folk categorisation and implicit assumptions

In his second response to critics, Robert [Peal] tackles the issue of the false dichotomy. He says;

…categorisation invariably simplifies. This can be seen in all walks of life: music genres; architectural styles; political labels. However, though imprecise, categories are vital in allowing discussion to take place. Those who protest over their skinny lattes that they are far too sophisticated to use such un-nuanced language … are more often than not just trying to shut down debate.

Categorisation does indeed simplify. And it does allow discussion to take place. Grouping together things that have features in common and labelling the groups means we can refer to large numbers of thing by their collective labels, rather than having to list all their common features every time we want to discuss them. Whether all categorisation is equally helpful is another matter.

folk categorisation

The human brain categorises things as if it that was what it was built for; not surprising really because grouping things according to their similarities and differences and referring to them by a label is a very effective way of reducing cognitive load.

The things we detect with our senses are categorised by our brains quickly, automatically and pre-verbally (e.g. Haxby, Gobbini & Montgomery, 2004; Greene & Fei-Fei, 2014) – by which I mean that language isn’t necessary in order to form the categories – although language is often involved in categorisation. We also categorise pre-verbally in the sense that babies start to categorise things visually (such as toy trucks and toy animals) at between 7 and 10 months of age, before they acquire language (Younger, 2003). And babies acquire language itself by forming categories.

Once we do start to get the hang of language, we learn about how things are categorised and labelled by the communities we live in; we develop shared ways of categorising things. All human communities have these shared ‘folk’ categorisations, but not all groups categorise the same things in the same way. Nettles and chickweed would have been categorised as vegetables in the middle ages, but to most modern suburban gardeners they are ‘weeds’.

Not all communities agree on the categorisations they use either; political and religious groups are notorious for disagreements about the core features of their categories, who adheres to them and who doesn’t. Nor are folk categorisations equally useful in all circumstances. Describing a politician’s views as ‘right wing’ gives us a rough idea of what her views are likely to be, but doesn’t tell us what she thinks about specific policies.

Biologists have run into problems with folk categorisations too.  Mushrooms/toadstools, frogs/toads and horses/ponies are all folk classifications. So although biologists could distinguish between species of mushrooms/toadstools,  grouping the species together as either mushrooms or toadstools was impossible, because the differences between the folk categories ‘mushrooms’ and ‘toadstools’ aren’t clear enough, so biologists neatly sidestepped the problem by ignoring the folk category distinctions and grouping mushrooms and toadstools together as a phylum. The same principle apples to frogs/toads – so they form an order of their own. Horses and ponies, by contrast, are members of the same subspecies.

Incidentally 18th and 19th century biologists weren’t categorising these organisms just because of an obsessive interest in taxonomy. Their classification had a very practical purpose – to differentiate between species and identify the relationships between them. In a Europe that was fast running out of natural resources, farmers, manufacturers and doctors all had a keen interest in the plants and animals being brought back from far-flung parts of the world by traders, and accurate identification of different species was vital.

In short, folk categories do allow discussion to take place, but they have limitations. They’re not so useful when one needs to get down to specifics – how are particular MPs likely to vote, or is this fungus toxic or not? The catch is in the two words Robert uses to describe categories – ‘though imprecise’. My complaint about his educational categorisation is not categorisation per se, but its imprecision.

‘though imprecise’

The categories people use for their own convenience don’t always have clear-cut boundaries, nor do they map neatly on to the real world. They don’t always map neatly onto other people’s categories either. Eleanor Rosch’s work on prototype theory shed some light on this. What she found was that people’s mental categories have prototypical features – features that the members of the category share – but not all members of the category have all the prototypical features, and category members can have prototypical features to different extents. For example, the prototypical features of most people’s category {birds} are a beak, wings, feathers and being able to fly. A robin has a beak, wings and feathers and is able to fly, so it’s strongly prototypical of the category {birds}. A penguin can’t fly but uses its wings for swimming, so it’s weakly prototypical, although still a bird.

