“James the Lesser” comments on an advertisement placed in these pages by the Allegheny School of Denial:
Joseph is correct that Education needs this desperately, not because new ideas are killed but because they are not. Fads drive the field to and fro as they experiment on new generations of children, never satisfactorily. I suspect this is partly because the education theorists aren’t really sure what they are trying to accomplish.
In Dr. Boli’s opinion, education theorists know exactly what they are trying to accomplish. They are trying to create more degrees, and then more jobs, for education theorists.
This presents them with a problem. If we know how to do education, then there is no need for theorists. Or at least there is a greatly reduced need for theorists. We know quite a bit about botany, but there is room for theoretical botanists who will tell us how newly discovered species or newly sequenced genomes fit with what we already know, and how they change it. Similarly, there is room for education theorists who will tell us how changing technology can affect and improve education, or how changing social norms—single-parent families, families with both parents employed, and so on—change the effectiveness of our educational methods.
The problem, however, is that there is about as much need for education theorists as there is for botanists, but there are rather more educators than botanists. One Web site counts 257 graduate programs in botany in America, and 11,141 graduate programs in education. In other words, there are roughly forty-three times as many educators as botanists. If there is enough useful work for all the botanists (which assumes that no significant numbers of those who hold advanced degrees in botany are actually working as dishwashers at the Eat’n Park), then there is probably enough useful work for one educator in forty-three.
We speak of graduate degrees because it is quite possible, at least in imagination, to suppose that undergraduate study in education produces teachers: that is to say, people who know enough about how education works to do some educating. But our educational traditions demand that graduate students come up with some original idea in their field. If knowledge in the field is new or rapidly changing, as (for example) it is in theoretical physics, then this insistence on coming up with new ideas may drive knowledge forward at a prodigious rate. If, however, the field is oversaturated with graduate students, then the inevitable result is that most of the new ideas—say, forty-two out of forty-three—are wrong.
How does one come up with original wrong ideas? It is not as easy as it sounds, but one good way is to follow a fad to the bitter end, exploring every dark corner of a blind cavern that is already mostly mapped by equally deluded spelunkers.
The same need for new theories continues after the educator is finally thoroughly educated and is kicked out into the cold world of gainful employment. If teachers can just teach, and administrators are mostly responsible for assigning detention and buying iPads, then of what use is an educator? Platoons of educators are useful only if everything the previous generation of educators did was wrong. Therefore everything the previous generation of educators did must be wrong, or there will not be jobs for educators.
Now, all this might make it seem as though an impenetrable skull would be a detriment to an educator’s career: that it is necessary for an educator to absorb every new idea, no matter how implausible. But there are some ideas that an educator must resist at all costs.
For example, it is quite possible to test educational theories scientifically, with studies that establish reasonable measurements of learning and divide students into testing and control groups. But this must not happen, because it would lead to actual knowledge. Studies are good, because they employ educators; but they must be designed in such a way that they cannot produce unambiguous results. Eliminating the control group is one very good way of making the results useless: one can simply predict what the result would have been without the intervention, and then measure the results of the intervention against one’s prediction. This has, in fact, become a standard design method for educational studies.
None of this is to say that there are no educators who are not real scientists. Large numbers of educators—perhaps as many as one educator in forty-three—understand scientific method and make a sincere attempt to advance our knowledge of what really works in teaching. But the field of education is ruled by fads for the simple reason that we must have jobs for the other forty-two educators. That is what the educators are trying to accomplish, and they are succeeding very well.