Side effects in Education

Recently, in my NPQSL course we have been asked to reflect on the question “What is the moral purpose of education?” Education can be argued to have many moral purposes, and it comes down to an educators point of view; this is an opinion that I think many teachers and leaders would accept.

For example you could argue that the moral purpose of education is to allow individuals to experience a fulfilled life where they can experience and appreciate the whole of their humanity. You could also argue that education’s purpose is to serve society and better the community at large.

Where ever you stand on this spectrum, the very fact that there is a difference of opinion here makes education, as a profession, a little unique. Doctors, for example, would largely agree that the moral purpose of education is to save life.

In what works can hurt, Yong Zhao asks if educational research should be concerned with side effects in education. However appealing this analogy is misleading. In medicine there is a clear moral purpose: do no harm. This is a moral purpose that all medics subscribe too. Medics are driven by the desire to save and prolong life.

No single unifying moral principle exists in education and different schools and different teachers have different moral purposes.

Yong Zhao cites the medical profession as one that requires researchers to investigate side effects as well as the main affects of interventions. In light of calls for educational research to adopt similar methodologies to medical research and become more scientific he argues that this is an area that is overlooked.

Educational research is exclusively focussed on what works without looking at how much it hurts.

Reasons for this may be that education is universally perceived as good, although I would argue that medicine is also. I think the reasons that the education does not consider side effects so much is that the moral purpose of education is much less clear. As well as, this damage due to eduction may take a very long time to be observable and you can only measure that which can be observed – also there are huge numbers of conflating variables.

Zhao writes that education is dominated by a narrow focus on cognitive abilities derived in a small number of subjects measured by standardized tests so that scores in these tests become the measure of effectiveness. Other outcomes are rarely measured so we don’t know about any adverse effects.

More evidence is unlikely to stop the battles within education, but a consideration of side effects might. The education pendulum swings but there is really no progress. I can agree with some of this as any look at the history of the debates does see that these arguments do go on quite a way back.

A way forward to resolving the traditional/progressive debate may be the consideration of both main and side effects in education interventions.

Zhao highlights that direct instruction is effective but can stifle creativity and reduce confidence. He cites the progress of some Asian countries, where students have a lot of knowledge drilled into them but students suffer from lack of confidence, versus Western countries where students know less but have more confidence, as evidence that what works can hurt.  I wonder if this may be a relic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Student may well be further along the knowledge curve and therefore less confident.

Many interventions that have sought to improve reading scores have reduced access to other subject areas, by eliminating subjects to make more time for reading prep. The negative effects of these interventions are now well documented: reducing access to other subjects only serves to reduce literacy scores.

I do think that by focussing only on what can be measured can lead us down the wrong path. Measurement is important and does have a place, but there are elements of human life that we don’t know how to measure or have barriers to measuring like cost and time. We shouldn’t ignore these areas.

Notes on Trivium 21c

Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c was an absolute delight to read. Thought provoking and enlightening it presents an eloquently articulated history of the educational ideas and, through this radical history, a persuasive argument for the great synthesis of traditional and progressive teaching methods, united via the ancient arts of the trivium.

The trivium in teaching

The trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, originally used as the basis of the school curriculum in the middle ages are explored from a variety of different paradigms and meanings for Robinson to final expound his view of how this mantra could be utilised in modern schooling.

Grammar, Robinson argues, is not only the teaching of the rules of the language arts but is equivalent to the transmission of all of the basic facts and building blocks of knowledge that make up a particular discipline or subject. Grammar is also the transmission of the structure and rules of culture, which, of course, encompasses all the academic disciplines as well as other elements. To Robinson, modern grammarians are those of us on the traditionalist side of the great education debate on methods. Grammarians value knowledge and the methods best shown to help students gain this knowledge.

Dialectic, to Robinson, is the art of critiscm, skeptiscim and questioning of grammar. It is an art that needs to be taught in order to enable future adults to be able to think clearly about and with knowledge, in order to not simply be absorbers of knowledge but users and producers of it. Dialectic is important as it allows students to manipulate and use the knowledge acquired through grammar, by questioning it, reflecting on it and potentially rejecting or changing it. If grammar represents tradition, then dialectic represents progression; the dialecticians are those of us in education who aspire to the more progressive methods in the great educational debate.

The third art of the trivium, rhetoric, is the art of communication. Not only should learners be taught to acquire knowledge through grammar, taught to question it through dialectics but they should also be taught to communicate their thoughts through the arts of rhetoric.

