then people might even listen to me. Simply asserting that something is so, will not do. Nor will producing a half dozen cases and suggesting that these are good reason to abandon all that we currently believe to be true about medicine or education. The ball is in the court of those who espouse a new paradigm of education and if they wish to be taken seriously, they should make their case. It is this which lies at the heart of demands for monitoring and inspection: that a group of people are operating in a way which runs counter to all that we think we know about education. Most teachers and other professionals in the field think that these methods will cause harm to the development of young children and that is why they wish to intervene.


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