Friday, February 27, 2015

Not all teaching is equally natural

A new book claims that teaching is as natural to us as learning.  Sounds interesting and--in the environment of embracing every new idea about the organic quality of teaching and learning--enticing.

But like too many other brazen claims, we should be careful about this.  The logic and evidence are weak...the article cites kids teaching each other how to use their smart phones as an example of how we're wired to teach.  That's evidence that we're wired to teach?

Extensive studies of neurology and observation of behavior make clear how much our brains are built to learn.  Teaching is something more of a practice, intentionally undertaken, and the neurological basis (naturalness) isn't so established.

I suspect that the word "teach" is undergoing a lexical stretch here.  Institutional school teaching isn't the same thing as a kid teaching another kid how to use a new app.  Both are "teaching," but not they're not the same.  And the "we can all teach each other" mindset that comes from the smart phone observation does not transfer well to the school environment.  Young people can learn and perhaps teach, but, if left to their own devices, what most (at least teenagers) want to learn and teach too often isn't all that great.

The supposedly tech-savvy generation, the digital natives, use their savvy more for entertainment than learning.  Many do not use the technologies to push themselves into new realms or material, but to escape into realms of pleasure.  Take a look at their own acknowledgment of this...

In the end, this claim about the naturalness of teaching sounds like philosophical backfill for the normative preference many "just feel" must be right--namely, that we should think about teaching and learning differently.  While that's no doubt true--I agree, for instance, that there's no such thing as best practice, the claims are stronger when made reasonably; say, explaining how different pedagogical practices accomplish different kinds of learning for different brains; or how to use co-learning well--spoiler goes better when a teacher shapes it rightly.

Now, if you wanted to claim that institutional school does not fit the natural learning process very well, you might be on to something.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Hubris of Tautology

Interesting story on NPR's Morning Edition today.  People are using Big Data from neuroscience to identify how well job applicants fit with a company and its work.  There's something naggingly unclear in all this, though.  

The proponents do things like collect information about how a person plays a video game in order to discern personality traits and work patterns.  Presumably, the "way" the person plays enables the ability to reasonably and reliably identify and label the patterns and connect them to the personality traits.  No doubt, the play patterns are correlated with personality traits by their statistical connection in the (big) data results from everyone else who has done these tests. And we can rely on those connections in the data (and the algorithms created therefrom) because, as Wharton Prof. Berkeley Dietvorst points out in another NPR piece,  

Algorithms are consistent. If you give algorithms the same information to make a forecast, they'll produce the same forecast every single time, where humans are not reliable. 

Herein begins the hubris.  As devoted to data as we are, we seem to forget that somebody (the analyst, the statistician, etc.) "figures out" what the supposed correlations reflect, what they tell us about reasons for things.  It also takes a human analyst to see when the correlations don't make sense.  Take the case of the analytics trying to connect job and employment related words appearing on Twitter to the unemployment rate.  The observations were thrown wildly off by a huge spike in the word Jobs, which erupted when Apple's Steve Jobs died. 

In the case of video game playing and personality, to be able to discern that someone is optimistic, introspective and resilient from how they play an Angry Birds-like game requires that we assume the mere correlation between play patterns and characteristics is reliable.  It's easy enough to imagine that there are only so many patterns to play the game, so connecting those patterns (which are likely less numerous than the variety of personality characteristics) to personality might just be an exercise in reductionism as much as--or more than--any newsstand magazine personality test, and neither is serious personality evaluation.  

The data might connect a certain play pattern with what we think of as optimistic and resilient, but could more than one play pattern so correlate?  Could an optimistic person--say, who simply had a different level and quality of interest in the game--play by a different pattern, but still be reliably identified as an optimistic person?  Do we presume that optimistic people would only play according to the patterns expected in the data (effectively rendering outliers--sorry, Malcolm Gladwell--as non-entities)?

If we answer YES to these questions, we need to consider the prospect that what we're finding in the data might be reduced too far, and rendering tautologies, not insights.  As Frederick Morgeson, an organizational psychology expert at Michigan State University points out,

whether the claims that [proponents of these practices] are making are in fact true and they're measuring what they say they're measuring — that is a question that can really only be answered by research.

