Musings Teaching

Disciplined Eclecticism

Chatting in the car with Suzie the other day, and she asked me ‘what’s the key educational idea you’re all about?’1 The discussion was pretty much about ‘branding’ myself: Mr Piaget has his stage theory, Mr Kohlberg his moral reasoning, Mr Vygostky his ZPD and so on… What will be my legacy and what will I be known for?

So far I’ve written two books – ‘Weaving Narrative Nets’ and ‘Undead’ Theories. They’re both about educational research, and both talk about processes of pulling together bits from a variety of places to make something that’s well adapted to a particular purpose. I’ve used the term ‘bricolage’, borrowed from other people, before, but it doesn’t really capture it.

I’ve also used the term ‘disciplined eclecticism’ though, and that’s what came to mind when Suzie asked the question. There are a couple of things that get me to that point:

  1. There’s nothing new under the sun – all the gentlemen named above created their own theories and ‘brands’, but (and the best of them knew this and acknowledged it) they were really each taking up ideas that dated back at least to the Greeks, and probably much further 2
  2. I have always believed that all human situations – and educational situations are just a special subset of those – are too complex and multifaceted for a single theoretical perspective or approach to capture enough of them to be useful for our purposes3

So, ‘disciplined eclecticism’, then, is the approach of begging, borrowing and stealing ideas from as many sources as possible – other educational theorists, sure, but also artists and scientists and novelists and engineers – and combining them into makeshift but workable new tools to inquire into educational situations in ways that are well adapted to both the features of the situation and our educational purposes.

The ‘eclectism’ means we need to read very broadly4 and know a lot of possible approaches… but that could end up being messy and uncoordinated and unmanageable. That’s where the discipline comes in.

The term is used in two senses:

  1. Self-discipline: two or three frameworks, data sources, approaches or whatever can work well, maybe even four if you can juggle really well, but ten is going to be a mess for pretty much everyone
  2. The ‘discipline’ within which you’re working: the appropriate mix will be different in education than in psychology, and even different in science education than in second language education

I’ve thought about disciplined eclecticism as an approach to research, and written a few things about that, and I think I have some road still to cover – and probably a book or more still to write – on that topic. But it occurred to me that it’s actually also the approach I follow and advocate in teaching: don’t adopt one theory, one approach, one strategy. Instead, learn about a heap – expand your repertoire – and then choose the appropriate mix for this school, class, subject, time of day, your own personal style and all the other relevant variables.

Choosing the appropriate mix is both art and science, and – like prescribing drugs – it is not only the individual effects of each of the ‘treatments’ that needs to be considered but their possible interactions…

I’ve got lots more thinking and writing to do, and it’s probably still too diffuse as a ‘brand’ and a concept to slip my name up there with the Big Guys, but it’s definitely a concept I can get behind as representing some of what I’m here to share with the world.

  1. Conversations like this are some of the many, many reasons she’s awesome
  2. It’s just that the Greeks got really good at writing stuff down on less perishable media so we know more about what they thought
  3. Let alone ‘The Truth’ about them
  4. And ‘read’ here includes ‘listen to’ and ‘view’ and ‘play’ – there might be great tools in movies, songs and games

1 reply on “Disciplined Eclecticism”

One of my lecturers sung songs of glory and praise for social constructivism and while it was good it was not a one-size-fits-all method. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to education. The sooner people realise this the better. This among many other reasons is why I am opposed to the My School website

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