Sunday, 10 January 2010

Shedding research

'Conductive Education research' in perspective

Some who read Conductive World may regard my railings against 'research' and 'academics', and the paradigm of understanding that they represent, as (at its most favourable) a personal quirk that can and ought to be ignored by all right-thinking people.

They may be right.

Within Conductive Education there are, after all, so many people who have a far better founded understanding of such matters. There are surely even more in the ranks of those who have researched it. They might all articulate a contary position. I wish that someone would.

On the wireless

A couple of days ago I was half-listening to the wireless ('the wireless' is the Old English term for 'radio'). My wireless is switched permanently to BBC Radio 4 (that's the community station for speakers of Old English) when I suddenly realised that I was listening to a chap (OE for 'posh bloke') saying something that seemed to occasion no dissent from the other chaps participating in this programme. This was to the effect that university research contributes little to the advancement of human understanding. I was rushing to get something else done and had little spare attention to offer this, not even enough to note the time and the programme. A shame, that, since the chap speaking was saying something rather dear to my heart, that real innovation and advance come largely from outside academe. The come instead from garden-shed inventors and people working in practical manufacturing industry. Universities then come in to work on the new things , but they are not themselves notable innovators.

In the THES

Hearing this critical formulation about the relationship between 'science' as a whole, and what the universities sanctify as 'research', reminded me of a short article published last summer in the Times Higher Educational Supplement. At the time I had meant to mention this item on Conductive World, as something relevant to the concerns of Conductive Education's fraught relationship with 'academic research' – but in the event more pressing demands pushed it to one side.

So, for those who might like to see something similar, on a topic rather nearer to home, university research in the social sciences (particularly education), a few snippets from what local boy (to me) Prof. Gary Thomas wrote last July –
  • Our universities lumber through the world of discovery. Driven by risk-averse funding programmes, the clever people who work in universities are lobotomised. They are, philosopher A.C. Grayling has suggested, squeezed into the form of latter-day Edward Casaubons – 'scholarly and uninspired ... scrupulous and dim-sighted'.
  • The machinery of the university nourishes the conservative. Universities are wonderful institutions, and I love them, but they are renowned neither for their quick reflexes nor for their critical self-reflection.
  • ...advances have usually happened in spite of the university system, not because of it. They have happened from people drawing on the resources of the university, certainly, but often subverting it, and working outside its systems.
  • ...the leaps of imagination of the 20th century happened not as the progeny of "theory", but out of thinking, or what the great mathematician George Polya called "having brains and good luck", from intelligent noticing, from serendipity, from the inspiration and creativity of individuals and from hard work.
  • ...really important discovery - is made in spite of universities rather than because of them.
  • If this overstates the case a little, it overstates it only for the natural sciences... Can you think of any major social scientific achievements? I can't.
  • ...the theory proposed by social scientists is one of two things: it is either facile or misleading... the complex variety is so complex that it is invariably highly misleading. Witness Piagetian theory, which led teacher-educators on four decades of wild goose chases, where daft notions such as "reading readiness" were propagated.
  • What's the alternative? For Taleb it is the 'black swan', for Jerome Bruner the breach of 'canonicity', for Thomas Kuhn the 'awareness of anomaly, for Paul Feyerabend the need to proceed counter-intuitively. People have been saying it for ages...
  • The financial crisis and economists' failure to predict it surely should presage a renewed questioning of the shibboleths of the social science enterprise. Instead of the relentless homogenise-generalise-theorise enterprise beloved of social science, we can try giving a little more credence to analyses of the singular - to learning from what is different.
 I think that the above extracts capture the general gist.

In the shed

To come nearer to home still, I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about the possible relevance of all this to the world of Conductive Eduction. Myself, I see András Pető very much as a garden-shed inventor, and current attempts around the world to adapt and develop Conductive Education to new social contexts very much as garden-shed enterprises. Further, if Conductive Education's potential heuristic force ever does throw up something altogether new, then this too will likely come from garden-shed endeavour. It is very hard indeed to see how anything like that could possibly come from university research!

What? You can't be bothered about such academic considerations Of course not. If you are down the garden in your shed, getting on with developing something useful, then please don't in any circumstances interrupt what you are doing to consider such hot air.

On the other hand, if you just want to use Conductive Education, as a service-user or a service-provider, you may one day find your hopes and dreams slapped down by somebody, or some body, bleating unthinkingly about 'evidence', according to some clod-hopping, mechanistic and self-serving model of research. When you do, recall the wider perspective of the relationship between science (meaning human knowledge, and its advancement) and research (meaning very nice work if you can get it), and don't feel alone for doing so.


Thomas G. (2009) In search of singular insight, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 9 July

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