education philosopher

Somewhere Between Fatalism and Optimism: The tragedy in education of not knowing the future

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on December 16, 2009

There are two attitudes one can take when a child is not learning at the level we expect: fatalism and optimism. The fatalistic attitude is that which leads us toward giving up and changing direction; perhaps the child is not learning the material because she is not suited for it. The optimistic attitude is that which leads us towards redoubling our efforts; perhaps she is not learning because we are not teaching it correctly, intensely, or thoroughly.

Both attitudes have positives and negatives. If the child is not learning the material because she really is not capable, fatalism may save time and the potentially bad experience of trying to force the proverbial square peg into the round hole by forcing ill-suited information into an unwilling and unable participant. But fatalism is a bad thing if it means that we give up on a child too soon who could have learned if we had persisted.

Conversely, optimism has its benefits and drawbacks. Optimism, by definition, means persistence out of desire for a good outcome. Optimism leads to good results when it leads us not to give up on a child too soon. Of course, the hoped-for scenario of where the child gets the information by our sheer persistence does not always come to pass, in which case we see the downside of optimism: the risk of forcing students to do more than they may be able to do for the sake of hope for a better result.

The reason I point out these good and bad points is that the dilemma teachers often face ove which attitude to adopt is made (dare I say) impossible by our inability to know the future. Asking a teacher whether a child is capable of learning x or not – asking them to adopt a optimistic or fatalistic attitude – is asking them to know what the child is in fact capable of, which entails knowing the future. This is because knowing what a child’s potential is is premised on the idea of knowing what the child would be able to do if educated in the right way, which entails knowing what can’t be known in advance. The best we can do when contemplating a child’s potential is to give our best educated guess, which often isn’t really that educated at all.

To elaborate further on the difficulty of gaguing a student’s capability, I want to point out how essentially unfalsifiable estimates are. Let’s suppose that we believe that Johny is capable of learning Algebra and despite our efforts, he does not show evidence of learning it. Well, we can explain this in two ways: we can suggest that maybe Johny is not equipped to learn algebra, or that we have simply not done everything necessary to teach it to him.

How to test these two rival theories? We could, of course, try alternative approaches to teaching him the algebra, but if he still doesn’t learn it, can’t we still explain Johny’s lack of success with these two explanations? (…and so on and so on.) At some point, if Johny still hasn’t learned the algebra despite our efforts, we may begin to suspect that “lack of ability” explanation more than the other, but can we ever really know that this is correct and that there is not something more we could have done? Can we really know that we did noy prematurely give up on teaching Johny algebra? Of course, fatalism can be disproved the moment Johny learns algebra, but optimism is never fully falsified and is, in some sense, always a live option: no matter how much a child fails to learn a thing it is always possible that it was us, rather than he, that played the key role.

And this is the dilemma that teachers often face: is a student failing my class because they are in over their heads, or because I am not teaching it in a way that suits them? As a special educator, I faced this dilemma very often: at what point to we take a child out of a class and recognize limitations versus giving the child every chance her peers have? Take the fatalistic approach of acknowledging limitations and we risk giving up on the child for the chance of designing an education suited to the child. Take the optimistic approach and we risk giving the child an ill-suited education for the chance of not giving up.

The problem, again, is that to know which course to take, we have to know what the child’s true potential is, which entails knowing the end result of our choice. In order to say that Johny does actually have the potential to learn algebra, we’d have to know that if we taught it x way, he’d learn it. And in order to know that Johny is incapable of learning algebra, we’d have to know that no matter how it was taught, he would not learn it. But this is asking us to know the hypothetical future. The best we can do is guess.

And here is the hard part: each guess has a chance of being wrong. Maybe we give up on Johny’s learning algebra only to find that years from now, Johny picks it up on his own (and chastizes the teachers who gave up on him). Or maybe we keep Johny in an algebra class for which he is ill suited only to watch him fail algebra exasperated and demoralized. Either way we guess, there is always a potential scenario where the downside could come to pass.

Such is one of the tragedy’s of teaching. Until we can find a way to measure “intelligence” levels (whatever that is) to the point where we can recieve iron-clad evidence of what a child’s capacities are (there is little reason to think that this can happen for a myriad of reasons), we have to accept the tragic fact that the deliberation between the attitudes of educational fatalism and optimism entails a guess, and guesses do not give us certainty.

It is hard lesson to learn. When we hear stories of students whose education either gave up on them or put them on a track not suited for them, we often take this as evidence that something is wrong with the education system, school, etc. This may be true, but it may also be the inevitable result of the fact that teachers cannot yet know what a student’s potential will be, and as such, are often forced to take a best guess as to what track is best for students.

So, there we are: we can respond to underperforming students fatalististically or optimistically. Either way, though, risks possible injustice. The best we can hope for is to improve our abilities to surmise student ability and minimize – not likely get rid of – the risks of a wrong decision.


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