Posted by: edhui | June 29, 2016

On the origin of subjects

New insights often come from the combination of entirely unrelated streams of knowledge. It has ever been so, since Ugh Tinderdry and Grunt Jaeger, the firemaker and the hunter, got together to invent cookery.

Years ago, I was involved in an online discussion around the definition of karate, and why it was so difficult to come to an agreed definition of what it actually was. A martial art, certainly, but what did that mean? A fighting system? Then why all the uniforms and belts and etiquette? Do those actually improve the student’s ability to fight, and if not what did that tell us about karate? If it is not dedicated to teaching people to defend themselves in a physical confrontation, what is it supposed to do? Traditionally, it is claimed that karate is about perfection of character, but what is that exactly, and in any case how do we test whether that does anyone any good? If we don’t know what karate actually is, how can we rationalize why anyone should study it at all?

This morning, I started to think about why any subject is taught, and why some subjects go extinct and some are created. With my biological background it was probably inevitable that once I was thinking in this way that I should make the comparison with Darwin’s insights on natural selection. I realized that karate is nothing more nor less than a subject, and subjects come and go in remarkably darwinian ways.

Before carrying on this line of reasoning, I need to point out a misconception about evolution- that it results in organisms perfectly adapted to their environment. This is absolutely untrue. Evolution only results in organisms that are able to survive in their environment. Perfection, or beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder. A peacock can be seen as a beautiful bird or one that has been encumbered by evolution with a sexual attractant so heavy it can hardly do what a bird should be able to do- fly. A panda is either a cuddly animal or a carnivore struggling to get by on huge amounts of bamboo its gut is poorly arranged to digest, in an environment no other large animal is stupid enough to attempt to colonize. A parasite that blinds the eye of a child in Africa is as much a masterwork of evolution as a tuna.

We can easily fall into the same trap when thinking of the range of subjects that are taught in schools, assuming that they are beneficial to children just because they are being taught. In fact I believe (and please write to me if you think I’m wrong) that the variety of subjects that are actually being taught are there because they are the current survivors of a darwinian process. Just as karate is not necessarily the best collection of martial arts knowledge, training techniques and self defence behaviours that could possibly be taught to a student, only a collection of activities that have customarily been taught, so the mix of units of knowledge taught in each subject, and the total collection of subjects taught in schools is the result of the evolution of teaching practices, government intervention and societal values. These adaptive pressures are not individually designed to help students- they may be random, or the result of cost cutting, or simply poor decision making.

Subjects can fall out of the limelight- Latin once the basis of any proper education is now studied by the children of eccentric or very rich parents. New subjects appear- ICT was unknown only a few years ago, and has recently been renamed Computing, or even Coding. Photography was about a marriage of technology, art and chemistry a few years ago, but today may almost be a method of digital manipulation of images. Schools do not teach a fixed repertoire. Just as evolution is not pre-directed towards the production of beautiful or perfect forms, so subjects may not be taught just because of their benefit to students. Just as many factors affect the evolution and survival of species, so it is with taught subjects. Species survival and success depend on the number of young, their survival into adulthood, and their success in producing a new generation. So it is that a subject depends on there being a population of teachers teaching enough students who will grow into teachers themselves. The learning environment affects recruitment just as the real environment affects biological evolution. If ICT is valued by schools, then more teachers will be recruited from the pool of IT literate adults or from students training to be teachers. If woodcraft is less valued, then the population (or popularity) of the subject will be reduced.

How should we actually decide what to teach?

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