Monday, April 15, 2013

Common Sense: The argument against

Weeks ago, I said of common sense:
I'll say it right here. I hate appeals to common sense. I've done a little original research on this term, and I believe that it means "What I already think, and cannot/will not justify with reasoning or evidence." It refuses to engage or critically self-examine. 
But I have more to say about so-called common sense.

First, appealing to common sense has got to be the least convincing argument that anyone can make. Those who already agree that your point is common sense need no convincing. Those who do not can only find your claim that what they disagree with is common sense insulting. I literally cannot  imagine anyone changing their mind or reconsidering someone else's position upon hearing someone else say, "It's common sense."

Second, I'm just guessing here, but I'll bet that, "It's just common sense," is as common a claim as, "It's common sense." This underscores my point that an appeal to common sense is a tacit acknowledgement that the position in question lacks reasoning or evidence to support it; either only common sense is available to support it, or (more likely) the person making the claim is too lazy to figure out what the reasoning or evidence might be.

Third, I do not think I have ever heard anyone say, "That guy has just got more common sense than me," though I have heard many, many people try to point out someone else's lack of common sense. Heck, I don't think that I've even heard anyone laud another person's abundance of common sense. Instead, it is only something whose absence is noted.

Fourth, I came across talk of common sense in my dissertation research. When I asked practicing mid-career high school principals about what they are seeing (or not seeing) when they think to themselves, "That AP [or intern] simply does not have what it takes to be an effective principal" (or conversely that a teacher or AP has got what it takes to be an effective principal), their answers often included, "common sense." As I followed up on this, I came to realize that when they said that someone lacked common sense, they almost invariably meant, Your judgment in the moment doesn't match mine, and I know that I am right and you are wrong.

Fifth, "common sense" doesn't actually mean anything. I asked those principals to unpack what they meant when they said, "common sense." I later took the complete list of concepts back to each of them and asked them which are part of common sense and which are not -- pointing out that they all are good, but might not all be common sense. To no great surprise, their answers varied. On a particular day when I had meetings with two different principals, one said to me that it included all but one of the ideas listed, and the other said it was just one of the elements -- the only one that the first principal said it did not include. If there is that little consensus as to what common sense means, it doesn't actually have any particular meaning.


Common Sense is what I call a contested key construct (CKC). All CKCs share three qualities.
  1. Each is a term for a concept or idea (i.e. a construct) about which there is universal (or near-universal) agreement on its importance. 
  2. There is no clear consensus as to the precise meaning of the term.
  3. There is a dearth of concern about the lack of common meaning.
I have a lot of concern about the use of contested key constructs. At times, they can help to lubricate discussion by hiding substantive disagreements, and thus help build coalitions to build attention, support or resources. However, by hiding those differences -- usually from central participants in the cause, too -- CKCs end up hampering implementation efforts, act to worsen program alignment and prevent decent evaluation and learning.

Let me give you an example. Imagine that a school district got a big grant to support teacher leadership to support school improvement. Imagine that each school got a decent pot of money, and each used the money in good faith. When the leaders of these schools discuss their efforts, they could be talking about entirely different programs that are based upon remarkably different visions for the roles of teachers in schools. But because they talk about their teacher leadership programs going well and who is most active in them, no one ever notices that they are not at all working on the same thing.

Contested key constructs prevent us from learning from each other. They prevent us from even understanding each other. They give the appearance of meaning, but actually act as ciphers.


If someone is depending on their experiences to support what they think, they should say so. Then, others can better understand them, and evaluate the relevance of that experience to the issues at hand. Then others can engage with them to understand what they actually think, and why. Then, everyone can examine the validity (or potential) validity of the ideas in question. Calling it common sense, instead, prevents all of that.

But just as importantly, appeals to common sense allow the speaker to let him/herself off the hook. S/he is not engaging in the kind of awareness and self-criticism that leads us to growth, learning and the best ideas. We can pay attention to our thinking and our own expression of that thinking. Each of us can make sure that we are being true to our values, ideals, knowledge and priorities -- but not with claims of common sense.

And so, I do not want to hear about common sense. It's a waste of breath, ink, toner, bits and pixels. It's the antithesis of being more thoughtful.


  1. I came across your blog in my search for an explanation for the inherent dislike I feel for common sense. You've reasoned so well, and given me a firm base to build my own ideas upon. Thank you!