Monday, 11 September 2017

Theory, Explanation and Prediction

The word “theory” means different things in different contexts.

Mathematics: Mathematicians use “theory” with reference to things like “number theory”, “set theory”, “group theory”, “category theory”: basically, different kinds of formal system whose properties can be explored and can often be mapped on to other formal systems: for example, category theory (which is much in vogue at the moment) presents ways of accounting for number theory, set theory, etc. Like those systems it accounts for, it is a self-enclosed formal system.

Physics: Physicists use theory to explain and predict physical events like gravitation or quantum entanglement. Physical theories and mathematical theories are closely related: calculus, for example, was developed as a way of describing the motion of planets. There is some argument as to how physical theories are constructed or discovered: classical science sees theory as the constructed result of the observation of event regularities in nature, for which communities of scientists agree causal explanations. Many of the classical arguments for the construction of theory have been challenged by relativity and quantum mechanics where observing becomes part of the scientific/methodological process, and bias and ego of the scientist, or the power dynamics of institutional science feed into theoretical claims.

Social theory: At its origin, social theory followed the classical scientific model: it was assumed that “event regularities" could be established in the social world through statistics. With statistical regularity, the same process of constructing explanations could be established. Today, we call this positivism, and it was in evidence in some of the early industrial improvement processes in Taylorism or Fordism. This has become the root of arguments about method. Contributions from phenomenology (which grew from mathematics through Husserl), psychoanalysis, philosophy and economics has led to conflicting views about the use of statistics in social science (Keynes, Hayek), subjectivity vs. objectivity in observation, value freedom (Weber), intersubjectivity (Husserl, Schutz), Knowledge vs Action (Marx, Lewin), realism vs constructivism (von Glasersfeld, Archer). Education sits (partly) in this theoretical mess.

Psychological Theory: Like early social theory, psychological theory often pursues a classical science model. Experimental conditions are established, experiments are performed, events observed, regularities established through statistical analysis and causal explanations constructed. Like social theory and physics, questions about objectivity, bias, explanation, etc have divided psychologists between those who uphold an empirical model (often working in cognitive science) and those working in social psychology. Education is also caught up in these debates.

Political/Economic theory: Marxist theory presents perhaps the most coherent account of the connection between the material base of existence, social structures and human agency. Its explanatory success is directly connected to the practical effects on the development of social and economic policy from the late 19th century. It remains the best example of the power and importance of theory, and the connection between coherent explanation and social emancipation.

High level theories in Education: Observation of regularities in social life has led to various high-level categories of causal mechanisms in education. Buzzwords emerge whose definitions are often woolly: sociomateriality, semiotics, critical pedagogy, transformative learning, constructivism, etc are high level constructs whose provenance is obscure. Despite lack of clarity (and maybe because of it) these terms get discussed a lot in the literature. Because of intrinsic rewards of the journal system for helping academics establish their impact and job security, popular terms tend to persist since it leads to citations.

So at one level (e.g. maths) theory is well-defined. For most of physics it remains so, but where physics concerns very small, very fast, or very far-away things, theory bifurcates. In education the theoretical picture is very confused. Added to this is the fact that data analysis is now seen as a viable alternative to theory: prediction, which is one of the principal features of theory, can be achieved from simply crunching numbers (i.e. counting). In this process, explanation is deemed less important.
Having said all this, theory – or the building of explanations – is not something which only occurs in turgid textbooks. Everybody does it. We cannot not theorize. To deny the importance of theory is itself a theory. But it is a theory which doesn’t explain or predict very much, so it is not very good. Holding to multiple inconsistent or bad theories renders us confused.

The quest for a coherent theory of educational technology is a response to a range of questions:

  1. Can we explain (and predict?) the reaction of institutions and individuals to technologies? 
  2. Can we explain (and predict??) the development of students whose demonstrable skill increases with educational engagement? 
  3. Can we explain the reticence of some individuals, or the enthusiasm of others, to engage in technology? 
  4. Can we explain why so many learners (and teachers) seem to prefer face-to-face communication over online? 
  5. Can we explain how we feel when we engage in learning online? 
  6. Can we explain why status, accreditation, certification seem so important in education and society? 
  7. Can we explain why our existing explanations/theories do not explain much of what happens in education? 
  8. Can we explain the difference between university higher learning, school and kindergarten? 
  9. Can we explain curiosity? 
  10. Can we explain why YouTube is fab? Or why there’s so much porn on the internet? 
  11. Can we explain why so many are addicted to social media? 
  12. Can we explain why teachers want to teach? 
  13. Can we explain why scientists continue to publish their work in journals? 
  14. Can we explain why institutions exist? (and why dogs don’t have universities?) 

Because all these things are connected, many different and inconsistent descriptions can only produce confusion which can not only be imprisoning, but confound our ability to develop technologies which make society better: the unforeseen consequences of technical development might take us to self-destruction through lack of critical inquiry.

It is worth noting that those political forces which demonstrate antipathy to deep critical inquiry are those now in control in the US, Turkey, Russia, North Korea and the UK. We need to think our way out of a very dangerous situation.

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