Saturday, October 29, 2011

Can Science Improve Moral Education, Too?

When religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic."
 -- Thomas Szasz
Science has helped us improve many aspects of life: agriculture, medicine, travel, construction, manufacture, longevity and health. Generally, where scientific method has been brought to bear successfully in these arenas, there is little controversy as to the desirability of the results.

So why doesn’t Science step in and find out how best to morally educate people? Traditional moralists and promoters of religion don’t seem to agree very much on what should be done. And even when they agree they don’t seem to succeed very much with the people they work on.

Some scientists propose that what enhances natural human capacities also enhances their morality; and, apparently, their happiness, too. People who run, dance, play, reason, love, sing, read, consider, paint, cook, swim and compare better are happier than those who can’t. They also tend to be more ethical, or so it is believed. Science can investigate what produces these enhancements and help produce them more reliably.

But what else makes people happy? Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you judge what makes people happy, not so much by what they say, but by what motivates them to pursue it, then happiness is, for many, sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock ‘n’ roll.

But some of the products of research on artificial intelligence -- hopefully, perhaps precipitously, -- called "intelligences"(should we read here "minds"?} would not likely be tempted by sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock ‘n’ roll. And people do worry about creating dangerous robots. Elon Musk has cautioned about wakening "the demon." Can Science perhaps help even here?

Some stodgy old moralists -- I suppose I am one – would point out that what makes people happy may not be good, for them or for others, or just not good, period. Certainly we can enhance an individual’s indifference to the suffering of others, his ability to inflict pain without remorse, his hatred for folks different from himself both by methods that have been known for eons and have also been enhanced by the scientific study of torture and propaganda. This individual might be happier for being crueler, more sadistic and prejudiced. (He,she, it might even be artificial.) Has his(her, its) individual morality improved?

Perhaps would-be moral educators, fixating on either Religion or Science for answers to moral education's conundrums have been looking too hard, but not very well, in all the wrong places.

(updated 3/27/17)

To examine these issues further, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?

--- EGR

Friday, October 28, 2011

Higher Academic Education: a Road to Servitude?

The farm laborer and the artisan are in a state of servitude, and have to do what they are told, but that is where it ends.

But the courtiers of a tyrant ingratiate themselves with him and beg favors of him, and the tyrant, seeing this, requires them not just to do what he says but to think the way he wants them to and, often, to anticipate his desires.

It is not enough that these people obey him, they must also please him in every way, they must endure hardship, torment themselves and drive themselves to the grave in carrying out his business; his pleasure must be their pleasure, his taste must be theirs, they must distort and cast off their natural disposition, they must hang on his every word, his tone of voice, his gestures, his expression; their every faculty must be alert to catch his wishes and to discern his thoughts.

Is that a happy existence? Can that be called living? Is there anything in the world less tolerable than that? And I do not mean less tolerable to a man of valor, a man of natural goodness, but simply endowed to a man with common sense, or just someone who has the appearance of a man? What way of life is more abject than one bereft of possessions, in which one's comfort, liberty, body and life depend on someone else?

– E. De La Boetie (circa1548) A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

Technical and Skills Education, known also as Vocational Education, has long been a dumping ground for students whose benighted teachers and school counselors have thought them to be “not suited” for higher “academic” studies, when, in many cases, what they lacked was maturity, docility, or refined manners.

They great irony of this 21st Century is that along with an ever increasing ardor for college life, high school graduates do not, in increasing numbers, come to the university with what many consider the requisite level of preparation to succeed at their studies.

Parents and students have been oversold on the idea that finishing college with a high G.P.A. is automatically the road to a good life, a future in the Seat of Command and Respect. But unless students acquire needed economic skills along the way, the likelihood is that they will end up, at best, in a large organizational environment, perhaps, even with a comfortable salary. And they will spend their lives “playing office politics,” catering to the whims of higher-ups, rather than producing desired goods or services. (Think of the cartoon, Dilbert -- it is not, by any means, based on pure imagination!)

This is what has happened in public education where politicians, courts and other distantly situated "tyrants" endeavor to remove the last vestiges of professional decision-making from those most closely connected to schoolkids.

To examine these issues further, see "Tracking" in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?

--- EGR

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can Teachers Be Educational Leaders?

“Leadership is an opportunity to serve. It is not a trumpet call to self-importance.” -- J. Donald Walters
There are no people more obligated and less likely to lead school improvement efforts than teachers. Teachers have to look the kids in the eyes every day — not kids in the abstract, not kids in the third person, not kids in the future tense, but real, live, honest-to-God kids, and that obligates them in ways that theorists, politicians, and innovators may not even understand.

