published in educational Horizons, Summer 2003

Conjecture Pollution: Poisoning Educational Practice

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.
Widener University


edited 5/17/12

Student Teacher: How can I get Johnny to stop calling out and to give other students a chance to answer?

Mentoring Teacher: Tell him he's got ten minutes after school for every time he calls out.

Student Teacher: But won't that undermine his self-esteem?


Dishonor Awards

A suburban Philadelphia school district recently suffered two embarrassments. The first was that its solicitor was found to have charged it for eighty-one hours of work per day over a not very substantial period of time. Amidst clucking of tongues and hoots of journalistic glee, this story made the Sunday papers. [1]

The second embarrassment has been swept under the rug. Three juniors in the local high school were found to have downloaded substantial parts of papers for two different classes and submitted them without citation. When the teachers brought this to the attention of the academic dean, she punished them by giving them detentions which they accepted without protest. The matter was then dropped. One of the three students was her daughter.

The sponsor of the school chapter of the National High School Honor Society removed the plagiarists' names from the list of nominees for induction. Their parents complained and hired a lawyer who informed the School Board that the criteria for plagiarism were so vague as to make them vulnerable to lawsuit. Exhibiting the courage of capon, steer or gelding the Board caved in and directed the sponsor to submit the students' names for induction.

Those of us who in our own time were inducted into the National High School Honor Society can no doubt be proud that we now belong to the National High School Plagiarism Society. This major transformation was not even worth local news comment.

Clearly, by their accepting detentions without protest, the students conceded they had done something wrong. And clearly, by punishing the plagiarists with detentions, the dean had determined they had done something wrong not mitigated by any considerations of ignorance on the part of the students due to any putative vagueness with the concept of plagiarism in practice at the high school.

The point to note is that yet another long-recognized educational practice has succumbed -- abetted by administrative cowardice --  to a conjecture. This conjecture, a whiff of a theory, was concocted to rationalize special parental paranoia: imagined future career damages to their children on the basis of uncontested claims of school policy vagueness.

This is the Tragedy of the Commons replayed with a vengeance: the common school, a scarce resource accessible to anyone claiming a need for it, gets used and abused to serve the particular interests of the most assertive players. What is left over is hardly worth having. Schooling without honor is not education.

The irony is that two groups abet the destruction of our school systems as educational systems: boards of education and professional educators. Boards -- frequently not understanding what it takes to run a real school with real warm bodies in it -- are too often ready to sell out to any political interest that assures them continuity of office. Professional educators -- through their formal and in-service education -- have been so stuffed with flatulent conjecture, minimally substantiated, often contradictory, sketches of theory, that they cannot deal effectively with simple organizational and classroom problems.

Consensus and theory

Jonsen & Toulmin [2] tell how their participation in the work of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavior Research led to their reconsideration of how ethics education ought to be approached. The commissioners, who came from various religious and ethical traditions, were able to reach consensus on issues by using a case analysis approach. They would begin with a case for ethical analysis that all could agree on was good or bad and then look to the characteristics of that case that made it so. [3] A high level of consensus was maintained throughout the process up to the point where they were asked to explain the principles underlying their judgments. Then the consensus dissolved. Jonsen & Toulmin's conclusion is that in our pluralistic society, consensus is to be found in working from case examples, a technique called traditionally, casuistry, rather than looking for agreement on basic principles and trying to work down to specific cases by some deductive process. [4]

Educators, however, are taught to mimic the "hypothetico-deductive method." This approach, putatively used in the mathematics and the hard sciences, presumes the availability of well-established theories and laws which education, indeed, the "soft sciences" just don't have.  The student is taught to take a general statement, fit a specific situation to it, and -- although they are not required to study logic -- deduce a conclusion that justifies an action to be taken. Here is a common one:

a. (general theoretical premise) Presentation of a reinforcer after a behavior, B, will increase the probability of B's repetition.

b. (specific premises) Johnny's sitting quietly is a behavior I desire to see more of and my saying "Thanks" to him is a reinforcer.

c. Therefore, whenever I see Johnny sitting quietly, I should say "Thanks" to him. This will make his sit even more quietly.

This kind of nonsense goes on a thousand times a day in classrooms across the country. But it ain't necessarily so. I don't know that what I want to see Johnny do more of counts as a type of reinforceable behavior. Nor can I be certain that my saying, "Thanks," is reinforcing. But, then, again, if my knowledge of reinforcement theory is what I probably memorized for a (multiple choice) test out of a typical Introduction to Instructional Psychology text, I never really learned what the problems with defining behavior and reinforcers are, nor how to apply the concepts in practice. [5]

(But does that really matter? Isn't the real point that just saying words like stimulus gradient, behavior and intermittent reinforcement makes me feel soooo scientific! And impresses others, too.)

