Monday, November 28, 2011

The Liberal Arts: House of Intellect or of Questionable-Repute?

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.-- Socrates
It’s been some 2500 years since Socrates persuaded the denizens of the Academy to accept one of the world’s grandest absurdities: the belief that successful practitioners, in general, do not “really know” what they are doing. This cooks down today to the common academic prejudices that
a. practice, hands on experience, or apprenticeship, is an inferior approach to learning; and
b. seat time in a lecture hall provides a superior education; and
c. the glibbest person on a topic is likely the most knowledgeable, and consequently, the most authoritative.
To “know something” – according to Socrates -- is to be able to articulate it or demonstrate it in the manner of a geometrical proof. Contrary to popular belief, Socrates was not engaged so much – if at all -- in reflective critical thinking as in cultural warfare. Most important for us today, Socrates and followers provided a criterion of membership in what in modern times would be called the Intelligentsia.

A second tragedy was Socrates’ influence on religion, via Plato and then Aristotle. Early Christian Aristotelians, pressured by Constantine for uniformity in order to morally legitimate state interventions, invented “Rational” theology. Statements of belief were formulated and could now become became a matter of life and death. “Creeds” had to be memorized and recited for admission to one or another competing congregation of true believers. Acquaintance with theology defined a religious Intelligentsia as opposed to the merely pious plebians.

How many millions of people have been sacrificed on the altars of the Intelligentsia, both religious and secular? Lenin, for example, considered himself, as well as Marx and Engels, members of the bourgeois intelligentsia, destined to lead a generally "falsely conscious" working class into revolution. Like Stalin, Hitler suffered through a fairly standard religious education as a child, but each man pursued his own phantasm of doctrinal purity: economic vs racial.

ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has resolved in 2011 to ensure that college graduates
“… have the skills and knowledge they need in math, science, American history, and economics.”
Why these subject areas? Behold the Non Sequitur!
“Students can’t think critically, and succeed professionally, if they don’t have anything to think about.”
Is there a logical connection here? Is this really a concern for critical thought; or, a sales pitch for a particular type of education?

Ought we to believe that if people can’t get a college cafeteria meal, they’ll likely starve to death? If they don’t work out in a college gym, their muscles will likely atrophy? If they don’t learn to sing Gaudeamus Igitur they, growling, will likely devolve into feral animals?

Even though it is still considered a sign of advanced educational achievement, wisdom, even, to tip one's hat to Socrates' despair about the possibility of knowledge, in reality many, if not most, people hold (more wisely) to the following:
Inarticulate knowledge must not be despised: we grasp theoretical ideas only if we have sufficient experience to give them meaning.-- Stephen Toulmin Return to Reason (2001,174)

To pursue these and related issues, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?

--- EGR

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Switching Sides -- and taking others along

updated 122618
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
-- Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen (1944)
You’ve been pushing a proposal, but now you’ve reconsidered.

Your priorities have changed. What you thought were benefits turned out to have unacceptable, previously hidden or underestimated costs.

What you thought were unacceptable costs, now seem to be not too bad, after all.

Time to reverse yourself, but not look scatterbrained or hypocritical in the process.

How to do this? Just consider: what someone may call “tact,” another will call “lying.” Same thing, just two ways of looking at it. It's a matter of value priorities. Characterizing an action "tact," prioritizes concern for other peoples' feelings over truth-telling. Calling it "lying," gives higher priority to truth-telling than to concern for peoples' feelings.

Consider another example: what some people may say is “plain truth” or “forthrightness,” others will call “insensitivity” or even “cruelty.” Again, it's a matter of value priorities: openness vs. not upsetting people.

To promote a change of course, you will have to reorder value priorities. You’ll need to know how to commend the values you now avoid even if previously you disparaged them. You’ll need to know how to disparage the things you now want to avoid even if previously you commended them. If you can handle these inversions skillfully, switching sides should be no problem.

But think it through first. Reversing yourself too frequently undercuts your credibility.

