Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The Scholar and the Philosopher

May 1, 2011

A scholar went one day to see a practical philosopher, to determine the origins of his system. As soon as the question was asked, the master handed the academic a delicious peach. When it had been eaten, the master asked whether he would like another. The scholar ate the second peach. Then the philosopher said: ‘Are you interested in where this peach was grown?’ ‘No,’ said the scholar. ‘That is your answer about my system,’ said the master.

Philosophy in schools again

August 8, 2010

There was an excellent item on Ockham’s Razor this morning. Queensland teacher Peter Ellerton discusses the importance of properly teaching skills of reasoning as a part of a well rounded education. He notes that many teaching institutions claim to imbue their students with ‘critical thinking’ skills. On examination, however, they are merely paying lip service to the ideal, ticking the boxes and using the latest buzzwords. There is often a poor understanding of what critical thinking actually involves. As Ellerton notes, these skills have been understood since ancient times, but they need to be explicitly taught. Here’s an extract:

As it happens, after a career of teaching Mathematics and Science, I now teach a subject in Queensland schools called Philosophy and Reason. I was quite struck by how the three strands of the course, Deductive Logic, Critical Thinking and Philosophy, manage to get across just about every thinking skill I have come to believe is essential for good citizenship. Not only that, but state-wide testing shows these students performing at the very highest level across all scientific, numeracy and literacy arenas. As they come from both humanities and science backgrounds and are often unaware in choosing it of the exact nature of the subject, there may be some justification in labelling the subject matter itself as the cause of this worthy effect.

Ken Robinson on Intelligence, IQ testing and SAT

June 17, 2010

The following section (pages 35-42) of The Element presents a fascinating, if disconcerting, look at the origins and uses of intelligence testing:

Another thing I do when I speak to groups is to ask people to rate their intelligence on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the top. Typically, one or two people will rate themselves a 10. When these people raise their hands, I suggest that they go home; they have more important things to do than listen to me.

Beyond this, I’ll get a sprinkling of 9s and a heavier concentration of 8s. Invariably, though, the bulk of any audience puts itself at 7 or 6. The responses decline from there, though I admit I never actually complete the survey. I stop at 2, preferring to save anyone who would actually claim an intelligence level of 1 the embarrassment of acknowledging it in public. Why do I always get the bell-shaped curve? I believe it is because we’ve come to take for granted certain ideas about intelligence.

What’s interesting is that most people do put their hands up and rate themselves on this question. They don’t seem to see any problem with the question itself and are happy to put themselves somewhere on the scale. Only a few have challenged the form of the question and asked what I mean by intelligence. I think that’s what everyone should do. I’m convinced that taking the definition of intelligence for granted is one of the main reasons why so many people underestimate their true intellectual abilities and fail to find their Element.

This commonsense view goes something like this: We are all born with a fixed amount of intelligence. It’s a trait, like blue or green eyes, or long or short limbs. Intelligence shows itself in certain types of activity, especially in math and our use of words. It’s possible to measure how much intelligence we have through pencil-and-paper tests, and to express this as a numerical grade. That’s it.

Put as bluntly as this, I trust this definition of intelligence sounds as questionable as it is. But essentially this definition runs through much of Western culture, and a good bit of Eastern culture as well. It is at the heart of our education systems and underpins a good deal of the multibillion-dollar testing industries that feed off public education throughout the world. It’s at the heart of the idea of academic ability, dominates college entrance examinations, underpins the hierarchy of subjects in education, and stands as the foundation for the whole idea of IQ.

This way of thinking about intelligence has a long history in Western culture and dates back at least to the days of the great Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Its most recent flowering was in the great period of intellectual advances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that we know as the Enlightenment. Philosophers and scholars aimed to establish a firm basis for human knowledge and to end the superstitions and mythologies about human existence that they believed had clouded the minds of previous generations.

One of the pillars of this new movement was a firm belief in the importance of logic and critical reasoning. Philosophers argued that we should not accept as knowledge anything that could not be proved through logical reasoning, especially in words and mathematical proofs. The problem was where to begin this process without taking anything for granted that might be logically questionable. The famous conclusion of the philosopher Rene Descartes was that the only thing that he could take for granted was his own existence; otherwise, he couldn’t have these thoughts in the first place. His thesis was, “I think, therefore I am.”

The other pillar of the Enlightenment was a growing belief in the importance of evidence in support of scientific ideas – evidence that one could observe through the human senses – rather than superstition or hearsay. These two pillars of reason and evidence became the foundations of an intellectual revolution that transformed the outlook and achievements of the Western world. It led to the growth of the scientific method and an avalanche of insights, analysis, and classification of ideas, objects, and phenomena that have extended the reach of human knowledge to the depths of the earth and to the far ends of the known universe. It led too to the spectacular advances in practical technology that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and to the supreme domination of these forms of thought in scholarship, in politics, in commerce, and in education.

