Are path dependencies good or bad in learning and teaching?

This past weekend, I’ve been lucky to spend time in Cornwall. And even more lucky to have had some amazing sunshine and heat.

Because I’m me, while the kids scrambled over the rock pools, I found myself wondering about path dependency. You’ll be pleased to know that – as a good dad – I kept this from the kids, who I left to terrorise the local crab population.

Indeed, it was the crab-hunting, in part, that made my thoughts turn that way. We’ve been coming to this part of Cornwall for about five years now, but not since 2011. So the weekend was spent rediscovering various treats from years past, as well as new things.

The end of another lovely day for conceptualising learning & teaching...
The end of another lovely day for conceptualising learning & teaching…

However, it has also become clear that we all have fallen into old habits. We remember the things we liked from before, the views we want to see, the food we want to eat (suffice to say that local producers of clotted cream look forward to my visits). That’s normal: indeed, it’s why we keep coming back.

At the same time, it constrains us, in the sense that Cornwall is no longer a tabula rasa for us: we have our heuristics, our preferences and so we incline to reproduce our behaviour. Hence, we tend to eat at the same (good) places, even though something just as good (if different) is around the corner, which might actually better suit our needs.

To extend this back into the classroom setting, both teachers and students do the same. We fall into conventions of behaviour and practice, because it seems to work. It’s like a reverse of ‘the grass is greener’ syndrome, except that we are actually ignorant of the existence of other fields: as I walk down the road to the clotted-cream shop, I miss the ‘Build-Your-Own-Super-Scone’ emporium of my dreams.

To put it into terms you might recognise, have you ever had a student come to you with problems, despite ‘doing all the things that normally work’? When it doesn’t work, they just try it again, because that’s what one does want things don’t work. There’s the brief moment when you point out that if they don’t work, then trying something else might be in order, before they go off, to try the thing once more.

And it’s not just students, but colleagues too. If I think about the simulations that I’ve posted on my website, they are presented in a standardised format. That format was the result of much reflection on core elements in sharing simulations. However, it is a format that does not fit every case, so with each new one I find myself huffing and puffing about fitting it into the format. And yet, I could just as easily not use the format and let each sims’ particularities come through. Why don’t I? Because I’ve got a template, so I’m going to ‘make it work.’

I’m not going to offer a particular solution to all this. I think that if we have enough self-awareness and self-criticality then we should be able to raise our eyes and recognise the situation and take appropriate action. The problem comes when we don’t have that awareness. Then we need each other to help us out, and if that’s not an excellent reason for stressing the communal nature of education, then I don’t know what is.

In the meantime, I’m off to find that Super Scone place.

2 thoughts on “Are path dependencies good or bad in learning and teaching?

  1. You hit the nail on the head with “colleagues too” — both in terms of classroom strategies and curriculum design.

    A possible aspect or cause of path dependence: availability bias. You do something a few times. You return to the same environment, think about what to do. What you’ve done most recently and most frequently is what first comes to mind. So you do it again. And the memory is reinforced for next year’s visit . . .

  2. Hey, most of us do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, despite having repeatedly failed. I know that’s what you mean, I just had to write it once again to agree with you.
    My work involves the writing of short stories for children, and happening upon your site has given me a lot of food for thought. Our children are possibly the only people on the planet who aren’t bogged down by PD, so I thought I would introduce it into my stories. Watch this space and I’ll let you know if my way of getting at why we do this (PD) and how we can change.
    Thanks for the rock pool scenario – you just described my whole holiday experiences in one or two short paragraphs.

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