Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bringing out the best

As New Year approaches, I am thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Most of those I have made in the past have gone unattained, ranging from losing weight to being a better husband and father. This year, one notion seems stuck in my mind – namely, bringing out the best in others. That is advice from my father, the rabbi, as he was explaining to me as an adolescent what it meant to be a rabbi. I have paraphrased his advice as being a rabbi was to be a teacher - someone who is the voice that encourages, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away. That is how he thought about bringing out the best in others. Ironically, as he was trying to help me decide to become a rabbi, I was becoming convinced that I could not live up to those demands as so well exemplified in his life.

Even more ironic is the fact that I became a teacher instead of becoming a rabbi. And now, towards the end of that career, I am wondering to what extent I have met his criteria for being a teacher. My conclusion is that I have fallen short, so I am considering adopting the New Year’s resolution of bringing out the best in others.

Given my training, I am also wondering what bringing out the best in others entails. What comes to mind first is the idea of being the coach of an athletic team. The coach is trying to bring out the best in team members. Why? To have a winning season? So that team members will feel good about having done their best? So that team members will improve and do even better next year? As I am not an athlete and have not been coached, I really do not know. I do recall a high school boy who, as a junior lifesaver, coached a blind and deaf child in swimming, however. The goal was to give the child an enjoyable summer. The child had a different goal, however. He wanted to learn to swim, and the boy’s coach decided to support that goal, which was attained much to the surprise of the parents and the senior lifeguards. That incident leaves me thinking that what is best for someone else is best left to that person’s determination.

It seems to me that too many people think they know what is best for someone else in terms of a career choice, or a religious choice, or a place to live, or a job, or a partner, and so on. One of my mentors in computer science told me that he did not know the religion of his daughter who had just married. He said that he left such choices to his children and purposefully chose not to interfere or even influence them one way or another. I tried to follow his guidance but found myself unable to follow through as well as he had done. Over the years, I discovered that my own children often chose to do the opposite of what I had recommended even though I usually only offered advice when asked.

I remember my father telling my sister when she was about to ask a personal question that she should not ask if she was not willing to hear the answer. She asked anyway and he told her the standard orthodox answer about piercing parts of one’s body. He later eased up somewhat and allowed her to have her ears pierced. He never turned away from his children or his wife of so many years.

So, how do I bring out the best in others when I do not know what is best for someone else? Leave it up to that person to say what is best for him or her? There is a problem with that approach as well. In thinking about my own case, I have often thought something was best for me when it turned out not to be the case. Then there is Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols – namely that Socrates claimed to know the value of life, of his own life, but that Socrates failed to realize that one is not in a position to judge one’s own life as that involves an inescapable bias. In addition, one can go as far back as Plato to find the notion that acting badly (i.e., not doing what is best for oneself, in Plato’s terms) is a result of ignorance or lack of understanding what is truly good. Moreover, one can find emphasis on doing what is good or what is right in nearly all religions, including Buddhism , Christianity, Confucionism, Islam, Judaism. I am particularly fond of Rabbi Hillel’s formulation – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” I like the balance between oneself and others in Hillel’s formulation. I like the notion that by acting one way or another one is becoming more of one kind of person and less of a different kind of person.

That last thought led me to Bouwsma’s note in one of his unpublished journals – “surely your life will show what you think about yourself.” Bouwsma was writing about Socrates in that entry and he considered Socrates as someone who talked highly and acted accordingly leaving most others in one of the remaining categories (talking low but acting well – quite rare; talking and acting low – as in too many people in high political positions; talking well but acting low – unfortunately not rare and the category in which Socrates regarded so many Athenians). I know I have mixed up the labels – high and low, well and badly – but perhaps the idea is still clear.

Where does that leave me? Well, I am still wondering how I will determine how to bring out the best in others. Perhaps the most I can do is ask another person if he or she believes that this or another course of action is what is best for him or her and others involved. Or I might ask what kind of person someone who does this or that becomes. Or, more innocently, I could ask what other options are possible and what that person is assuming. Well, I can ask but I should not turn away.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Our job = bringing out the best in others and helping them become lovers of learning