The influence of logic and evidence extended beyond the ‘hard’ sciences. They also shaped the formative theories in the human sciences, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and medicine. As public education grew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it too was based on these newly dominant ideas about knowledge and intelligence. As mass education grew to meet the growing demands of the Industrial Revolution, there was also a need for quick and easy forms of selection and assessment. The new science of psychology was on hand with new theories about how intelligence could be tested and measured. For the most part, intelligence was defined in terms of verbal and mathematical reasoning. These were also processes that were used to quantify the results. The most significant idea in the middle of all this was IQ.

So it is that we came to think of real intelligence in terms of logical analysis: believing that rationalist forms of thinking were superior to feeling and emotion, and that the ideas that really count can be conveyed in words or through mathematical expressions. In addition, we believed that we could quantify intelligence and rely on IQ tests and standardized tests like the SAT to identify who among us is truly intelligent and deserving of exalted treatment.

Ironically, Alfred Binet, one of the creators of the IQ test, intended the test to serve precisely the opposite function. In fact, he originally designed it (on commission from the French government) exclusively to identify children with special needs so they could get appropriate forms of schooling. He never intended it to identify degrees of intelligence or ‘mental worth.’ In fact, Binet noted that the scale he created ‘does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.’

Nor did he ever intend it to suggest that a person could not become more intelligent over time. ‘Some recent thinkers,’ he said, ‘[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.’

Still, some educators and psychologists took – and continue to take – IQ numbers to absurd lengths. In 1916, Lewis Terman of Stanford University published a revision of Binet’s IQ test. Known as the Stanford-Binet test, now in its fifth version, it is the basis of the modern IQ test. It is interesting to note, though, that Terman had a sadly extreme view of human capacity. These are his words, from the textbook The Measurement of Intelligence: ‘Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them feebleminded. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth . . . No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.’

Terman was an active player in one of the darker stages of education and public policy, one there is a good chance you are unaware of because most historians choose to leave it unmentioned, the way they might a crazy aunt or an unfortunate drinking incident in college. The eugenics movement sought to weed out entire sectors of the population by arguing that such traits as criminality and pauperism were hereditary, and that it was possible to identify these traits through intelligence testing. Perhaps most appalling among the movement’s claims was the notion that entire ethnic groups, including southern Europeans, Jews, Africans, and Latinos fell into such categories. ‘The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and Negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods,’ Terman wrote.

‘Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.’

The movement actually managed to succeed in lobbying for the passage of involuntary sterilization laws in thirty American states. This meant that the state could neuter people who fell below a particular IQ without their having any say in the matter. That each state eventually repealed the laws is a testament to common sense and compassion. That the laws existed in the first place is a frightening indication of how dangerously limited any standardized test is in calculating intelligence and the capacity to contribute to society.

IQ tests can even be a matter of life and death. A criminal who commits a capital offense is not subject to the death penalty if his IQ is below seventy. However, IQ scores regularly rise over the course of a generation (by as much as twenty-five points), causing the scale to be reset every fifteen to twenty years to maintain a mean score of one hundred. Therefore, someone who commits a capital offense may be more likely to be put to death at the beginning of a cycle than at the end. That’s giving a single test an awful lot of responsibility.

People can also improve their scores through study and practice. I read a case recently about a death row inmate who’d at that point spent ten years in jail on a life sentence (he wasn’t the trigger man, but he’d been involved in a robbery where someone died). During his incarceration, he took a series of courses. When re-tested, his IQ had risen more than ten points – suddenly making him eligible for execution.

Of course, most of us won’t ever be in a situation where we’re sterilized or given a lethal injection because of our IQ scores. But looking at these extremes allows us to ask some important questions, namely, What are these numbers? and, What do they truly say about our intelligence? The answer is that the numbers largely indicate a person’s ability to perform on a test of certain sorts of mathematical and verbal reasoning. In other words, they measure some types of intelligence, not the whole of intelligence. And, as noted above, the baseline keeps shifting to accommodate improvements in the population as a whole over time.

Our fascination with IQ is a corollary to our fascination with – and great dependence on – standardized testing in our schools. Teachers spend large chunks of every school year preparing their students for statewide tests that will determine everything from the child’s placement in classes the following year to the amount of funding the school will receive. These tests of course do nothing to take the child’s (or the school’s) special skills and needs into consideration, yet they have a tremendous say in the child’s scholastic fate.

The standardized test that currently has the most impact on a child’s academic future in America is the SAT. Interestingly, Carl Brigham, the inventor of the SAT, was also a eugenicist. He conceived the test for the military and, to his credit, disowned it five years later, rejecting eugenics at the same time. However, by this point, Harvard and other Ivy League schools had begun to use it as a measure of applicant acceptability. For nearly seven decades, most American colleges have used it (or the similar ACT) as an essential part of their screening processes, though some colleges are beginning to rely upon it less.