Teacher leadership can happen, and I believe it should happen, but it may require major changes in the way educators do business, and I’m not sure anybody’s really ready for it.

Teaching is a great calling. But somehow, we have managed to turn a first-rate calling into a third-rate job that hundreds of thousands of bright-eyed young people will find unacceptable.

Maybe Socrates and St. Paul were right to begin with: teaching for a living is really a very bad idea. After all, as a vocation — a calling — teaching is incomparable. But as a profession, teaching is marginal, and as a job, in many places it is the pits. Just think of all the ingenious and adventurous things we could do to educate our students if we weren’t dependent on our teaching jobs to feed our own children.

To examine these issues further, see Teacher Leadership: a likelihood?


-- WAC

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is Truth? Does It Matter to You?

In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves. -- Buddha
You may have come across this somewhere: the truth shall set you free. How free are you? How free do you want to be?

A history professor once told me that she forbids her students from talking about “truth.” “It’s a pointless chase, a matter of opinion!” she exclaimed.

“Do you have your students do research in order to write a paper?” I asked. “Of course,” she replied. I continued, “If what you say about truth is true (!), then what does it matter? Why can’t they just make it up out of their heads?”

The professor asked that we continue our conversation at another time because she had just remembered an important meeting she had to attend. We never got to discuss it again. That was fifteen years ago. In the time since then, I have talked with many people in the Liberal Arts and Humanities who expressed similar disregard for what they called "a hegemonic conception of truth", invoking a condition called post-modernism, in which our society is putatively now existing.

Recently, much concern has been expressed about the withering of the Liberal Arts and Humanities at many universities, and warnings abound about the "corporatization" of the Academy. But what attraction does a discipline have if it holds out no hope for truth, even in approximation? Very few people treat their studies as some kind of game with which to while away their life and fortunes.

To examine these issues further, see Personal Liberation Through Education

-- EGR

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Does Schooling Actually Harm Students?

Readin' 'n' writin' 'n' 'rithmetick
Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick
-- Cobbs & Edwards (1907)
We’ve each been told a thousand times: “School is good for you!” Everywhere and always? Have you lost your memory?

Let’s ask a more general question. What disadvantages does the student suffer, when he or she is subject to one kind of curriculum rather than another? For example, one product of emphasizing math (or pick your own most hated subject) is that a large number, if not the majority, of students leave school believing:
a. they don’t like math;
b. they can’t do math well;
c. math is incomprehensible.
This situation is not improved, contrary to current misconception, when schools are pressured with faddish “high stakes” testing.

In the best case, where all curricular "targets" have been hit, we may still wonder what the collateral damage has been. It is not uncommon for academic students to get their diplomas although they are physically feeble or obese; and, for Jocks, especially “stars,” even if they are near illiterates.

The Hippocratic Oath, (partially rendered)
“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone”
guides, somewhat, the practice of physicians and other medical personnel. But, educators have no Hippocratic oath. In education, blessing one's efforts to change schools with the incantation, "reform," seems to ward off collateral damage. Certainly, "reform" can never hurt.

To examine this issue further, see Pursuing Educational Targets: 
What is the Collateral Damage?


-- EGR

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mistyping People: placement test error and worse

No placement test -- a test which places subjects in a category -- is 100% accurate. It will generate a number of "false positives," persons who don’t meet the specs, but nonetheless test positive. False positives will be practically indistinguishable from true positives.

Can we trust such tests? For example, suppose a student has been test-identified as a drug user, how likely is it that that student is truly a user? Or, if a placement test indicates that a student is ready for instruction at a third grade, is that student really ready to begin at that starting point? Do tests purporting to show that students have learned beginning calculus actually let some through who really need to learn more?

Our normal admission processes to public school are haphazard, usually nothing more than checking the child’s age. This process will allow in quite a few "false positives;" that is, students who at the point of admission appear no less capable -- they walk, they talk, they can fog a mirror -- than the students who possess the skills to succeed at that level. And a flood of incompetence commences.

Progressing upward from grade to grade in this manner generates the flood of inept "false positives" which now fills our colleges -- as suggested by the epidemic dimensions of cheating and plagiarism throughout high school and well beyond.

To examine these issues further, see Classification Error in Evaluation Practice: 
the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy

-- EGR

Friday, October 21, 2011

Celebrate Diversity! How do we do that?

Education, particularly public education, is such an exhausting undertaking that often we find educators distracting themselves from substantial problems, such as low grades, student absence, funding programs, maintaining buildings, or replacing classroom equipment, by an obsessive focus on vaguely formulated questions:
Should schools celebrate diversity? (Never mind what this question boils down to in practical terms: we need entertainment.)