For references and to learn how this reversal process works, see see Mechanisms for Policy Reversal

--- EGR

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting Clear on Outcomes : a preliminary to project planning

There are many examples ... of situations in which disparate groups of politicians and the constituents they represent have joined together in common cause but consensus has represented nothing more than a superficial commitment to a simple slogan. -- Susskind & Cruikshank, Breaking the Impasse, 1987, p.63-64
Suppose we were considering funding a project to improve student scores in mathematics. Suppose it is shown that Johnny Jones has failed a math test. Is Mr. Smith his teacher to blame because he is a bad teacher? Or is Johnny a lackadaisical student? Or was Johnny sick when he took the test? Or something else?

From the meager information that Johnny failed a test, we cannot make a fair judgment. Johnny’s failure might be accounted for by any of the suggested explanations. How could we add information to the skeletal description, "Johnny Jones failed a math test," to make a decision as to what really happened? What information would be critical? What would be non-informative? What our project aims at will depend upon it.

People often jump into planning a project without carefully specifying what outcomes they are looking for. This avoidance is done sometimes because they feel that the commitment to the project is weak and they don’t want to provoke objections. A risky choice! They may finesse agreement in the initial stages of the project only to have crucial support pulled out after vast expenditures of resources. Such has happened, for example, throughout the history of school reform movements in the United States.

Another reason they may avoid careful specification of outcomes is that they think such procedures are a “mere matter of semantics,” a dispensible impediment to “action-oriented” people like themselves to getting things accomplished. This is delusion. It treats superficial consent to vague terms as though it were deep commitment.

If you consider how many things incite calls to action which are later abandoned because hidden disagreements arise to sap them of support, you will likely agree that some kind of process is in order that will help avoid misunderstandings at a basic level. The alternative is to go ahead blindly and hope for the best. From experience we know that the likely result is a vast waste of time, money and effort.

The process we suggest is called case comparison and analysis. In using it we bring up realistic examples for consideration. We note differences and similarities. We decide which cases we, individually, can agree on most clearly represent the critical terms contained in our goal statement. Then we try to spell out what the defining characteristics are for those terms.

Examples of cases for analysis can be found via the following links:
Model Cases: Effective, Moral or Worthy Teaching
Model Cases: Justice, Expedience, Favoritism
Model Cases: Punishment, Cruelty, Infliction
Take a look at the cases involved. You will see that they are very similar. Yet a minor difference in description may involve a major change in how we classify them.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Defeating or Supporting a Case Characterization

--- EGR

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Critical Thinking: weapon, or tool for self-development?

updated 8/5/20
"He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever." - Chinese Proverb
One of the most persistent suggestions for curing what ails American education at all levels is to help students develop "critical thinking." Everywhere, you find people complaining that college graduates don't know how to think critically. Neither do younger students.

But why is critical thinking often praised but seldom implemented in the schools? There are four important reasons. This first is that, in casual conversation, “critical” implies nasty, often disrespectful, mocking evaluation and complaint. Parents don't want to have their kids coming home even better equipped to do what many are already too inclined to. And they certainly don’t want it applied to what they, as adults, esteem.

Secondly, critical thinking is conceived of, by many people, as little more than a weapon. Parents only want weapons pointed at the things and people they disapprove of. Many would sooner trust their kids with firearms. You can’t destroy Faith with a bullet; but you can sure weaken it with critical reflection. So it is that critical thinking is shunned if it focusses back on one’s families’ own beliefs and values.

The third reason why it is not taught is that it is not sufficiently emphasized that, in order to avoid indoctrination, all reasoning in critical thinking classes, is hypothetical. It examines what connections among thoughts might exist. It need not take the additional step of advocating action. People outside of schools tend to be, or pretend to be, action oriented. To think something is to act on it. Teachers -- indeed instructors at all levels of education -- often overstep the boundary here and try to surreptitiously press students to act, rather than let those students reflect on whether they have good, personal grounds for action.