I shared the following remarks at the 2017 AECT leaership luncheon. I was embarrassed at the various honors bestowed me at AECT 2017, and I could have mentioned many others who have done much more than me to bring out the best in others, including among others who helped bring out some of the best in me: Bob Gagné, Dave Merrill, Bob Tennyson, Dave Jonassen, Norbert Seel, Pak Atwi Suparman, Ibu Tian Belwati, Leo Yam, Youqun Ren, Joost Lowyck, Pål Davidsen, Scott Newcomb, Walt Davis, Ed Allaire, Stuart Spicker, O. K. Bouwsma, Phil Harris, Barbara Lockee, Bob Doyle, and so many others. So many others.
AECT 2017 - Notes for luncheon - J. Michael Spector
Five Guiding Principles for AECT Leaders (IPOCR – helps to have an unpronounceable acronym)
1.      Inclusion – To ensure sustainable growth and remain relevant, the principle of inclusion involves welcoming a diverse group of people and broadening membership to include all those associated or concerned with improving learning, instruction and performance; this includes academics, practitioners, researchers, developers, policy makers, parents, students, community leaders, industry leaders, technology innovators, and those left behind on the side of the information superhighway.
2.      Pragmatism – To remain grounded in the effective use of technology in support of learning and instruction, it is important to prioritize evidence over advocacy and to ensure that productive impact on learning and instruction guides efforts.
3.      Openness – Communication among members and association leaders needs to be open to all in a fluid, two-way manner - listening and responding and respecting multiple divergent perspectives.
4.      Collaboration – Fostering effective collaboration among members and with schools, universities and other associations should be regular and ongoing.
5.      Research – AECT members have a reputation for developing and publishing excellent research; this principle is aimed at promoting research that builds effective theories, that guides effective practice, and that informs progressive and productive policies.

Five Ideas to Move the Field Forward (LLECH – careful not to let your imagination run wild)
To be honest, my ideas are not nearly as insightful as those of a few of my mentors:
1.      Learning (thanks go to Robert M. Gagné) – the mission and our guiding purpose is to help people learn – all people, young and old, all kinds of things, in and out of school, wherever they happen to be or whoever they want to become or whatever they want to understand. The goal is not to advance one’s career.
2.      Limitations (thanks go to Oets Kolk Bouwsma) – learning and education are complex enterprises and may not conform to one’s expectations or the limits of one’s imagination; simple or swift solutions to complex problems are seldom effective.
3.      Earthbound (thanks go to M. David Merrill) – people learn what they do; telling is not adequate to support learning (except in the form of formative feedback) – tell, ask, show, do! Are you providing timely and informative and constructive feedback to your learners?
4.      Change (thanks go to Robert A. Zimmerman) – the future is uncertain and may be quite different from what one imagines; how will you change? Can you make a difference in support of learning and instruction? I have tried but claim no significant success. “May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.”
5.      Humanity (thanks go to Rabbi Joseph Spector) – people have two remarkable abilities – namely, the ability to create internal representations of the things they experience that are new or puzzling and the ability to talk to others about those representations (mental models) which are not directly observable. My father, often said that we have a responsibility to bring out the best in people. The best is sometimes buried deep inside those internal representations. What can be learned from the remarkable interior life of such persons as Franz Jäggerstätter (see Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness -

I close with a remark about becoming a lifelong learner. When does it occur – becoming a lifelong learner? Late in life or early in life? Why does it occur – to be able to stay employed and find a good job or ??? Is becoming a lifelong learner about becoming famous or finding gainful employment? Becoming a lifelong learner is about becoming a lover of learning. And that love most typically begins early in one’s upbringing. But it takes time and requires nurturing … our job according to Gagné is to help people learn … my minor modification to that advice is this: our job is to help people become lovers of learning. This does not mean telling someone what to learn or why they should learn something. It involves supporting learners in becoming reflective, insightful, inquisitive beings – i.e., in becoming more human.

As Spock might have said: Learn long and help others along the way.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The March of Progress

I wrote this in 2006 for my doctoral students at Syracuse University and just found it while unpacking after my move to Round Rock. I had not remembered having this basic thought so long ago.


What is it that makes possible the progressive development of knowledge and understanding? This is a complex question since it presumes that there indeed exists something legitimately called the progressive development of knowledge. I admit to starting out with such an assumption. I want to explore some principles or basic ideas that seem relevant to an account of the progressive development of knowledge. Without these ideas, it is not clear, at least to me, how to account for human knowledge and understanding. These seven basic ideas are:

1.     Humans are not born knowing everything that there is to know. As obvious as this might seem, there have been people who rejected this most basic idea (see Plato’s discussion of anamnesis in The Meno and The Phaedo, for example).
2.     Knowledge refers to widely held and exceptionally well-established beliefs to which people are generally warranted in attaching their very highest levels of confidence. Statements that are likely candidates in this category include: ‘there is a constant ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle’ and ‘the speed of sound varies depending on the medium through which it is traveling’.
3.     We hold many other beliefs that can also be formulated as statements. We might generally attach less confidence to these other beliefs, but these beliefs nevertheless help us build up our knowledge of our surroundings and experiences. Statements that are likely candidates in this category include: ‘experienced statisticians provide reliable statistical analyses’ and ‘historical documents reliably represent facts and events’. For a very nice discussion of how these beliefs are intertwined see The Web of Belief by Quine and Ullian.
4.     Asking a question involves formulating a particular grammatical structure that typically ends with a question mark if it happens to be formulated on paper or with a rising tone of voice when formulated orally in English. Questions might begin with a word that implies that a question follows (e.g., ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’, ‘whether’), or one can transform a declarative statement into a question without using a question word. A particular rule in English guides the transformation of a statement into a question: put the verb first and place a question mark at the end. For example, one can transform the statement ‘There is a constant ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle.’ into this question: ‘Is there a constant ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle?’ Moreover, one may ask that question without knowing the answer, although there is some evidence that this piece of knowledge dates back to biblical times (Kings I, 7, 23) and ancient Egypt (the Rhind Papyrus dated about 1650 BCE). What is old knowledge for some may become new knowledge for others. One can formulate a question without being concerned with the answer, however. For example, someone might reply in the course of a conversation, “Is that any business of yours?” The elements of a question are in place – verb comes first, question mark comes last. But there is no search for an answer in this case. Rather, this apparent question may be used to terminate any further inquiry. Beware rhetorical questions – they do not contribute to the progressive development of knowledge.
5.     Having a question involves a search for an answer. The person who asks about the ratio between the circumference and diameter might ask without knowing that there is in fact a constant ration. This person might then engage in some physical experiments and measurements and discover, much like the ancient Egyptians, that there did seem to be a constant ratio regardless of how large or how small the circle was. Such a person might then go on to prove, in the spirit of Archimedes, that the results obtained empirically were mathematically correct. Having arrived at the knowledge that the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle is constant, our budding mathematician might go on to wonder whether or not the sequence of numbers in the expansion of that constant ever repeated. One should set aside a fair amount of time for such an enterprise. In any case, having a question implies that one does not know the answer and is willing to engage in a search for an answer or for possible alternative answers. We ought to have more questions.
6.     The logic of having questions can be generally represented as follows:
a.      First, one admits to not knowing or understanding X but wanting to know or understand X, where X represents some apparently non-obvious state of affairs of phenomenon. This simply means that one does not engage in a search for the obvious or for what is already accepted as known. One starts from a position of humility (‘I do not know’) and optimism (‘I can understand this if I make an effort’).
b.     Next, one begins to generate explanations and gathers evidence. This may be difficult in those cases where one has very little idea as to the nature of what one is seeking. A search, after all, is a search for what one does not have – in this case we are talking about looking for knowledge and understanding. There is a paradox of sorts connected with the fact that one is searching for an unknown X – if the item being sought is totally unknown in every respect, it is difficult to imagine how the search could be successfully resolved. The way around this apparent paradox is to simply acknowledge the situation that gave rise to the search, which presumably involved some things that one accepted, other things that required explanation, and some notion of what an adequate explanation would be like. For example, suppose that I am seeking to understand why sound seems to travel faster in water than in air. I might gather some evidence first to confirm my point of departure – that sound does indeed travel faster in water than in air. I might gather additional data points, at differing depths and altitudes and formulate an initial hypothesis that density appears to play a role (water being more dense than air, air being less dense at higher altitudes, and salt water being more dense than fresh water). I might even be sufficiently clever to test this initial hypothesis that the density of the medium is relevant to the speed of sound by checking to see if sounds travels even faster through a solid object such as a piece of metal or how fast sound travels in a vacuum (not very fast). While these further tests and observations may confirm the initial hypothesis, one ought not abandon one’s initial humility too readily – the hypothesis that the speed of sound through a medium is directly and closely correlated with the density of that medium could still be mistaken. Indeed, one might happen to observe that sound does not seem to travel very fast through hydrogen in comparison with nitrogen, even though nitrogen is more dense than hydrogen. Factors other than density must be added to the hypothesis to account for such additional observations – for example, the elasticity of the medium may well be relevant to the propagation of sound waves through that medium.
c.      Having a question, then, is often a process of iterative refinement and often involves a search for a satisfactory answer – one that may serve a short-term purpose (explain a difference between the observed speed of sound in air and water) – but the process may continue. This is how a body of knowledge is built up. Maintaining a sense of humility (‘I do not fully understand this phenomenon yet’) is just as important as maintaining a sense of optimism (‘I can understand this phenomenon better if I continue my investigations’).
7.     Not all beliefs are like this. Some beliefs are withheld from the scrutiny of such investigative cycles for various reasons. It is perhaps worthwhile to distinguish those beliefs that we are willing to subject to further investigation – and by implication willing to admit may be false or misleading or in need for refinement – from those that we wish to exclude, for whatever reasons, from such inquiry and refinement. What beliefs do we withhold from scrutiny and why? This may be a question worth investigating. It is likely that different people will admit to withholding different beliefs and for different reasons. Consider the statement ‘there is intelligent life outside our solar system’ as a candidate. One person may decide to withhold it from scrutiny because it is simply too difficult to investigate. Another may decide to withhold it because it conflicts with other beliefs that person has accepted, some of which might also be withheld from the process of iterative scrutiny. Still others may decide that it is worth investigating and not withhold it from scrutiny (see Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, for example).

