Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Ripping and academic faux pas

I really got into the most recent essay in my Philosophy of Education class. Maybe it's the ill effect of having recently taken another literature class, or maybe it's just the general silliness of most so-called instructional technology courses, but I really lit into the authors. After reading this bloated, wordy, pretentious and often ill-considered piece of crap, before submitting my response, I thought, you know, I should really look at the author's backgrounds.

Fifteen seconds of searching gave me a real Doh! moment. I was about to publicly post a savaging of the course's teacher. I edited it. Slightly. Here is the original piece:

John R. Shirley
EDUC 7004
Thomas Deering and Steven Jones have written a sometimes thoughtful article about competing schools of thought and focus in education. They say, “Psychology…understands itself as a science: it uses the methods of science…” (4). While this is true of psychology research, it is not necessarily true of psychological application. Applied science focuses on repeatability, and it is in this area that psychology has always struggled. In other scientific fields, inability to duplicate a result in, say, cold fusion production, means that the research of the original scientists is flawed. Inability to (re)produce a certain result in humans, however, can be simply due to the complicated nature of the human psyche.

Deering and Jones are on the right track with an urge towards a more humanities-based approach instead of more purely psychology-driven one, but they do not go far enough: good teaching is still more art than science. Methods that work for one teacher may not be well applied by another teacher with as much skill, or may be misapplied towards students who need yet other methods. In other words, teaching- like parenting- is indeed a “knowledge and skills” set (6), but the correct application of these skills is so subtle that it cannot truly be taught. A teaching technique can be demonstrated to aspiring students, and the outward formality of the form of the technique can be tested, but this is not at all the same as a deep understanding of how and when to use such a technique.

Deering and Jones struggle against a trend of “pop psychology” (7), ironically enough as they use “pop instructional technology”. They “wonder”

about what is at stake in the act of parenting or teaching, about what it meant to provide for another human being's needs [sic], about what those needs are…about the question of self-identity, about how to nurture this emerging identity… about what it is to have a self-identify in the world…what it is we owe to the others we find living in the world with us… what is truly meal1s [sic] to educate another human being… about the purposes of education, indeed the purposes of life (7).

Deering and Jones “contend these are the kinds of questions with which our prospective teachers should wrestle” (8), “because the true nature of teaching is to be sensed in them.” Deering and Jones have overstepped their bounds. It is commendable to have a social conscious, and to work to instill a sense of justice in students, but Deering and Jones have embarked upon some questions that really have little to do with the type of education children in lower education need. Is it really the teacher’s job “to nurture this emerging (self) identity” (7), or is it the teacher’s job to teach? Is there some potential use educators and future educators can conclude when Deering and Jones continue their statement with “this new, insistent will that has come into being” or should we rightly conclude that Deering and Jones have become lost in their own rhetoric, and this piece is now an attempt to create pure literature instead of a valid instructional tool aimed at teachers?

Deering and Jones go on to suggest a broad humanities approach instead of a more psychology-based teaching approach, though the reasonable reader wishes they could contain their editorial philosophizing and disdain for “narrow-minded, elitest…(dead) white male author(s)” (9). Deering and Jones are still using psychology, only their approach centers around giving the students appropriate reading material and letting the students arrive at proper conclusions themselves. This is a good approach in general. It is sad that Deering and Jones make statements such as “We do not want our students to believe that to be a teacher requires nothing much more than a collection of skills” (12), which is both a true and a false statement. All types of social interaction are indeed skills. What Deering and Jones actually mean is that teaching is more than stringing together teaching techniques.

Ultimately, Deering and Jones suggest a reasonable approach, though their attempt to be seen as great minds, writers, and educators shows instead the inverse. Psychology can give teachers insights about certain aspects of students and teaching techniques, but use of these techniques must be carefully fitted into a broader contextual framework that ultimately will be more successful in teaching young minds the skills they need to succeed.


Janine Wonnacott said...

I've always thought the failure in psychology of the repeatablility of experiments stems both from the results of the experiments in shaping the world and from constant APA (and nw HIPPA) demands on methodology. As evidence of the first, so many people have now heard of Kitty Genovese ad the bystander effect that it may disapear within a generation, all because of one (poorly done) study. For the second - there are extremely few ways to even attempt to replicate ground-breaking studies like Stanley Milgram's shock studies (though an attempt was made using Second Life, and reached similar results, even thogh everyone knew the avatar they were shocking was not a human), like Zimardo's Yale prison studies. and like SLA Marshall's surveys of WWII soldiers and Marines that demonstrated only 25% of troops fire their weapons when given a legal opportunity / obligation.

Milgram's work would now be unethical in the lab, so how can it reliably be replicated? How do we provide a lab environment for reactions to a murder like Genovese's?

That's why psychology has to operationalize basically everything it seeks to understand. And there are too too many poor scientists who go into psychology and ruin it for the rest of us who try for hard science.



J.R.Shirley said...

As a historian, I can tell you SLA Marshall's work was flawed*. As a soldier, I can assure you, it's BS, as well.

*specifically, there is no way Marshall interviewed the number of troops he claimed.