Reason at risk

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We live in interesting times.

Reason is at risk due to a growing intolerance for opposing views. It is a problem globally and it is a problem in education.

Recently, I read an article by Toby Young that had originally been posted on the Teach First website. I did not agree with it. I stand by the views I expressed in this post that I wrote when the influence of genes on schooling first came onto my radar. I have read more on the issue since and I am much more optimistic than Young about the potential effects of schooling. I also think Young’s article is a little eccentric – the comment that we might be able to manipulate intelligence in the future with pharmaceuticals seems far-fetched.

I do not find Young’s article to be offensive. I struggle to understand how anyone might do so unless they are simply offended by views that differ from their own.

Young’s post was placed next to a rebuttal and presented as a debate. Nonetheless, Teach First have felt the need to apologise and remove it. Let me be clear, this is not about free speech. Nobody has prevented Young from airing his views or has threatening to lock him away for doing so and Teach First have a right to publish and retract pretty much anything they like. So I don’t want to overstate this.

But I do find it extraordinary. Have we really reached the point where reasoned, if mistaken, arguments must be shouted down rather than argued against? Do we really need to call each other nasty names? Seriously?

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Teachers are doing it for themselves

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In an ideal world, teacher training should be strongly informed by evidence, setting prospective teachers on the right course from the outset. It doesn’t work that way.

There is a stereotype about teacher trainers: They couldn’t cut it in the classroom and so they escaped to education schools. This explains why teacher education courses are light on behaviour management strategies – the instructors don’t know any and that’s why they left the classroom in the first place.

As with most stereotypes, it’s too harsh and simplistic. There are lots of excellent teacher educators out there. Although my own P.G.C.E. was grounded in constructivist teaching, a doctrine I now reject, my instructors where highly intelligent people who made the course interesting and who were clearly in it because they were motivated by conducting education research.

Nevertheless, the stereotype rings true for many teachers. It’s also clear that many teacher preparation courses are light on some of the key practical elements of teaching such as behaviour management, focusing instead on what’s probably best described as sociological theory. Any evidence of effectiveness is conveniently dismissed on the grounds that education is far too complicated to be analysed in this way, leaving the field free for the pursuit of politically motivated teaching methods such as critical pedagogy. You know when you’ve entered this territory because people start using words like ‘praxis’ and referencing French philosophers.

The current state of teacher education in Australia has led me to argue for its disruption in order to allow for a more diverse range of providers. I still think universities have the potential to deliver the best quality, most evidence-informed courses, but I believe they need more impetus to do this.

Such disruption has already occurred in the U.K. Not only do they have Teach First, a more successful incarnation of the model used by Teach for Australia, but they have opened up training to school-based routes. Now, academy chains may also become part of the mix by providing training in-house.

Yet the alternatives carry risks. If non-teachers get involved it can lead to all sorts of nonsense. Non-teachers with good intentions are perhaps even more likely to uncritically accept the fluffy or ideologically-driven stuff. After all, non-teachers have been drawn into the arena by a high moral purpose and yet have little sense of the practicalities of teaching. They will turn to education experts, assuming that the claims they make are as sound as experts in other fields when often they are not.

They may also be under the impression that teachers need motivating. You get a sense of that when you hear hype about teachers being miracle workers. It is easy to look at teacher recruitment and retention issues and conclude that the solution is a collective hug. But this is wrong. Teachers will only be momentarily encouraged, if at all, by such rhetoric. In order to stay in the profession long term, teachers need to be offered practical solutions to real problems. They need to be freed from school policies that insist on lots of pointless marking or that fail to address endemic classroom disruption. They need to be able to use the most effective and efficient teaching methods.

I apologise if this sounds bleak. It seems as if I have posed a problem, identified a potential solution and then debunked it. That’s not quite right. I don’t think teacher training is doomed. I think it has a bright future but there will be a few blind alleys along the way and we should expect that.

The fact is that we already have a more powerful way to counteract the effect of bad ideas in education. In previous generations, teachers only received information that was mediated by various gatekeepers such as their school leadership, local bureaucrats and consultants or the editors of the Times Educational Supplement and other papers. This is no longer the case. It may be true that only a small number of teachers are active on Twitter and in social media but we nevertheless seem to be having a disproportionate impact. Arguments are being won in some schools. Experienced teachers are sidling up to new recruits and pointing out a few home truths. Pressure has been applied to bodies such as England’s Ofsted inspectorate so that they no longer demand schools demonstrate practices that lack evidence; practices such as dialogic marking.