As an additional example, imagine that you are backpacking with a friend in the Rocky Mountains and happen across a rock which appears to contain a fossil of a creature you do not recognize (see Gould’s Wonderful Life). You happen to be very knowledgeable about geology, paleontology, and zoology. Neither you nor your friend can explain the fossil. You speculate that the fossil may represent a species that no longer exists, one that died out millions of years ago. Your friend may object, perhaps on religious grounds. In this case, one of you may decide to investigate further, and one may decide to abandon any search for an explanation. At this point, the dialogue may end in amicable disengagement – hopefully it does not degenerate into brow and breast beating or worse. It is important in such cases to distinguish a search for an explanation, which involves gathering additional evidence and a willingness to abandon initial hypotheses explaining the phenomenon in question, from a search for reasons to adopt one explanation or another. Gathering reasons, constructing arguments, and developing positions of advocacy for one position or another should not be confused with conducting searches and making empirically grounded inquiries (see Sextus Empiricus’ Against the Logicians). Yes, I admit to having been trained as a logician. People do engage in both kinds of enterprises – inquiry and rationalization. This seventh idea is about why and how we ought to avoid confusing these two different kinds of cognitive enterprise. And on this seventh point, I shall rest … until I trip over a butterfly or find another interesting question.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Making America Great Again

I have been thinking a lot about this topic for almost a year already, and I remain about as confused as I was when I first started thinking about it. My habit when trying to understand a puzzling statement or remark is to first look at the form of the statement. The original statement was in the form of an imperative: “Make America great again.” An imperative implies that there is something that one can do and probably should do or not do, as the case may be. Common examples include (a) “Say something nice to her”, or (d) Don’t touch the stove – it’s hot.” Imperatives are common and often easily understood. They often bring about a desired outcome. With regard to the subject imperative, I am wondering what I should do and what the desired outcome would be – and also how the extent to which the desired outcome is achieved should be determined. I believe that at one point, the subject imperative could be interpreted as simply “Vote for me,” in which case I did not comply (the second time I have voted for the person who got the most votes but was not elected). I supposed at that time, the desired outcome was being elected, which did happen. However, if the desired outcome was gaining the most votes, then the outcome was not achieved.

In any case, the subject imperative can no longer be interpreted so simply as a request to vote in a particular way. Perhaps that was not the original intent. I am not good at reading minds, especially those that are filled with inconsistencies and invectives. Hush my mouth … or smash my fingers, as I am only using a keyboard at present. Still, I wonder about the form of the imperative since it implies there is something I can or should do in response to some situation. It just is not at all clear to me what I can or should be doing, other than writing this note to try and figure that out.

Then I focus on the word added at the end of the subject imperative – namely ‘again’. That might give me some direction in resolving my wonder. When was America great? During or after the revolutionary war? During or after the civil war? World War I? World War II? Oops. Perhaps the history of things should not be couched in terms of wars, although wars seem to permeate the history of nearly every country or region of the world. When was America great? Perhaps during the industrial revolution in the 1800s and early 1900s when so many inventions changed society and resulted in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. See the Smithsonian Institution Museum of American History for more on that interpretation - Other events might also be cited, such as landing on the moon (see or the Marshall Plan after WW II (see or the civil rights act of 1964 (see or other such things that the reader can add to a list of events and periods and activities in American history about which one might take pride. I suggest focusing on small and local events as well as larger ones to keep a dialogue on this subject active and meaningful.

Well, I took a side trip down history lane … my brother, the historian, would be proud, perhaps. Now I turn to memory lane. When do I, in my own life of 72 years, believe that America was great? Challenging oneself is another habit I developed late in life after having made too many arrogant missteps. Being older than dirt with a poor memory has left me with just a few things I can cite. One was attending the swearing-in ceremony of an ex-wife upon her becoming a naturalized American citizen. That was a moving occasion with so many people from so many places becoming American citizens. That was an inspiring ceremony and made me feel proud to be an American welcoming so many others to this country. I recall the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The more than 100 people welcomed as US citizens that day in Atlanta were not tired or poor … they were hard working people who wanted to enjoy life and contribute in their own ways to American society. I listened to their conversations with their families while there – perhaps that was the time I felt most proud to be an American.

One other instance of when I thought America was great involved a letter I received from Albert Gore Senior when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in reply to one that I wrote to him indicating my negative feelings about the Vietnam conflict and American leadership in the world in general. He replied that I should be patient and not judge the country by one issue or incident and that there were and will continue to be many things about America in which I could take pride. That voice of optimism was also inspiring to me and perhaps gave me the strength to work for the Department of Defense in later years after what I regarded as a disastrous experience as an intelligence officer in earlier years.