Should schools prepare children for the mainstream? (Again, don't bother us with critical analyses - we need simplicity.)

Formulated as a controversy, the question makes the distraction from bottom-line hard issues even more “recreational”: should the schools celebrate diversity or prepare students for the mainstream? Instead of evaluating costs and benefits, assessing risks and dealing with a reality of shades of gray in which today's allies may be tomorrow's adversaries, we want black-and-white - or at least starkly multicolored - choices.

To examine this issue further, see Celebrating Diversity vs. Preparing for the Mainstream: a Pseudo-Controversy?


Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Ideal School: What should it be like?

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.
-- Abraham Lincoln
In the United States people have been disagreeing for over 150 years what public schools should be, what they should teach, and how they should teach it. These controversies have persisted in the face of concerted effort by intelligent people to address them. People disagree as to what public schools should be because they have different expectations of them.

These expectations can be understood in terms of people's having three different images of the school, the Temple, the Factory and the Town Meeting. Conflicting images generate conflicting expectations. They imply different costs and benefits. These conflicting expectations maintain school controversies.

-- EGR
For more on this and a link to a survey with which you can evaluate your own expectations, see School Image: Expectations & Controversies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Want Effective Teachers? Serving Whose Purposes?

That’s the secret to politics: trying to control a segment of people without those people recognizing that you’re trying to control them. -- Scott Reed, Republican Strategist and Lobbyist (NYT mag. 10-16-11, 47)
In the United States of America, a country where, repeatedly in public ceremonies, much is made of its being a democracy, the idea of “controlling” people is taboo, not to be spoken of, an elephant in the room.

Rather, we are taught to think that educated, informed citizens, consulting their consciences, freely and rationally choose to vote for the leadership of those people who, in fact, support the values of the voters. This is the professed political ideal.

This ideal helps us understand why a lot of concern is expressed over what is taught in schools, particularly in public schools. But is that concern because people fear that teaching is not up to producing ideal citizens? Or is it, rather, because many people, “important” opinion influencers, feel that the ideal rational citizen of a democracy would be a threat to their interests, political, social and economic?

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Classroom Teacher: Who Wants Experts?

--- EGR

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Intervention: helping, interfering or just being useless?

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. -- Thomas Jefferson
A little power, like a little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing. Some people think of power as though it were a muscle: Use it or lose it. So they easily give into the temptation to “intervene” into other’s affairs.

But intervention can easily be seen as “interference” by those who gain nothing from it. Those who welcome the intervention and the advantages it brings will call it “help.” Easily overlooked is the likelihood that the intervention will not have any effect besides producing headlines in newspapers, or hours of comment by media pundits.

The fact that an intervention may be well intended does not prevent it from turning out to be a long-term disaster. The wars in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan were all initiated though interventions based on presumably honorable intentions. Notably, the costs of these interventions were not borne, in the largest measure, by their initiators.

Educational reform in the United States has been a continuing focus for delusional intervention through more than a century of U.S. history. Why delusional? Because the basic logic of intelligent intervention was ignored or replaced by wishful thinking.

What is this basic logic? It consists of three things. Do not intervene unless…
1. (cue) … you have accurately determined whether the situation that prompts you is, in fact, what you think it is. (Misperceptions and false starts abound.)

2. (concern) … the situation prompting your intervention will, in your best judgment, negatively affect your (whose?) interests. (Is it your “business”; is it worthwhile?)

3. (control) … your actions (or strategic inactions) will generate effects that influence sufficiently lasting changes in the situation. (Will things revert back to the way they were before intervention?)
I worked for many years in a school system with a “zero-tolerance policy” on fighting: students, otherwise peaceable, who offered resistance against the physical assault of bullies were suspended along with their attackers. One particular student, a quiet sort, was admonished by the principal, “Johnny, you’re such a good student; but, you keep on getting suspended for fighting back. I’ve told you time and time again that whenever someone assaults you, to are to come tell me about it.”

Johnny replied, “What’d you do before that has ever stopped ‘em botherin’ me? You gonna walk me home or to school? How’m I supposed ta live in my neighborhood, if I get a rep(utation) for running to a teacher every time I’m in trouble?”

The principal responded with a not untypical intervention: Johnny was sent away to a disciplinary school for being “highly insubordinate.”
“They .. make a desert, and they call it peace” -- Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117)
For references and to examine these issues in detail, see Rationales for Intervention: From Test to Treatment to Policy

--- EGR

Monday, October 17, 2011

Grades: an Illusion of Value?

