ELTM7: Applying Kuhn to Technology Adoption

In a previous post it was noted that technological innovation is often welcome. Despite the existence of supportive evidence the profession, as a whole, is frequently reluctant to embrace in a meaningful way new ideas; new methods

What sense can be made from this? If understanding is one goal, take some comfort in the fact that it all seems to play out in a manner described, over fifty years ago, by Thomas Kuhn in his small but influential book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Science, it seems, is not really the logical, rational march in search of truth and reality that you may have been led to believe. In the book Kuhn (among a great many others things) describes two sorts of science: Normal Science in which the practitioners flesh out the existing body of knowledge under a well understood set of practices or paradigm and revolutionary science in which a whole-new set of practices and assumptions is adopted.

Kuhn points out that, despite the public image of logic and reason that science tends to have, the process is also home to all of the distinctly human traits that mark most of society’s endeavours. Perhaps, for our purposes here one of the most distinct features to consider is the extreme tenacity with which people hold to their established beliefs and patterns of behavior. In science, during periods of upheaval, the “old guard,” with a lifetime invested in it, tends to stubbornly defend the previous paradigm (a word that is generally taken to mean the accepted way of getting things done) and it is generally only when a sufficient number of younger practitioners—adherents to the new paradigm—become respected and established that widespread acceptance is acknowledged. Of course not everyone buys in. It is often the case that the more vocal disciples of the old paradigm have to die off before the voices of dissent are muted.

As teachers, and in particular teachers of science, we see this too. Students come to us armed with so-called “commonsense,” and generally flawed, world-views. Easily dealt with, you say? Just show them “the truth” and it will be self-evident! Not so! The work of many, including the late Rosalind Driver during the 1980s, made it clear that merely demonstrating and presenting better concepts and world views tends not to effect meaningful change. In fact, even demonstrating the inconsistencies and flaws of the everyday conceptions tends not to work because people merely adopt a “two worlds” attitude. They, in effect, learn to see things through two different “lenses” as the situation warrants. One world view, the one they came to school with, is the one they continue to use interacting with the world outside of the classroom while the one we work so hard to develop in the classroom remains rooted firmly there, never put into play in any meaningful way.

So it is, then, with practitioners of all kinds. It is a small wonder, then,  that professionals will willingly attend product demonstrations and workshops but remain unaffected. They will come in, participate, learn, for example the ways in which to use, say Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) but walk away unfazed; unchanged, secure in the knowledge that their existing methods are effective enough; that the effort required to adopt and adapt is just not worth the extra bother.

And it turns out that, while experience has shown that they are often completely, tragically wrong, they are often right. As surely as extra caution often kept our ancestors from being lunch to some hungry predator on the ancient Savannah, a sense of trepidation often pays off. That’s next.

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14 thoughts on “ELTM7: Applying Kuhn to Technology Adoption

  1. This rings so true. And I have to smile at my comment on your previous post. But there are scientific findings that should, ideally, be “accepted and adopted” much faster, but I’m sure that what the next post will be about.

  2. I’m well aware, from experience, that it’s impossible to change someone’s mind–even if you’re armed with an arsenal of impeccably indisputable facts and easy-to-follow rationale. Because I’ve seen ample evidence that, as one of my favorite philosopher/historian’s says, “people believe what they CHOOSE to believe.”

    That the choice might have something to do with a wise kind of self-preservation hasn’t occurred to me on a conscious level (maybe on an intuitive one, in which I think, we’ll they just can’t deal with it…). It’s all too big for me. I plead Psalm 131.

    1. Mmmm… like it’s fellow songs, that one bears repeating. Funny, now that I’m retired from k-12 I find it easier to fit that one in to everyday life.
      And as for changing minds. Indeed, that phrase you quoted is so very true.

  3. This post took me by surprise … at least its ending did. I was anticipating a conclusion which admonished the dinosaurs among us to ‘get with the plan’. Although you tell us that most times technology is the shining light which shows us our future, you also leave the door open for something of a more conservative view. You surprised me. I am delighted. D

    1. That is the track I will try to walk in this series. It seems that most discussions tend to play one extreme or the other. Perhaps that’s to drive home a salient point here or there but it just seems that since this is one component of a successful education system a more balanced approach is more realistic.

  4. Very interesting, Maurice. Ill have to think on this further. I’m thinking that your theory helps confirm that most of us should retire by the time we’re 65, and I say that as a retired computer science professor! 🙂

    1. LOL–I finally have a chance to disagree with you on something. In my province the k-12 system has an (expensive) pension system in which teachers are systematically encouraged to retire after 30 years of service. While this encourages a youthful teaching population it has the very bad effect of guaranteeing that those old enough and wise enough to have a long view are effectively silenced. This, in turn, guarantees a sort of “amnesia” (I will expand on this a few posts ahead of this one) that makes it easy to do dumb things, particularly to repeat mistakes that should never have been forgotten.
      Perhaps I want a bit too far with the “old guard” line in this previous post. While, in times of needed change the old guard often clings stubbornly to skills and concepts that have been made redundant it must also be stated that those same individuals (the majority of them who are not ego maniacally narrow minded) are at their best when new, half-baked ides are brought before them. They are particularly good at (a) fully-baking the ones that hold true promise and (b) getting rid of the stupid ones, again, in the same way–by asking the right questions. So, my overall feeling is that those who can afford to retire and who wish to move on should certainly be supported in doing so but those who strive to open-mindedly evaluate proposed changes should be listened to with respect.

      1. Good qualifier! Just as long as we oldies can keep a nice big black, green, or white board next to our smart board, so we can expand on what needs expanding and keep the full discussion or explanation in view. I remember how irritating it was (a few decades ago now) when the well-meaning people who installed screens in the classrooms for electronic display installed them over the middle of the board. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not an either/or. But I’m the old guard – and I’m retired! 🙂

  5. It is so interesting to read which lines of reasoning Kuhn’s book does trigger – in different people!

    I read it 2012 – in my “mulling and posting about various career changes phase”… and it gave rise to a post in the “whining” category with the title “I did Normal Science”. I have never applied it to technology adoption but rather to my personal expectations of “doing science”. Obviously I had expected research to be more paradigm-shifting and less mind-numbing grunt work, fighting for funding, churning out papers etc.

    Given the misuse of the term “paradigm shift” today I feel this book serves as a perfect object to project all your thoughts on science and technology on. I think I should read it again in 2014 and check if I found something different now!

    I am also looking forward to your post and your take on an optimistic view of technology.

    1. For such a small little volume it packs an intellectual whallop! There aren’t very many similar themed books that are as relevant 50 years after publication. I warn you, though, before we get back to optimism you’ll have to endure one more warning that there’s still a lot of crap out there that pretends to be good E.T.

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