Of course, the old gatekeepers aren’t keen on this new state of affairs and this plays out sometimes on Twitter. Teachers are attacked for not having the credentials to speak or write about evidence – just imagine someone making such claims about doctors and you understand the current status of our profession. And there are darker stories about people being reported to their schools or threatened with legal action. But this is all to be expected. Few privileged groups have relinquished power without a fight.

And so it is over to you. If you are your school’s only portal into the online world then you might want to start sharing a few articles with colleagues (e.g. this or this). You might want to encourage them to sign up to Twitter themselves. If it’s safe to do so then you could start a blog, sharing some of the ideas you have learnt and testifying to your own experience.

The future of our profession depends on people like you.

Complexificationism

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Mediocrities invoke complexity. Geniuses invoke simplicity.

If you feel the need to bolster your idea by claiming how nuanced and subtle it is and by stating that, even after many years of patient study, you still don’t fully understand it yourself, then your idea stinks.

The human mind can only cope with manipulating a few new interacting items at any one time. And so the goal of communicating any philosophy, and in that I include the scientific method, is to construct simplified models of the world that can be grasped in their entirety, or that build on elements that have previously been grasped separately and may be brought together in their entirety in the mind of an individual.

True, communication might be just one of the things that can happen to an idea, but an idea that cannot be communicated will go to the grave imprinted in the brain of a single human corpse. It will not flourish or be valued by society. Communication is important.

We stand on the shoulders of giants in order to see clearly. If we want a forest of legs to look at then we should sit on the ground.

Let’s examine the mathematical rules that govern the motion of projectiles. They can be derived beautifully from a few simple precepts. It is trivially true that air resistance messes up the predictions of this model. If you want to use it to do practical things then you will have to introduce fiddle factors. But if you want to understand projectile motion and work out important consequences of this motion then the model is valuable, particularly as a starting point for deriving more accurate versions of itself that apply to specific contexts.

Similarly, Newton’s first law of motion is not obvious in the motion of everyday objects due to the action of friction. Nevertheless, an understanding of the first law can help make predictions for a wide range of events and can help explain, among other things, the motion of a football in flight.

No physicist would claim that we abandon either principle on the basis that the real world is more complex or nuanced. Even though it is. To do so would be to misunderstand the role of models in physics, particularly their role in explicating their own limitations.

Yet in education, we see this all the time. In education, I can make a model and, from this model, make a probabilistic claim. I may, for instance, predict that more students will learn about Topic A by studying X rather than Y. This claim is not falsified if, for a minority of students, I find the reverse effect, although this might be worth exploring. And it is certainly not falsified by general appeals to complexity and nuance. All models are incomplete by their very nature. That’s what makes them useful. They reduce the cognitive power required to comprehend the entirety of reality by simplifying it for a specific range of circumstances. That’s useful.

Those who are most concerned about complexity in education should be the same group of people as the ones who call for rigorously controlled experiments because it is only by this method that we can hope to filter out the noise. And yet, advocates of complexification use their position to argue for more subjective forms of research, the kind that is affected by bias.

So I am going to repeat myself because I think this is so important.

If you feel the need to bolster your idea by claiming how nuanced and subtle it is and by stating that, even after many years of patient study, you still don’t fully understand it yourself, then your idea stinks.

Mediocrities invoke complexity. Geniuses invoke simplicity.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder and DSM-5

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We are fortunate to live in an age where medical diagnosis has advanced. Many conditions have similar symptoms but different underlying causes. A disease caused by a virus will not respond to treatment with antibiotics and so, if it is serious enough, we can run tests to find out the exact pathogen involved. Often the best we were able to do prior to the advent of modern medicine was alleviate the symptoms.

An understanding of underlying causes also helps prevention. Once you know that diseases may be caused by microorganisms, you can put in place aseptic practices that help prevent their spread.