But messages here are mixed. Parents, and social leaders, want teachers to get their students to act in ways those higher-ups approve of. The incessant worry about values education reflects this. But teachers who get kids to act, no matter how morally and rationally, in ways their superiors find discomforting, are liable to criticism, even dismissal.

The forth and final reason is that critical thinking instruction is seldom thought of by non-educators as teaching how to "get down to facts" or "uncover basic values.” (See Authority, Fact & Value). Assuring that indoctrination will be avoided, critical thinking skills could be seen as even more important when applied to things we value. For example, most people when they want to sell their house, overprice it and try to show it to prospective buyers full of the memorabilia that makes it a home for them, the present owners. They don’t see the faults and don’t consider that piles of books, souvenirs and pillows they personally find comforting and homey, are likely to be just junk in the eyes of a prospective buyer.

Suppose you, the seller, were buying a house. What would you be concerned about? The age of the roof? A wet basement? Termite or mold damage? Make a list of questions. Now ask yourself what the answers might be for this beloved domicile, this home you are putting up for … sacrifice, er… sale? Don’t make excuses or cover-ups. An astute buyer wouldn’t. Use critical thinking methods to guide your actions. If you won’t, a good real estate agent will.

The practice of systemizing and standardizing questioning has long been followed in many occupations, especially, the law. Sets of broad, standardized questions are called “Interrogatories.” Many kinds of legal activity, for example, require that interrogatories be completed, before time is spent by specialists in judicial proceedings.

Here is a hypothetical example for educators: suppose we were considering whether to incorporate computer literacy into a class on printmaking. Important questions in developing an interrogatory might be:
1. Is there a consensus among specialists in both printmaking (and computer literacy) as to what pertinent knowledge computer literacy offers?
2. Do the students already have that knowledge?
3. If they already "know" computer literacy, in some sense, is it in a form they can use?
4. Will computer literacy enhance their skills as practitioners in printmaking ?
5. Will computer literacy enhance their performance in those many activities that support printmaking as an enterprise, e.g. academically or vocationally?
Notice that merely to answer these questions does not automatically commit you to the change, or even, to resisting the change.
(For more on this see Evaluating Proposed Program Expansion)

A useful, non-formal approach to critical thinking is to get familiar with formulating and using interrogatories. For example of interrogatories and their applications, see Developing Interrogatories to Aid Analysis, 
Problem-Solving and Conflict Resolution

--- EGR

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lecture: an overused pedagogical tool?

Any subject can be made interesting, and therefore any subject can be made boring. -- Hilaire Belloc
Why do teachers at all levels lecture so much? First of all, lecture is a cheap "delivery method." Class size can be maximized once lecturer-student interaction is dispensed with. Lecture is not, however, an effective means of developing and tracking knowledge or skills in a great many people.

Second, lecture is the easiest technique for the teacher to develop a modicum of skill at. It requires minimal preparation. (A fast talker can "wing it" from time to time apparently undetected by his audience.)

Third, and not the least important, the emphasis on lecture obscures the common perception that pedagogical skill is inversely related to level taught; that is, elementary and middle school teachers tend to be better at pedagogy than high school teachers and college professors. (Many universities go through an elaborate ritual of denial by bestowing MacArthur awards for teaching on – usually, assistant -- professors whom they later reject for tenure.)

To examine these issues further, see “ ‘The Mind's Eye’ and Pedagogical Practice”

-- EGR

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tolerate Everything, Stand For Nothing: the practical limits of tolerance

In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.-- Dalai Lama
The biggest difference that I found between the native-born and the immigrant (or refugee) children that I taught for almost twenty years was this: the native-born kids could talk up a storm about tolerance and the "right" of people to be different. The immigrant children tended not to express such views. Not that anyone practiced them with any regularity

Americans profess both to celebrate their own individual ethnicity and to tolerate others different from them at the same time. This strikes many foreigners as schizophrenic, but uniquely American. "But then," one Greek visitor remarked to me, "you are all really Americans, even if you kid yourselves that you are different." He suggested that the truest celebration of ethnic difference was to be found among the Bosnians and the Serbs, who at that time were busily trying to ethnically cleanse each other from the map.

