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FIVE: Philosophical musings

There is always a danger that adherence to any particular philosophy is to such an extent that it overcomes ‘pragmatism’ and entrenches the approach in dogma. Yet it seems Ofqual may have fallen into this trap based upon ‘behaviourist’ thinking that emerged during the 20th Century. It crops up in the Ofqual papers as an unexpected idea. The pragmatic approach might have been overshadowed by a deeper philosophical dogma that may not have been recognised as such. It is based on the belief that there is a singular and ‘definitive’ truth that defines the ability and the potential of an individual student. The belief is that this manifests itself in better attainment that can be readily measured in a singular test at one point in time. Other constraints on the student or other attributes are discounted along with the idea of development over time.

Accuracy and skill.

It turns out the idea of ‘marksmanship’ had already crossed the mind of Paul Newton (see Note* below) in another explanatory essay for Ofqual, ‘What is the Sawtooth Effect? The nature and management of impacts from syllabus, assessment, and curriculum transitions in England’. Newton could not resist a similar analogy to that of William Tell. He quotes from an uncited text by Oxford behaviourist philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, who did not like being labelled a ‘behaviourist’. In the ‘Concept of Mind’ from 1949, Ryle advises. “In judging that’s someone’s performance is or is not intelligent, we have, as has been said, in a certain manner to look beyond the performance itself.”

He illustrates this with the analogy, “We observe, for example, a soldier scoring a bull’s eye. Was it luck or was it skill? If he has the skill, then he can get on or near the bull’s eye again, even if the wind strengthens, the range alters and the target moves”. Therefore, “To decide whether his bull’s eye was a fluke or a good shot, we need […] to take into account more than this one success.”

Furthermore, in reflecting the 1949 post war context, he observes that “The soldier who was merely drilled to slope arms correctly has to be trained to be proficient in marksmanship and map-reading. Drill dispenses with intelligence, training develops it”. For ‘drill’ we might substitute ‘teaching to the exam’ in modern terms.

The work of Ryle was important in the context of the rapidly advancing Higher Education system after a major conflict. The post-COVID era might cause us to reassess our approach for different reasons. Ryle himself described his work as a "sustained piece of analytical hatchet-work" on Cartesian dualism. This is because he rejects the idea of a separation of mind and body advocated by Rene Descarte. This he calls the "Ghost in the machine" and says “If the doctrine of the ghost in the machine were true, not only would people be absolute mysteries to one another, they would also be absolutely intractable. In fact they are relatively tractable and relatively easy to understand.”

This conclusion could be a serious and naïve misrepresentation of who we are and what we can achieve as complex people. This ‘behaviourist’ approach leads to the idea that we can assess people simply by devising the right tests or examinations. It supposes that there is clear target that can be hit reliably with accuracy. Also, that the result defines the ability of a student overall. This belies the observation that it is not possible to do this with reliability as Newton admits. We should not ignore the 'ghost in the machine'. 

The ghost in the machine.

I became aware of the work of Ryle as a student in 1974 after reading ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ written by Arthur Koestler in 1967. Rereading both texts this week woke up concerns I had not considered for a long time.

In referring to Ryle and behaviourism, Koestler warns us of the practical implications with:

“Regardless of the verbal acrobatics of Behaviourists and their allies, the fundamental problems of mind and matter, of free will versus determinism, are still very much with us, and have acquired a new urgency—not as a subject of philosophical debate, but because of their direct bearing on political ethics and private morals, on criminal justice, psychiatry, and our whole outlook on life. By the very act of denying the existence of the ghost in the machine—of mind dependent on, but also responsible for, the actions of the body—we incur the risk of turning it into a very nasty, malevolent ghost”

His approach stresses the societal and individual dangers inherent in our behaviours that evolved from earlier apes. He offers a stark warning to be mindful of the limitations of being trapped in our own evolutionary pathway. I see it as rejecting the superiority of ‘elitism’ that is built on shaky attainment foundations. Instead, we might be less arrogant and accept that we are all ‘stupid’ but maybe some of us a more ‘stupid’ than others. 

The last word.

This goes to Paul Newton in his essay ‘What is the Sawtooth Effect?’ who concludes “Educational assessment is inherently fallible. We cannot always be confident in inferring attainment on the basis of successful performance; and we cannot always be confident in inferring lack of attainment on the basis of unsuccessful performance.” 

Like William Tell, he is not so confident we have a fair or reliably accurate examination system. Then again, maybe we should not be risking the ‘lives’ of students by taking the shot in the first place. Instead, we might develop a new system that concentrates primarily on ‘education’ equal for all and ensuring ability, and its development, is measured over time to replace the emphasis on ‘attainment’ in one-off exams. After all, in a small class of students who collaborate on a project, the best way to determine the one with the most overall ability might be to ask the students what they think. I used carefully moderated self and peer assessment of group work in a university this way for many years. Also, by offering encouragement to those students of ability, and by showing them the level of difficulty and self-learning in a university in advance, they might become more self-aware and better placed to decide for themselves what they could or should achieve.

Note* : Paul Newton is no stranger to assessments. Currently the ‘Research Chair’ at Ofqual he was professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London. His previous positions since 1994 have been Director Cambridge Assessment Network division, Cambridge Assessment; Ofqual Head of Assessment Research; Senior Research Officer, National Foundation for Educational Research; Research Officer, Pre-school Learning Alliance; Research Associate, King's College London; Research Officer AQA (then Associated Examining Board).

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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