Good question.  For instance, do the correlations take account of differences among people in prior video game exposure--previous play, interest, willingness, etc.?  In other words, since everyone has different antecedent video game exposure (including NONE), can we really assume that video game play is a reliable proxy for really finding optimistic resilient people?  If there is any way at all that optimistic people might play different from what the correlated data expect, then this data do not show a reliable connection.  In other words, the unspoken assumption is that the play-optimism connection is the only (or most highly) revealed connection.  

Moreover, how were the characteristics "optimistic," "resilient" and "introspective" identified in the first place?  What piece of data represents each of those characteristic?  Who coded the characteristics in that way Based on what personality measurements?  And what further research would clarify this? One suspects the answers to these questions cast doubt on whether all the data are as clean and clear as we presume.

To put Morgeson's observation another way, are we really sure we're measuring what we think we're measuring?

This question is particularly vexing when it comes to standardized testing of students.  We can be sure that we are measuring what a student did on that particular test, but what that outcome stands for or represents is less clear.

Search this blog for "standard" and you can find the various concerns raised here before.  Suffice to say, assuming that a standardized test score correlates to something called "learning" or "education" or "skills" is, at least in some measure, an assumption.  But we have made a tautology of the matter, presuming that the data point is, in fact, the evidence.  We have come to trust the data more than people.  A set of test scores is more esteemed than a sentient adult's observations of that student.  

And, of course, the scores too easily absolve sentient adults of responsibility.  If the test scores are the measure, then all we have to do is show the right outcomes on the test and we're good to go.  I would be deemed a good teacher if I could get a few more of my students to pass than last year.  The data we care about won't show if some of those students' scores went down (but stayed above passing), and they won't show if I caused even passing students to grow disinterested in reading, or writing or academic work in general.  The data don't lie, that's for sure.  The truth they tell, however, may not be as robust as we wish.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Modern Education, Postmodern teaching/learning

Gave two talks last night at George Fox University.  Part of the Senior Capstone lecture series.  Theme is "Living in Postmodern America."  My topic was education.  
Here are my remarks, though I did not follow these word for word.

I’m not a philosopher...I’m an 8th Grade English teacher, so this talk will be more about Education, with some philosophical angles added to it, than vice versa.

At first, I was going to talk about what is problematic—from a Christian worldview—about public schools. And it’s not the teaching of evolution or the any suspected subterranean messages about sexuality.  In fact, sincere Christians disagree about these things anyway.

But what I feel I must tell you about is the not-so-subtle but seemingly overlooked situation regarding the organizational structure of what some people call institutional school, and the way that over-bureaucratized institution too easily disrupts the process of teaching and learning.

All of which leans in neatly to the general focus of this lecture series—living in PoMo America.

Except that I first ask,
Are we living in a Post Mod. America?
Let me answer that by first telling you a story.
The CCSS combed back, “that’s best practice.”

This leads me to think that with respect to education, we are not living a PoMo America.  We’re living in a very Modern America.   Here’s why:

Modernity is bureaucratic, by which I mean it is organized, structured and numerated.  Postmodernity is, for lack of a better way to say it, situational—in other words, constructed, subjective and relational.  (Let me elaborate this after illustrating what it’s like in education.)

Education, the social and collective endeavor to deliver teaching and learning to students, is Modern…it is highly bureaucratic, and getting more so by the day.  Consider the push to create more thorough and comprehensive standardized testing.  This requires outcomes measured in numerable ways, thereby rendering evaluation and assessment both valid (which I’ll explain in a moment) and easy.  Along the way, of course, more standardized testing stimulates the inevitable, even if unintended, standardization of learning and curriculum.   This Modernization elevates and prefers assessment devices that can be easily compared, and numbers do precisely that.

As an aside--it’s an interesting thought experiment to work through the meaning of standardized.
Standard means many things.  The two definitions applicable to this particular context are

A) something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example

B) something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, or quality

To summarize, when we talk about standardized, standard means the point we agree to call acceptable, as in "students need to meet standard"--a specific score on a performance test--in various school subjects.  It can also connote a certain level of quality.  "We set high standards"--levels of achievement that we expect.