DSM-5

Imagine if we didn’t have these understandings. Imagine if diseases were categorised as things like, ‘stomach ache condition’ or ‘sneezing syndrome’. Imagine a world where a visit to the doctor would elicit only circular logic:

  • You have ‘stomach ache condition’ or ‘SAC’
  • We know this because you have a stomach ache
  • Your stomach ache is caused by the fact that you have SAC

This wouldn’t be particularly helpful. At most it might give legitimacy to the prescription of painkillers but it wouldn’t help much in dealing with the cause.

Welcome to the world of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental health (DSM), produced by the American Psychiatric Association and currently in its fifth iteration (DSM-5). DSM-5 is the gold standard used by clinicians to diagnose mental health disorders.

According to an interesting review article by Khoury, Langer and Pagnini, the first draft of the DSM, produced in 1952, contained only 108 disorders (including homosexuality which we would not now consider to be a disorder – it was dropped for DSM-II published in 1973). The number of disorders has increased in different iterations of DSM:

Version Number of disorders
DSM-I 108
DSM-II 182
DSM-III 265
DSM-III-R 292
DSM-IV 354
DSM-IV-R 354

DSM-5 did not change the number of disorders but did substantially change the threshold for making diagnoses, leading to a potential increase of up to 28%. Anyone noting a rise in diagnosed mental health disorders over a timeline that includes different iterations of DSM therefore needs to account for these inflationary pressures. According to Khoury et. al., statistics from various studies now suggest that, ‘almost all of the population has mental disorders’. If so, what does it mean to have a mental disorder? What does it mean to be normal? What is the significance of a diagnosis?

There are growing concerns about the effects of such over-diagnosis. Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has raised particular concerns due to the tendency to treat it with powerful psychostimulant drugs such as Ritalin. Yet there are other worries associated with labelling students, such as stigmatisation, stereotyping and the fundamental attribution error.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is our tendency to ascribe the behaviour of others to their personal characteristics rather than the situation they face. Imagine a man in a business suit cuts in front of you at the airport security line. It is tempting to think, ‘he must be a selfish person – I bet he thinks he’s more important than the rest of us’. However, he might be in danger of missing a plane that will take him home to see his dying mother. We can’t know. When we consider our own behaviour, we are much more likely to attribute it to circumstance.

A diagnosis of a mental health disorder is certainly something that, for many people, will explain behaviour and so it will tend to take our attention away from circumstance. There is strong evidence from the ‘behaviourist’ tradition in psychology that behaviour can and is modified by circumstance. For instance, antecedent control involves manipulating the environment to prevent troublesome behaviour. Behaviourism also stresses the effect of positive reinforcement and negative consequences on behaviour, usually stressing the use of the former.

Behaviourism is often contrasted with a cognitive approach. The former takes little interest in the internal structure of the mind whereas the latter posits mental mechanisms to explain behaviours. As a student of Cognitive Load Theory, I have a foot in the cognitive camp, yet I do not want to discard the insights from behaviourism. Once we label students, we risk putting too much emphasis on their intrinsic traits at the expense of neglecting environmental strategies that may be effective.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is one of the disorders set out in DSM-5. The main diagnostic criteria are:

A pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness lasting at least 6 months as evidenced by at least four symptoms from any of the following categories, and exhibited during interaction with at least one individual who is not a sibling.

  • Angry/Irritable Mood
    1. Often loses temper.
    2. Is often touchy or easily annoyed.
    3. Is often angry and resentful.
  • Argumentative/Defiant Behavior
    4. Often argues with authority figures or, for children and adolescents, with adults.
    5. Often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules.
    6. Often deliberately annoys others.
    7. Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior.
  • Vindictiveness
    8. Has been spiteful or vindictive at least twice within the past 6 months.

Further guidance suggests that for individuals 5 years or older, the behaviour should occur at least once per week for at least six months. DSM-5 notes that, “individuals with this disorder typically do not regard themselves as angry, oppositional, or defiant. Instead, they often justify their behavior as a response to unreasonable demands or circumstances.” DSM-5 also points out that, in many cases, bad parenting means that some children have been subject to unreasonable demands.

So what is the value of a diagnosis of ODD? To what extent does it differ from normal behaviour? I am not entirely sure. According to Khoury et. al., “labels can create self-fulfilling prophecies, reducing expectations, ambitions, and changing perceptions and behaviours toward the individual carrying the label” [references omitted]. If a teacher learns that a child has been diagnosed with ODD then how will this affect the strategies the teacher employs? Will they give up when, in fact, antecedent control, positive reinforcement and consequences might help?