Should the purpose of education serve the common good or enable someone to live a good life?

As someone who has moved from being deeply religious to being so no longer, I found myself agreeing with Robinson’s sentiments that curiosity is not best served by prejudice and that teachers must not model the closed mind of someone who thinks there is only one path that leads to meaning or, I guess, truth. In this vein he asks us to attempt to live, as teachers, with the uncertain position of holding the traditional and the progressive together, investigating ideas from across the range of opinion.

Robinson asks if all teachers in any given school understand the narrative of a the curriculum? He argues that only by seeing how their part fits into the wider curriculum can teachers deliver an education to students that allows them to be knowledgable, critical and reflective. He claims that students must learn the unifying concepts, the concepts that come up again and again, of each discipline again and again. This put me in mind of Thomas Khun who claimed that expertise as a scientist only arrives through exposure to many examples. Scientists are experts because they have been able to generalise from the many specific examples and they apply this knowledge in new scenarios.

Robinson also claims that teachers must move away from omniscience, which reminded me of an early career conversation a chemistry teacher who claimed that not knowing in a teacher is a sign of weakness, and that students don’t like it. I agree with Robinson that all teachers need to honest about what society doesn’t know, they need to embrace the uncertainty in their discipline.

A good teacher has mastered the core knowledge and more of their discipline as well as holding an appreciation of what society doesn’t yet know in their field.

We need to understand that teachers should have the authority to teach but recognise that all knowledge is probable and uncertain.

Teachers should use language in such a way that ensures uncertainty has its place.

Robinson’s book draws on many sources and aside from his main argument is highly informative of the history of educational ideas. His arguments are compelling and interesting but the book is worth reading not only for this but also for your education in the history of educational ideas that it draws upon. This book has helped me begin to see the synthesis of the progressive and traditional narratives and has got me wondering about how I can go about making argumentation an important part of my biology classroom in the second stage of the trivium. How can I use debate to really challenge kids to think and learn all sides of an argument? How can I introduce students to the, Dissoi Logoi in science, the art of seeing both sides of an argument as true within their contexts. Instead of dialectic argument as being right vs wrong we can make both as right. Dual thinking explores the possibility that both sides can be right.

Learning in the age of Dataism

Last week, I outlined in this post how modern schools and the modern western education system are built on the principles of humanism, showing how many of the modern assumptions in education are based on humanist claims. For example the roots of what is termed progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations liberalism, a creed of humanism. On the other hand ideas within the modern traditional approach to education are rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal and as such have rights to an equal education; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition. In this post I want to explore how the ideas of Noah Harari, written in Homo deus, may relate to the modern education system.

Harari contends that society at large may soon be leaving the age of humanism and entering an age of dataism. Dataism is defined as an emerging ideology in which information flow is seen as the supreme value. It is used to describe the mindset created by the emerging significance of big data.

Harari goes on to argue that Dataism, like any other religion, has practical commandments. A Dataist should want to “maximise dataflow by connecting to more and more media”[8], and believes that freedom of information is “the greatest good of all”. Harari also argues that Aaron Swartz, who took his life in 2013 after being prosecuted for releasing hundreds of thousands of scientific papers from the JSTOR archive online for free, could be called the “first martyr” of Dataism

Big data is only just beginning to make inroads in education and yet already we are seeing its potential. One of the areas that I have begun to witness this is in university guidance. All ready platforms are springing up that aim to utilize big data to help students make sense of the options available to them. Companies like BridgeU use algorithms to help locate universities and courses based on student preferences. Information flow here is already quickly becoming the supreme value and will allow individuals to make slicker, more efficient, choices, perhaps with a lot of time saved to boot. On one hand, this appears to be at odds with the individual focus of human university counseling. Indeed some colleagues have told me that they prefer the platforms, like Unifrog, that have less of a data driven, algorithmic, inhuman agenda. But I actually think that these systems have the potential to improve the lot of many individuals by freeing up time and making research on an overwhelming range of options more focussed. Sometimes less is more.

Elsewhere, big data is behind standardised testing programmes like those administered by CEM and the success of many new pedagogical applications that aim to help to apply scientific findings of learning to course material like the textbooks developed by Kognity.