Yes, there have been times when I thought America was great. I am guessing that most Americans can cite such times, and probably many non-Americans can as well, with the exception of folks such as the leaders of Iran, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia or Turkey, among others. There have been good times in America and there have been bad times. One could probably say that about any country. We ought not overlook some of the truly bad things that have happened, and we should perhaps believe that many good things will happen in the future. Undoubtedly some bad things will also continue to happen. That seems all too deeply embedded in human nature and the history of civilizations.

So, what can or should I do to help bring about those good things? In my professional life as an educational technology researcher I might contribute to the development of tools, technologies and techniques to help adolescents develop habits of inquiry and critical reasoning that will serve them well as adults. In my personal life, I hope to offer my family and friends support and comfort as they strive to live fulfilled lives. As a responsible citizen, there may be little I can do to effect positive change although there is much I would like to see happen. For example, in a democracy, there should be at least one national election in which the basic principle of one-person/one-vote is implemented, and that should be the election of the national leader. I do believe in democracy but worry that we are drifting away from basic democratic principles found in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While I have some concerns about the use of ‘men’ and ‘creator’ (I think the statement applies to all persons regardless of any religious belief or orientation), I do not think it applies only to members of a political party  or racial group or nationality. It says ‘all’ – not limited to those with whom one agrees or whom one likes. ‘All’ is inclusive, as it should be. The spirit of America is not about favoring a few or accumulating wealth or putting one’s personal beliefs above all else. The spirit of America is not about bullying others or taking whatever advantages one can for one’s own benefit.

What I feel that I can and should do is promote a spirit of belonging to a society that embraces diversity, that respects and values differences, that is open and fair to all. My father once said that our responsibility is to bring out the best in others. That is what I can and should be doing. I would hope that people who occupy high offices in this country and in others mentioned in this note would make that a top priority as well.

A note for Prof. Gu's doctoral students

I was asked to post this note to Prof. Gu's doctoral students:

Prof. Gu,

I felt like I did not do a very good job last night with your class. Perhaps these remarks may help (you can share if you think so):

This is an account of how research develops and may undergo maturation along the way. About 10 years ago, I was working on a project in Indonesia called Distributed Basic Education that was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The effort was motivated by a law passed in 2005 that required all Indonesian school teachers to have a four-year baccalaureate degree by 2015. At that time, only about 10% of teachers had a baccalaureate and were certified teachers. The law meant that millions of teachers would need to have the degree in just a few short years. It was a very ambitious project – not a research project but perhaps a development project of the 6.3 (demonstration) or 6.4 (large-scale implementation)  kind mentioned in class. I was working with the open university of Indonesia – Universitas Terbuka (UT) – as that was the only place that had the potential capacity to support large numbers of students required for success. The enrollment at UT went from 350,000 to 650,000 in the first year of our effort. I was responsible for developing methods, procedures, examples, and standards for offering online courses and online support, about which I had some experience. Unfortunately, the Internet failed to gain widespread use in the five years I worked on the project so many of my efforts were not realized in practice.

Meanwhile, I made many friends at UT and around Indonesia and was asked to help them develop guidance for teachers working in rural, multi-grade schools – something about which I knew almost nothing. Still, I was willing to help and suggested starting with a visit to a representative rural, multi-grade school – starting with an observation and descriptive work to gain insights. Such a visit was arranged to a multigrade elementary school in the mountainous region of Bogor. We left Jakarta in a couple of vans at 5:00 am – two American researchers and four Indonesian teachers and an adminisrator from UT. We drove for 2 hours until reaching an unpaved and barely navigable road and then drove for a half hour to a village, where we disembarked. We then walked for 2 miles to a second village where the three-room school was located. There was electricity (wired outside buildings) but no Internet at all. The headmaster greeted us and served us tea and three different kinds of bananas. He described the school, students and teachers with one of our UT colleagues serving as a translator. He also asked us about the bananas which were grown locally. I could not distinguish much difference, but then he told us how very different they were and how each one was best used in food preparation.

We then split ourselves into three groups – two for each of the three classrooms. I was with an Indonesian UT colleague observing the 5th 6th grade classroom. There were about 50 students in the room – about 25 in each grade split into two sides of the room, with 3 students per desk that had one note pad, one pencil and one straight edge. The instructor used a blackboard for notes; when addressing the 6th graders he faced that side of the room while the 5th graders worked on a pre-assigned problem. The 6th grade students were studying science – biology and more specifically plants – that day. The 5th grade students were studying math – more specifically geometry that day.

