Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Remark on Open-mindedness

One often hears someone say that he or she cannot imagine any other explanation for X. Even more common is a rhetorical statement (often dribbling out of the mouth of a politician) that there is no conceivable alternative explanation for Y. A pseudo-scientist might claim that the scientific consensus is that there is only one way to explain phenomenon Z. How should one construe such remarks, especially when they come from oneself?

The simple answer is that such dogmatic attitudes should cause one pause – they typically represent the wrongheaded confidence with which a person holds a position. Nearly every complex issue or situation has alternative explanations, even when one is unable to generate them. The logic of complexity is such that alternative explanations nearly always exist. This ability to resist dogmatism is based on a reminder I have adopted from a remark in one of O. K. Bouwsma’s unpublished journals – namely that it would be a remarkable coincidence if the world happened to coincide with the limits of his imagination. From “I cannot imagine it” to “it cannot possibly be otherwise” there is a huge leap, and it is seldom a leap of faith – it is a leap of hubris. Getting others to see the difference in those two statements (“I cannot imagine  it” vs. “it cannot be”) is a challenge, and it is especially challenging to recognize the difference in one’s own thinking.

The way I try to remind myself of this difference is through the following mantra:

              I know less than I am generally inclined to believe.

I have been reminded of that simple fact on all too many occasions.

Mike Spector
5 August 2012

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Skepticism and Happiness

The Learning Technologies Department at the University of North Texas is located off campus in a complex known as Discovery Park. The department has a large meeting area call the agora (Greek for meeting place). As a consequence, I find myself drawn back to my academic training in philosophy on occasion. My memory of my early academic training is not all that clear so some of what follows may be wrong or confused. Anyway, I shall attempt to construct a meaningful story out of those memories.

Many associate skepticism with doubting or even a negative attitude towards various things. I find this association odd. Sextus Empiricus, a second century Greek philosopher who wrote a comprehensive account of skepticism called Outlines of Pyrrhonism, argued that skepticism was a kind of mental therapy that resulted in happiness or at least mental quietude. In short, like other ancient Greek philosophical traditions, achieving happiness was of central concern. Skepticism arose in part as a reaction to Stoicism, another Greek school of thought. According to Stoicism, achieving true and lasting happiness was best achieved by avoiding erroneous judgment and minimizing negative emotions by leading a simple life. The third Greek tradition to add to this mix is Epicureanism, which viewed happiness as the absence of pain and mental disturbance.

Roughly speaking there are three competing traditions in ancient Greek philosophy with regard to finding happiness and living the good life. One proposes avoiding pain and enjoying the pleasures that one finds as best one can – epicureanism. Another proposes avoiding negative emotions through a kind of purity of simplified living – stoicism. And a third proposes following a certain mental discipline to achieve happiness – skepticism. While these three traditions seem quite different, they do have several things in common. Notably, all three do not draw a sharp distinction between what we might be inclined to think of as the cognitive domain (thought, reasoning, etc.) and the affective domain (emotions, feelings, etc.). All three connect a certain mental discipline with achieving happiness or at least mental quietude (peace of mind). Hmm. One can think oneself happy – by thinking, achieve happiness. How strange is that?

Perhaps it is not so strange when one takes a deeper look at the principles of skepticism. Skepticism is not fundamentally about doubting – it is about searching for the truth. The word ‘skeptic’ is derived from the Greek word skepsis which roughly translates to inquiry. A skeptic is someone who is engaged in an inquiry process. That process logically begins with doubt – with an admission of not knowing something that one wishes to understand. The process does not end with that doubt, however. One must then be engaged in a search for the truth. A skeptic is a seeker – a searcher – someone engaged in an inquiry process. Most things worthy of such an investigation are complex and do not lend themselves to simple answers. So, a skeptic must not only be humble and begin by admitting to a kind of ignorance or lack of understanding, a skeptic must also be open to alternative explanations and an examination and re-examination of evidence. Finally, when one is exhausted from the search process, one should not simply accept a finding as conclusive – new evidence might become available or one might have erred along the way. The final stage, then, in a skeptical process of inquiry is to realize that the final truth may not have been found. This is precisely where skeptics parted company with the stoics who held dogmatically to many truths that skeptics believed worth further inquiry.