The SAT is in many ways the indicator for what is wrong with standardized tests: it only measures a certain kind of intelligence; it does it in an entirely impersonal way; it attempts to make common assumptions about the college potential of a hugely varied group of teenagers in one-size-fits-all fashion; and it drives high school juniors and seniors to spend hundreds of hours preparing for it at the expense of school study or the pursuit of other passions. John Katzman, founder of the Princeton Review, offers this stinging criticism: ‘What makes the SAT bad is that it has nothing to do with what kids learn in high school. As a result, it creates a sort of shadow curriculum that furthers the goals of neither educators nor students . . . The SAT has been sold as snake oil; it measured intelligence, verified high school GPA, and predicted college grades. In fact, it’s never done the first two at all, nor a particularly good job at the third.’

Yet students who don’t test well or who aren’t particularly strong at the kind of reasoning the SAT assesses can find themselves making compromises on their collegiate futures – all because we’ve come to accept that intelligence comes with a number. This notion is pervasive, and it extends well beyond academia. Remember the bell-shaped curve we discussed earlier? It presents itself every time I ask people how intelligent they think they are because we’ve come to define intelligence far too narrowly. We think we know the answer to the question, ‘How intelligent are you?’ The real answer, though, is that the question itself is the wrong one to ask.

Aristotle Meets Ockham

June 13, 2010

This wonderful talk on Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor is an apt sequel to A Fable. In it, Queensland educator, Jennifer Riggs, touches on several themes, including ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science, multiple intelligences, and Attention Deficit Disorder, all in the context of science and the teaching of science.

Einstein and Darwin are described as ‘underachievers’ in terms of conventional schooling, and yet history remembers them rather than their studious and compliant classmates. Riggs suggests that modern schooling favours the latter rather than the former, who are often seen as troublesome:

Is there an ants-in-the-pants gene that makes school so difficult for these seedling scientists and their teachers? Let’s fervently hope that no-one isolates and eliminates it. The world would be a poorer place.

Howard Gardner has shown there are are not just one or two types of intelligence, but many. How are we to accommodate these in our teaching?

One of our major challenges is how to teach the hard to reach, many of whom we know to have great potential as scientists. We are rightly worried about disengaged boys and Aborigines. For them, as for other underachievers, research shows up their strengths. When we understand, we can work with these strengths. Students who know this, gain tremendously in confidence and flexibility. Not to mention capability.

There’s an understanding gap at the heart of the problem of the bright child who should be a happy achiever and is not. Education abhors a vacuum, so let’s get going on it.

Those 3D kids who are ‘auditory blind’ by nature may be perfect little nuisances but have wondrous potential. They see in depth – the third dimension. Some are bright, but seen as uppity, some are bright but can’t spell, or learn by rote, some are clever but dreamy, a lot of them can’t sit still, or are disorganised and untidy – scatterbrains. They are strongly visual, both in the physical, material concrete sense, and through the mind’s eye – imagination. They may be seedling Einsteins, Leonardos, even cosmologists. They are to be cherished. Let’s hope some of them will be the science teachers of the future.

Our treatment of these children needs much closer monitoring than it is getting. Thomas Armstrong is not the only one who has written on the Myth of the ADD Child – full of ‘good ideas that are inexpensive and without side effects’. Thomas G. West has written In the Mind’s Eye ‘on the curious connections between creative ability, visual thinking, academic learning difficulties, and the remarkable people who seem to have embodied these characteristics’. Linda Kreger Silverman has written Upside Down Brilliance about the Visual-Spatial Learner. Call to mind that this is one of the components of intelligence identified by Howard Gardner.

Riggs finishes with a challenge to the education establishment, in terms similar to Ken Robinson’s:

It’s time for a re-think. We are staring down the barrel of an education revolution. I know we can trust the revolutionaries to consult first. But please, please, please don’t let consultation begin and end with people in the Bastilles do need to be stormed and Heads to roll, but first, go and ask Aristotle. He has many of the answers we need.

Weapons of Mass Instruction

May 29, 2010

I can’t claim any credit for the catchy title of this post. It is taken from the 2009 book of the same name by John Taylor Gatto. The subtitle is ‘A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling’. I referred to Gatto in my earlier Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy, since he is associated with the latter term. Having got my hands on a copy of the book, I would now like to return to this topic.

This post also links with another thread in the blog. In my last post, I embedded a talk by Sir Ken Robinson, in which he spoke of the need to move away from an industrial model of education to a more organic one: education must be customised and personalised to the people who are being taught. This sentiment is very much in keeping with Gatto.

Gatto contends that the roots of compulsory schooling lie in a model of social engineering developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rather than in the professed ideals of universal education. By contrast with earlier eras (even the immediately preceding one of independent school authorities), modern compulsory schooling is concerned with uniformity, with grouping by ‘class’, and all with the force of the law. Consider the following extract:

contemporary school planners treat children as categories: black, white, Hispanic, other; gifted and talented, special progress, mainstream, special education; rich, middle-class, poor, and with multiple subdivisions of each imaginable category, rather than as specific individuals with specific intellectual, social, psychological and physical needs.