I understood almost nothing of what he said to the 6th graders. When he turned and spoke to the 5th graders, things became slightly more understandable as he worked example geometry problems on the blackboard which I could easily follow. Meanwhile, the 6th graders were working quietly on their pre-assigned problems. The 5th grade students were learning how to determine the perimeter of a polygon formed by adding a right triangle to a rectangle. Solving the problem required knowing the Pythagorean theorem – the square of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. This is not taught in the USA until the 8th grade so I was a little surprised and somewhat doubtful that those students could solve such problems. After working several examples, the instructor turned and said something to the 6th graders who got up and went outside. Then the 5th graders started working on problems to determine the perimeter of a problem presented on the blackboard. I went behind each group of 3 5th grade students and saw them working in collaboration and with success solving the problem – much to my amazement.

When I was satisfied that the 5th graders had mastered the task, I became curious about the 6th graders. My Indonesian colleague explained to me that their task was to find plants outside that could regenerate by grafting. I went outside to observe what they were doing. They were working in small groups (3 or 4 to a group) with one knife, finding and grafting plants. They were unsupervised. They were sharing and collaborating and not fighting over the knife. Again I was amazed. This would never be allowed in the USA.

At the end of the school day (around 3:00 pm or so), many of the parents came up from the fields and joined us in the school yard along with the students and teachers. They asked us what we would recommend by way of improving the school and the teaching. We had nothing to offer  other than praise for how well they were doing with so few resources. We then asked them about their goals for the school. The parents said they wanted their kids to go on to middle and high school – that meant a long bus ride to the city of Bogor and not coming home except on holidays. I then asked how many go to further education now – about 10% was the answer. How many of those 10% return to the village – almost none was the response. What was their goal, I then asked. I was told by several that they wanted at least 75% to continue their education. I was surprised as that seemed ambitious but not unrealistic. I asked what would happen to the three villages served by the school if they achieved their goal. The parents simply shrugged in response – I pressed again asking if the villages would survive if so many left and did not return. The answer was  a repetition of their desire to have their kids receive a good and comprehensive education.

After we left and returned to Jakarta, we talked at length about our experience. We decided to find out if it was an anomaly. We visited two more multi-grade schools not so far away for shorter visits (extending the descriptive and observational nature of that early research). We found similar situations and then decided to recruit an American doctoral student to do her dissertation studying a dozen rural, multi-grade elementary schools around Indonesia. This was a kind of multi-case qualitative study aimed at determining attitudes, quality of instruction, student learning outcomes, and related matters. Along the way, it was learned that some multi-grade schools were being discontinued but not all as many were in quite remote and undeveloped areas of Indonesia. The research then took on a more interventionist nature (in our recommendations) – how to train and support multi-grade teachers. The project ended so we were not able to follow the effort as it matured, although the student's dissertation was successfully defended.

The point of this story is that research undergoes maturation and having or being associated with a research stream can be rewarding and may even yield positive outcomes and have an impact.

I remember Bob Gagné saying on many occasions that our task is to help people learn. The task is not to help ourselves or our careers – as educational technologists, the goal is to make effective use of technologies and techniques to improve learning and instruction.

That is my story of the day. which I should have used with the class.



J. Michael Spector, PhD
Prof. of Learning Technologies, College of Information
University of North Texas
3940 N. Elm Street, G182, Denton, TX 76207

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Organic Learning System

I am at the Smart Learning Institute at Beijing Normal University and visited NetDragon in Fuzhou while here. In various discussions, I have arrived at the thought that learning systems of the future might become organic as opposed to merely being adaptive to different learners. An organic learning system would have two important characteristics, both of which involve a developmental aspect.
First, an organic learning system would have the ability to learn. This could occur through a process of examining large sets of data about learners or subject matter and noticing patterns among the data; when a pattern is identified, it could become a new rule in a relevant database and used to guide and support subsequent learners and learning activities. An organic learning system might then be said to mature and grow more intelligent over time and with experience.

Second, an organic learning system would view learners as developing individuals. What the system knows about learner X1 at time T1 might not apply to that learner at a later time. The learner might have developed new interests or changed majors and become engaged in different outside activities, all of which could be used to customize learning activities for that learner. An organic learning system, then, recognizes that the primary users of the system are organisms that change over time. In recognition of that fact, an organic learning system would support learner choice and control with regard to what to learn, when, in what order to proceed, at what pace, and with which learning activities.

Well, it’s just a thought … I must add that I was totally impressed by how Dejian Liu has created and organized an amazing work environment at NetDragon (see, for example, 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thinking Beyond Oneself

Thinking Beyond Oneself – Additional Thoughts

For a number of reasons, I have been thinking more about the notion that it is important to think beyond oneself. It is important not only for the sake of creativity and critical thinking. It is important for the sake of developing a humanistic (other-oriented) perspective to guide what one does.
When I reflect on my personal life and think about things I regret doing, what comes to mind are instances when my actions and decisions were guided by thinking about myself first. To avoid self-abasement, I shall not offer examples as nearly all of them involve my children. Had I been a better parent, I would have been putting my children first and foremost all of the time.