In my own life, I have come to realize that things that I believed with certainty were not so certain after all. For example, prior to my strong interest in philosophy I had a strong (also strange) attraction to mathematics. I remembered being introduced to Fermat’s Last Theorem in high school – the conjecture that no three positive integers can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n > 2. Since the challenge to find a proof had existed for more than 300 years, I naively assumed a proof would never be found. I believed with certainty that no such proof existed. In 1995, a proof was found. The certainty with which I held that belief was wrongheaded.

In my mathematical period I became interested in the number π (pi - the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter). I was taught that the expansion of the number π was infinite. While I was able to follow the proof that π is not the quotient of two integers (i.e., it is an irrational number) or not accurately expressed as the ration of two integers, I was not able to follow the proof that π was a transcendental number or that the expansion of π led to a never ending and non-repeating sequence. I simply accepted that stronger claim as true and came to believe it with certainty. I raise this point because it would seem that continuing to search for or understand the proof or seek a sequence in the expansion that repeated or ended would lead to a lot of mental effort and not result in peace of mind – my own efforts to understand π had led to more questions and a state of perplexity. I do recall one conversation with my father, Rabbi Spector, when I was trying to understand π. Remarkably, he know what π was and was familiar with an ancient Hebrew text that had approximated π as the quotient of 355/113. He also quoted Maimonides who said that π could only be approximated and not known with precision or certainty. There ensued a remarkable discussion about infinity with my father – one of the happiest memories of my life, so perhaps indirectly the search did result in some sort of happiness.

Anyway, I believe the kernel of truth in connecting skepticism with happiness is twofold. First, there is the notion that happiness involves a cognitive element. Second, if one holds a belief with wrongheaded confidence and is unwilling to examine evidence or consider alternatives, then one is likely to encounter at some point a disquieting and unsettling cognitive conflict. I have experienced several of these and have come to accept the small kernel of truth that skepticism is generally a healthy state of mind.

Consider this story from Part IV Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession:

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all.

This short tale describes how Tolstoy came to abandon the epicurean approach to happiness. Perhaps it will resonate with some. There is also Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus in which Camus retells the story of Sisyphus being condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down again – an infinite but repeating sequence, recalling our discussion of pi. Sisyphus’ crime was apparently stealing secrets from and/or offending the gods. The end of Camus’ version ends with the remarkable statement that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. How is that possible? Roll that rock to the top again and again, forever and ever? Where is the joy in that? Asking such a question might lead to an interesting inquiry process …

Here is another tidbit from a renowned skeptical philosopher – Friedrich Nietzsche. This quotation comes from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, #341 (philosophy is the gay science, by the way):

The greatest weight.-- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

I encountered this passage in my first year of doctoral studies with O. K. Bouwsma. After reading the passage there ensued a discussion of tremendous moments in which several students shared what thought would justify a positive disposition towards eternal recurrence. For example, one offered the birth of a child as such a moment. Someone asked Bouwsma if he had experienced such a moment of happiness. As best I recall, he was about 75 when asked and he said something like the following: “I remember when I was a child of about 7 playing on a snowy hilltop in Nebraska. I was holding onto the lower rail of a wooden fence sliding my feet back and forth creating a slippery spot to create a starting point for sliding down the hill. A young girl I had not seen before came up next to me and smiled. I smiled back and slid down the hill never to see her again.” He said that seeing her smile was a tremendous moment. Add that story to many other things I am not likely to understand anytime soon.

I conclude this short excursion into skepticism and happiness with this simple realization: I know less than I am generally inclined to believe.

Enjoy the happiness that comes with serious and sustained inquiry.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Remarks on the Pace of Technology Change and Learning Expectations

By way of background:

·       I am an editor for a premiere journal in educational technology – Educational Technology Research & Development; we get peer review feedback to authors in 60 days or less and the typical paper that is accepted (about 12% acceptance rate) goes through 3 revision cycles; once accepted, the publisher (Springer) typically has the paper available online with a DOI in Online First within two weeks and the article is formally published in less than a year; this record is not bad for a top tier academic journal, but many authors and readers complain that it still takes too long from original submission to publication (even in Online First), partly because technologies change so fast that the study being reported is more than two years old and the technology involved has since evolved in significant ways.

