The Ceaseless Offer of Possibility

David Berliner (2002) notes that educational research and social science is often considered ‘too soft, squishy, unreliable and imprecise to rely on as a basis for practice’ when contrasted with the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics, chemistry and geology.

Perhaps this is because in education, we do our ‘science’ under conditions that physical scientists could consider intolerable. We contend with local complexities of socio-economic and cultural circumstance that can limit generalisations and theory building. As such, our ability to understand, predict and control phenomena we study is tough, much to the frustration of those who employ considerable effort to design out methodological inconsistencies or compromising influences. Surely deciding what is important to test, prove or challenge needs to occur first, followed by selecting the instruments and means to enable this. The question of what is important is a social decision that comes before scientific theory.

Consider for a moment the myriad ways in which humans in educational settings are embedded in interconnected and changing networks of social interaction. The people in these networks have considerable influence over each other every time they interact by virtue of what we individually and collectively face; illness, a messy divorce, inclement weather, community tragedy, new school leadership, funding cuts, political instability, domestic trauma etc. Compared to engineering bridge designs or splitting an atom, the science of understanding, helping improve or change an individual, class or school is hard because our contexts cannot be fully controlled.

Knowing the challenges complex human interactions pose to scientific study and research, why might it be that politicians and the sections of the profession are seemingly enticed by evidence-based practices and interventions? Perhaps we could consider them a bridge across the chasm that divides theory and practice, with the messiness of life and relationships in the ravine? Perhaps in the eyes of some, what education is meant to be has suffered a slow and steady erosion for too long. They cannot stand idle and observe wave after wave of fads, directionless leadership and a lack of vision. Seeing education as rudderless, misinformed and a waste of money is enough to rile anyone.

Riep (2016) reminds us that because of a relentless agenda of performance and improvement, education falls victim to being commodified and cloaked in crisis-tendency headlines which usher in ‘evidence’ and specialists as the elixirs of educations woes. This can leave us open to external forces who can reconfigure the concept of education as a common good or constitutionalised as a human right. These forces can also threaten the precious capacity we have for asking new questions about schooling and learning, the ability to challenge dominant orthodoxies through research and speak to policy from the vantage point of experience. We see far too often our work bureaucratically reduced to narrowly defined system inputs, outputs and interventions; inappropriate funding models, inspections, loosely regulated professional standards, testing upon testing … To those with influence, these may seem a perceptibly secure array of approaches and measures. Does the profession view things this way?

The ability to acquire knowledge, learn from practice and experience and share what we are discovering about education seems to have become rendered as something to be bought and sold, something Polanyi (2001) describes as a ‘fictitious commodity’. Jessop (2007) goes on to suggest that in such a ‘crisis-climate’, politicians, prominent educational figureheads, consultants and the like can frame education, particularly knowledge, as ‘artificially scarce’. Despite this, what we have learnt about the educative process is a triumph and testament to all who have contributed to a substantial body of work. We still have to deal with bogus ideas, fads, poor science and a weakly regulated business environment. What we also have however, is a thriving educational research and social science community who, rather than solely working, re-working and experimenting on existing ideas, are prepared to ask new questions and open up the potential to offering unthought-of solutions to emerging complexities.

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