I can understand why people might want to explain behaviour in this way. There is a stereotype of a certain kind of teacher – I’m not sure how many are out there – who blames children for their poor behaviour and seeks only to punish or exclude. Such teachers might not take into account the difficult background of a child and may take no responsibility for trying to help them develop. However, I am not convinced that labeling children adequately addresses this problem. It provides no real explanation for the behaviour at all, just a further elaboration of what it looks like, and it potentially let’s the teacher off the hook; the problem may no longer be a ‘bad’ child but neither is it something the teacher can address.

A way forward

Khoury et. al. suggests a ‘mindful’ approach as an alternative to DSM-style labeling. Thankfully, this doesn’t involve meditation, rather it is about being more conscious of different thought processes. Rather than packaging up symptoms and labeling them as disorders, we should deal with them separately, as they arise. After all, there is a lot of overlap between the symptoms of different disorders. If we don’t – and can’t – know the fundamental cause then why not deal with them at the symptom level?

In a school context, my interpretation of this would look like a graduated or tiered approach, similar to that pursued by schools that adopt School Wide Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support (SWPBIS). At the classroom level, when teachers are teaching 30 students at a time, there is a role for whole-class teaching of the required behaviours that is supported by antecedent control, positive reinforcement and negative consequences. However, this will not work with all students. Further intervention may be required with a smaller number of individuals. Interestingly, the ‘Plan B’ idea in this recent New York Times article is an example of one such intervention. In my view, the author makes the mistake of setting this in opposition to behaviourist strategies rather than as an approach to adopt when behaviourist methods are not enough.

If the main value of a diagnosis is in providing access to resources then I think we need to redesign our systems. Instead of insisting on defined disorders at an individual level, resources could flow to institutions depending on the prevalence of different behaviours and the requirement for interventions. Although still subjective, these criteria would be more contained and defined and may disrupt the phenomenon of resources flowing to the more savvy parents.

Unfortunately, there might be students for whom no intervention has so far enabled them to function appropriately in the classroom. In this case, they may pose a risk to the safety of other children or they may prevent them from learning. Such students may need to be temporarily removed from a classroom or school or, in extreme cases, they may need specialist provision. Decisions to permanently exclude such students should never be taken lightly and should come at the end of an exhaustive process of intervention. Excluded students should also experience continued intervention with the aim of returning to a standard classroom. I don’t think such a reasonable, measured and proportionate approach should be a matter of controversy.

Invoking the law

However, some academics and other specialists and consultants are ideologically opposed to exclusion from mainstream education at any stage. As a practising teacher, this can be hard to reconcile but it is worth knowing that this attitude exists. For these protagonists, a DSM-5 diagnosis offers a further advantage. If they can convince state authorities to recognise a mental health disorder as a disability then disability discrimination legislation can be invoked, forcing unwilling schools to continue to include violent or disruptive children in the classroom.

I am not sure whether this is the motivation, but I have certainly noticed the speed with which some people resort to the law to support their views on behaviour management. When I have blogged about my concerns regarding certain kinds of differentiation, I have been informed that it is a legal requirement and some have suggested that merely questioning differentiation is an incitement to break the law. It is unfortunate if professional concerns around this issue descend into authoritarianism. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about the best ways to support troubled children throughout their education and it is justifiable to be concerned about the effects of labeling students.

Conrad Wolfram’s silver bullet

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Someone popped up on my timeline to ask me about Conrad Wolfram’s computer-based maths. I had never heard of it before but it is apparently becoming popular in Australia. Despite my ignorance, I had a funny feeling as to what this might look like and a suspicion as to why it may be popular.

The first item I found was a TED talk; never a good sign. It is full of beliefs and assertions such as, “I believe that correctly using computers is the silver bullet for making math education work.” It is mainly argument from direct experience and utility. As ever in these polemics, mathematics is not treated as a serious academic subject but rather as a mundane tool to be judged only by its usefulness for solving problems. Any appeal to evidence from cognitive science or educational research is entirely absent. Instead, we have a lot of truthiness:

“And one of the reasons it’s so important — so it’s very important to get computers in exams. And then we can ask questions, real questions, questions like, what’s the best life insurance policy to get? — real questions that people have in their everyday lives.”

