The Existential Fallacy: If It Exists, It Must Be Taught

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I stumbled across the following observation this morning from a 1983 technical report on reading comprehension by David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher:

Existential Proofs
The logic of existential proofs seems to be something like this: “If I can prove that a variable affects reading comprehension, then it becomes a candidate for future instructional manipulation. Even better, if I can show that the variable is present to a greater degree in the repertoire of good than poor readers or more mature than less mature readers, then it becomes a candidate to introduce instructionally either in remedial programs or earlier in the school curriculum.” (p. 10)

I think “fallacy” is a better word for this phenomenon than “proof” – the notion that that which exists must necessarily be taught.

Applied linguistics researchers (among others) find it almost impossible to resist an “implications” section at the end of their studies, and journal reviewers may even demand it if it isn’t there (this happened to me just recently). If X is discovered to exist, the immediate impulse is to suggest that X can be taught (and here’s a five-step training program to do it).

In some ways, making one’s work “relevant” to the classroom is a good thing for researchers in education and related fields, but it can lead quite easily to the problem Pearson and Gallagher identified.

In fact, I have always suspected that researchers have an obvious bias in making learning (in the broadest sense of the word) seem as complicated as possible, requiring constant fidgeting and adjusting of strategies, techniques, and methods. These methods must of course be “research-based.” And who does the research? Well, we university professors do, as it happens.

At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual, one might cynically argue that this “complexifying” of learning that in turn requires expensive and intricately-designed interventions to achieve is an elaborate job protection program for psychologists, education researchers, applied linguists, and alike. For example, if language education is really as simple as providing students with lots of comprehensible input via reading and listening, of what use is another study about the wonders of morphological awareness in vocabulary acquisition? Or an even more detailed examination into the uses of clitic pronouns?



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