Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Explanation in education and economy: the science of limits

Before we can decide what sort of an education system we want, we need to explain the one we're in. But education (much like economy) is resistant to satisfying explanation. The complexity overwhelms, and in place of explanation we have disconnected theories, political opinions, individual passions and prejudices. This is not to say that any explanation is free from these things, but that deep explanation acknowledges its limitations. Ignorance of limitations on the other hand, is a poor foundation for making policy in a world in turmoil.

I think the arguments around realist explanation in economics can be applied to the education system (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_realism#Critical_realism_in_economics). However, I think even here, there can be a tendency to positivise explanatory causal mechanisms (I've recently written a paper about this). This can lead to problems in terms of arguments between those who support one explanation over another. Yet again the academic pathology of "I'm right and you're wrong" kicks in. Humility is the path to take.

Learning occurs throughout life in many contexts. First and foremost, there is the family - the first social structure that any of us get to know. But what happens in the home is linked to what happens in the workplace of parents, in the community, in the world, among friends, in the institutions within the state (health, education, transport, religion, media, etc). Increasingly, the institutionalised media is taking a technological form, and technology itself is playing an ever-widening role in the context for learning. What must an explanation of all this look like?

It is an economic explanation; a sociological explanation; a psychological explanation, a technological explanationn, etc... Indeed, there is little within the social sciences which isn't relevant to an explanation of education. Each explanation has its limits (and most are very limited indeed). Yet there is a tendency to ignore limits and stick to individual disciplinary boundaries. Universities themselves have supported this process. But it has got us going round in circles.

Importantly, among the available explanations, the least well developed (and the one with the greatest bearing on every other one) is the technological explanation. Sociology, philosophy, anthropology, economics all have 'black holes' where technology ought to be. That's interesting because it means (to me) that technology represents an important limit in the other explanatory discourses in the social sciences.

If I believe there is an important reason to take the work in e-learning that I have been involved with for the last 10 years to the social sciences it is precisely for this reason: technology represents a limit which we can all benefit by understanding better from our different disciplinary perspectives. Technology is the challenge that cannot be easily brushed-off with some jargonistic phrase. Like sex, death, religion, (and I think, music and mathematics), it identifies the points of collapse of explanations. Education, in reality, may be another such point. This is why e-learning is important.

Can we explain technology?

I think we are driven to attempt it. But our attempts will also have their limits. But what's more interesting is the interface between the limits exposed by deep attempts to explain society and the attempt to explain technology. In that interface, in that exchange of ideas, what is gained is not something positive, not some new 'unifying theory', not some Utopian grand design for a perfect education system. What is gained is a clearer perspective of the limitations that bear on all of us, on our societies, on our families and on our learning.

I think this is the proper objective of a social science. Indeed, the identification of limitations is what actually happens in the physical sciences. If I am hopeful, it is because I think a negative social science is a possibility. In practice, it should produce greater humility in those who seek to explain. And with greater humility comes deeper compassion, and (one might dare to hope) better decisions.

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