Obviously, we could meet standard and achieve at very low standards....It depends on where the bar is set.

--ize makes the noun into a verb.  --d makes it past tense.

When we use the word standardized, then, we are using a passive voice construction to say that something has been fashioned into a form that has been connected to or made into a standard.

Questions abound from this.  What has been standardized...the curriculum in order to make a largely objective test easier to administer, or the test in relationship to the curriculum?  Have learning outcomes been routinized along the way...a by-product of standardization.  Do students end up more standardized, then?  Who does the standardizing?  Who are the experts or authorities, in other words, who set the standards?  Do we all generally consent to these standards? 

But I digress...though as we’ll see, the status of words and their meanings is an essential aspect of the Modern-PoMo discussion.  Suffice to say, what I call educrats think standardized means bar-setting, as in, we set a high standard.  To many of the rest of us, it means routinized.

Back to my point, which so far has been that education as the social project is Modern, which see in the bureaucratization, etc.

By contrast, the actual practice of teaching and learning, the practical activities which constitute that bureaucratic endeavor I’ve called education, are relational (teachers and learners are in a relationship), and subject to the vagaries of the particular circumstances of the specific relational circumstances. 

So reconsider the CCSS consultant’s claim about best practice.
There's no such thing.
We need to qualify the claim with the relevant conditions or parameters. 
"This is best practice under these conditions...."  Or, "This is best practice for these students...."
In other words, we need to think about the particular needs of those students with whom we work, with whom we are in relationship…
But, the push toward standardization, measurement and assessment focuses our attention on aggregate outcomes.  We assume that those things the tests measure are all and only what we think is worth a student knowing, understanding or doing.  Further, we assume that collectively aggregating all student scores into a few measures, on which they need to “meet standard,” is worthwhile.
There may be something like a best practice for maximizing aggregate outcomes on some particular measure. In other words, there may be a practice that increases the likelihood of raising something like a standardized test score for the greatest portion of those 30 kids in the class room.  It won't necessarily raise everyone's score, or, even more likely, all 30 individual's score as much as another approach/practice may have raised a particular 1 or 2 or 3 students' scores.
Let me be blunt-- if I could get 27 students' test scores to go up the greatest possible amount (as if we could know that), but the 3 other students' scores stayed flat, or even dropped, I'd be a hero--90% went up.  But was there some other "practice" (not best for the aggregate, but best for those 3 students) that would have raised those 3 scores?  If raising their scores would have meant trading off a different 3 students' scores, what would be the best practice?  What about trading off 5 other students' scores? 

Let me be even more blunt--raising scores isn’t even the gold star here.  Passing the test is.  If I could get all of my 100 students to pass (400), I’d be a hero, even if half my class dropped from 450 to 400.  But if I had 100 375s that I got to 399 (which is actually substantial growth) you would hear nothing of me.
So, we need to talk about "best practice" while acknowledging that we make guesses at tradeoffs among students, while maintaining the objective of maximizing as many of the 30 students' scores as possible. 

It's logically and practically impossible to imagine there's a single best practice for every student, given the wide range of ability levels, learning styles, brain development, and more present among any group of 30 students--even 30 in the same grade.
Ultimately, "best" is something of a trope.  We won't really get there, in part because we disagree about what we should be pursuing in the first place.  That complicates the question before we even begin to answer it.

But the Modern, numerated world of Education doesn’t really abide this nuance.  The bureaucrats work with programs, measured with discrete numbers by which they can compare things...this year’s score to last year’s, this group’s score compared to that group’s score last year, and every demographic sub-group you can imagine (save, perhaps, left-handers).

Let me elaborate this further. 

Is Organized – The Enlightenment bequeaths rationality and a philosophy of science and an epistemology (theory of knowledge) that elevates empiricism and the observable and confirmable above all other forms of knowing and understanding things. 
If it can’t be observed (measured) and confirmed, then we don’t know it’s true.  Bureaucracies are notorious for their fixation on such measurable, which too often grossly misapprehend the breadth and depth of the story.  True of education today.