Princeton University students are upset. Their alma mater has decided to fight back against grade inflation by putting a cap on the number of A’s students can be given. But students feel they are being deprived of what they are entitled to. (New York Times Metropolitan Section, Sunday, January 31, 2010)

In many disciplines academic grades have little significance because professors in those fields cannot themselves agree on what standards should be. How much knowledge a student has acquired may play only a small part in the process of chasing a grade. No small factor is how the student capitulates in the face of faculty demands for deference. In many institutions of “higher learning” it is not reasoned argument and factual knowledge that wins the grade, but rather, -- to bypass more obvious, vulgar expressions – obsequiousness.

Students have learned to expect a certain quid pro quo: they will give rambling, incoherent college teachers good reviews on the grounds they are “nice people.” In return the students expect to be rewarded with A’s and B’s despite their ignorance and low levels of production, for having been “enthusiastic.”

If they care at all, prospective employers may use an applicant’s academic grades as an inexpensive selection method. Using grades to screen new employees helps those making hiring decisions cover their "assets." No one gets criticized for hiring a bad employee if that employee came in with a sterling transcript! And transcript review is a lot cheaper than an apprenticeship.

To examine these issues further, see The Teacher as Technician: Will Technology Improve Schooling?


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Blocking School Reform: “scientific” metaphors

...a faith in our capacity for limitless self-improvement (is) just as much a wide-eyed superstition as a faith in leprechauns.”
― Terry Eagleton
In the American public school tradition, teaching is primarily a performance art that depends on the teacher’s skill at imparting information, skills and attitudes. But, often overlooked, it also depends on the realities of the classroom's group dynamics as well as by many other factors outside the classroom and even, the school.

The misconception among many educators, of course, is that their professional training is mainly scientific. Teacher preparation is chock full of references to treatments, learner characteristics, outcomes and the like. What, in fact, there is of science that informs pedagogy, is more likely than not to be washed out by the fads and political agendas of those who directly control our schools.

Educators are seldom taught to think carefully and analytically about the foundations of their practice and the pressures and rewards of the workplace dissuade them from criticism of the status quo.

To examine these issues further, see Public School Reform: Mired in Metaphor


Friday, October 14, 2011

Destroying Schools to Improve Them: should the NCLB revolution continue?

"It became necessary to destroy the school to save it." -- updating a quote originally from the war in Vietnam
Suppose someone advocated overthrowing the government solely because poverty, even at a low level, continued to exist over the span of a generation. We might point out to that person that poverty exists at some level almost universally. We might argue that weighed against the progress we have made over the centuries, there was no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. If that person persisted in his advocacy of overthrow we would, at least, disregard him as someone who lacked the wisdom to render intelligent judgment on such matters.

In accord with guidelines set out under No Child Left Behind, Sam Houston High School in Houston Texas was closed down because 110 students out of 2500 persisted in getting low scores on math exams. (See Erika Mellon Houston Chronicle Friday June 6, 2008
 "Math scores of a few were the death of Sam Houston"

It is not that anyone knows exactly what the problem here is. This is just a knee-jerk response involving the superstition that by firing principals and teachers, students can be made to learn; and, by interrupting the education of the majority, a minority can be brought to succeed. This confuses reprisal with accountability.

See Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry:
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?


-- EGR

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Teachers Needed: Only Mature, Experienced People Need Apply

Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system.
-- Sidney Hook
Many would-be educational reformers suffer the delusion that they will be able to “turn around” troubled schools by hiring newly post-adolescent, recent college graduates. They will likely be cheaper, but unlikely to be effective.

Change-of-career entrants into teaching are perhaps the best prospect for reform in education. Mature people in their thirties, forties and even fifties, generally with a great deal of organizational experience under their belt are leaving the corporate world, leaving industry, and, having raised children, leaving the household, looking for something "new and different," something "more human," some undertaking that has concerns other than "the almighty dollar."

Undergraduate teacher candidates are commonly unself-possessed, befuddled by pedagogical catchwords, and often all-too-ready to abandon what few ethical precepts they have for the sake of a job. In contrast, these change-of-career entrants come into education with a sharpened critical sensitivity that often leaves them dismayed upon first exposure to the ethical and political morasses not infrequently encountered in education today. That there is a ethical dimension to education need hardly be argued to this experienced group. Inexperienced undergraduates, on the contrary, generally only want to talk about technique.

To examine this issue further, see The Ethical Miseducation of Educators

-- EGR

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Works in Schooling: the “Newfanglers” versus the “Oldfashioned.”

Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless contraptions and in constructing the useful combinations which are in infinite minority. -- Henri Poincare
After a century or more of fiddling with schools and the kids in them, it should be apparent to anyone who can fog a mirror that there is not even a will-o’-the-wisp of a new method for teaching everyone, everything, everytime, everywhere, as is often “mandated” by federal, state and local school authorities. The “newfanglers” who populate our educational research institutes are much more adept at promoting their careers than student learning.

This is not to say that there is some "good old fashioned" method that works best, either. Time magazine recently featured the dicta of yet another befuddled educator: “what works best is a good teacher with a chalkboard and a class of willing students.”

This is mere rhetoric: it is like saying that health will be achieved by eradicating sickness; or, strength, by overcoming weakness. Such buffoonery is not uncommon in many areas of our public discourse.

Since our Home of the Free and Land of the Brave purports to be democratic, equal “respect” is accorded all opinions, from the least informed, most prejudiced to those most carefully considered. So it is that, to avoid a suspiciously “elitist” complexity, our public discourse, even among the technically skilled, tends towards vacuous hyperbole.

Thus, we Sons and Daughters of Liberty, lacking the means to even identify, much less achieve, ill-advised or unclear school goals, persist in trying to fix schools that either aren't broken, or which can't be fixed.

To follow this train of thought further, see What Works? Under What Conditions? And Who Really Cares?
-- EGR

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Technician, or Magician: Can You Tell the Difference?

… he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currently without discovery ... — Thomas Ady, A Candle in the Dark, 1656
If baldness treatments really work then why does a wealthy man like Donald Trump still have problems? If Hollywood spas and diets really work, then why are they visited again and again by pretty much the same movie stars? If prisons help to reduce crime, why is the American prison population the largest in the world and still growing?

If pious declarations of Faith mean anything then
a. why is the Bible Belt plagued by “acts of God” so very much more than the Sin Cities of this country; and
b. why are many of the previously unsuccessful “prophets” of the End Time still pushing their wares?
Why do even “the best” hospitals and universities closely guard data as to their successes and failures? Why does the popularity of our political, economic and psychological pundits contribute directly to the failure of their predictions? (See Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment)

What is the difference between a magician (an illusionist) and a technician? It is not, merely, that one wears stage clothes and the other, "scientific" garb, e.g. a stethoscope, a loupe or a sheepskin. The important difference is whether the causes and effects they believe to be at work are, in fact, at work.

People everywhere show a desperate willingness to believe in some kind of causal connection, a hope that somebody, somewhere knows what and how to do something. Many sincere people, possessed by one or another blinding Faith, stumble about in search for answers. But their very Faith often makes it impossible even to carefully examine the “answers” they encounter.

If private and parochial schools are so much better than public schools, why don’t the better students of the former consistently beat out those of the latter? Why are schools, already crammed full of gimcracks and geegaws from a thousand different manufacturers and universities, nonetheless perpetually in “need” of reform?

How many school "reformers" turn out to be little more than illusionists? How much talent, hope and money has been wasted pursuing their illusions?

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Teacher as Technician

--- EGR

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Accreditation Doesn't Work: a policy analysis

“Without cultural sanction, most or all our ... beliefs and rituals would fall into the domain of mental disturbance.” -- John Schumaker
This Policy Paper from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gives insight into the all-too-typically wasteful rituals and philosophical orthodoxies imposed on those who blunder into seeking the imprimatur of many an accrediting organization.

-- EGR

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Success in College: what might influence it?

A lot of effort and money has recently been poured into bringing high school students up to some kind of par, “reducing the achievement gap,” as it is called. The point of this undertaking is to get kids into college. But what happens once they’re there? Except at the schools with the highest acceptance standards, the drop-out rate is astounding. What’s to be done about it?

Perhaps the more sensible question might be “Why should we expect anything else, when we consider the non-academic factors that influence college success?"

A 2007 publication by ACT, The Role of Nonacademic Factors in College Readiness and Success* lists three important kinds of non-academic factors:
1. Individual psychosocial factors, such as academic self-discipline, or commitment to school, and self-regulation, for example, emotional control, and academic self-confidence.

2. Family factors, such as attitude toward education, involvement in students’ school activities, and geographic stability

3. Career planning that identifies a good fit between students’ interests and their postsecondary work
Let’s get real here! Only the third item, career planning identifying a “good fit” – if such planning existed and were financially feasible for schools to utilize -- is something schooling could address with any hope of effectiveness.

Shooting at closing the high school achievement gap seems to be really off-target aiming, if eventually producing college graduates is the goal.

To examine these issues further, see The First-Year College Experience: Strategies for Improvement

--- EGR

* available at