When I reflect on my professional life and think about things I regret doing, what comes to mind are instances when I was thinking about my own welfare and values rather than those of others. Again, there are many examples but those cases would be less flattering than I care to reveal in a public blog. I imagine that every person could find both personal and professional cases of thinking primarily about oneself first and not trying to think beyond oneself. I also imagine that many of those cases might have resulted in things that person regrets.

On the other hand, when I think about a very few cases when I made an overt effort to think beyond myself, I find things in which I take some pride. For example, I think about a comprehensive school reform quality initiative project that I led with poorly performing rural K-8 schools in the southeast. Normally, a project has a beginning and an ending, and that was the case with the U.S. Department of Education project. However, a typical educational project also involves service and support. The problem with so many educational projects is that the service and support ends with the project. This did not happen with one of the 8 schools involved in that effort. After the project ended, I managed to invite a school representative to participate in a smart education conference in Beijing, China. A year or so later, I gave the school a 3D printer knowing that the innovative teachers there and the very supportive principal would make good use of it. I am about to donate another technology involving geography education some 6 years or so after the end of that project.

Another example that comes to mind is the USAID Distributed Basic Education project in Indonesia in which I participated for 5 years. That project ended about 7 or 8 years ago. I have maintained contact with a number of Indonesian educators ever since. I helped initiate the AECT Asia summer research meetings based on the interest of Indonesians and participated in the Educational Technology World Conference in Bali in 2016 co-sponsored by Indonesians and AECT.

Those two examples are cases in which I managed to think beyond myself and think about service to and support of others over and above my own personal interests as an academic interested in publications or as a principal investigator or co-investigator interested in funding. Things that may begin as projects often involve service to and support of others. It is important to remember that fact and make an attempt to ensure ongoing service and support.

I often say that it is not about the technology  - it is about the learning. Likewise, it is not about the publications and funding – it is about service to and support of others. Or, as Bob Gagné said on many occasions, our job is to help others. Or, as my father demonstrated on so many occasions, the task is to listen, reflect, encourage, guide and not turn away. Or, as Rabbi Hillel said, “if not now … when?” (see

First Thoughts
I have recently noticed a tendency of many, including my students, to respond to complex situations and issues based on their own rather narrow personal experience. This seems completely natural as we come to have beliefs, habits, and predispositions based on our experience. However, the nature of many complex situations and issues exceed things we have personally experienced yet many still base their beliefs about those situations and issues on personal experience that is somewhat removed from the problem or situation being judged.

For example, with regard to online learning, someone who has taken an online learning course might have experienced feeling that the instructor was distant and perhaps aloof and not very involved in their progress. Is that sufficient reason to conclude that many or most online courses have instructors who appear distant, aloof and uninvolved to their students? Perhaps not.

I have on occasion argued that the primary job of being a teacher is to get students to have questions, which involves (a) admitting that one does not know, (b) committing time and effort in searching for a suitable resolution, (c) being open to alternative explanations, (d) being willing to question one’s own assumptions, and (e) perhaps revisiting the problem and explanation more than once.

I am now thinking that such an inquiry process is basically learning to think beyond oneself – beyond one’s personal and direct experience. I recall in high school when I was on the debate team that part of the preparation was to argue both sides of an issue. That seemed reasonable at the time. I remember learning in a college literature course that there was a dramatic turn toward the self and writing in the first person several hundred years ago, and that turn to the self impacted how stories were told and what was told. At the time, I related that to Descartes’s cogito ergo sum or je pense, donc je suis – I think, therefore I am (or I exist). We are after all thinking beings. Is it not remarkable that consciousness and self-consciousness exist at all?

However, over-reliance on one’s beliefs and prior experience can lead one to make many errors of judgment. I have made my fair share, and now when I consider the ones that come to mind first, I notice that my errors were due to an overconfidence in my own beliefs. I had a wrong-headed confidence in the absolute truth of what I believed to be true, and many of those so-called truths turned out not to be true.

Rather than further embarrass myself with true confessions, I only wanted to point out that I have often believed more than I could possibly have known. At an advanced age, I am just learning to think beyond myself.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Love and Hate

Like many others, I am very disturbed by the divisiveness that now pervades American politics and characterizes America for many around the world. Sharp divisions also exist in academia where many artificial barriers have evolved that prevent academics from collaborating and learning from each other; even worse, these barriers result in superficial thinking about those not in one’s particular academic clique. Peter Goodyear has written about such barriers calling those barriers false dichotomies. 