On the face of it, information flow as a supreme value could seem to be at odds with the current paradigm of education: humanism. Isn’t it the love of more data that can drive poor interventions in schools, like when schools require more frequent testing and measurement of progress, so that students and teachers alike are pressured into making decisions to maximise progress? Often these interventions come at the demise of learning, causing poor behaviours like teaching to the test and cramming. Or how about when teacher spend hours agonising over data collection and data entry instead of planning the next teaching sequence?

Schools love data. Whether it is data on student progress or on student performance, teachers and senior managers love it. However, in some ways many schools have gone through the dataism paradigm already, and come out the other side. The debate, in the UK at least, is shifting away from purely data driven measures of progress to measuring quality of education, by including curriculum measures, something far more qualitative than quantitive. While schools love data they are also fundamentally humanistic in nature. Whatever the motivations of educators have been historically, education is an affair of the human experience. It is a someone who is being educated. It is a someone who is having their mind and thinking patterns altered in someway.

In a sense, though, knowing is data flow. While information and knowledge are not the same thing, knowing relies on using information. It is how the mind works with information that results in knowing. And so, if society were to progress into an age where data would reign as the supreme good, education would still be able to maintain its focus on the individual experience.

Harari analyses human history through the idea of dataflow, the new emerging modern value. He  writes that “the crippling thing about religion is that it reduces data flow“. By this he means that modern religions, are not innovators in religious experience. They are conservative and restricted by holding onto old and outdated traditions and values. I know this first hand. Growing up in my evangelical family I was not allowed to read books by David Hume because he was a “humanist”. This conservatism restricts knowledge transfer to and development within the individual, thus from a dataist point of view: religion restricts dataflow.

Schools, then, could well be institutions that, through learning of knowledge, promote dataflow. Education could develop a dual purpose, the traditional humanist purpose of educating the individual for their benefit or societies, and the modern purpose of ensuring that dataflow is maximised and made efficient through the education of individuals as producers and consumers of data.

If this is right, perhaps this is more cause to be concerned with the fad of 21st century skills. In this previous post I partially outlined why there is no such thing as generic skill acquisition. Real 21st century skills will require lateral thinking, stress management and an ability to see the big picture as well as know the details and have expertise. All of this requires knowing. The more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Yes, humans may never be able to outcompete computers for what they can know but that doesn’t mean we should give up learning. Actually we need to give more careful thought to what our students do know.

One of the areas where dataism and big data may well come to play a larger role in the education system and also benefit the liberal philosophy of many schools is through personalised learning. The ability of big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence to tailor learning experiences to individual needs to is already being seen in a plethora of learning applications and websites that are adaptive in formative assessment and tailoring of content. I imagine that we will see a lot more of these tools becoming available in mainstream schools as we progress through this century.

Post 100: Learning in the age of Humanism

In the UK, prior to the Renaissance, learning in schools mainly consisted of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium of music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. Pupils were taught these to prepare them to progress on to the study of theology, law and medicine and education primarily served the church and state.

Following this, the ideas of humanism, the religion that replaces god with the experience of mankind, began to take their root in the philosophy of education, leading to the idea that education is a right for all and that is should be administered by the state to ensure that that right is gained by all. In the 19th century the three great humanist projects of Communism, Facism and Liberalism were born and in some way each has contributed to the modern humanist education agenda. In this century we are at the zenith of the age of humanism, with even modern religions adopting a humanistic outlook, according to the work of Noah Harari.

Modern schools and the modern western education system were built on the principles of humanism and many of the ideas in education make humanist assumptions about the individual. For example the roots of progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations of the philosophy of liberalism. On the other hand ideas within the traditional approach to education appear to be rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition.

Schools today are very much humanist institutions. But many educators today are confused on this front. Hence some fight against factory schooling, using the factory as a metaphor for an education system that is dehumanised. It was humanist ideas that led to an education system that prepared indivduals for an industrial society. It was humanist ideas that demanded that everyone had the right to an education. It was humanism that led to the organisation of state run schools. Factory-like in that they were exposing lots of different people to ideas that generations before had not had the luck or rights to access. Factory-like, in that this is an efficient model of mass production. Mass production of more (compared to their parents) knowledgable citizens. The irony here shouldn’t be lost on you. It’s ironic that it was ideas tied to liberalism that made the industrial revolution possible (Governments and Businesses needed to care about the individual in a way that they just didn’t need to before) now serve as a metaphor as to why schools are perceived by some as being dehumanising.

Really, the confusion here is due to a misunderstanding of history and ideas. Educators who use the factory as a metaphor don’t understand their history and the world view is informed more by liberal humanism the communist or fascist humanism.