Why would we ask this? Because it kinda feels like the right thing to do. It’s what Wolfram reckons. That’s about it. It’s like saying, “Forget Shakespeare, kids, your English exam is going to involve writing an email complaining to your broadband provider. Forget Beethoven, your music exam is going to involve advertising jingles.” I’m sure people say things like this all the time. After all, everyone and anyone feels qualified to pronounce on education. But that’s not enough if you are calling for schools to change their methods. You need to back up your claims. And the evidence suggests that you cannot gain a good understanding of mathematics through this approach.

One reason is explained by cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in an article on flexible knowledge. When we first learn something new, it tends to be locked to the specific contexts in which we learnt it. In order to be able to abstract that knowledge, we need to see it in a number of different contexts. Mathematics is the ultimate abstraction and that’s what makes it so powerful. If we only ever perform our mathematics in mundane, everyday contexts then we risk two things; we will overload working memory with contextual detail and we will lock that maths to the context in which we learnt it. This is why problem-based learning and its variations are so ineffective.

Wolfram has a black box approach to calculation. He has invented a model of ‘maths’ that consists of four steps: define questions, translate to maths, compute answers and interpret results. Apparently, the ‘compute answers’ bit can be done by computers these days and so there is very little need for students to be able to do it. Effectively, this step becomes a black box – you feed it input and collect output. Instead, students should spend time on the other components like thinking of really good questions etc.

But how is this supposed to work? How are students intended to translate something into maths when they don’t know the maths needed to compute the answers? How are they meant to interpret the results? You cannot just leave a great big sink hole in the middle of mathematics understanding and assume everything will be fine. Maths is all connected. The best evidence we have is that conceptual and procedural knowledge develop in tandem; the one supports the other. This has been a substantive field of research and yet this argument is dismissed in the computer-based maths ‘brochure’ in another folksy analogy about car mechanics and photography. What Wolfram seems to miss is that mathematics is not simply a tool like a camera, it is a form of knowledge, organised as such in the mind. You think with it.

Precisely the same logic is needed to translate problems into maths and to interpret the results as is needed to compute the answers. Computers can be of enormous help in performing large numbers of calculations but only when programmed by someone who understands the maths. As part of my university course, I had to programme a mainframe computer to calculate the wavefunction of an electron in a potential well. I literally had to tell it what to do and so I had to know the procedure that I wanted it to perform. The programme took a while to debug and, again, I needed to know the maths in order to do this.

As is often the case, I find myself wondering whether Wolfram has read the research and disagrees with it or whether he is not even aware of the evidence that refutes much of what he claims. The trope about problem-based learning appears so often that I wonder whether it occurs to people independently as some kind of flash of insight; individuals who then think that they are the first person to ever have the idea. You can sense the missionary zeal. ‘Why haven’t educators though of this themselves?’ they must wonder, before concluding that we must be a bit limited.

In this case, I am not sure that Wolfram is that familiar with the research. For instance, it is now extremely well known that there is no evidence for the utility of various learning styles theories, and yet, in answer to the question, “Not all students learn in the same way. How does CBM cater for diversity?” the computer-based maths brochure reassures us that, “In CBM, we include a range of teaching and learning styles in the lessons, from data gathering to presentations, from individual work to group tasks, from typed answers to diagrams, posters and videos.” So there’s that.

Wolfram’s computer-based maths is just the latest in a long line of revolutionary approaches that is at odds with the scientific evidence. The difficult part is in explaining why such reheated ideas gain traction in the first place. Why do they end up on TED talks? Why do Australian administrators reach for them?

In my view, it’s the sales-pitch. Maths is hard. Many people struggle with it and often much of the blame lies with poor teaching. The solution, of course, is a more rigorous, research-informed explicit approach rather than this fashionable nonsense. But if you did fail in maths at school, these narratives are attractive, even if it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that solving mundane problems about insurance would have been the ‘silver bullet’.

The Hirsch Paradox

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Educational academics should really love E. D. Hirsch Jr. His writing supplies powerful arguments in favour of a broad and balanced curriculum, against some forms of standardised testing and against the idea of school as preparation for work; subjects that have been of concern to academics for many years and especially since the advent of ‘neoliberalism’ in education. What is more, Hirsch’s arguments are easy to grasp by the layperson, requiring little jargon to explain, and they treat his opponents generously. To Hirsch, mistakes in education reform arise out of well-intentioned idealism; a prospect that is far easier to sell than belief in a conspiracy.