I have wondered why they exist and persist in spite of evidence that suggests such arbitrary divisions are misleading or unjustified. My current thinking is that people have a natural tendency to simplify. There is probably some survival value in simplifying (as in, “Was that sound I heard in the bushes a bear or just the wind?” followed by a hasty retreat away from the bushes … just in case). Simplifying is a natural tendency because simplifying is linked to the notion of mental models and creating internal representations in order to understand new or unusual phenomena (such a noise coming from the bushes). A model – mental or otherwise – is necessarily a simplification of that which is modeled. A model – mental or otherwise – is not an exact replica. From the perspective of instruction, a model can help the person viewing the model focus on that which is most relevant to a particular task. From a learning perspective, a model also can be used to help a learner focus and interact with that which is most relevant to a learning task. As I have often said, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that we “picture facts to ourselves” (others call these mental models; see While Wittgenstein argued for a correspondence theory of truth in that book (aligning statements with observable facts), he failed to note that we also picture things that are not acts to ourselves. This latter tendency seems to be increasing and becoming more pervasive. 

A description of something is a kind of text-based model and is clearly not the same as that which is described. Wittgenstein’s later work (e.g., Philosophical Investigations) went beyond the strict confines of the Tractatus in part because he realized that people have another remarkable ability. In addition to being naturally able to create internal representations of things experienced, people have a natural tendency to talk about some of those internal representations. We engage in what Wittgenstein called language games (see Language games are rule-based and proceed based on the assumptions that those involved know and generally follow the rules and conventions associated with the language in that context, which is why Wittgenstein argued that it is the use of language in a context that provides the meaning. Then meaningful discourse can extend beyond the more narrow scientific structure presented in the Tractatus. The following remarks about love and hate fall into that extended territory opened up in Philosophical Investigations.

One of my philosophy professors at UT-Austin became an advisor and later a friend and colleague. We had  many discussions about all kinds of things ranging from Bob Dylan to lacrosse to religion. He was Presbyterian and knew I was Jewish. He knew my father was a Rabbi and often inquired about my religious views. On one occasion, he characterized the fundamental difference between Christians and Jews in the form of a single commandment. For Christians, the fundamental commandment was “thou shalt love” – no restrictions – everyone, at all times. He went on to argue that for Jews, the fundamental commandments was “thou shalt obey” – based on his having read that there were some 613 commandments in the Torah, which basically say that one should do that which God had prescribed in those 613 mitzvot (which refers to actions decreed by God but is used more commonly to simply refer to good deeds). 

While I recall the professor making that distinction, I do not recall all of the details of the subsequent discussion. I did take exception as I thought it was a misleading simplification for several reasons. First, I do not know anyone who loves all others at all times. I only learned what the emotion of hate was until years after that conversation, but I did know at the time that there were people whom I did not love and that there had been people whom I could not imagine loving. I also pointed out that one of those 613 commandments was essentially what Christians call the Golden Rule – it can be found in Leviticus (Vah-yik-rah)  19:18 – “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Rabbi Hillel’s version of that passage and related passages in Leviticus is simple – that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.
Then there is a question if a single statement or commandment can characterize an entire religious perspective. I learned both the power and the limitations of such a simplification. My professor said and believed that anyone who was not acting on any occasion or in any circumstance on the basis of love was not being Christian. He admitted that it was a goal (loving everyone at all times in any circumstance) that no human could attain while arguing that it was a worthwhile goal. I am not sure but I believe I argued that understanding what that meant required many examples and elaboration of cases, which is perhaps why there are 613 mitzvot. 

So much for George Miller’s 7 +/- 2 rule about the limits of short term memory. Even the basic 10 commandments exceed the memory capacity of most persons according to Miller’s memory research. Can you recall all 10? 

I recall one because the differences in translation are fascinating. It is the sixth commandment (Low Tirzach) – which in ancient Hebrew meant not to murder rather than not to kill, according to the modern English translation of that commandment. I used that distinction as my final rebuttal to my professor’s claim that loving vs. obeying was what differentiated Christians and Jews. I argued that for Christians, the challenge was never to kill anyone or anything at any time in any circumstance. However, for Jews the challenge was never to murder another person. He seemed to accept that differentiation, which is still an oversimplification. 

What brought back that conversation from more than 40 years ago was the divisiveness that is so deep and so persistent in America and other places. I recently had to admit to my kids – who are all adults now with graduate degrees – that I think things are more deeply divided now than they were when I, as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam conflict, refused to carry a gun when sent to an air base in Thailand. I recall battling bumper stickers from those days saying such things as “America: Love it or Leave” or “America: Change it or Lose it.” 

When one is overcome with hate, one loses oneself. My father taught me that. When a country is overcome with divisiveness, it loses itself. That is my worry in these troubling times.