Understanding by Intelligent Design. Are we not Gods?

This morning, while talking to a colleague, I thought of an interesting analogy to some of my more persistent beliefs about education. We were looking at a book which quoted John Coleman’s “Six Components of Great Culture” from 2013 (Harvard Business Review). Coleman’s first component is that “Your culture starts with your values”.

Well, I didn’t get to the other five components because this one had me wondering if he has it the right way round. Don’t our values come out of our culture? Encapsulated in this dichotomy is the debate that I return to over and over again. Should the direction of growth be determined by the end point or the start point? Are development, learning, movement and progress natural phenomena that build out of where we are now and what our initial conditions are, or are they planned to reach a pre-determined outcome? In short, and here is the analogy, is change evolutionary or determined by intelligent design? Do we grow naturally and incrementally from where we are or do we constrain that growth towards a predefined goal? Is Darwin or Creation the better analogy for our lives?

“Some people work by deciding what they want to get to and heading for that. I don’t work like that. I look at what I have now and see which parts would be interesting if I developed them.” Brian Eno in his Peel lecture if 2016.

My tendency is to believe that the evolutionary approach is certainly more creative, probably more effective and possibly more honest. The intelligent design model stifles original thought, causes friction through failure and deceives us into thinking we know things we don’t. Historically, evolution seems the accepted path whether it be biologically, psychologically or sociologically. Why do we become creationists when we replace the past by the future? Here are some examples.

  • Target setting for teachers

We know that too often people do not agree to goals that they weren’t going to achieve anyway. But when the goals are challenging they are usually about filling a gap, learning a skill that they do not have or improving areas of weakness. The is the end-determined model that has a picture of “the good teacher” that we should all aspire to. However the research suggests that this is not the most productive way forward. Rather than looking at the design of the ideal end point, we should look at the strengths of the teacher now. What makes them good already? Develop those skills even further. Not all teachers will be the same, but students will encounter a range of very well developed and individual expertise.

  • Exam based courses

This is the classic model for education. Define where we need to get to, and even when we need to get there. All students studying this subject need to know how to do these things at this point in time. Of course, if we were really successful they would all score 100%, but we are not and the range of marks measures their and our failure to achieve the ideal. How many times have we heard that there is something really interesting that we do not have time to look at because it is not on the syllabus? The students were really interested in this but we didn’t have the time to pursue it. It might even be more justifiable if we could agree that the content was vital for all, but we know it isn’t. The students could just as valuably study different periods in history, different topics in science, different books in literature, so why do we set the end point first, rather than let the students have a say in where they want to expand their knowledge from what they already know.

  • Learning outcomes

This is the same as the exams really, but broadened to more trendy terminology. We are still saying where they need to get to even though we might be stressing skills and concepts more than content. Once we say that the outcome of a task will be a presentation to the class we stifle the creativity of those who could have responded with a song, a play, a film or even an essay. Of course you can say that the presentation could be one of those but it so seldom is because the teacher has clamped it down from the start by defining the expectation. Why not just ask how they might best respond to this task, and leave it to them?

  • Criteria based assessment

This is a big one. The prevailing dogma is that you should never set a task without a clear description of the criteria by which it will be judged a success. Did anyone tell Picasso that before he painted “Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon’? or Stravinsky before he wrote “The Rite of Spring”, or Zuckerberg before Facebook, or Wales before Wikipedia? I once had a student who wrote her Theory of Knowledge essay as a poem. It was beautiful and brilliant and showed a deep understanding of the issues, but it was nowhere near the criteria and would not have scored at all. Criteria can be fine on occasion, but be aware they stifle creativity and use them with caution

  • Maths investigations

This is a bit subject specific, but I think there are equivalences in other areas. A genuinely open ended Maths investigation will begin with a stimulus, a situation or a problem. Students will start from the same point but have complete flexibility in what direction they decide to explore, which parameters they will change or relax as they pursue a generalisation that casts light on the situation. They can then make conjectures, prove and refute them. It becomes a genuinely creative process that mirrors real mathematical research. It is the beginning of how Maths is actually discovered. Imre Lakatos’ wonderful book on mathematical discovery “Proofs and Refutation” contains the great observation “Columbus did not find a route to the East Indies, but he did discover something quite interesting”. For the casually mathematically minded who may not be up to Lakatos, my slightly dumbed down version can be found here, with an introduction here.

  • Control and accountability

I remember a Grant Wiggins talk many years ago at a conference somewhere. He was a great educational thinker with some excellent ideas and I do not want to put him down. However in this particular talk, Education By Design all seemed to me to be about control and accountability. The fundamental use he described was about setting measurable targets so that we have the indisputable evidence that a teacher is not performing. “Nothing personal,” he would say “but this is where we agreed you should be getting to, and the evidence shows you are not.” To me there was something a bit fundamentalist about this which made me feel rather uneasy. Now I realise that the EDB advocates, whatever they may think intellectually about the merits of evolution, are emotionally Intelligent Design Creationists.

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland

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