The rhetoric of collectivization leads quickly to treating groups and sub-groups as averages. This makes managerial labor much easier, but guarantees bad results no matter how many resources are devoted to improving the lot of the group … The logic of collectivization seeks to disconnect each child from his or her own unique constellation, particular circumstances, traditions, aspirations, past experiences, families, and to treat each as the representative of a type. (129)

Compulsory schooling as a form of social engineering is inseparable from an economy based on consumption and, by implication, the avoidance of over-production. By removing children from their family and community contexts, and forcing them to remain in a classroom as part of a group of age-peers, school induces passivity and what Gatto calls the ‘artificial extension of childhood’:

The same young people we confine to classrooms these days once cleared this continent when it was a wilderness, built roads, canals, cities; whipped the greatest military power of earth not once but twice, sold ice to faraway India before refrigeration, and produced so many miracles — from the six-shooter to the steamboat to manned flight — that America spread glimmerings of what open-source creativity could do all around the planet.

In those days Americans weren’t burdened by a concept of the phony stage of life called ‘adolescence,’ or any other artificial extension of childhood. About the age of seven you added value to the world around you, or you were a parasite. Like all sane people, so-called kids wanted to grow up as soon as possible — that’s why old photos show boys and girls looking like men and women. All that takes is carrying your share of the load, and a few open-source adventures and presto! You are grown up. (39-40)

The book gives many examples of individuals who, one way or another, escaped the tyranny of compulsory schooling and forged lives of independence and success. From George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, to name some of the more celebrated cases. Chapter 2 contains many others and I am grateful to New Society Publishers for permission to copy this chapter and link it to this post (see below).

Prior to his resignation, Gatto was a multi-award-winning high-school teacher of thirty-years experience, and his views carry the weight of that experience. There are many anecdotes from his career, including several humbling ones where he acknowledges the lessons that particular students taught him. Although he resigned out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the schooling system, he does provide some positive suggestions intended to minimise the harm done by compulsory schooling.

Chapter 6, for example, begins with a critique of television and computer entertainment as factors that help to maintain children in a state of passivity and consumption. Gatto realised that merely exhorting children to avoid such devices would have no effect. In order to combat the tendency, he developed what he calls his Guerrilla Curriculum. The principle was that by keeping children actively involved in real-world experiences, they would come to see their erstwhile spectator roles as less interesting. It should be understood that this was no attempt to create ‘engaging’ lessons in the conventional sense:

Plunging kids into the nerve-wracking, but exhilarating waters of real life — sending them on expeditions across the state, opening the court systems to their lawsuits, and the economy to their businesses, filling public forums with their speeches and political action — made them realize, without lectures, how much of their time was customarily wasted sitting in the dark. And as that realization took hold, their dependence on the electronic doll houses diminished. (93)

From Gatto’s description, what we have here is more of an induction into the adult world of action than the schooling to which we have grown accustomed. And it worked!

The biggest surprise for me was how easy this was to accomplish, it took neither talent nor money; anyone could duplicate my results, I won’t deny its hard work to try to pull off the trick with 130 kids a year, but a lot of effort is wasted in finding ways to circumvent the dead hand of school administration. In a system more congenial to learning (and less to social control) the thrill of doing the labor would more than outweigh the effort required. And, of course, if everyone in the society were on the same page about the necessity of developing intellect and character in the young (not weighting them down with chains), the work would be … child’s play.

Over the years my students launched so many useful projects and earned so many plaudits and prizes that I found myself showered with awards from the school establishment which had no idea how I got such results. When I tried to explain to the awards committees how little I had to do with the achievements, I suspect it was discounted as obligatory modesty, but these days when I have nothing more to prove to myself about who I am, I sincerely hope you’ll believe me. Take your boot off the downtrodden necks of your children, study their needs not your own, don’t be intimidated by experts, re-connect your kids to primary experience, give off the game of winners and losers for a while, and you’ll get the same results I did. Maybe better. (96)

Gatto tells us that he ‘stumbled upon a formula to change the destiny of students, one at a time’ (101). The first step was to build a personal profile for each student, relying not on school records but on data from ‘parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and enemies — anyone who could provide intimate information to the emerging personal narrative’ (101-2).

Once a profile was created, the second step was to add a personalized Wishes and Weaknesses component. I asked each student to list three things each wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year — that was the wishes part — and three weaknesses he or she wished to overcome, deficiencies which led to humiliation (I get beat up all the time) or failures of opportunity (I want to do modeling work but only the rich kids know how to present themselves to get that) — that was the weaknesses part. I exercised virtually no censorship and whatever the individual kid’s priorities were became mine. I didn’t consult with a single school administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher — only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence.

I know this sounds like a hideous amount of effort, and politically impossible in a large urban school, but it was neither: it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness, and a determination to scrap any rules which stood in the way … Acting in my favor was the fact that with this new curriculum each kid was motivated, worked much harder than I legally could have asked him or her to do, and recruited outside assistance with resources no classroom teacher could match. And now for the first time each had a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading. (Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 102)

Finally, Gatto (in an echo of Ivan Illich — see Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy) sees some hope in the emerging social phenomenon of online interconnectivity:

Thanks to a 24-year-old college dropout named Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook, and others like him who founded YouTube, MySpace and other social networks still unmonitored by political authorities or academics, thanks to the World Wide Web and the Internet as platforms for individually generated connections, the power of school as a great dis-connector has been weakened.

