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Education Bookcast

Jan 11, 2021

I endeavour to understand and explain the field of education through many disciplines, including neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, anthropology, economics, and evolutionary biology. Over the course of this podcast's history, I have changed in my reading habits and focus across these disciplines, and in my attitude as to how useful they can be, and where they are best applied.

Psychology stands out as a case in point. At first, I thought that psychology would hold all the secrets to knowing how to improve education, by revealing what motivates people, how they think, and how they learn, and showing behavioural "laws" or tendencies that explain the framework from which we should approach understanding ourselves and others. Since then, I have realised that the psychological subfield of cognitive science has profound implications for learning, but the rest of psychology has been a disappointment.

Firstly, it suffers from sampling bias. Almost all those who have been tested in psychological experiments are Western university undergraduates. This introduces a cultural bias to the data, and so rather than explaining universal features of humanity (as it supposes), it actually uncovers peculiarities of Western culture. This is dramatically less useful than what I had hoped for, and is no foundation on which to build an understanding of humanity as a whole.

Secondly, it has frequent replication issues. There are numerous studies which become famous and frequently cited, only to be shown down the line not to replicate, invalidating their apparently tremendous insight. One high-profile example of this is mindset research, popularised by Carol Dweck, which I mistakenly lauded again and again on this podcast, only to find out down the line that replication studies have shown it not to be such a big deal.

In place of psychology, I argue that anthropology and economics are powerful fields that can bring a lot to the table. Anthropology is like psychology but with proper sampling, and economics is like psychology but with much simplified models, which are flawed but also more powerful than many people realise (myself included, until recently). Bringing these two fields in essentially says that culture matters, and we can only understand human universals by looking cross-culturally; that we "fish in water", blind to the forces that shape us all, and we can only see these with outsider's spectacles; that value is a fundamental thing that everyone seeks, and that needs elucidating; and that people more often than not behave in a way that is in line with their own desires.

In the episode, I discuss all these, plus also a range of other disciplines that have appeared or will appear on the podcast.

Enjoy the episode.