Best Practices (According to Plato)




Biology remains in many ways obdurately Platonic. Developmental biologists are so fascinated with how an egg turns into a chicken that they have ignored the critical fact that every egg turns into a different chicken and that each chicken's right side is different in an unpredictable way from its left. Neurobiologists want to know how the brain works, but they don't say whose brain. Presumably when you have seen one brain you have seen them all. Given the extraordinary complexity of connections in a brain, it is at least conceivable, if not likely, that two people may organize their memories of the same event differently, or, God forbid, differently on different days of the week. Even my cheap home computer reorganizes and moves its memory storage around as I add more input.
Darwin's Revolution
Richard Lewontin, NYRB June 1983

I treasure Richard Lewontin's writings because he is forever nudging me away from sloppy thinking and the kind of generalizations inherent in "best practice" type posts like the one immediately below. After reading him the first time, I was not surprised to learn he had been vilified and marginalized by the establishment (/right) as being an irrational marxist or atheist or some such undesirable. Nobody likes a wiseguy.

I guess I'm sensitive about "obdurately Platoisms" because many of us work in contexts where others - funders, managers, coalitions - are prone to imposing "good ideas" under the guise of improving practice or better coordinating our field. Sometimes this begins as government or business sponsored research into practice (markedly different from research within practice), but it always ends up involving prescriptive perfect forms. That's not something I want to contribute to.

"Neurobiologists want to know how the brain works, but they don't say whose brain." Researchers want to know how an adult or child learns best, but they don't say which adult, which child. Managers want to get the right books into the classroom - of course they do. Who would want to put the wrong books into a classroom! But, they don't want to - have neither the resources not the mandate to - take seriously differences between classrooms or, fates forbid, individual learners. Indeed, as far as they are aware of classroom differences, they see this as a problem to be overcome through the refocused application of managed funding. The differences between learners, of course, is dealt with through screening and streaming.

I recall a meeting where an uncomfortable civil servant decried individualization as a threat to orderly systems. It's messy, disorganized, "all over the place," he pronounced. You can't run a cost-effective, assembly-line learning plant that's "all over the place." "We tried the individual approach," he assured me. "So, we know now that it just doesn't work."

Really? Work how? Work for who?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with sharing. I'm as happy to promote a resource or approach as the next fellow, assuming the next fellow can take or leave my suggestions as he pleases. I pine for more books, essays or blogs detailing successful adult learning classroom tools and tactics. (And I'm grateful for sites like AlphaPlusblog and the Literacies Cafe) There's nothing wrong with learning from each other, building on each other's experiences.

But, then, when I share a tool or tactic, I don't impose it. I have no authority to say you may purchase this title or use this approach with your designated program funding, but that title or tactic you will need to purchase and use privately.

Which is another way of saying, when our peers are "obdurately Platonic" we may be dismissive or sympathetic or amused. But, when our lords and masters are "obdurately Platonic," it is a different matter.

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