·       I am an instructional design scholar and researcher; when I started out in this discipline area more than 25 years ago, I was able to keep up with most of the main educational technologies then available; today I am probably only aware of perhaps 25% of the main educational technologies available and able to make productive use of perhaps 10% (optimistic estimates).
·       I was formally trained as a philosopher – my first and only academic love. I regard philosophy as thought in slow motion. I was trained to critically examine seminal writings in philosophy. I often mention some of the short sentences that have captivated my thinking in my classes. For example, there is Wittegenstein’s remark that “we picture facts to ourselves” (“Wir machen uns Bilder der Tatsachen”) in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (2.1). One may stumble across such an innocent sounding sentence and wonder what it means. At first, one might think to oneself “of course we do.” Then a question may bubble up from those thin pages, such as “what is the form of the picture we create internally?” or “what is the relation of the internal picture to that which is pictured?” which is presumably some external reality. One then looks further into the text and into various commentaries searching for clarification. The likely outcome is still more questions, such as how and why did this ability to create internal representations develop or what internal structures and mechanisms are required to support that ability. “We picture facts to ourselves.” Of course. Keep reading. It is all too obvious. But wait. Sometimes I picture to myself things which are not facts – things that are erroneous representations (“I saw Elvis in the grocery store yesterday”) or altogether outrageous (I refuse to elaborate on the grounds that I might insinuate myself) or even impossible … really … is it possible to imagine something altogether impossible, such as a square circle? Well, I do know several very square egg-heads. I can say things that refer to impossibilities, such as “What I am now saying is false” (I used to be a politician) or “Yesterday I suffered a fatal heart attack” or “The day before yesterday I ate the last cannibal” (yes, nonsense can be distasteful) … or, more appropriate for polite company, “There is someone in this room who loves all and only those persons in this room who do not love themselves.” We picture facts to ourselves. Sometimes we also picture to ourselves things that are not facts. How do we distinguish the two? Well, other philosophers have speculated about this, so the journey from this small, innocent sentence takes us perhaps to Descartes’ Mediations on First Philosophy – for many that was their last philosophy course and they never had the pleasure of delving into Wittgenstein. Oh yes, the Meditations – six to be precise. Perhaps those ideas that are clear and distinct are the ones that represent facts. But suppose one has a vivid imagination – that must be you if you managed to read this far. Can one not have a clear and distinct internal representation of something that does not exist or that is erroneous or outrageous? Yes, quite so – that ferocious lion I found in my bedroom yesterday caused my fatal heart attack … that was a very clear and distinct impression … how could it have been misleading? After all, it was the lion’s roar that did me in.

I know … I have tried your patience too much already. You may already have guessed my point. There is occasionally pleasure and insight to be had by going slow and dwelling on one small thing. Just a single sentence, such as “we picture facts to ourselves.” Thought in slow motion. But in today’s fast-paced world of change and innovation, where is there time to pause and contemplate and explore such a small thing? One must keep moving … keep learning new things … keep trying out new technologies … keep on keeping on …

Of course I am not the first one to have such thoughts – not even the first educational technologist to have such thoughts. I am reminded of the following from the opening stanza from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock:”

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Here is another sentence which lends itself to the thought in slow motion treatment: “I know less than I am generally inclined to believe.” Try that one on for size.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Remarks about the responsibilities of educators and evaluators

In the Introduction to Innovations in instructional technology: Essays in honor of M. David Merrill I introduced what I call the Educratic Oath (Spector, 2005):

(1) do nothing to impair learning and instruction; (2) do what you can to improve learning and instruction; (3) base your actions on evidence that you and others have gathered and analyzed; (4) share the principles of instruction that you have learned with others; and, (5) respect the individual rights of all those with whom you interact. (p, xxxvi)

