Yong Zhao and the DHMO fallacy


There is an old website, still in existence, that I used to use in my early science teaching career. The website lists the many dangers of ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ or ‘DHMO’. The risks of DHMO include, “Death due to accidental inhalation,” and the fact that, “Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage.” Perhaps even more worrying is the finding that it is present in, “biopsies of pre-cancerous tumors”. The website notes a lack of regulation, specifically that the, “U.S. Government and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) do not classify Dihydrogen Monoxide as a toxic or carcinogenic substance (as it does with better known chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and benzene)”, and agitates for action on the issue.

I used to introduce students to DHMO at the point in chemistry when they were starting to understand how to decode chemical names. Then I would wait. “Dihydrogen Monoxide Mr Ashman? That’s… two hydrogen atoms… and one oxygen atom… That’s water!”

Apart from being a good chemistry critical thinking exercise, the DHMO website illustrates another important point. There are bad aspects to everything. Things are never completely good or completely bad. If you wish, you can list all the downsides and risks of cheese, long-distance running or going to bed.

Clearly, water is essential for survival. There is no alternative. But what about exams or schools more generally? It is possible to list a whole load of risks or things we don’t like about them. That’s easy. It only really matters if we can find an alternative that is better.

So I am calling this the ‘DHMO fallacy’ – an attempt to argue the evils of something while either failing to present a viable alternative or presenting an alternative too vague to properly analyse.

This happens a lot in education and is part of my frustration with the argument about the Australian ATAR system. However, I now think I have found a master of the art form: Yong Zhao.

Zhao has written two blog posts on the idea that, ‘Tofu is not cheese’ (here and here). Taking a glass-half-full perspective, his central argument is that we should embrace the opportunity that has been presented to us by a deadly global pandemic and re-imagine education. However, Zhao believes we must avoid the trap of simply trying to replicate school structures remotely because, ‘Tofu is not cheese’. Remote learning can and should be different. In what way? Well, for one thing, we should embrace teaching ‘global and digital competencies’, whatever they are.

As part of his argument, Zhao reels off a list of indictments towards the traditional ‘grammar of schooling’, a description drawn from David Tyack and William Tobin who he quotes. These indictments will be familiar to those who have seen Sir Ken Robinson’s famous Ted Talk. Grouping kids by age is bad, timetables are bad and discrete subjects are bad because, “We… know that meaningful learning require much more than 35 or 45 minutes”. Zhao offers no citation to support for this. Apparently, discrete subjects also force schools to teach creativity, entrepreneurial thinking and other unalloyed, if vague, good things as discrete subjects too.

Even the calendar is bad because it chops learning up into semesters and term breaks. According to Zhao, “There is ample evidence of “summer learning loss” (for people in the southern hemisphere, this may be “winter learning loss”).” I am unaware of the phenomenon of winter learning loss, despite living in the southern hemisphere. Here, our longest term break takes place in the Southern summer. Perhaps Zhao is thinking of somewhere else.

If Zhao put forward something tangible – if he fleshed out his ideas on how to structure education, how to teach global and digital competencies in such a way that we could apprehend exactly what he means – then we may be able to evaluate his proposals against the status quo.

Finally, Zhao quotes Tyack and Tobin again. They note that all of the innovations Zhao is proposing have been tried in the past but the, “innovations have not lasted for long.” Is this because we are stuck in the rut that is the grammar of schooling and lack the ability to re-imagine education or is this because these innovations are actually pretty bad ideas that lead to a worse education than schools currently provide? I’m not sure the second possibility has occurred to Zhao.

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One thought on “Yong Zhao and the DHMO fallacy

  1. Chester Draws says:

    At a time when we are desperately listening to epidemiologists, reading up on vaccines, re-deploying technologies to new purposes, re-deploying machines to make new products and trying to make sense of the economic outcomes of this mess, the selling of education that will produce a generation of generalists seems hopelessly optimistic.

    What we need is a generation properly taught in core skills — maths, science, economics, ethics. From there they might choose to specialise or to generalise. But if they don’t have the core skills, then we will all suffer for it.

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