Mushrooms and toadstools have several prototypical features in common, as do frogs and toads, horses and ponies. The prototypical features that differentiate mushrooms from toadstools, frogs from toads and horses from ponies are the ideas that; toadstools are poisonous and often brightly coloured; toads have a warty skin, sometimes containing toxins; and horses are much larger than ponies. Although these differential features are useful for conversational purposes, they are not helpful for more specific ones such as putting edible fungi on your restaurant menu, using a particular toxin for medicinal purposes or breeding characteristics in or out of horses.

traditional vs progressive education

Traditional and progressive education are both types of education, obviously, so they have some prototypical features in common – teachers, learners, knowledge, schools etc. Robert proposes some core features of progressive education that differentiate it from traditional education; it is child-centered, focuses on skills rather than knowledge, sees strict discipline and moral education as oppressive and assumes that socio-economic background dictates success (pp. 5-8). He distilled these features from what’s been said and written about progressive education over the last fifty years, so it’s likely there’s a high degree of consensus on these core themes. The same might not be true for traditional education. Robert defines it only in terms of its core characteristics being the polar opposite of progressive education, although he appears to include in the category ‘traditional’ a list of other more peripheral features including blazers, badges and ties and class rankings.

Robert says “though imprecise, categories are vital in allowing discussion to take place.” No doubt about that, but if the categories are imprecise the discussion can be distinctly unfruitful. A lot of time and energy can be expended trying to figure out precise definitions and how accurately those definitions map onto the real world. Nor are imprecise categories helpful if we want to do something with them other than have a discussion. Categorising education as ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ is fine for referring conversationally to a particular teacher’s pedagogical approach or the type of educational philosophy favoured by a government minister, but those constructs are too complex and too imprecise to be of use in research.

implicit assumptions

An implicit assumption is, by definition, an assumption that isn’t made explicit. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things because if they are used in a discussion, people following the argument often overlook the fact that an implicit assumption is being made. An implicit assumption that’s completely wrong can easily slip by unnoticed. Implicit assumptions get even more sneaky; often the people making the argument aren’t aware of their implicit assumptions either. In the case of mushrooms and toadstools, any biologists who tried to group certain types of fungi into one or other of these categories would be on a hiding to nothing because of an implicit, but wrong, assumption that the fungi could be sorted into one or other of these categories.

Robert’s thesis appears to rest on an implicit assumption that because the state education system in the last fifty years has had shortcomings, some of them serious, and because progressive educational ideas have proliferated during the same period, it follows that progressive ideas must be the cause of the lack of effectiveness. This isn’t even the ever-popular ‘correlation equals causality’ error, because as far as I can see, Robert hasn’t actually established a correlation between progressive ideas and educational effectiveness. He can’t compare current traditional and progressive state schools because traditional state schools are a thing of the past. And he can’t compare current progressive state schools with historical traditional state schools because the relevant data isn’t available. Ironically, what data we do have suggest that numeracy and literacy rates have improved overall during this period. The reliability of the figures is questionable because of grade drift, but numeracy and literacy rates have clearly not plummeted.

What he does implicitly compare is state schools that he sees as broadly progressive, with independent schools that he sees as having “withstood the wilder extremes of the [progressive] movement”. The obvious problem with this comparison is that a progressive educational philosophy is not the only difference between the state and independent sectors.

In my previous post, I agreed with Robert that the education system in England leaves much to be desired, but making an implicit assumption that there’s only one cause and that other possible causes can be ignored is a risky approach to policy development. It would be instructive to compare schools that are effective (however you measure effectiveness) with schools that are less effective, to find out how the latter could be improved. But the differences between them could boil down to some very specific issues relating to the quality of teaching, classroom management, availability of additional support or allocation of budgets, rather than whether the schools take a ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ stance overall.

Greene, MR & Fie-Fie, L (2014).Visual categorization is automatic and obligatory: Evidence from Stroop-like paradigm. Journal of Vision, 14, article 14.
Haxby, J.V., Gobbini, M. I. & Montgomery, K. (2004). Spatial and temporal distribution of face and object representations in the human brain. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences (3rd edn.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition:Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.
Younger, B (2003). Parsing objects into categories: Infants’ perception and use of correlated attributes. In Rakison & Oakes (eds.) Early Category and Concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion, Oxford University Press.


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