[First draft – this has been ruminating for a while, so I thought I would put it out there for your thoughts]

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, proposed a solution for a problem that had caused turmoil, disruption, bloodshed and even death throughout the ages: how to reconcile the conflict between science and religion.

Gould defined science and religion as magisteria or “domains where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (1999). In effect, science defines the natural world, and religion defines the moral world. And thus, the two are never to meet. Gould coined the term ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ (or shortened to NOMA).

Richard Dawkins, in his 2006 book The God Delusion pretty efficiently picks holes in Gould’s ideas, as did many others, such as Paul Kurtz and Ursula Goodenough. These are both literal and metaphorical holes puncturing the divide between the Magisteria. As a scientist and humanist, I must nail my colours to the flag, yet I can see many ways in which both realms could lay claim to the same ideas.

It’s a tough one, but I am inclined to think that NOMA just didn’t quite work out. Scientific experiment sometimes requires belief, in the same way that religion looks for evidence. Science should (and bloody well could do it better) be concerned with the ethical and moral implications of its activities, and religion attempts to explain natural phenomena (IMHO wrongly).

In the last four paragraphs I have introduced the idea of NOMA, and then proceeded to claim it largely debunked. So, where am I going?

I don’t think I could ever claim to solve the thorny issue of religion and science’s relationship, but I do think in different contexts, the idea of non-overlapping magisteria could have some traction.

Let me explain.


Over the last year I have become increasingly frustrated with Twitter. While gaslighters, TERFs, Nazis and trolls try to control the narrative, I try to close my eyes and pretend it isn’t happening. However, one thing I have opened myself up to is edtech companies selling me their ‘innovative’ services.

My goodness they are annoying. [You will all have many, many examples, so feel free to link to them in the comments below – where I will be harvesting your personal data]

It got me thinking. My job is to help academics to use technology better to support their teaching and their students’ learning. I use technology every day, and I advocate its use. I am paid to do that. However, I am becoming more and more uneasy with this status quo.

I think I can just about manage to frame technology as a tool to enable educators to improve the student experience. Just. But it is just a tool – when I put on my educator hat (pah, it never comes off), technology is just one of the ways I will try to engage my students.

However, in my dealings with edtech businesses, I am finding I am increasingly turned off by their approaches to education. They have adapted their slick sales machines to use the langauge of education; to infect education with their own phraseology.

Hands up if you’ve heard talk of synergies, solutions, paradigm-shift, next generation, bespoke, and innovation, innovation, f-ing innovation.

I propose that Education and Technology (specifically edtech) are non-overlapping magisteria. The divide should not be porous.



Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. [I can’t find my copy, but I’ll keep looking]

Gould, S. J. (2002). Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine Books.

3 thoughts on “[First draft] Defining boundaries

  1. Great post – thanks.

    I’ve been reflecting on this issue too – the divide has become more apparent in the past 8 or so years (background, I’ve worked in and around education technology since 2004).

    I feel that EdTech no longer attempts to sell to educators. It is marketed to two other groups – budget-holders (be they senior leaders, politicians or administrators) and learners/parents-guardians. Both of these respond better to the classic “implied deficit” marketing model… “You have a problem (here) this is a solution to that problem (here)”.

    As with a non-expert audience the diagnosis of the problem can be kept on the surface (“we are falling behind!” “the world is changing!”) or use basic emotions to trigger a need (“your classrooms still look like they did 100 years ago!” “Your learners expect digital but you can’t give them it!”, “the edtech you use is old”). Which such facile problem diagnosis the solutions don’t actually have to really use technology at all (“We’ll keep records of stuff because the data might say something useful maybe”, “This is a current and fashionable buzzword you may have heard recently”, “Oooh shiny things”).

    So edtech, as it currently stands, has very little to do with either technology or education, and everything to do with anxiety driven marketing. But, y’know, 2018 will *definitely* be the year of the MOOC. For real.

    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for the comments. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding how edtech is marketed, and who to. Obviously, the argument is a lot more nuanced than I have represented it above, but there certainly feels like, for some, there is a huge distance between the vendors and the actual users. One that people in similar roles to me have to manage and support.

      Some of the conversations on twitter regarding this post have made me consider that I am using edtech as the ‘battlefield’ for the conflict between education and business. This whole situation may just be the playing out of that conflict. How do we encourage the cooperative, collaborative and social nature of learning and teaching in a space that presumes that ‘value’ is only in pure economic terms?

  2. As I read the first portion of your post, I couldn’t help but think of Weber: both what he cited Tolstoy as having said and the larger argument he lays out in “Science as a Vocation.” Though I’ve never heard of a direct attribution for Tolstoy’s words, Weber claims he once said “Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do, and how shall we live?'” From there, though, Weber goes on to lay claim to considerable ethical territory on behalf of science.

    What you’re talking about though, and this becomes clear in the second half of your post, is that something else entirely is happening with science now. As science and technology have become commodified (commoditized?, I never know which one is better to use) the consumers of technological commodities have also been commodified–our data/identities have become the objects of commerce–and perhaps comodified–both our data and our identities are changed as they flow through the commerce of personal information. [Also, I’m sorry for using commodified and comodified in the same sentence. I’ve always had a tendency to play with written words that some people find annoying]

    The governmental sector may have created the foundations of these new technologies (defense, scientific, and educational research), but they are loth and probably powerless to curtail their evolution in a globalized/”world-wide” marketplace.

    How and whether edtech can maintain the kind of “non-overlap” you suggest is an interesting and important question. One of the lines I’ve heard several times (and have certainly repeated) is that, to date, most edtech developments have done little more than make traditional educational modalities more efficient. Nothing has really transformed the way people learn. I’m coming to increasingly believe that there might be a silver lining in this. Our defense against all that commodification (and the reification of “innovation”) is remembering that talking to each other and doing things together has been at the heart of education for five thousand years or so. To the extent that technology in general, or certain pieces of edtech in particular, can facilitate “talking/listening” and “doing things together,” we still have plenty to gain.

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