The arguments

Hirsch essentially asserts the complexity and uncertainty of education. Reading, for instance, is not a discrete skill. Beyond decoding, reading comprehension is dependent upon students’ knowledge of the world. If you know something about Israel and Palestine then you will better comprehend a newspaper article about a new set of talks on a future settlement than if you don’t know anything about the issue. This is because writers always have to assume some knowledge on the part of their readers otherwise writing would become clunky, pedantic and tedious. Writers are constantly making judgements about what their readers know. In the case of a journalist writing for a quality newspaper, these judgments will be implicit assumptions about the knowledge held by an educated reader.

We have, in effect, a virtuous circle; a baseline of knowledge on the part of the reader enables them to learn knew knowledge from the text.

The argument runs right into Gert Biesta because it demonstrates why the teaching of reading will always be probabilistic and never certain. A given educational input can never lead to a certain output because we cannot predict all of the possible permutations of reader knowledge with writer assumptions. Yet we tend to conceive of reading as a discrete skill that can be linearly developed. If students don’t understand a text then we teach them reading comprehension strategies. Although these may help, Hirsch demonstrates why they are ultimately limited.

And yet this goes far beyond reading itself. All academic learning involves reading and writing. Writing is reading in reverse. We can teach the technical skills of sentence and paragraph construction and we can teach essay planning strategies. Absurdly, we sometimes attempt to teach students how to ‘generate ideas’ but what are these in the absence of knowledge? Writing has to be about something and the knowledgeable writer will produce better text than the merely technically competent one. After all, writing is a formal expression of thought and thought consists of knowledge. We can conceive of writing as a complex and uncertain balance of technical skill and semantic knowledge with vocabulary perched on the pivot point.

Accepting Hirsch’s argument inevitably leads to a number of conclusions. Firstly, if we want students to be able to fruitfully participate in a democratic society then they need to be able to access and understand sources of information. They therefore need the knowledge that is commonly assumed by the writers of these sources and so we need to design a broad and balanced curriculum that includes history, science, geography, literature, music and all the rest of it. Two hours a day of endless reading comprehension drills simply won’t do.

Secondly, if we place a random piece of writing in front of a child and then ask comprehension questions – as we do in standardised tests – the result will be a conflation of skill and knowledge. it won’t tell us a great deal. Neither will asking students to write to a banal prompt. If you really want to assess the skill component of reading or writing then you need to take knowledge off the table by ensuring that students have learnt the knowledge domain in which the reading or writing task is set.

Currently, standardised tests are premised on the idea that there are functional skills of numeracy and literacy that are important economically and that we can train students to perform, much as we can train young people to drive cars. In this model, the humanities and arts are nice to have, but we must be hard-nosed and deliver on these functional skills as a priority. Hirsch shatters all that. He shows it to be a nonsense.

Why has Hirsch been neglected?

Hirsch has been overlooked due to the way that educational theory has developed. Education reformers at the end of the nineteenth century reacted to what they perceived to be harsh, authoritarian schools where students were required to memorise facts by rote, often under threats of violence. In order to disrupt this form of education, it was necessary to promote the perspective of the child and diminish the value of memorising factual knowledge. As Kieran Egan writes, “Consider Spencer’s, Dewey’s, and so many others’ claim that rote learning is ‘vicious.’ This was paradigmatic of the traditional practices that progressivism has been trying to displace – in this case with some success. Students today, in my experience, are rarely asked to learn anything substantial by rote…”

In 1916, Ellwood P. Cubberley published the text, “Public School Administration.” Here, he contrasted a clearly inadequate ‘knowledge curriculum’ with ‘the development type of course’ where facts have, “…no real importance until they have been put to use.” To Cubberley, knowledge curricula are built on the ideas of, “…[passing on] the accumulated knowledge of the past to the next generation, that the mere process of acquiring such knowledge gives good mental discipline, and that knowledge is synonymous with power. Facts, often of no particular importance in themselves, are taught, memorised, and tested for, to be forgotten as soon as the school-grade need for them has passed.”