Standardized test scores create a set of information—data—about students.  We take these scores as markers of whether a student is succeeding and a school is performing adequately.  This betrays a strange epistemology. We declare that we have knowledge of a student and his or her school because of the scores on a few tests (which cover only a subset of the subject matters in school).  This particular information—narrow as it is—is deemed enough to know whether education is being delivered as effectively as we want it to be.

We declare that we know—have truth—about a student’s education from these numbers. 

Is Structured—Institutions arise, especially states, that solidify bureaucratic order and authority, creating the Iron Cage Weber refers to.  (Explain Iron Cage.)

Every institution creates an array of opportunities and constraints, which generate patterns of interaction that become sticky—intentionally or not, or “institutionalized.”  People (teachers, students, etc.) then align their behavior to the incentives that follow from these institutional realities.
AP seats in high schools—schools are rewarded just for filling AP seats—not how the students actually do, Miranda’s AP and Springboard situation.

Is Numerated—the empiricist, scientistic approach requires measurable material with which to discern replicable confirmable truth.

Scientism, by the way, is the claim of universal applicability of the so-called scientific method and the assumption that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable element of human learning.

This is increasingly expressed, for example, in the use of “big data” in education…..

Big data--even if you’ve not heard it so named, you still know what is--is what google and amazon, among others, do with the millions and millions of data points they gather about us.  The huge batches of data are sorted to look for patterns and then decisions are made about whatever.  What you might buy, whether you need this or that kind of medical treatment, how your driverless car will navigate.

And I suspect we should see this particular use of information as the logical conclusion of the Modern progression from rationalism to empiricism.

Rationalists argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world.
In other words, we know things beyond our direct experience, because we can figure it out, we can reason out .

It seems, however, that things like big data--deployed wherever possible--gives empiricism a leg up on rationalism.
Empiricists --one prong of their thinking attacks rationalists' accounts of how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge, with the claim that 
We have no source of knowledge in S or for the concepts we use in S other than sense experience.
“There’s no real difference between essence and phenomenon.”

This leans into what some people are calling hyper modernism--

Hypermodernity reflects a deepening or intensification of modernity. This is seen in the deep faith in humanity's ability to understand, control, and manipulate every aspect of human experience.  Further, technology is central to the increase of knowledge and understanding, and the emphasis on the value of new technology’s ability to overcome natural limitations lends itself to a diminution or outright repudiation of the past, since yesterday's knowledge can be considered 'less' than today's.

I can’t tell you strongly and clearly enough how much we talk about data in education.  We don’t really know what we’re doing with it, and I’m sure that the “real” data mining--of the standardized test designing and scoring process--is left in the hands of big dataists (if you opposed to big Dadaists), but we talk about it all the time. 

The culture in school is clearly that the data will show the real picture, data don’t lie, and good numbers will always be smiled upon.

So, Modernity gives us rationalism and empiricism, which eventually arrives at big data and hypermodernity. And education--as the social endeavor--falls right in.

I don’t want to talk too long about philosophy, but a little coverage of PoMo is in order, so that we can figure out where we stand.

There are at least two ways to look at Post Mod and what it has to say to all this, bearing in mind that is precisely what it’s doing—speaking to Modernity and Modernists.

 Secularist views of intersubjectivity and abusive power relationships. 

Feyerabend --
S]cience can stand on its own feet and does not need any help from rationalistssecular humanistsMarxists and similar religious movements; and... non-scientific cultures, procedures and assumptions can also stand on their own feet and should be allowed to do so... Science must be protected from ideologies; and societies, especially democratic societies, must be protected from science... In a democracy scientific institutions, research programmes, and suggestions must therefore be subjected to public control, there must be a separation of state and science just as there is a separation between state and religious institutions, and science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality.
•             Science is an essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.
•             This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.

