Sunday, 1 December 2013

Thought terminating cliches



A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B: You say that but I'm a Christian and as such I believe that God created humans beings with the intention of them procreating. A good example of His wishes can be seen in the fact that the first two people he created, according to The Bible were a man and a woman. 
 
  Compare that with this:

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B:  God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve

What's great about this phrase (and there isn't much) is that it neatly encapsulates a whole position in a short pithy phrase. It conveys a lot of information in a small space and solidifies thinking on a position. It can also be a good conversation stopper, -unless you have an equally neat retort. These phrase are an excellent way to avoid cognitive dissonance a good example would be the religious person who thanks god for surviving a serious disease, but when questioned why God allowed them to get the disease in the first place will say "God works in mysterious ways". Job done. end of.


And don't think I'm singling out the religious, everyone does this. For example, I've talked before about the nonsensical phrase "the exception that proves the rule". It neatly ends a conversation (despite not making any sense). Other examples are the phrases "it's political correctness gone mad!", "I'm entitled to my opinion" and "Gun's don't kill people, people kill people!". Recently I've discovered that these phrases are called 'thought terminating cliches a phrase invented by Robert Jay Lifton who wrote:
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis...for instance, the phrase "bourgeois mentality" is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China,

I'm glad I know the name because I've seen a lot of these phrases used when I talk to teachers about evidence in education. For example when I suggest that research might be useful I often hear "teaching is an art, not a science". I'm not going to tackle this one in particularly because Daniel Willingham has already done so in this video.

One that I do want to look at is the idea that 'context is king' (also know as 'think of the variables!') in teaching. This is something I hear regularly expressed in sentiments like those expressed by Simon Andrewes in a recent comment on this blog. He mentions Kumaravadivelu and his idea of the "unique classroom" and notes that this means it is "practically impossible for teaching theory to apply to all cases." He's not the only one. I've heard many teachers claim that the most important thing is context and so research is a waste of time because the number of possible variables a context can bring will render any research invalid. It can't be generalised to other classrooms because there are too many factors which relate to one classroom and one group of students in particular.  For this post, I will call this position 'the argument from relativism'.
 
Relativism is a very fashionable position in all kinds of fields, not just teaching. You'll hear people tell you that 'truth is relative' and your truth is different from my truth, that there's not objective truth and 'everything's relative.' We also have moral relativism, which is equated by many with progressive thought, so different cultural practices are not objectively 'better' or 'worse' than things we do in the west, they are just 'different' but equally valid.
 
All of this generally comes from a good place and can be seen as a reaction to things like colonialism and racism where everything was seen through a lense of hierarchy with (usually) rich white straight Christian men at the top. The problem is, for all its good intentions, relativism is just plain wrong. As Nagel notes:
 
Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity — self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. (the last word 1997:6)

That is, the statement that "everything is relative" must include itself. So either the statement itself is relative (and is therefore meaningless) or is an 'objective' fact, true about 'everything' in which case in contradicts itself. Nagel goes on to note the danger that relativism brings:
The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life - not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others.(1997:5)
What I think Nagel gets at here, is the "thought terminating" nature of this phrase and the detrimental effect this has on arguments. Under the tyranny of relativism it becomes impossible to say that belief systems espousing hatred for gay people or promoting child brides are objectively 'wrong', that's just your Western version of reality -don't try to force it on other people.
 
Relativism has the same chilling effect on discussions of language teaching. Whenever the topic of research comes up, hands are quickly thrown into the air and the words "context" and "variables" appear and that's that; everyone nods and the conversation moves on. Context absolutely must play a part in a teacher's decision making process -but it's not the only part. There is also truth. There are things we can learn which can apply to many, if not most contexts. despite the protestations of relativists all of our students have the same hardware in their heads -they all have brains and they all learn in exactly the same way.
 
The last sentence may have caused consternation about some teachers aware of another 'thought terminating cliché' namely that 'every student learns in different ways' but this is not quite the case. While all students like to study in different ways learning happens in the brain, in exactly the same way for everyone. A good analogy for this is Nuthall's statement that "We all have different food preferences...[but this] does not mean that the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different” (Nuthall, 2007:34) Since learners all possess a human brain, why would we not think there were some things we could generalise from one classroom to the next?
 
There is also another problem with the argument from relativism, which is to what extent do we apply it? Now sure, Japanese school kids may have slightly different needs from Spanish school kids but not all Japanese school kids need the same thing. A busy Tokyo high school may have different needs from a small rural high school. And when you really think about it, wouldn't the male students, in both cases, have different needs to the female students? And all students have different levels of English and different aptitudes.  When you get right down to it, isn't each individual student their own 'unique classroom' with its own needs, -and those needs may change from day to day, or hour to hour?

If this sounds ridiculous then remember that this is, in a sense, what humanistic 'learner centred' approaches already promote. Not only should you know each student's individual level but also whether they are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, whether they are 'power planners, expert investigators, radical reformers or flexible friends' (Rosenberg 2012) Whether they are left brained or right brained thinkers, and which is their dominant intelligence. You might also consider what their preferred representational system is and just how emotionally intelligent they are. This presents (not including first language, age, sex, level and aptitude) around around 1080 (3x4x2x9x5) different possible combinations. 

This doesn't seem to faze teachers though who manage somehow, to produce material for the 'whole class'. And if learning can be generalised from the individual to the class with all the differences it purportedly contains, why can't it be generalised to other classes, in other contexts?
 
Despite protestations, research is possible and will help to improve teaching. And why would teachers object to their job becoming more professional, with a more reliable skill set and deeper professional knowledge? The awful alternative is the idea that nothing is ever really knowable in teaching and knowledge only lasts as long as the class is together and is then gone. This is the logical conclusion of relativism, where best practice is only ever something that can exist for one class, or one student at one point in time. If this is the case, scrap journals, scrap teaching qualifications, scrap blogs and scrap conferences, because none of them matter.







 



4 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting post. I very much enjoyed the link between (moral) relativism and the classroom. In terms of moral relativism, I believe, a good way of looking at is through the end result. This article (Exposure to moral relativism compromises moral behavior - Rai, 2013) is one indication that the results aren't great. Another more philosophical basis for questionning moral relativism would seem to be that in the end, it leads to an inability to make culturally independent moral judgements - and making moral judgements seems to me to be the basis for a lot of decision making. The moral relativist might say that they are not espousing a particular moral theory but rather a view of the way things are - fair enough, but where does that leave people. Relativism can have a draining, almost paralysing effect as it doesn't offer anything beyond "do what is ethically right in your culture" as a basis for making decisions. But how then do we progress? How do we perceive of a better way of doing things - simply by looking at cultures that are better than our own? So was slavery abolished simply because we saw other cultures that weren't doing it and thought, let's try that. This can be a motivator for changing positions of right and wrong but I would say that change can also come from looking at what exists now and imagining something better. I don't know that moral relativism allows for that (again, they might just say that people can see change but that it is not necessarily better or worse - just a change! It goes on and on)

    But to link back to teaching - I think that this influence of relativism in the classroom can be an endless list of caveats that can almost get in the way of some of the key simple things that all learners of a language do - e.g. memorise words, practise them, see them again, practise them some more. These seem like basic, immutable elements of language learning from which to base one's approach to teaching; much like there are basic moral positions (don't murder, steal etc.) upon which to approach decisions of morality.

    Thanks again - really interesting post.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. It seems we have similar thoughts on this topic.

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  2. Yes, except I'm about 2 years behind ☺

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  3. Great article, thought provoking!

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