Poisoning Practice

The hypotheses on which researchers and scholars have reason to bestow the epistemic rank of "theory", become, for the shallowly-learned, nothing more than conjectures, often wild surmises.

Good theory is a tool. But imagine giving away toolboxes to people who do not know how to use the tools just because they -- and others -- believe that merely holding a tool box is a sign of professionalism!

Here is a list of conjectures that I have recently encountered that wreak havoc on schooling practice:

a. A professor of education justifies expelling students under a zero-tolerance policy because such expulsion, though it may overlook important moral considerations of mitigation and excuse, forces the student to seek professional help thereby possibly preventing more severe behavior in the future which may lead to incarceration.

b. A judge rules that the mere physical presence of a particular student in a regular public school classroom is a basic right not to be denied merely because the student will show little measurable benefit from instruction and even disrupt the learning of most of the rest of the class.

c. A consoling conjecture for Mr. and Mrs. James is that their son doesn't do well in school because the kind of intelligence he possesses is not addressed in the curriculum. No matter that he doesn't pay attention in class or do homework!

d. Any educator can invoke John Dewey to justify making his or her classroom more "democratic" -- read, "less directed by the teacher,"-- so as to prepare students -- the conjecture is -- for life in a democratic society. One wonders how the Founding Fathers ever conceived the Constitution considering the authoritarian education they all suffered through.

But educators are not alone in this inclination to spin a big picture out of a smattering of data. Who hasn't sat in meetings discussing -- or read in the news -- of great disasters predicted on the basis of minor portents. Undisciplined conjecture, expanded through leaps of logic and magnified by fear or fervent hope generates the bulk of topics of discussion not only in Education, but also in the world at large. [6]

In a school that's working, one that is lucky enough to have all the educator-non-controllables in place, life becomes rather routine. Teachers teach and kids learn. By and large, what is expected, happens. And there is no need for Planned Change, Transformative Leadership or Creative Teaching. But public schools are vulnerable to political meddling, to intrusions by ideologues of all kinds, for whom conjecture is a way of life, so long as others bear its consequences. Just because there is no need to fix what isn't broke, No Child Left Behind -- with its supposed "research-based practices" and its high stakes testing -- has been devised to disturb or destroy the great majority of public schools that have been doing a reasonably good job.

An important role for professional educational organizations.

There is an important role that professional educational organizations could play in protecting educational practice from intrusions that sacrifice generally workable schooling practice to personal conjecture. For example, they could

a. underwrite insurance to finance school districts' legal struggles against the importunities of special interests; or

b. organize  responses with other honorary organizations, for example, the National High School Honor Society, to withhold or rescind recognition from school districts that violate the spirit of the honor society's charter.

c. Provide a forum for the critical examination of "professional" organizational practices that vampirize the scarce resources of school districts, for example, by promoting member-concocted seminars and curricular materials with little prior testing for effectiveness.

d. Revoke -- with much fanfare -- the charters of locals serving universities or colleges that provide insufficient practical experience to teacher education majors, who graduate too high a percentage of education majors who do not get teaching jobs, or who divert too large a percentage of the funds generated by their school or department of education to purposes other than preparing teacher candidates.

There is a lot that can be done to resist the cheapening of teacher preparation and the undermining of public education. No small part of it is for teacher educators to emphasize practice over theory, case study over speculation and critical thought over conjecture.


[1] The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, April 27, 2003

[2] Jonsen, A. R. & Toulmin, S 1988 The abuse of casuistry: a history of moral reasoning. Berkeley: U of Cal. Press. See especially pages 16 through 20.

[3] For a practical approach to using case analysis in defining professional concerns see Rozycki, E. G. (2000) Pluralism and criteria: minimizing politicization in public service decision-making.

[4]   For a highly interesting introduction to case analytic thinking see Bedau, H.A. (1997) Making mortal choices. Three exercises in moral casuistry. New York. Oxford U. Press.

[5] For further discussion see, Rozycki, E. G. (1999) Reason and authority in education: is the study of psychology appropriate to teacher preparation?

[6]   As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek counter-strategy to doomsaying see Rozycki, E. G. (2000) The worry reducer. An heuristic for lessening the impact of paranoia on prediction.