The Main Premise of TSVOTEP

When reporters ask for a summary of TSVOTEP, I say, “It’s based on the premise that, until we define what it means to be educated, we won’t be able to improve education.”

Several have responded, “That makes sense.”

When I state the same premise to education administrators and professors, however, the reaction is a big yawn. As I explained in the earlier post about the book’s audience, members of these groups are not interested in discussing what it means to be educated.

Administrators are not interested because they are trapped in our current model of education. They are trapped in the sense that, when they accept supervisory positions, they implicitly agree that public schools and school districts should be governed politically, and organized in bureaucratic hierarchy (the second and fourth elements of our current model). Therefore, their job is to enforce local, state and federal policies, not to challenge them. We understand this agreement because administrators who challenge local, state or federal policies are not “team players.” They might even get fired.

Professors of education yawn for a different reason. They are trapped in our current model by the fifth element — the social science improvement paradigm, which is the topic of chapter 8. Here is the short version:

During the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My professors said they were engaged in an experiment aimed at “professionalizing” education. They were taking a social scientific approach to building the knowledge base I could apply, when I became a principal. They were hoping improvements in educational practice would follow from their social science experiments with educational theories, methods, and materials.

Cochran-Smith (2002) calls this the “research as foundation” metaphor:

It is assumed first that there is a body of knowledge based on cutting-edge empirical research in various academic disciplines that is relevant to teaching, learning, and schooling, and second, that when teachers know and act on this knowledge, schooling is more effective.

I call this the social science improvement paradigm. It is a “paradigm” because it is an approach to improving education that corresponds perfectly to Kuhn’s description of how scientific paradigms work. The social science improvement paradigm is the frame for (1) our assumptions about improving education, (2) our questions about how to do it, and (3) the methods we use to answer those questions (Calhoun, 2002).

When I challenge this paradigm with professor colleagues, they counter with three questions:

1. How can we improve teaching and learning, if not by applying what is effective?
2. Isn’t it hypocritical to reject the social science improvement paradigm; when you, yourself, have been influenced by research findings and use them in your own life?
3. Are you saying teachers and principals should not apply research to practice?

Their belief in the social science paradigm prevents them from seeing the philosophical point that newspaper reporters regard as a necessary precondition for improving education. That is what paradigms do. They frame questions, ideas and topics in a way that makes some visible and accessible, and others invisible and inaccessible.

The main premise of TSVOTEP is visible to lay people who see the importance of the philosophical question, “What does it mean to be educated?” It seems lay people frame educational improvement in a philosophical paradigm, but those with “PhD” after their name do not. I love irony.

Over the last thirty years professors of education have taught that education improves through the application of research-based “best practices.” I am grateful to the University of Wisconsin professors who framed this idea as an experimental possibility, not a conclusion. I hope they appreciate my explanation of why the experiment failed in chapter 8.

One final point. Many professors of education believe we can’t agree on what it means to be educated because everyone has his/her own definition. Democratic governance, the thinking goes, provides the platform for the debates that emerge from having multiple, competing definitions. To many of them this is the best possible situation because we can never agree on one definition.

I believe the opposite is closer to the truth — nobody has a definition of what it means to be educated. We assume politicians define what it means to be educated, and social science points the way to achieving it, but neither is true.

This blog is asking readers to respond to these ideas. Especially teachers, principals, and parents should post. They have the most intimate experiences with young people; and, unlike policymakers, senior administrators, and professors of education, they have not been socialized into the social science paradigm.

By the way, the answer to my colleagues’ three questions is always the same:

Research findings deepen understanding; but improving education requires the other five virtues, too — imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity.

Click on “Leave a Comment” to reply.


There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment