It's OK to have a little doubt

21st October 2005 at 01:00
My Dad, on the many occasions he took the local Scout group camping, always shared a tent with the minister. One night he was in a philosophical mood and confessed that he sometimes wondered if all religious belief wasn't just a load of nonsense.

"Do you think I don't wonder that too?" was the response.

In my role as a seconded science person, I have similar moments. I promote thinking skills, formative assessment, active learning and the Gospel according to King's College, London. But what if the guy in almost every staffroom in the country who leans back in his seat, flexing his fingers and raising his head to announce "it's aaaaaall crap!" is right? What if children learn best if you just tell them?

What if my periodic urge to say the word "metacognition", in the voice Windsor Davies's sergeant-major character in It Ain't Half Hot Mum used when he was mimicking Mr La-dee-dah Gunner Graham, is actually the correct response to the term? Vygotsky? Possible mental Russian. Piaget? Can you trust a guy whose first name is Jean? What if Dylan Wiliam is out of his black box? Brian Boyd is just an annoying wee man who cannae shut up about his wean? Jeremy Clarkson is right about Kia cars?

In all honesty, I don't lose a lot of sleep over this. It is just something that pops into my mind now and again. Some of it stems from the fact that much of the current theory on learning comes from models of the brain. Say "brain" to me and I think of the spongy grey walnut made of interconnected nerve cells. It takes a bit of a leap to accept the representation that has block diagrams with labels of long and short-term memory, information filters and the like.

The physics background helps. I don't believe (and I hope nobody teaching physics does) that electrons are solid little spheres whizzing around atoms. It is a useful model that explains certain phenomena, though a more sophisticated model is required for other effects. It is a concept that works, up to a point, and is still evolving.

The brain models work too, up to a point, and the theories built upon them continue to evolve as NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) scans slowly begin to reveal what actually happens when we think. In the end, the only danger is in not being reflective, in not having occasional doubts (or not indulging in metacognition, sergeant-major).

My middle name is Thomas. I don't know whether or not my father's minister friend would agree, but I always thought that, of all the disciples, Thomas was the one who had the right approach to belief.

Gregor Steele remains a multiple intelligence agnostic.

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