On 31 March 2018, I watched a BBC 2 Sir David Attenborough programme about birds’s eggs. Although I have only a modest interest in garden birds, largely through my granddaughters, I should not have been surprised at the profound implications that flowed from another masterpiece of communication from this brilliant scientist and presenter. Sir David described many examples from the science of avian eggs that exemplify the ‘common sense’ fallacy.
I will start with the blue tit. This tiny bird and garden favourite lays lots of very small eggs. The female bird sits on the eggs to incubate them. The rate of development of the embryos depends on the incubation temperature. So ‘common sense’ tells you that the female blue tit would sit on the eggs for longer in cold weather than when the weather is warm. Wrong. When blue tits are observed, the incubating behaviour is the other way round, but why?
It turns out to be much more complicated, with many other unrecognised factors involved. The newly hatched chicks are tiny, bald and dinosaur like. As the eggs are so small, the hatchlings are born in a relatively undeveloped state, with voracious appetites supplied by the adult birds providing the most nutritious food, which is baby caterpillars. These only appear over a time interval of a few Springtime weeks. If the blue tit chicks were to hatch too soon when there are no baby caterpillars, they would die of starvation. Somehow, the mother blue tit ‘knows’ this, so she tunes the development of the embryos to ensure that this does not happen. She does this by reducing the amount of incubation provided in colder weather.
A second example relates to the shape of guillemot eggs. These are unusually long and ‘pointy’. Scientists have for decades tried to explain this. Guillemots lay their eggs on tiny, overcrowded ledges on vertical cliffs. So the ‘common sense’ answer was that their ‘pointy shape’ stops them rolling off the ledges. Except that it doesn’t. Experiments showed that rounder shaped eggs were no more likely to roll off.
The true explanation has nothing to do with the ledges at all. Guillemots lay large eggs from which the chicks develop in an advanced, feathered state of development. They are fed with small fish which the parents catch by diving below the surface propelled by their wings. The chicks need a lot of fish. The bodies of adult guillemots are slim and streamlined for efficient flying and diving. A large round egg would not fit down the oviduct of this slim bird, so it has to be long and ‘pointy’.
The subtext is the power of Natural Selection to produce such a compelling illusion of design in the variety and complexity of life on our planet. The counter-intuitive, anti-common sense nature of truth is explained in ‘The Unnatural Nature of Science’ by Lewis Wolpert. The illusion of intelligent design through Natural Selection is the subject of Richard Dawkin’s classic ‘The Blind Watchmaker‘.
So what has this to do with Education? There can be no better example of the ‘common sense’ fallacy than that everybody who has been to school has a view. That these views are nearly always hopelessly ill-informed and wrong is well illustrated by the comments on the regular ‘Secret Teacher’ feature in the Guardian newspaper. Education is immensely complex, which is why the mainstream media do such a bad job of reporting on it. It is not that journalists are lazy. They just lack the specialist knowledge required.
Within Education, there is no topic more guaranteed to spawn ‘common sense’ fallacies than school discipline. Our national tragedy is to have a school system where such fallacies appear to be shared not just by the public, but by Education Ministers and Executives of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). An example can found in this article.
The ‘common sense’ argument is that school students are naturally disinclined to study and prefer to be rude, disruptive and unruly. Over 180 years ago The Reverend Richard Dawes showed that this was not true in King’s Somborne School in Hampshire, where he became headteacher.
In contrast, Charles Dickens satirised the common sense fallacy in his 1854 book, ‘Hard Times’.
Before I became a head in 1989 I was fortunate to have worked in a very diverse range of state secondary schools. These included the traditional Wyggeston Boys’ Grammar School in Leicester, where the young David Attenborough himself was a pupil, and the radical Leicestershire Plan 14-18 Bosworth College, where there was no school uniform and the students addressed the teachers and the head by their first names. You can read the obituary of the Principal that appointed me here.
I was also fortunate to be seconded on full pay to the Leicester University M.Ed Studies course in 1981/82, where I studied theories of learning.
By the time I was appointed head of The Alfred Barrow School, in the urban centre of Barrow-in-Furness in 1989, I was sure that the ‘learning instinct’ of children was stronger than any ‘disruptive instinct’ and could predominate in a school that had the right approach to teaching and learning, and that repressive, violent and coercive discipline fuels bullying and bad behaviour as well as inhibiting the metacognitive and group communication skills that promote personal and cognitive development.
In retrospect, there were many shortcomings with teaching and learning at The Bosworth College, but student indiscipline was not one of them. Teaching and learning at Wyggeston Boys’ School also had shortcomings, but in very different ways. The traditional grammar/independent school culture resulted in occasional outbreaks of the worst pupil indiscipline I saw in my entire career in teaching. Very clever boys would wheedle at weaknesses in teachers and extreme, skilfully synchronised disruption could result. The corporal punishment regime only encouraged a culture that was very far from optimum in terms of what could have been achieved with such bright students. I refused to ‘witness’ canings of pupils in my form, by the Head of Year. Despite this I enjoyed good relationships with the outstanding science staff from whom I learned a great deal in terms of deep subject understanding. Wyggeston Boys School became Wyggeston Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in the belated Labour City of Leicester comprehensive reorganisation, more than a decade behind the Conservative Leicestershire County Council.
At The Alfred Barrow School we achieved an outstanding level of student co-operation and behaviour that was recognised by OfSTED and a variety of other LEA advisors and other professionals that came into the school, including ‘Advanced Skills Teacher’ (AST) assessors who were regular visitors, conferring this status onto many of our staff. Our students got to understand what the assessors were looking for and invariably delivered an impeccable performance in support of teachers that they liked and trusted.
Deeply flawed ‘common sense’ extreme coercive and abusive regimes of school discipline are on the increase in Academies and Free Schools.