Solving the Gordian knots of education – And the rise of populist educationalism

“For every complex problem, there is one answer that is simple, clear and wrong.”
H.L. Mencken

Cargo cults generally arise when tribal societies come into contact with comparatively more technologically advanced societies. One such cult arose after World War II, when native islanders in the South Pacific noticed that a huge amount of goods (cargo) flowed into the airfields and ports built by the American military.

Eager to reproduce the flow of cargo to their own villages, they thought that all they had to do to achieve this was to clear their own landing strips, build palm-roofed shacks on stilts in lieu of control towers, recreate their own aircraft out of leaves, twigs and branches, and dedicate it all to the spirits. But cargo didn’t flow.

Cargo did flow into American South Pacific airfields because of the architectural intricacy of the American war effort. What appeared to the islanders to be a problem of simple cause and effect belied the complexity of the modern, industrialised supply chain.

But modern, industrialised societies are not immune to the cargo cult effect. Simple, elegant solutions to Gordian knots are celebrated, so we readily think about our problems in terms of cause and effect even when studying any correlation closely might be wiser.

Our propensity to think “all you have to do to fix [insert complex problem] is…” charts our descent from the elegantly simple to the precariously simplistic. Populist politicians exploit this propensity to ignore inherent complexity in their advocacy of policies that purport to solve knotty problems in one simple, decisive stroke. And, in denying that complexity exists in the first place, they are hugely popular as a result.

This populist model that makes a virtue of the simplistic can sometimes find its way into educational policy too. It is then that we see pejorative labels when we should see teachers who are knowledgeable in their subject and experts in its delivery. It is then than we swing between facile solutions and false starts without ever stopping to grapple with the wonderful complexity inherent to the art in the science of education.

How many budgeting decisions have been justified at departmental, school and even national level in pursuit of shallow solutions to deep-rooted problems? Home many new interventions have been promoted as the answer to problems we sometimes didn’t even know we had?

Riding on these wild oscillations is the pivot of calm, measured leadership and practice, providing the cornerstone and reference points required for the kind of purposeful reflection that results in progress. But this can only be achieved by treating complexity as a feature, not a bug. For the more we embrace simplistic approaches to improving education, easy answers and facile solutions, the more we undermine the place of teachers, whose role in the education of children begins to be perceived as that of actor, rather than agent.

What all the greatest educational fads and snake oils of our age have in common is the belief that there are simple solutions to complex problems.

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