Thursday, 28 September 2017

Knowing What We Don't Know

There is a phrase often attributed to Socrates in which he says
"I know that I know nothing"
Usually this is interpreted as having the wisdom to realise one's own lack of knowledge. It is not necessarily a quality teachers are known for - after all, we are meant to be masters of our subject, but I want to argue that the best teachers exemplify this attitude in the practice of their craft.

Let's call the above-mentioned wisdom 'epistemic humility'. It is surely a very good quality for a teacher to cultivate. Keats called for the poet to be in a state of 'negative capability' - "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”. I think the teacher can learn a bit from the poet.

Take for instance the way in which a little knowledge can bewitch you and stop you asking some fundamental questions which might impact on the learning in a lesson. You may then think 'all I have to do is impart this knowledge and the job is done'. This Gradgrindian approach can destroy and disenchant the learning process for the student. I have been astonished at how much teaching the EPQ has put me out of my comfort zone - I cannot 'spoon feed' the student the information they need; I cannot suggest or lead them at all - and yet I have seen the genuine excitement in them when they realise they really can explore their chosen topic how they like.

We need to get some of this enchantment and wonder in the learning process back. A target-driven culture is not best suited to generating this kind of attitude towards learning.
Do targets act as that totalising force mentioned earlier? How might we cultivate an epistemic humility about students? Clearly, having expectations and goals for students is important, but what kind of goals, and how central to the education process do we make them? Some consider that target-setting in the way it is currently done is counter-productive - there are so many factors which influence these results that they are a blunt tool when it comes to measuring learning.

Abraham Maslow said "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Reductive philosophies generate reductive methods - and these in turn produce students unlikely to be fulfilling their true potential as human beings. If we ask the question of what is knowledge for, or what is learning for, then we find that there have been traditional answers much richer and fuller than we are currently used to seeing.

A Catholic perspective on education takes into account the spiritual realities and forces that come into play when the parent and other educators seek to help the student flourish in the best way possible. If this responsibility is taken seriously, it puts the Catholic school entirely at odds with most of the rest of modern schooling in the West. The thoroughgoing utilitarian and atomistic spirit of modern education needs to be viewed with suspicion by the Catholic school. In The Way of Beauty, Stratford Caldecott argues that Catholic institutions can draw on the Classical tradition of the Trivium, in which Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were studied.

Caldecott argues that when the ultimate goal of the human being is to grow towards the True, the Beautiful and the Good,  this produces an educational vision rooted in a profound wonder and humility, a sense that we are on a journey together in which no-one has all the answers, but in which all are seekers after a common good, a pearl of great price. That sounds like wisdom to me.

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