Why Some People Can’t Help Believing in Conspiracies by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What conspiracy do you believe currently exists within education?


Research by psychologists at Goldsmiths College, University of Arts London suggest, that belief in conspiracy theories is widespread because of an ‘intentionality bias’ built into our brains.

Conspiracies about mysterious events, from the disappearance of MH370 to the death of Princess Diana, become popular because many of us can’t help seeking intent behind ambiguous events, say researchers. As a result, conspiracies appear more plausible than alternative explanations.

distraught looking conspiracy believer in suit with aluminium foil head isolated on white background

Image: Shutterstock

Education Debate:

There are a number of education debates that have divided opinion here in the UK;

  • Progressive versus traditional education
  • Knowledge versus skills
  • Coasting schools and academy conversion
  • Ofsted
  • Qualified versus unqualified teachers
  • A Royal College of Teachers
  • Phonics
  • Dyslexia
  • Creativity
  • Initial teacher training
  • The use of textbooks
  • Independent learning
  • Use of ICT (1:1) devices in the classroom
  • Teaching: an art or a science?
  • and whole-school mindset to name a few …

Intentional, or Accidental?

Professor Chris French (tweet at @ChrisCFrench), who is Head of (ARPU) the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, set up the unit to provide a focus for research activity; to explain paranormal and related beliefs, and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known or knowable psychological and physical factors.

Together with Visiting Research Fellow Dr Rob Brotherton (tweet at @Rob_Brotherton), they both asked study participants to read 12 short sentences, such as “the boy knocked over the sandcastle.” Each participant could describe something done intentionally (‘a bratty kid destroying his sister’s handiwork’), or something that happened by accident (‘the boy wasn’t looking where he was going’). Participants wrote down whatever came to mind.

Dr Brotherton explained;

“We found a small but reliable trend: the more sentences a person interpreted as intentional, the more they tended to endorse conspiratorial statements, like the idea that the world is ruled by some small secret society. Young children often think that the sun exists to warm us up, and that someone who sneezes must really enjoy sneezing. As we get older we learn that some things are unintended, and we can override our gut instinct. But even as adults, the intentionality bias lingers in the back of our minds.”

“We’re all budding conspiracy theorists, because conspiracy theories resonate with how our minds work,” added Dr Brotherton.

The original article can be found here; Gold Network – June 2015

shutterstock_241641214 distraught looking conspiracy believer in suit with aluminium foil head isolated on white background

Image: Shutterstock

Intentionality Bias:

“Intentionality bias refers to the tendency to see intentions in the movements of both animate and inanimate objects … Combined with the human need for significance and meaning, we have at one extreme people who see everything as purposive. Nothing happens by accident. Even accidents have a meaning … The advantages of intentionality bias to social beings are many … Just because it is natural to see the world as designed doesn’t mean the world is designed. We need not be a slave to the brain, which, after all, deceives us about many things.” (Source)

Intentionality Bias research reminds me on the initial furore (February 2014) regarding Daisy Christodoulou’s published book, ‘The Seven Myths of Education‘ and how opinion was quickly divided. Was this due to the fact that Christodoulou’s book title was accidental or intentional? It certainly captures the imagination and attention. Do we feel that the book damaged our human need for significance and meaning?

Is significance prevalent in much of the ‘big’ educational topics I have listed at the top of this post? Knowledge versus skills, or progressive versus traditional. Have our brains deceived us once more regarding these arguments too? Am I the only person that believes one cannot exist without the other? Surely not …

In Christodoulou’s blog/book, she writes about the seven myths to prove that the practices she is criticising were in fact fairly widespread.

  • Facts prevent understanding – which argues that ‘opposition between fact-learning and true understanding is false.’
  • Teacher-led instruction is passive – which argues that ‘independent enquiry and discovery are good and teacher explanation and direction are bad.’
  • The 21st century fundamentally changes everything – which argues that ‘the newer an idea is, the more likely it is to become obsolete; whereas old ideas which are still useful to us are likely to go on still being useful in the future.’
  • You can always just look it up – which argues that ‘ in order to use reference tools like Google and Wikipedia effectively, you need a great deal of knowledge to begin with.’
  • We should teach transferable skills – which argues that ‘skills are tied to domain knowledge.’
  • Projects and activities are the best way to learn – which argues that ‘it is a confusion of aims and methods.’
  • Teaching knowledge is indoctrination – which argues that ‘we cannot teach pupils to sift opinions and weigh up evidence unless they have some knowledge to work with. Nor can we expect them to work with their own experiences and then transfer these skills across to new knowledge.’
  • You can read Daisy’s own introduction to the book here.

There are many other examples I could have referenced in the sector, but Christodoulou’s appeared to be the most obvious for in this blogpost. Are we in danger of hounding each other in the profession? Torn by political views rather than working as a collective force? As educators, can we stop ourselves from believing in conspiracy theories and work together, rather than promoting our own beliefs? What do you think?

I’m no angel …


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2 thoughts on “Why Some People Can’t Help Believing in Conspiracies by @TeacherToolkit

  1. I think you are however forgetting the extent to which more traditionally minded or formal teachers have been hounded out of the profession. Also, I think the extent of the problem in primary schools outweigh those in secondary schools where you are all subject specialists. In primary education, there is a child-centred orthodoxy prevalent and there are no other views represented. While you may have worked in schools where debate was allowed and different ideas of teaching were not frowned upon, I think you will find this is not the case in hundreds of schools.

    In Peal’s book Progressively Worse, he refers to a head teacher in London who was suspended in 1988 by the Inner London Education Authority for teaching reading using methods other than the whole language approach. Despite the fact that the percentage of children leaving the school who could read was higher than the average in London. This is a case where the head teacher refused to back down – how many did though? How much informal pressure was put on them?

    Do I believe in conspiracies? No. What I do believe in is that a series of events has led to a situation where people of a certain mindset have been able to assume positions from which they have been able to advocate a one-sided approach. University led teacher training did mean an almost total hegemony of advocates of the progressive approach to teaching and learning. How many teachers have been trained in these courses who have critically examined the pedagogy? Why do so many refer to Dewey and not Gramsci? Why are the latters arguments against the teaching of skills rather than knowledge based learning not examined in the same way?

    In many schools dissent leads one to be labelled a ‘trouble-maker’. I would never have believed this until I was on the receiving end and if I am honest I am still coming to terms with it all 5 years later. Being asked for results, producing them and then being treated worse than rubbish was certainly an eye-opener, until I realised that I should not have done it as a formal teacher in a primary school.

    It’s a sleight of hand. Look at the new qualifications – CAS Master Teachers, NPQML, NPQSL – now if we are all being trained with a particular pedagogy and these national qualifications are seen as more valid, then they will be referred to in job specs.

    If you are more likely to get the job, the more likely you are to be able to promote the pedagogy, in turn your experience and qualifications means you are more likely to gain more senior positions – in LEAs, boards, be asked to speak, etc. This means you can further promote your pedagogical ideas.

    Combine this with an anti-positivist approach which makes theories gods and evidence irrelevant and unimportant, then you have the ability to dismiss teacher’s daily experiences. Now link this with social class (which it is – how many of the progressive theorists have come from anything other than a middle class background?) and one group telling others what education is for and how it should be, despite objections and yes you have a problem. You also have a problem when it cuts across cultural lines.

    It then becomes an imposition not a conspiracy. As for everyone knew this already – I think that is simply not true. Until I read Christodoulou and Peal’s books, Andrew Old and Quirky Teacher’s blogs, I had spent the previous 10 years teaching in isolation and struggling to understand why I was being constantly pressured informally to change how I worked even when it produced results.

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