The Illusion of Technique

A technique is a standard method that can be taught. It is a recipe that can be fully conveyed from one person to another. A recipe lays down a certain number of steps which, if followed to the letter, ought to lead invariably to the end desired.

—William Barrett

Education becomes emancipatory when it emphasizes communicative interaction and the force of a better idea in deciding the truth of things.

—Robert Bullough

The hallmark of a professional is their special ability to apply general rules to particular situations in ways that not only provide helpful courses of action, but new understandings of the relationship between the means and ends of a problematic situation —what the Greeks termed practical wisdom or phronesis. What made practical know-how special for the Greeks was judgment —the unique talent for solving a problem or explaining a phenomena without resorting to the application of an accepted technique or the application of a fixed principle. The end result of practical wisdom was always a transformation of customary ways of doing things—the how—and customary understandings of valued results—the what. From the Greek standpoint, all professionals were expected to possess the knowledge (epistme) and the skills (techne) to render competent service, but very few professionals possessed the practical wisdom to radically alter the relationship between routine performances and values outcomes.

The development of practical wisdom in a profession is composed of three types of understandings: (1) Knowing the theoretical and general principles that govern the explanatory discourses of a profession; (2) Having opportunities to apply theories and general principles to the particulars of a profession under the watchful eye of an experienced practitioner; (3) Mastering the techniques and tools that minimize the thought and effort devoted to tasks that must be performed repeatedly. Studies of professional expertise conclude that novices and advanced beginners always attempt to apply an accepted technique or rule to what they perceive is a like situation; experts, on the other hand, see no “like situations.” For experts, every situation is different and thus, at a minimum, may require the reinterpretation of accepted rules and techniques or may demand the creation of new rules and new techniques for truly new phenomena.

The problem of technique, or what some authors have come to identify as the illusion of technique (Barrett, 1978), comes about when a profession “detaches” (Raitz, 1993) techniques from traditions established to further the valued ends of a society. The sole function of a technique is to increase the decision-making capabilities of a professional by reducing the amount of time, thought, and effort spent on mechanical tasks. In a society that values the “cult of efficiency”, techniques are honored for efficiently dealing with the mundane tasks of life. The danger, however, is when a technique becomes divorced from the decision-making processes and moral purposes of a tradition which serves as its home. No technique is neutral (Raitz, 1993, p. 168)  — techniques are always woven into the moral purposes of a tradition. Without being firmly anchored in a tradition, a technique is capable of distorting moral purposes in the name of promptness or rationality or cost-benefit. When an organization or an individual adopts a technique merely to make life easier or to produce a product more efficiently, they may at the same time significantly change or lose sight of the valued ends of a company or social endeavors.

Unlike other professions, which possess a set of clear norms for defining acceptable practice, the profession of teaching historically lacks a “viable and reliable technology of instruction” (Labaree, 2004, p. 12). Without clear goals for instruction, clear ways of measuring learning, and a clear definition of the clientele served, the profession of teaching is particularly vulnerable to being colonized by techniques borrowed from other traditions —psychology, sociology, history, statistics, philosophy, and psychometrics. Faculties in schools of education willingly accepted these hostile takeovers by other traditions as a tactic for refuting the belief that the knowledge base for teaching is too “soft” and too “applied” to be considered a legitimate discipline within the academy (Labaree, 2004, p. 12). In the mind of educators, the adoption of positivistic techniques from other professions would elevate the status and exchange value of the profession of teaching.

Becoming a “data-driven” profession has not elevated the status of teaching, within or without the academy and, regrettably, has corrupted the moral purposes of the teaching profession—purposes designed to protect children from pure instrumentalism such as scripted lesson plans, managed curricula, norm referenced tests, abolition of recess, behavioral objectives, grade retention, time-on-task, the Carnegie Unit, and Tyler Rationale. What were the theories, ideas, and beliefs that formed the moral purposes of teaching? This subject of this blog posting does not permit a full elaboration on the ideas and beliefs that guided the tradition of teaching. In future blogs, I provide a brief outline of the core ideas and beliefs that serve as the foundation for the “tradition of teaching.”

Barrett, W. (1978). The illusion of technique: a search for meaning in a technological civilization. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.

Bullough, R. V. (2006). Developing interdisciplinary researchers: What ever happened to the humanities in education? Educational Researcher, (35) 8, 3 – 10.

Bullough, R. V., Goldstein, S. L., & Holt, L. (1984). Human interests in the curriculum: teaching and learning in a technological society. New York: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Labaree, D. F. (2004). The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Raitz, K. L. (1993). On the detachment of technique. Studies in philosophy and education. 12, 165 – 177.




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