Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Ed Reformers - Missing the proximate cause level

While driving down to the mountains last week, I had some time to ponder why most educational reformers' efforts fail (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Giles & Hargreaves, 2006; Goodson, Moores & Hargreaves, 2006).  Even hybridizing reforms tend to fair poorly: only grabbing real traction when they resonate with larger societal currents (Tyack & Cuban, 1995).


Reformers who push total reform visions seem captured by utopian myopia.  Transformational leadership easily falls into the trap of solving emergent "skeletons" by increasing levels of transformational effort (Briskin 2001; Mulford & Moreno, 2006). It therefore becomes very tempting to view human problems as mere transformational targets.  This approach becomes drastically over-extended when it tackles symptoms and misses proximate genetic causes.  Missing these levels of insight while assuming a transformational paradigm creates utopian myopia.


Professional Learning Community Implementation
Over-extension of Dufours' professional learning community (PLC) theory is a solid example of myopic utopia. Dufours' argument goes that if all teachers just bought into
  1. a belief that all students can learn, and,
  2. that collaboration is the most effective way of directing teacher effect,
then education effectiveness would be radically transformed.  As many authors point out, this totally misses the effects of micro-politics (see annotated bibliography) and the whole field of human dynamics.  The PLC solution attempts to transform the symptoms of a proximate state:
  1. Feeling good about individual effort vs. feeling good about collective effort, 
  2. Feeling good about effort vs. feeling good about results.
However, Dufour's PLC theory into practice has no real solution for the proximate causes producing the symptoms it hopes to change.  As such it is a classic example of utopian myopia.  It neglects the underlying physics and applies band-aid type solutions to fundamental tendencies/problems.

Thomas Jefferson Education
An example closer to my direct sphere of practice are homeschoolers who overgeneralize radical humanistic pedagogies.  A Thomas Jefferson Education (TJED) provides the framework I encounter  most.

TJED is a modern utopian based educational philosophy.  It's pedagogy is based on idealized, circular humanistic principles:
  1. all students want to learn, 
  2. learning what you want is motivating, 
  3. rich topics produce additional depth whenever revisited.  New knowledge isn't always needed, just 'classical' literature which continually enable novel interpretation and hence novel inquiry (think - Bible study as an enabler of multiple levels of insight)
  4. therefore because classical literature is available, mentoring students through their personal interests creates a feedback loop of near limitless depth.  
Pedagogical applicability is hugely limited by this instructional processes' strong humanistic assumptions.  In practice, few students meet attitudinal requisites, and the source of depth is likely obfuscated.  However, universality is still pushed: attitudinal problems are considered transformational problems solved by "un-schooling" and program buy-in.


The problem with these and a great many other total reformer approaches is failure to distinguish proximate causes and superficial symptoms.  In the Dufour case, there is a critical failure to accept the strange attractor dynamics associated with individual level vs. group level selection.  Thus, non-rational human dynamics emerging from these and other attractors are marginalized.   Proximate causes of group dynamics are therefore ignored either by omission or design.

In terms of current promoted PLC implementation strategies team collaboration is pushed at the expense of large group (education as an institution level) coherence.  The result is an attempt to change group membership classes with little demonstrated awareness of the ultimate significance and causes such moves strive against.  Therefore education's role as a societal level moral coherer (Tyack & Cuban, 1995) is fought in the name of collaboration!  In simpler words, if you're inclined to PLC groupings then the reform works: if you're not so inclined then you and your history needs reprogramming regardless of your history's value or purpose.

TJED is, unfortunately, blind to both proximate causes and some obvious superficial symptoms of these causes.  TJED assumes universality despite its obviously narrow entry point.  Its rhetorical apologetics which minimize the 'buy in' problem mimic Dufour PLC's utopian strategy: both present the 'buy in' issue as superficial concern rather than a fundamental flaw.


Applying a transformation approach to educational reform sets up a challenge of deciding what things can and can't be changed.  Some superficial things can be.  Some things that appear superficial can only be changed within a set of people already inclined to such changes.  Some things that appear superficial can only be changed with great coercive effort for limited times.  Myopic utopian reforms fail to properly identify which crucial elements are really just superficial symptoms and which are actually symptoms arising from deeply ingrained proximate causes.  The result is the infamous 'skeleton in the closet' problem which stymies total reform.


I'm viewing proximate causes in education as something like the immediate direct benefits that come from going to school.  Examples might include: hanging out with friends, minimizing social stigma, social progression, knowledge & skills, fulfilling others' promises that it will be good for you, etc.

I'm viewing ultimate causes in education on the level of evolutionary selected traits and behaviours. Examples might include coherence with a group, participation in a group that has a high probability of providing individual benefit.


Ariew, A. (2003).  Ernst Mayr's 'ultimate/proximate' distinction reconsidered and revisited.  Biology and Philosophy, 18, 553-565.
Briskin, A. (2001).  The stirring of soul in the workplace.  San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.

Mulford, B., Moreno, J. M. (2006).  Sinking ships, Emerging leadership: A true story of sustainability, The Educational Forum70(3), 204-214.

Goodson, I., Moores, S., Hargreaves, A. (2006).  Teacher nostalgia and the sustainability of reform:  the generation and degeneration of teachers’ missions, memory and meaning, Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(1), 42-61.

Giles, C., & Hargreaves, A.  (2006).  The sustainability of innovative schools as learning organizations and professional learning communities during standardized reform, Educational Administration Quarterly, 42(1), 124-156.

Tyak & Cuban (1995) Tinkering toward utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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