These vehicles enable people without any particular status, to hook up with one another; they even allow mixtures of nobodies and somebodies to exchange ideas and plans; they provide a fountain of information which replenishes itself constantly; they encourage creativity among masses consigned by schooling to become reliable consumers. Even though this new force is still in early childhood, already it has caused governments to surrender a great deal of power over their own currencies. It has emboldened accumulations of capital to move at the speed of light from one country to another, destabilizing conventional markets, making national loyalties conditional and patriotism questionable. Thanks to the vast new ball of connections, official truth in every conceivable area is subject to verification by a promiscuous collection of uncertified critics armed with the tools to back up their contrarian critiques.

Thanks to the Internet, the concept of mass schooling by experts is nearly exhausted. (113)

Weapons of Mass Instruction is distributed in Australia by Footprint Books. I purchased my copy from The Book Depository.

Chapter 2 can be viewed, printed or downloaded from here:

Weapons of Mass Instruction – Gatto (Chapter 2)

Bring on the learning revolution!

May 27, 2010

Following on from my 1 April post – Do schools kill creativity? – I discovered the other day that a sequel by Sir Ken Robinson has been posted on TED this month. ‘Bring on the learning revolution!’ was recorded in February of this year, and is as inspiring and entertaining as the 2006 forerunner. The following points were highlights for me:

  • Educational reform is not sufficient: it is ‘improving a broken model’ – what is required is revolution, not evolution.
  • There is a ‘tyranny of common sense’ – the idea that things can’t be done any other way.
  • We have a fast-food model of education – where everything is standardised.
  • ‘The reason so many people are opting out of education is because it doesn’t feed their spirit, it doesn’t feed their energy or their passion.’
  • We have to change from an industrial model of education, based on linearity and conformity, and batching people, to a model based on principles derived from agriculture.
  • Human flourishing is an organic process rather than a mechanical one.
  • You cannot predict the outcome of human development – all you can do is create the conditions under which people can flourish.
  • Education must be customised and personalised to the people who are being taught.
  • Technology should be used to accomplish this.
  • The story that Robinson tells about the fireman reminded me of one of the tales of Mulla Nasrudin, the fabled Sufi character who often instructs through jokes:

    Nasrudin sometimes took people for trips in his boat. One day a fussy pedagogue hired him to ferry him across a very wide river. As soon as they were afloat, the scholar asked whether it was going to be rough. ‘Don’t ask me nothing about it,’ said Nasrudin. ‘Have you never studied grammar?’ ‘No,’ said the Mulla. ‘In that case, half your life has been wasted.’ The Mulla said nothing. Soon a terrible storm blew up. The Mulla’s crazy cockleshell was filling with water. He leaned over towards his companion. ‘Have you ever learnt to swim?’ ‘No,’ said the pedant. ‘In that case, schoolmaster, ALL your life is lost, for we are sinking.’

    Critical Literacy and Critical Pedagogy

    May 10, 2010

    As teachers, we are encouraged to instil in our students a critical attitude towards the text (in the multi-modal sense, including television, film, web pages, music, art and other forms of expression). This attitude is covered by the term Critical Literacy. Such a critical approach is what we expect of all functioning members of a democratic society, which is why we want our young people to imbibe it. By the same token, therefore, we teachers should adopt a critical attitude to our own profession and our working practices. Unsurprisingly, there is already a body of literature devoted to this topic, which is referred to as Critical Pedagogy.

    Critical Pedagogy reminds us that all institutions are marked by relations of power: this applies to education as much as to government, industry, the military and the media. Indeed, it could be argued that education plays a special role in the transmission of power relations to future generations, given the immaturity and malleability of the minds in question. The power that teachers exercise over their students is easily recognised, but there are also power relations between junior and senior teachers, between teachers and the principal, between the principal and the school council or board, and between the individual school and the system to which it belongs. This is not to say that power is bad in itself, just that we need to take a critical attitude towards its exercise, whether by ourselves or by others.

    I was reminded of this by a recent Classroom 2.0 email about an interview with John Taylor Gatto. Gatto spent thirty years teaching in the New York public schooling system, and was named New York City Teacher of the year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Gatto is critical of compulsory schooling, defends homeschooling and unschooling, and has published books with titles like Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992), The Underground History of American Education (2001), and Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2008). A basic summary of his ideas, in his own words, can be found here.