Educators also get their modern politics confused. It surprises some that teachers who self-identify as being “trad” are labour voters. See this blog. They mistakenly think that anyone who advocates for traditional teaching must be a conservative. In his book Why Knowledge Matters E.D. Hirsch, draws a distinction between, community and knowledge centered education versus individual and skills centered education, arguing that the former acts to reduce inequality, while the latter cherishes the individual experience of the learner. Both are fundamentally humanist in their paradigm.

If the aim of traditional education is to reduce inequality by ensuring that ALL students receive the same knowledge centered education then it is easy to see why this is left leaning idea. Traditionally the left leans towards communist humanism, valuing equality over freedom, while the right leans towards liberal humanism valuing  individual freedom over equality. That is, of course, an oversimplification but it roughly works.

If you spend anytime on edutwitter or reading about educational history you won’t have missed this tension at the heart of the philosophy of education. This debate is often personal and vitriolic. Writers come down hard on each other, often forgetting that their opponent want the same thing as them: the best outcomes for the individual. In this sense both of these opponents are humanist and believe in the humanist agenda. But a bit like the schisms in the Christian church that saw Catholics and Protestants burn each other at the stake over their differing interpretations of the same creed, modern day “philosophers” of education are happy to figuratively hang, draw and quarter their opponents for having slightly different views. Understanding this should be the basis of finding points of convergence in a debate.

The modern drive for personalised education is a manifestation of the principles of humanist liberalism and, in its present form, appears to conflict with the ideas of a community-centered education system whose aim is to reduce inequality. To my mind it is educational equivalent of “organic” farming, it market’s itself very well but is hard to scale up and is incredibly inefficient in its resource consumption.

In my next post I want to explore how personalised education may fare as we move deeper into the 21st century. Everyone assumes that this is the way we are going as an education system, but is it. In his books Harari writes about Dataism, and how this new philosophy may end up replacing humanism. I am interested in thinking about what this may mean for the modern education system.

Undervalued & under-taught: concepts missing in teacher education

Friere, Piaget and Vygotsky are the usual suspects in the theory that underpins many initial teacher training courses, at least in my experience; I am happy to be corrected. The theories of these men, while useful and, in parts, necessary are often presented as the ground truths of teaching and learning or as outright fact.

Over the past few years I have picked up a little bit of knowledge about certain concepts that, if not completely debunking many of these operational fact-theories, certainly voice a challenge to them and I think it would do a lot to develop educators own critical thinking faculties if these concepts were taught alongside the main teacher training dogma.

Many of these ideas I have been exposed to through my own semi-self directed reading about education. I write semi-self directed because although I am choosing which books to read and when, I rely on the recommendations of colleagues and the educators that I follow on twitter.

While each of these, on their own may not be threshold concepts as such (if such a thing exists) learning about them has had a developmental effect on my thinking as an educator.

In my thirties, I can now begin to trace back my own intellectual interests and growth of knowledge. Originally, I was only interested in biology and things directly related to that field. Working as a teacher, my interest in this subject prompted me to develop my knowledge of neuroscience, among others. From here I developed an interest in the teenage brain and then neuromyths.

During my PGCE top-up, it was clear that subjective research processes were held to be just as valid as objective research methods. I challenged some of the ideas fed to us about subjective & experienced based research, arguing that evidence needs to be as objective as possible. My ideas were met with some scepticism, but I went ahead and tried to summarise some of the work on educational neuroscience and to do some sort of quantifiable research on teachers understanding of neuromyths.

Despite the lack of rigour and balanced curriculum, topping up my GTP to a PGCE was worth it. I wanted to do the PGCE because I felt my GTP had not had any academic focus and I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t know much about the theory behind what I was being told to do in the classroom. My PGCE served to get me academically engaged with the educational theory and it is only since I completed it that I have continued to maintain that engagement.

My interest in this area hasn’t abated but as I learn more it has become more nuanced. I agree that we need to be careful interpreting the results of much cognitive research but I do think that it offers that power to help guide us to what may better versus worse pedagogical techniques. They may well help us hone our pedagogical content knowledge.

Currently, these are the ideas that I believe that all teachers should have some training on (in no particular order):

Where can you go to get more valuable knowledge on these concepts? Here are some of the resources that I would recommend:

The Education Endowment Foundation

Daniel Willingham’s blog

The Education Development Trust

Core Knowledge Curriculum

The Learning Scientists

The Learning Spy