“It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities.”
– Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of Four’
With a nod to Benedict Cumberbatch, couch potatoes (guilty as charged) are enjoying a renaissance of the world’s finest detective, the sleuth of sleuths who cracks criminal cases seemingly as tight as welded walnuts.
Holmes’ secret, as we all should know by now, is his predilection to see what he and others first pass over at the crime scene or deduce from a witness statement. Aided by his pipe and admirable self-discipline, Holmes’ specialty is in parsing and re-parsing initial information (details and narratives) – and the assumptions that flow from this initial information – until he arrives at a new solution that arises because he has formed a fresh perspective.
“Watson, come quickly! I’ve detected biases and outmoded assumptions. The case will soon be solved!”
That’s a formula that characterizes good detective work and good science. Human nature being what it is, however, the power of initial assumptions often holds sway over our willingness to dig deeper to challenge first assumptions and form new perspectives. In some cases this is due to laziness, sometimes it happens because we have adapted to first assumptions and have become comfortable accepting and perpetuating them. In other cases we go along with the herd and accept ‘conventional wisdom’.
Unfortunately, ‘conventional wisdom’ has held back society or created unnecessary hardship in many historical examples, often because the notion of ‘convention’ is actually a contrivance by a vested interest. Think of resistance to use of seat belts, or the advocacy of baby formula over breastfeeding; in both cases, arguments of ‘conventional wisdom’ were intentionally created to persuade an audience on behalf of corporate interests.
Education is no stranger to this kind of framing. For decades, education authorities have shaped systemic learning on outmoded assumptions, among them an assumption that standardized assessments produce accurate reflections of students’ knowledge and intelligence. Or that schooling systems modeled on factory-style designs and efficiencies lead to optimal learning. These are both false assumptions, in fact, they were dis-proven years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the continued belief in them and their subsequent implementation.
One reason why this happens, I believe, is the reduced incidence of critical thinking, especially in Faculties of Education where educational praxis ought to be debated vigorously. To my perception, this isn’t happening; rather, new teachers are turned out like cans of beans each year, all well-conditioned to support a status quo that remains all too susceptible to manipulation by vested interests of all stripes. And all too silent closed doors and reductionist projects are those who should be criticizing and protesting a dereliction of responsibility to ensure the practice of a critical pedagogy throughout the discipline.
This practice, or lack of practice, keeps education mired in a state of paralysis and impedes its progress beyond a juvenile stage of development.
I’ll leave the final word of this essay up to the celebrated historian Marshall McLuhan:
“Whenever your conscious mind takes something for granted, tells you something is unworthy of your attention, go back and take a second look. Always question your questions and, above all, your answers.”