The pursuit in our public schools of "multiculturalism" not only perplexes immigrants who have come here with the full intent of becoming "Americans", it conflicts with the traditional mission of the schools to promote a democratic society by inculcating a common political culture.

To examine these issues further, see Immigrants in the New America: 
Is it time to heat up the melting pot?

-- EGR

Monday, November 14, 2011

Schools Can Be Just Too Big

The dinosaur's eloquent lesson is that if some bigness is good, an overabundance of bigness is not necessarily better. -- Eric Johnston
In the 1930's there were about 127,000 school districts in the United States of America. By the late 1980's they had been consolidated into slightly over 15,000 much larger units. Bigger pots, is seems, were thought to make better soup. Do we still think this is true? Is it time for a change?

No doubt some can point to many benefits gained by such consolidation. But who exactly gained those benefits? And who paid the costs?

University students who are prospective teachers want to be told there is no connection between what goes on in a classroom and the organization of the school. After all, why not close their classroom door and shut out the world? Can't they just "raise their expectations"?

Prospective teachers also want to know how to be "effective." That is all. They do not want to hear that important factors are not under their control, unless, with equal though contrary confusion, they give up the struggle, citing them as insurmountable.

Would-be teachers tend not to believe that school consolidation can have much effect on what they do. Much more important, they imagine, is their personal verve and dedication. This "Man of La Mancha-complex" often persists well into their careers. Being true to their glorious quest, their hearts, perhaps, will lie peaceful and calm when they're laid to their rest. Fine for them, but what about their students?

To examine these issues further, see Really Want Change? Deconsolidate the Schools!

-- EGR

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Free Market Incentives to Educational Monopoly

All professions are conspiracies against the laity. -- George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906)
Let's consider a metaphor, "Organizations strive for Immortality." Rome’s highly paid and indulged Praetorian Guard, formed in 27 BCE to protect a "market" of relatively few individuals, e.g. Augustus Caesar, his retinue and family, eventually came to the point of choosing and disposing of emperors. It lasted until the 4th century when it was dissolved by Constantine.

However, in our reality of rocks and humans and clouds, organizations are not the kinds of entitites that can be said, literally, to strive. They are, in law, merely fictional individuals. It is their their leaders, members and supporters who are the real, flesh and blood, coveting, striving, needful and prideful persons.

Because most organizations are rank-based rather than goal-based, they don’t plan for their own demise once their goal is accomplished or no longer viable. The Praetorians did not say on August 19, AD 14, “Too bad. Augustus has died. Let’s hike out to the boonies and go back to being regular, underpaid and overdisciplined soldiers.”

Leaders, particularly, want permanence, continuance of the substantial and psychological rewards of leadership. What the organization was set up to produce, becomes less and less important as leaders participate less and less, operationally, and serve mostly political purposes -- the most important being organizational continuity.

So it is we have corporate-form organizations that outlast their members in the form of churches, industries, armed forces, universities and unions. In the United States we also have systems of public education which mimic corporate form, even though there is no legal recognition of that status. Along with such corporate organizations we have, over a span of time, successions of so-called “leaders,” less expected to be producers than figureheads, whose often dispensible prerogatives of office are paid for at the cost of those who are compelled to support them.

Some people worry that charter schools will eventually do away with public education. This is like worrying that flea markets will wreck Microsoft. Public schools live on because they create markets and pay for its purchases with public funds. So called-reform-leaders who push charter schools are usually those who only want a place at the public funding trough.

Other educational Chickens Little worry that our university system, opening itself up more and more to all comers, is bound for shipwreck. Unlikely, so long as universities control professional credentials that are believed to secure high-earning jobs. The credentials market can persist for a long time whether or not anyone believes that a diploma is an indicator of knowledge so long as that diploma is hoped to be an admission ticket to a well-paying occupation.

For references and to examine these issues further, see LEADERSHIP AS USURPATION: 
the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations

--- EGR

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is Special Education Fair?

