It is not difficult to find problems in contemporary education. Many of the problems are acute and obvious and, quite understandably, therefore attract a great deal of attention. In this blog post, I want to draw your attention to a destructive force in education that is far more subtle in its workings, but which, I would argue, is undermining what we are trying to achieve in our classrooms. That threat, I shall argue here, is generic thinking.
The first stage in generic thought is not that different from what one finds in some branches of philosophy. It involves looking at a complex world, and then trying to find the things which each part of that world has in common. By looking for what is common or similar, we are able to make generalisations more easily: the very basis of human communication depends to a considerable extent on our ability to make meaningful generalisations that others will understand.
What is lost in the process of generalisation is difference. A generalisation casts aside the things which two or more things do not have in common. In many cases this is helpful. Differences create noise. Differences create contradictions. Differences are inconvenient. It is often just easier to ignore difference.
But it is worth dwelling for a moment on what difference creates. It is differences between you and me which make us individuals. You could make generalisations about the two of us: we both have a heart, a brain, blood cells, and so on. It would not be difficult to construct a series of statements which treat us as essentially the same thing. Yet no two people, despite all their similarities, are alike. And, in fact, it is what makes us different from one another that makes the world an interesting place. To generalise, however necessary this sometimes may be for communication, is to cast aside that richness and complexity.
Yet, as I have frequently argued, generic thought is endemic in education. Take initial teacher education. In training new teachers, we have distilled what is common to all teachers, regardless of subject or age range taught, and from this constructed a set of generic statements that we call the ‘Teachers’ Standards’. These standards necessarily cast aside differences between different types of teachers and, because we tend to place more value on what we assess, the differences between different types of teachers get ignored. This is how generic criteria destroy: they find the things which are held in common, and they turn these things into the totality of what it means to be or do something.
The same is true with curriculum. It certainly is possible to think in generic terms about the things we teach. History, science, geography, literature, mathematics: these all involve ‘analysis’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘explanation’ and so on. It certainly is possible to construct statements that hold true across all subjects. It certainly is possible to pull out threads of similarity and congruence. At the level of philosophy of curriculum, these might well be worthwhile speculations. The problem, however, is that curriculum is never created just, or even primarily, for the purposes of philosophy. A curriculum is created to be enacted in practice. And here, again, we see genericism’s destructive force.
This destruction happens at a number of levels. In some of its more perverse forms, it treats academic disciplines as alike, each being a carrier for the set of generic ideas that can be distilled from all. Generic curriculum thinking does, however, also operate within disciplines. We assume, for example, that there is a generic ‘scientific method’, and that as long as we have learnt what is common across all the sciences, we have learnt what is the case in all the sciences. This destroys the significant differences between how astronomers, geologists and biophysicists (to pick just three) go about producing knowledge of reality. We assume, similarly, that there is a generic thing called ‘historical thinking’ which can be learnt in a generalisable form, something which rather overlooks the fact that there are peculiar differences between how (say) historians of 7th-century Northumbrian politics and 20th-century Spanish economics think about the past.
Lest my argument here be misconstrued, I am not suggesting that you cannot generalise. Clearly there are things that astronomers, geologists and biophysicists have in common, and so too are there things common to the study of early-medieval politics and modern economics. I am not disputing that it is possible to generalise. Rather, I am arguing that a great deal is lost in the process of generalisation and that we risk losing that complexity and richness if our curriculum (and assessment) models do not account for this.
A common response at this point is to argue “let them learn what is generic, and then this can be applied to specifics later on”. I think we should be very cautious about this argument. It assumes, first, that the generic thing remains meaningful when it gets taken out of context. To return to my human analogy, we cannot take a heart, a brain and some blood cells out of a person, and then later “apply” these by asking those things to drive a car when mixed back together. When we generalise, we attenuate the things we keep by removing them from the context in which they hold power.
I would add here, further, that I am not sure this is a good way of learning something. My understanding of models of how we learn is that we find it easier to start with specific examples and then to abstract from these, rather than to start with the abstract and then apply this down. It is why I am very sceptical about starting a school history curriculum with a set of lessons on “what is history?” or “how to analyse sources”, and then asking for these generic ideas about history to be applied onto the periods pupils study. Rather, I would argue, the generic needs to emerge from the specific: it is much easier and more meaningful to have a conversation about “what is history?” after pupils have spent a long time studying history. I am sure that the temptation of the generic is an example of the curse of the expert: a group of history graduates sitting down to write a curriculum will immediately know what the abstractions they are producing mean because they have a hundred specific examples in their heads. Novices do not have these, rendering the abstract less meaningful.
There is clearly a spectrum. At some point in curriculum design, we have to say “we are going to generalise here”. The point of my argument is not to avoid generalisation: rather, it is to peg back what I would argue has become an excessively generic way of thinking about curriculum (and teacher education, and so on). I am not sure there is some rational basis on which to decide where to draw the line, but I am convinced that we have gone far too far in one direction. My acid test, I suppose, would be to ask “would a rational outsider look at this curriculum and from it recognise diversity within that practice”. From my reading of current statements about ‘standards for teaching’, ‘critical thinking’, the ‘scientific method’, or ‘historical thinking’, I am not at all sure that the beautiful differences obscured by these generalisations shine through.