Derrida on Levinas—
“Levinas does not want to propose laws or moral rules…it is a matter of [writing] an ethics of ethics.” An ethics of ethics means, here, the exploration of conditions of possibility of any interest in good actions or lives. In light of that, it can be said that Levinas is not writing an ethics at all. Instead, he is exploring the meaning of intersubjectivity and lived immediacy in light of three themes: transcendence, existence, and the human other.
At the core of Levinas's mature thought (i.e., works of 1961 and 1974) are descriptions of the encounter with another person. That encounter evinces a particular feature: the other impacts me unlike any worldly object or force.

This is world view that Christians “fear”—self-oriented, subjective, repudiating absolute truth.

But Peter Leithart points out that
Modernity has issues with its reliance on empiricism.  We can learn from the PoMo’s critiques of Mod., without having to embrace PoMo’s prescriptions.

Leithart observes that
1) PoMo provides some helpful weapons in the assault on Cartesianism and Platonism and other isms that need to be toppled.
In brief--
Plato--that the abstracted ideas/forms--not the personal (and therefore NOT abstract) living God, nor the lived world of God’s creation--represent the highest ideal.
Decartes--the fact that we think is our essential reality, he initiates the shift in the Modern direction toward scientism.

  1. The pomo emphasis on language, it seems to me, moves closer to a Hebraic/biblical perspective than a modern emphasis on disembodied ideas.

    Hebrew (fair enough to say PreMo?) is  paratactic--allows for ideas to persist side by side, even if they disagree.   Greek language/Western Modern thinking is hypotactic--hierarchical, so one thought predominates.
    ???Modernism prefers numbers to words, pomo and premo is also happy with language.

    3) One of the key themes of postmodernism is its emphasis on the rhetoricity or metaphoricity of all language. That, I think, is simply true, and this is a threat to truth only if we have pre-defined "truth" in what I will call "Hellenistic" terms.
     modernist approach to language favors the abstract, scientific, technical approach (trying to make language as much like math as possible) vs pomo’s claim (acknowledgement?) that all language, no matter how hard we try to make it “abstract,” is always metaphorical.

    4) Postmodernism opens up room for theology. This is not intentional, but the pomo assault on disciplinary boundaries (among other things) leaves room for theology to intrude in all kinds of areas. This is not a hypothetical possibility, as the work of Marion and other French phenomenologists demonstrates.
    Modern Theology is “Theology is a ‘Victorian’ enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place.
    Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.
    5) Postmodernism disputes the boundary between philosophy and literature, which is a good thing (and hardly new – Plato, after all, wrote dialogues, snippets of drama).

Postmodernity, for a Christian, can be the antidote to Modernity’s thinking that it can discover truth only in empiricism or big data.
It doesn’t mean we need or should embrace PoMo’s hubris that it has found better or truer meaning, if that meaning is in fact intentionally separating us from God.
I do mean, that the human tasks of teaching and learning may be more clearly understood—at least for some of us—in the context of the kinds ideas and structures imagined by PoMo thinking. 


The CCSS—and particularly the testing of the same-- is a very Modern idea.  The very notion of standards, measured in some sort of supposedly objective way and tested in order discern trends or patterns in both the population and specific students is a particularly empiricist approach to monitoring educational outcomes.

Teaching and learning, by contrast, are relational and variable…and much more post-modern.

So there are two worlds going on….Modern Bureaucratic education and post-mod teaching and learning.

So what to do/think now????
All institutional arrangements generate opportunities and constraints, benefits and consequences. 
While teaching and learning are relational—those relationships can be arranged in a variety of ways, each with its own set of ben and cons. 
If you think of this in a Modern way, then you think we can find a “right” way to do education.  A best practice.
If you think of this in a PoMo way, then you think about maximizing benefits in whatever institutional arrangement you’re in.

I don’t have AN answer, THE answer...indeed, I don’t believe there is such a thing.
Rather, living in this world--Modern and PoMo in critical juxtaposition, both tangling with each other, both with some purchase on our heads, hearts and lives--I say, living in this kind of world, I encourage anybody who cares about education, or about their own and their children’s learning to pay close attention to that details and arrangement of this most fundamental task.  Make good choices, and work at it.

Like so much of life, learning takes work.  So do good work, and pray for God to make up the difference where you don’t.  Thank you.