    John Taylor Gatto

    John Taylor Gatto (1935-): American author, former school teacher, and social critic

    This in turn brought to mind a book I read when I was studying philosophy in Dublin twenty years ago. Ivan Illich first published Deschooling Society forty years ago this year. The book still sits in my bookcase, but the Wikipedia article reminds me that Chapter 6 is entitled ‘Learning Webs’ and suggests the use of computer technology to support independent learning:

    The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

    A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

    Ivan Illich

    Ivan Illich (1926-2002): Austrian philosopher, Roman Catholic priest, and social critic

    Illich died in 2002, and so survived long enough to witness the development of the Internet, but a quick search fails to find any specific comments by him on it. One blog post opts for a negative verdict, while a 4 May comment on the Facebook page devoted to Illich, suggests a more positive interpretation – Leigh Blackall asks:

    Tell me Illicheans.. what would he say about social media and networked learning through such popular internet? On the one hand I see him as dismissing it as false, but on the other, in particular chapter 6 of Deschooling, he would surely embrace it?

    And Christian St responds:

    This came to my mind instantly when reading Deschooling society. Illich proposes computer-aided peer matching based on the common interest to discuss a certain book, article, film etc… In my opinion, this has Web2.0 written all over it. The next step after peer matching is to arrange a face-to-face educational meeting. I wonder if providing the possibility to “meet” via chat or videoconference is somehow contrary to Illich’s vision. Surely face-to-face communication is ideal, but it severely limits the choice of potential peers.

    Philosophy and Critical Literacy

    April 30, 2010

    With all the discussion of teaching Critical Literacy skills to children, I thought it would be timely to draw attention to this recent item from The Philosophers’ Magazine. The article – Get ’em while they’re young – goes into some depth, and I have provided lengthy extracts below. One of the main points is that there are multiple advantages to doing philosophy with children, including the ‘incidental’ development of critical thinking skills, i.e. these skills are acquired implicitly as part of the process, rather than explicitly taught.

    It is important to note, however, that philosophy is not merely the acquisition of thinking skills. As noted in one of the comments after the article, there is a connection between ‘mental skills and self (critical) monitoring of thinking processes, together with the social aspect of thinking together’. I would add that philosophy also has its own history and subject matter, and children can be introduced to these things as opportunities present themselves.

    This naturally leads to a point of debate in the article: whether philosophy should be taught by specialists. My own answer to this is: ideally, yes, but it would be difficult in the primary school, and we expect primary teachers to teach a whole range of subjects, without necessarily being a specialist in any of them (though it is a bonus if they have some particular expertise). Some teachers will find they have an aptitude for philosophical thinking, just as others have an aptitude for art, music, maths or literature.

    A related blog that touches on these issues can be found here.

    There has been anecdotal and scientific evidence that exposing children to philosophy at a young age can have lasting academic and social benefits but, although there does appear to have been a steady growth in the subject’s popularity over the past 20 years, philosophy is far from being a mainstream subject in primary schools.

    “There are many reasons why thinking hasn’t been at the forefront of the way teachers teach,” says Lizzy Lewis, Development Manager at the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), an educational charity dedicated to promoting the use of philosophy for children and communities throughout the UK. “A huge emphasis has been on assessment, on SATs (Standard Assessment Tests), and on literally memorising information and knowledge for tests. So there hasn’t been much time or thought given to how children learn and enabling them to really deal with problems or issues or to really work things out for themselves.” But Lewis says there is a growing backlash to this content-based approach. “Particularly in the last five years there has been more awareness of thinking skills approaches. And this is why we’ve had more and more demand in terms of training in schools: this is what teachers want, it’s what children want and, to some extent, it is what the government is saying is needed.”

    Research by East Renfrewshire Psychological Services in 2006 found that under-achieving 11-year-olds exposed to GSD [Guided Socratic Discussion] significantly increased scores in areas including problem solving, generating alternative solutions and decision-making. Another 2007 study from Dundee University suggested an average rise in IQ levels of 6.5 points in students who had been exposed to philosophy at a young age. Another report, also from Dundee University, also showed that an hour of philosophical enquiry each week in primary schools very effectively promotes emotional and social developments as well as increasing cognitive ability, critical reasoning and dialogue skills. The study stressed that although such developments can take place in mainstream classes of 30 pupils lead by teachers with little previous philosophy experience, the role of the teacher would have to move away from being an “expert instructor” to instead being a “curious facilitator”.

    [Peter Worley of The Philosophy Shop] argues that for children to do philosophy properly, it is important for the facilitator to have specialist knowledge. “It’s not just subject knowledge – philosophy is a kind of tricky thing to identify, it’s not easy to know when philosophy is actually being done and what kind of thing philosophy is, it’s quite subtle,” he says. “So if you want to be able to get a group of children moving towards more philosophical kinds of discussion as opposed to just sharing ideas and discussing what they think about stuff, you need to have someone there who is able to identify when that starts to occur or who is able to ask the right kind of questions to bring it about.”

    Worley says that attendants of The Philosophy Shop training course are required to have a philosophy degree but not necessarily any teaching experience. The two-day intensive training course focuses mainly on the pedagogical aspects of delivering a philosophy session to children and this is followed by a period of observation and assessment in classrooms. “We don’t hide the fact that our prospective consultants have a good deal to do before they can feel confident in front of kids, but our training does include working with real children in real schools while being observed, and other philosophy with children programmes don’t do that. In short, the lack of teacher training can be an obstacle but it can also be very liberating as they don’t have lots of habits to un-learn.”