The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people's children. -- Marian Wright Edelman
Most people try to do what they are aiming for at the minimal cost to their own energies and resources. To expend time and energy pointlessly is thought to be inefficient, certainly no virtue.
Teachers -- though they dislike the simile -- are like battlefield surgeons. They have limited supplies, time, and energy, and demands greater than they can handle. Thus, if they want to be efficient, they divide their potential patients into three groups:
1) the Gifted: those they can neglect because they will get well (learn) anyway -- they don't need it, whereas others do;

2) the Subnormal: those they should neglect because all (or an unfair proportion) of their resources will not help anyway, the resources available are insufficient to help them and would be wasted;

3) the Normal: the group that will show maximum improvement (learning) for the resources used. Allotting resources to this group optimizes their effect. 

This is called triage in medicine. In education it is called teaching to the middle. A common Principle of Equity, Fair Share, requires that no one receive more of a scarce resource than any other -- all things being equal.

Special education identifies both the Gifted and the Subnormal as Special Students, exempting them not only from the particular rules that support triage, but also from the Fair Share principle. This invariably shortchanges the normal student.

Should we give up on efficiency? When resources are scarce, which kids should we deprive?

To examine these issues further, see, The Ethics of Educational Triage


--- EGR

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Selling Off Your Freedom: what would be your price?

updated 081718
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free
-- K. Kristofferson, F.L. Foster
Do you want to have a say in what happens to you and yours? Do you want to be able to protect and promote the things you value? What’s it worth to you?

Would you be willing to join the 1/7 of mankind that goes to bed hungry every night, that watches their children’s bellies swell up with Kwashiorkor, and their limbs wither away with their hopes? Or join the even greater number who lack medical services, a roof over their heads and reliable water and electricity?

Would you be willing to worry about pollution, tsunamis, recession, immigration, food and water scarcity and so on; or, would you be willing to have someone else worry about it if you can be left in peace?

How about if I offered you a steady income large enough to afford some minor luxury, health services for you and your children, and a comfortable pension? Suppose I told you that you might be asked to render a service at some point, but its likelihood would be of low probability. In addition, only a small number of those called would be exposed to any kind of risk.

Would you be willing to leave governance to people who made you such an offer? How many people like you, would you estimate, would be ready to accept the deal?

But there’s always a catch. Here it is: Who can you trust to make such an offer and keep their part of the bargain? The world is filled with would-be tyrants, false prophets and charlatans. How would you know what they were? How could tell them apart from the many well-meaning but merely less than competent people you meet or see in the media?

It is worth your bother even to think of all this? How did your education prepare you, and how does the education your children are now receiving prepare them to be involved and act intelligently in dealing with the real problems of living in a vast, multicultural society?

For references and to examine these issues further, see Personal Liberation Through Education

--- EGR

Friday, November 4, 2011

Will That Dog Bite? Will That Applicant Be an Effective Teacher?

The proof is in the pudding. -- Proverb
A recent (2009) article asks, in its title, an intriguing question: Can You Recognize an Effective Teacher When You Recruit One?. The authors propose testing potential teacher recruits for two factors: “cognitive skills” and “non-cognitive skills.” On the basis of their tests they claim they can predict likely future student academic achievement, thereby reducing or sparing school districts the costs of probationary appointments.

When I applied for the Peace Corps in 1964, I and the other applicants were subjected to two kinds of tests: one for cognitive skills; another, for non-cognitive skills. Those of us who “passed” them nonetheless participated in programs with various outcomes: some successful and some not. I have never run across any indication that program successes or failures showed any correlation with Peace Corp Volunteer scores on either test.

What seems to be going on here with this “predictive testing” is an example of what some psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error -- ignoring contextual and environmental factors by locating all causality, all responsibility, in the individual person.

The tests mentioned in the article will likely be very popular with school boards and parents because they basically wipe the slate clean when it comes to asking what influence, and what responsibility, these groups have for student achievement.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Increasing Teaching Efficiency: 
the evaluation of method

--- EGR