Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Fool's Paradise

I just saw Helen Mirren in Shakespeare's The Tempest -- highly recommended -- and was reminded of a great line from the loutish Stephano. It makes a telling comment on the popular notion that thanks to the internet we no longer need to pay musicians:

STEPHANO: "This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing."

I can't say it worked out so well form him, either.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

More on testing

Here's Marion Brady on standardized tests:
A telling excerpt:

Standardized, subject-matter tests are worse than a waste. We’re spending billions of dollars and instructional hours on a tool that measures one thought process to the neglect of all others, wreaks havoc on the minds and emotions of teachers and learners, and diverts attention from a fundamental, ignored problem.

That problem? Longshoreman and college professor Eric Hoffer summed it up a lifetime ago. Because the world is dynamic, the future belongs not to the learned but to learners.

Read that sentence again. Then read it again. Even if standardized tests didn’t cost billions, even if they yielded something that teachers didn’t already know, even if they hadn’t narrowed the curriculum down to joke level, even if they weren’t the main generators of educational drivel, even if they weren’t driving the best teachers out of the profession, they should be abandoned because they measure the wrong thing.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Order of Things Pedagogical

Regarding the three terms of the course title, it occurs to me to wonder what ought to be their natural order. We would seem to need understanding before we could teach, but then again learning probably precedes understanding, if we take as paradigmatic the natural, playful, pre-linguistic learning of small children, their visceral absorption of the world. Likewise, the propensity of children for curiosity and active exploration long precedes teaching, both temporally, and as a fact about human nature that probably alone renders any sort of teaching a conceivable undertaking.

If this is right, then ‘Learning, Understanding, Teaching’ would be the right order of priority, as well as an order of importance. Early in the course we asked whether and how a teacher (or the architecture of a teaching context) might suborn curiosity. We still don’t know the answer in any detail, but we may have a sense of why the question remains important.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A report from the seamy underbelly of the standardized testing machine:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Epistemology Problems in Science

The general public, and also many scientists, often underestimate how difficult it is to control all the relevant variables in a study, or even know what they are, and how processes like publication, peer review, and replicability are more fallible as epistemic safeguards than we tend to assume. This article in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine thoughtfully raises some of these issues. (The link only gives you the opening paragraphs; to read the whole article you would need to subscribe, or even [gasp!] go to a library. It's all just SO twentieth century!)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Metaphors to Learn By

If there were a written exam in this course, I might propose this.

Consider the merits and limitations of each of the following metaphors for teaching and learning:
Chemistry (catalyst, structural transformation...)
Music (repetition, variation, improvisation...)
Farming or gardening (nurturance, growth...)
Cave (captivity, illumination...)
Muscles (exercise, development...)
Computer (programming, data processing...)
Medicine (diagnosing, curing...)
Military (discipline, hierarchy...)
Container (emptying, filling...)
Clay (shaping, molding...)

Extra credit: supply some additional metaphors, and discuss the different sorts of learning and teaching that they might lead to.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

History and Real Learning

"You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics, are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures."

-- William James, quoted in Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve (Wesleyan University Press) p. 110.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why I'm Not a Lawyer

You might have seen the story in the Post a couple days ago about a Virginia man who was acquitted of the charge of passing a stopped school bus. The statute says: "A person is guilty of reckless driving who fails to stop, when approaching from either direction, any school bus which is stopped ... for the purpose of taking on or discharging children."

The fellow's lawyer argued that absent the preposition "at" before "any school bus," the law is unenforceable, since what it seems to say is that drivers must stop the stopped school bus (no doubt what the driver was thinking at the time). But inserting "at" into the sentence would create further ambiguity by suggesting a false specificity about where drivers are to stop. In fact the real ambiguating feature is a misplaced comma, which should follow "approaching" rather than "stop."

However, the lawyer's capitalizing on the grammatical ambiguity is a clear and deliberate amphiboly, and sloppy punctuation aside, the statue's intended meaning is perfectly clear to a reader honestly seeking its meaning. This case illustrates neatly how an adversarial system of law aims at neither truth nor interpretive charity, but merely suborns sophistic gaming -- and blinkered literalism.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interpreting Siegel

Some of the SLAPs from yesterday suggest a fairly fundamental confusion about the actual position Siegel is arguing for in his final chapter. Perhaps this is due to a few more Santa's elves (excuse me, subordinate clauses) than you are used to interpreting.

Here's the frame: Some educational theorists (including some postmodernists, feminists, and postcolonialists) argue that taking inclusion seriously requires us to reject Enlightenment Liberal ideology. Siegel attempts to show that, to the contrary, this inclusive project relies directly on liberal moral/political analysis of why people who have been unfairly excluded deserve the special attention required to include them, as well as why such inclusion is a worthy goal. Thus to reject liberalism in promoting inclusion is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you'll pardon the cliche.

One could of course contend that he has not adequately made his case, or has in other respects overstated the implications of his argument, as he does perhaps in his denial that inclusion has important epistemic implications. It would be unfair, however, to criticize him for claims he does not make. Siegel is not always a graceful writer, and he may sometimes repeat himself more than necessary, but he is really an exceptionally clear writer and thinker, when we pay attention to his actual words.