What is the obsession with ‘new’ ideas in teaching?

I have written before about the tendency for people in education to fall foul of a ‘novelty bias’, drawn naturally towards new (often untested) ideas at the expense of more reliable, time-honoured ones. Until recently, I had only considered this from the perspective of those working in front-line education. This week, however, I had an interesting insight into another possible facet of this pervasive preference; the idea that a novelty bias within academic circles may lead to a research focus which is unnaturally skewed towards producing ‘novel applications’ for education, rather than simply constraining and explaining the methods and techniques we already have.

This week I attended a seminar given by Geoffrey Bowers, a prominent critic of the field of Educational Neuroscience. Bowers is an engaging speaker and, whilst I do not agree with some of his conclusions regarding the field, I do have sympathy with a number of his premises. I won’t review the talk or the main arguments made here (Annie Brookman-Byrne has already published this reply to the talk on her blog, and some entertaining academic exchanges between Bowers and the proponents of the field can be read, in order, here, here, here and here).

One aspect of Bowers’ argument that I hadn’t fully appreciated in my previous reading of his papers, but which came through strongly in the seminar, was the insistence that contributions of neuroscience to education could only be accepted as meaningful if they led to ‘new’ methods of instruction. Bowers stated that he could not conceive of a neuroscience finding which would inform a novel instructional method for education. Whilst I accept his point highlighting the distance between the neuroscience lab and the classroom (findings about brain activity do not in themselves immediately suggest how things should be done in schools), I am at a loss as to why research into education should be expected to spawn completely new and original educational applications.

Education been around for a long time; formal education involving training in literacy and numeracy has been practised in parts of the world for at least 3500 years. Educational philosophies have waxed and waned throughout this time in line with the prevailing political and social fashions, bringing with them new methods to try. Even today – at the end of this long period of development – intelligent and highly qualified people may possess almost directly opposing views about what constitutes a ‘good’ education. The end result of all this is that a huge number of different educational techniques will have been tried at one time or another. The space between the Montessori nursery and the lecture theatre is littered with the debris of three thousand-years’ experimentation. Is it therefore realistic to expect that something totally new will be designed? Why expect a paradigm shift which makes instruction qualitatively different from anything that has been tried before?

There’s an old saying attributed to Abraham Maslow: “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat every problem as if it were a nail”. But if you spend all your time demanding brand new tools, then you’ll never know whether the ones you already have could actually have done the job just as well.

What is the obsession with ‘new’ ideas in teaching?

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