    Lewis argues that demanding that teachers have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy would vastly restrict the number of teachers who could get involved, and that a good knowledge of pedagogy is equally important if facilitators are to engage children in the subject. SAPERE offers a two-day Level One course that is designed to introduce philosophy to teachers who may never have come across the subject before, and to provide class materials so teachers can begin to facilitate philosophy sessions in their schools. The content of SAPERE’s Level Two and Level Three courses is increasingly philosophical, but Lewis says many teachers become very interested in the subject and also go on to complete further academic philosophy studies elsewhere. “I think if we did it the other way around and required that everybody had some philosophical training, we’d get far, far fewer numbers of people coming. I think we make it less intimidating and much more accessible doing it that way and it does seem to work.”

    This approach also enables teachers to apply P4C-style approaches in classes beyond philosophy sessions. “Teachers in schools talk about it transforming how they teach, transforming how the children question and transforming the kind of dialogue that happens. We don’t promote it as a subject, we promote it as a way of learning and teaching,” Lewis says. “So if a teacher is using P4C in one session a week, it changes the teacher’s approach and you start to see philosophical questions and philosophical inquiry throughout the curriculum, and that’s one reason it is so effective because it’s transferable. So the skills the children use – if they’re increasing their reasoning or they’re challenging assumptions and they’re practicing that on a weekly basis – then that’s going to come out in their science lesson, that’s going to come out in their geography,” Lewis says.

    Lewis says that SAPERE is more concerned with the skills that children can learn through philosophy than it is with the subject of philosophy itself. “It’s primarily about promoting thinking skills – critical thinking – in children, enabling them to be more aware of how they learn and to foster good questioning and more independent thinking, as well as the philosophical skills of reasoning, making judgements and reflecting on their thinking so they’re much more aware how they think,” she says. “We’ve never really thought that P4C should be another sort of government-packaged initiative in schools. Our aim is to make it as widespread as possible, but I think P4C is much more a way of learning and teaching rather than a particular subject, and that’s where the distinction is between Philosophy for Children and philosophy as a subject.”

    Worley agrees that philosophy is the ideal subject for children to learn thinking skills because rather than being taught a set of skills for thinking that must be memorised, philosophy allows children to practice good thinking skills without being taught them. Another bonus is that philosophy allows everyone to participate and practice these thinking skills regardless of any prior exposure to the subject: “Unique to philosophy, certainly in the Socratic tradition, is that one does not need knowledge of the subject in order to do it; one does need a good guide in the form of a facilitator but knowledge of the subject is not necessary to engage with philosophical questions,” Worley says. “Teaching thinking skills would be different; one needs to know how to apply them to be able to do it successfully. In philosophy a more implicit approach can be used to teach thinking skills: it reverses the direction of fit so that a consequence of doing philosophy is that one learns thinking habits (skills) rather than learning thinking skills so that one can think better.”

    Worley says that because it is the ideal subject for learning thinking skills, philosophy is a foundational subject in the way that the Three R’s are. “We’re arguing for the Four R’s,” he says, “reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning. We want to try to argue for the importance of a good thinking program in the national curriculum because of the sense in which the Three R’s depend so much on that which underlies them and that would be concepts. Because concepts are the framework on which the three R’s are built, I argue that a good thinking program is essential as part of a national curriculum program.”

    McCall agrees: “Philosophical reasoning and wondering is difficult; it isn’t easy but it’s fundamental almost to being a human being,” says McCall. “These questions are age-old questions and they still have tremendous value to consider, to inquire into, today. I think this kind of thinking supports and even underlies many other disciplines as well. In terms of education we know from the development of children that the ones who have been through sustained Philosophy with Children improve in almost every other academic area. So it’s a fundamental basic really,” she says. “Philosophers are traditionally asked awkward questions and to come up with alternative answers, and it really breeds independent thinking. If we want a generation of people who will begin to tackle and solve the problems we have, we need people who think for themselves and who think differently.”

    Catherine McCall’s Blog
    COPI at Strathclyde
    The Philosophy Shop

    Philosophy in the Primary School

    April 17, 2010

    This article – The Examined Life, Age 8 – was published in The New York Times on 8 April. Here are some snippets:

    “A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” says Professor Wartenberg, who has been visiting the school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, since 2007. “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.”

    He is not the first philosopher to work with children. In the 1970s, Matthew Lipman, then a professor at Columbia University, argued that children could think abstractly at an early age and that philosophical questioning could help them develop reasoning skills. It was the Vietnam era, and Professor Lipman believed that many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.

    Professor Lipman’s view opposed that of the child-development theorist Jean Piaget, who asserted that children under 12 were not capable of abstract reasoning. He and others, including Gareth Matthews, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, concluded that their curiosity and sense of wonder make children ripe for philosophic inquiry.

