I recently read this fabulous book by Carlo Rovelli.
The book works on many levels. It is an attempt to explain the emerging theory of quantum gravity. This has numerous mind-blowing conceptual elements – such as the idea that spacetime is quantized, that time isn’t really a fundamental thing that ticks forward – it’s just our perception – a resultant effect of innumerable quantum-level events and the average direction of heat flow; and that everything in the universe is made up of ‘covariant quantum fields’: there are no particles, waves, or forces as such.
The mathematics of the theory are too complicated to understand for any lay-person but he does a great job of capturing the essence.
At another level, the book is a history of thinking about fundamental particles – the concepts of atoms, forces and fields and the mathematics that go with them – from Democritus to Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Einstein and Dirac.. with many more characters in between. It’s a fascinating story; the progression of our understanding over time helps to reach an understanding of where we are now with loop theory.
Finally, the book is rich in the philosophy of scientific thinking – the theory of knowledge and how we go about finding out the ‘truth’ about the world in which we live. This is the area that I think has direct resonance with our discourse about learning – including the world of cognitive science. The book is a veritable quote-fest:
In the introduction, Rovelli says, with reference to Plato’s shadows in the cave: “We are all in the depths of a cave, chained by our ignorance, by our prejudices, and our weak senses reveal to us only shadows……… Science is a continual exploration of ways of thinking, Its strength is its visionary capacity to demolish preconceived ideas…… The incompleteness and the uncertainty of our knowledge, our precariousness, suspended over the abyss of the immensity of what we don’t know, does not render life meaningless: it makes it interesting and precious.
This is the where I think we are in relation to understanding learning and the process of teaching. It might not quite be as conceptually out of reach as quantum gravity is to most of us but, the challenges are quite significant. Rovelli has wise words for how to proceed into the unknown:
“Awareness of the limits of our knowledge is also awareness of the fact that what we know may turn out to be wrong, or inexact. Only by keeping in mind that our beliefs may turn out to be wrong is it possible to free ourselves from wrong ideas, and to learn…… Science is born from this act of humility: not trusting blindly in our past knowledge and our intuition. Not believing what everyone says”.
That could be part of the mission statement for ResearchEd, the EEF, the College of Teaching and any other body concerned with developing our understanding of teaching and learning. But, the crucial thing is this: Humility and awareness of the limits of our knowledge are vital but they do not also imply that ‘anything goes’; that there is no reason to trust in anything. That’s not it at all:
“If we are certain of nothing, how can we possibly rely on what science tells us? The answer is simple: Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It is reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present…. It is precisely its openness, the fact that it constantly calls current knowledge into question, which guarantees that the answers it offers are the best so far available.”
Finally – at the risk of quoting the whole book:
“The answers given by science, then, are not reliable because they are definitive. They are reliable because they are not definitive; because they are the best available today.”
For me the implications for the way we should approach research in education are clear. Whatever the limits of our current understanding might be, however partial, provided that we continue to question and open ourselves to new possibilities at any moment, there are grounds for asserting the validity of the answers we have found so far.
With that said, I suspect that we will reach a more stable long-standing understanding of quantum gravity with equations and all, long before we’ve got the same level of confidence about a theory of how we think.
With infinite* thanks to Carlo Rovelli for the inspiration.
*That is to say finite but vast, at a scale beyond that which the limits of our everyday perception allow.