While this educator’s version of the Hippocratic Oath may seem harmless or simple-minded, I believe it goes to the heart of an educational value system that is all too easily and all too often ignored. Yes, I am admitting that I have on occasion impaired learning and inhibited instruction, and I believe many others have as well. I have done so by expecting my students to see the relevance and value the importance of my subject matter just as I do. That expectation turns out not to be reasonable in all too many cases. Why expect an engineering major to fall in love with philosophy? Is that a reasonable expectation? Probably not in most cases. That unconscious expectation leads to a kind of instructional behavior that is often not conducive to nor supportive of learning. Of course someone who loves to study philosophy will read Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus willingly, identify key points, explore alternative interpretations, elaborate assumptions, explain implications, reflect on central issues, and so on. After all, that is what I recall doing as a student, and so that is what I expect my students to do. As it happens, most of them do not do that, and so I become frustrated and silently regard them as lazy or ignorant or something much worse. I suspect such a pattern exists in how other professors engage with their students. The consequence of this is that I tend to become overly harsh in my feedback and grading, and I unwittingly discourage many students from pursuing further studies in philosophy. Is not this a kind of harm that I am inflicting on students? I believe it is. I believe I am not alone in inflicting such harm. It is quite easy and convenient to regard students as lazy or ignorant simply because they do not care as much about my academic subject as I do. My fundamental error was in having an inappropriate instructional goal. I really wanted my students to fall in love with philosophy when I should have more simply wanted to help them gain some familiarity with a few basic concepts that recur in many philosophical writings and which might prove useful in everyday life. If I had taken that more reasonable approach, I might even have succeeded in attracting a few of them to the dark side, so to speak – the side of philosophy (or thought in slow motion as I often characterize philosophy).

I am curious if others are guilty of such instructional miscues as this. While it is good to be enthusiastic about one’s subject, there is nothing of real value to gain by believing that those who do not share one’s enthusiasm are lazy or stupid. The interim conclusion is that education involves values regardless of the subject with which one is involved. Values are inescapable in education.

This is also true in evaluation. In these brief comments, I want to focus on program evaluation. Most reputable instructional design curricula require a course in program evaluation. Program evaluation in education is aimed at projects (funded or sponsored efforts that have a definite beginning and ending with a specific focus in response to a particular problem situation) as well as at programs (ongoing efforts developed to address problematic situations that are expected to recur or persist). Stakeholders, sponsors, and funding agencies like the concept of an  independent evaluator or evaluation team that will report the extent to which a project or program has or is achieving its intended purpose. This emphasis has led many program evaluators to focus almost exclusively on summative evaluation – the degree to which a project or program achieved its objectives.

While it is reasonable to expect program evaluators to provide that kind of summative report, there is a more fundamental obligation that evaluators have that is all too often and all too easily overlooked – namely the responsibility to inform project and program leaders during an effort when it appears that a bad decision or counterproductive action is about to occur. I am suggesting that the evaluator’s first priority is to help projects and programs succeed. In other words, formative evaluation is the first task of an evaluator.  Simply reporting the outcomes at the end of a project can result in wasted resources, especially when an evaluator is aware of a bad decision or counterproductive action and does nothing at the time to try to improve things. Formative evaluation is aimed at providing feedback that will improve a project or program, and my claim here is that this is an evaluator’s most important obligation. Certainly project and program leaders want such feedback, and certainly sponsors and funding agencies do not want resources to be wasted. Why, then, is there not more emphasis on formative evaluation?

This is analogous to an instructor’s primary responsibility – formative assessment – providing timely, informative constructive feedback to help individual learners improve their understanding and performance. The instructor’s primary task is not to assign grades at the end of the semester (summative assessment). Rather, the instructor’s primary task is to help learners succeed, just as the evaluator’s primary task is to help projects and programs succeed.

While this may all sound obvious, it is not very well aligned with the common practice of many evaluators and instructors. Values are inescapable in education and in evaluation. What we should value are actions that help, that inform, that improve, that are likely to result in success. Otherwise, we can harm learners and contribute to wasteful investments in projects and programs.

Spector, J. M. (2005). Innovations in instructional technology: An introduction to this volume. In J. M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. Van Schaack, & D. A. Wiley, (Eds.) (2005), Innovations in instructional technology: Essays in honor of M. David Merrill (pp. xxxi-xxxvi). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Posted from Sabancı Üniversitesi, Istanbul, Turkey.