    “The world is new to them and they want to figure things out,” says Professor Matthews, who has written extensively about children and philosophy. “Young children very often engage in reasoning that professional philosophers can recognize as philosophical, but typically their parents or teachers don’t react in a way that encourages them. They might say, ‘That’s cute,’ but they don’t engage the children in thinking further about whatever the issue is.”

    “Our current educational system is about standards and efficiency,” says Joe Oyler, programs coordinator for the institute at Montclair State. “[Philosophy is] not fast and it’s not clean. We help children become comfortable with ambiguity and responding to it, so it’s tough to fit in.”

    Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

    “It’s giving kids a way to figure out what they think, support their own views and reason with one another,” he says. “So I can’t imagine this isn’t helping them on standardized tests.”

    But the pupils in Ms. Runquist’s class said they liked philosophy because it involved reading good books and expressing themselves.

    For a comprehensive bibliography on the research into this topic, see here.

    The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) can be found here.

    The article has also been discussed in this blog.

    History, philosophy, and the new Australian National Curriculum

    April 8, 2010

    There was an interesting discussion of history on Radio National’s Future Tense this morning. It is noteworthy that this discussion should have taken place on a program devoted to matters of the future. There is, of course, a dynamic tension between past and future, and the program title (Moving forward, looking back) captures this nicely.

    The discussion centred largely on the significance of history in the formation of public policy, although it was acknowledged that history is relevant to everyone, and should be ‘part of lifelong learning’. The participants were also keen to discuss the websites for the Alfred Deakin Research Institute and Australian Policy & History, as resources for policy makers and other interested parties. The idea is that historians should be available for consultation in situations where important decisions are being made, in much the same way that, say, economists are.

    Modern philosophical preoccupation with history began in the nineteenth century. Early discussion centred on the interpretation of ancient texts. It wasn’t until the twentieth century, however, that a more radical understanding of history emerged, particularly in the work of German philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Addressing the Enlightenment notion of historical objectivity, Gadamer pointed out that there is no abstract point outside of history where such objectivity could be attained. It is simply part of the human condition to be immersed in a set of circumstances, which both forms us and which we form:

    In fact history does not belong to us, but we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being. (Truth and Method, London: Sheed & Ward, 2nd ed, 1979, p. 245; originally published in 1965 as Wahrheit und Methode, Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr).

    This notion of immersion in the circumstances of life is what philosophers refer to as the hermeneutic circle.

    The theme of historical situatedness was taken up by French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who paid particular attention to ‘narrative’ as an organising principle that brings together disparate ‘facts’ about our existence as individuals and groups. We do not merely understand ourselves as a collection of facts, but rather in terms of a narrative that we are continually creating and re-creating. ‘The narrative constructs the identity of the character, what can be called his or her narrative identity, in constructing that of the story told. It is the identity of the story that makes the identity of the character’ (Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 147–8; originally published in 1990 as Soi-meme comme un autre, Paris: Editions du Seuil).

    From a philosophical perspective, then, our very self-identity is inseparable from an understanding of our situatedness in the flow of history. In order to understand ourselves now, we must interpret our past, but we can only interpret our past according to the preoccupations and prejudices of the present. History is never simply about what happened in the past. It is never ‘finished’ in the sense of reaching a totalising comprehension, but reinterpreted over and again. This is not a relativist position, however: such interpretations must be substantiated with evidence that is discovered using the methods of historical inquiry.

    If the present cannot be interpreted without recourse to the past, then neither can the future. All of our hopes and predictions for the future can only be expressed in terms of where we are now and, by implication, where we have been. This is the case at the personal level as much as the social one. As a person I exist in that tension between my understanding of my past and my anticipation of my future. What I call my ‘present’ is in fact this dynamic state of tension.

    Today’s program acknowledged the significance of the appreciation of history for our future. Reference was made to the new Australian National Curriculum, which similarly acknowledges this significance. In its 2009 discussion paper, Shape of the Australian Curriculum: History, the National Curriculum Board (NCB) wrote that history ‘enriches the present and illuminates the future’ (Point 2.3), and that it is ‘a distinctive and indispensable form of understanding’ (Point 2.4).

    Historical inquiry involves the retrieval, comprehension and interpretation of sources, and judgment, guided by principles that are intrinsic to the discipline. It yields knowledge that is based on the available evidence, but remains open to further debate and future reinterpretation. It develops in students the ability to recognise varying interpretations of history and to determine the difference between fact, opinion and bias. (Point 2.6)

    History stretches from the distant past to the present, and provides a deeper understanding of present-day events as well as the enduring significance of earlier ones. It introduces us to a variety of human experience, enables us to see the world through the eyes of others, and enriches our appreciation of the nature of change. (Point 2.7)

    Having laid down these general philosophical principles in the Introduction, the document describes the aims of the proposed curriculum in terms of students developing ‘knowledge and understanding of the past in order to appreciate themselves and others, to understand the present and to contribute to debate about planning for the future’ (Point 3.1).