Already present as a thread in early education reform, relativism took a greater role towards the end of the 20th century. Writers such as Paolo Freire were concerned that imposition of knowledge from an authority was oppressive and disrespectful. The teacher assumes that the student knows nothing. He wanted to start with his students’ – in his case illiterate South American peasants – own knowledge. This appeals to the idea that there is no one perspective on the world and asks us to accept that canonical knowledge is only canonical because it is the knowledge of the privileged. We have a duty to uncover and honour the knowledge of the oppressed.

Hirsch’s focus on knowledge building is therefore seen as traditionalist, reactionary and, at worst, oppressive or even racist.

Lost in the process

Criticisms of Hirsch often rest on an elision. Imagine teaching students about Daedalus and Icarus or apartheid. It is inconceivable that, in so doing, a teacher would imply that Daedalus and Icarus is a true story or that apartheid was a good thing. Yet we seem to have confused knowledge with truth and value. You can know about an idea and you can believe it to be wrong. That’s still knowledge. We can teach the stories of history as fact or we can teach them as interpretations. We have that choice.

And we can democratically monkey with the curriculum. If we did write a programme based solely on an analysis of what the writers of quality newspaper articles assume their readers know then it would, no doubt, be dominated by European men. But we don’t have to stop there. We still have a choice. we can add figures and ideas that we think should be more important and we can drop off some of the others. Over time, this would then causally effect what writers assume as the new generation matures. Of course, this cannot be the task of one person, faction or party. Instead, we need a forum for vigorous, perhaps even rancorous, public scrutiny and debate. I think such a forum would only enhance our democracy.

I believe that academics should give Hirsch another look. Before dismissing his ideas, throw them around a little; give them some air. Maybe they can be improved upon. Maybe they can be extended. I just think they are worth examining.

Computer marking of writing probably won’t work

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There has been something of a storm in Australia about a proposal to have computers mark the NAPLAN writing assessment. Initially, scripts will all be marked by both a teacher and a computer but, in time, the hope is that teachers will no longer be needed.

If it works, it will be an advance. We know, for instance, that teachers can be unreliable at assessing complex tasks such as writing. Computers could potentially be more reliable. Unfortunately, it is possible for them to be reliable – consistently awarding the same mark for the same piece – without being valid. In other words, the mark may not reflect the actual quality of the writing. This is what I think will happen.

Unfortunately, Steven Schwartz has decided to frame this issue as one of fearful teachers worrying about the loss of a source of revenue:

“Traditionally, teachers have done much of the marking of writing. If computers prove capable of doing the job, some teachers will still be needed to train them, but others may find themselves redundant. Like so many workers before them, they fear being replaced by machines.”

The money-grabbing swines!

This is unfortunate because there are legitimate reasons to be sceptical of introducing new technology to education. And there are some very good reasons to be sceptical of this new technology in particular.

Presumably, Schwartz thinks of writing as a skill, albeit a complex one. But it really doesn’t work like that. The skill of writing is intimately intertwined with the content that is being written about. As Schwartz makes clear, computers will learn to mark by mimicking the performance of teachers. However, computers don’t know much about the content and so they will have to rely on proxies such as word length, complexity of grammar, text length and so on.

These may be good indicators of the quality of an essay at the moment. However, once people realise what the computer values, they will cease to function as good indicators. Once a measure becomes a target it ceases to function well as a measure. I am pretty sure that I could write a long piece of contradictory gibberish that could fool a computer into giving it a good mark. It would be unfortunate if we start giving schools an incentive to train students to perform a series of tricks in this way.

I am concerned that the distillation of writing into a pure skill takes us in completely the wrong direction. Instead of putting our faith in genericism, we should be tying NAPLAN writing tasks to the content of the Australian Curriculum (AC). The AC might be content-lite but at least this process would level the playing field and draw attention to the right things i.e. the stuff that the writer is writing about. We then really would be assessing writing skills because we would be able to control for content, rather than the luck associated with how a student responds to a banal and generic prompt.

However, as Schwartz points out, this is only a trial and I don’t generally have a problem with trying something out. Unfortunately, it will take a few years to figure out if the assessment can be gamed. By then we might be committed to robot marking and generations of Australian children may be churning out essays about nothing, full of complex sentences and long words.