Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Optimism vs. Realism with regard to Educational Technologies

It is fine to be optimistic about the potential to use technology to improve learning and instruction. I am optimistic – otherwise I would not be in this profession. However, I do maintain that there is very little evidence of large-scale (e.g., nationwide) sustained improvement in learning and instruction due to the various uses of technologies in recent and not so recent years in the USA. I have found two funded educational projects that managed to have large-scale and sustained impact over the years (perhaps there are others): Sesame Street (see http://www.sesamestreet.org/) and Headstart (see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ohs/about/history-of-head-start). 

I argued years ago in a paper that the success of an educational technology project should be based on whether or not there were subsequent projects building on the findings of earlier works. In that sense, Jasper Woodbury (see https://jasper.vueinnovations.com/) was somewhat successful as it eventually led to such efforts as Marcia Linn’s WISE (see https://wise.berkeley.edu/). One could argue likewise for some success of Seymour Papert’s Logo (see http://el.media.mit.edu/logo-foundation/what_is_logo/history.html) which eventually led to Scratch and Co-Lab (see https://www.media.mit.edu/people/mres/projects/). However, none of those efforts resulted in large-scale, sustained adoption in American classrooms although they demonstrated positive outcomes, as have other works. 

The point I have been making in recent years concerns a failure to connect theory and research with practice, policy and the management of educational systems – that is the purpose of the major online reference work entitled “Learning, Design and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy” (see http://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007%2F978-3-319-17727-4). I am not optimistic that my efforts with that work will have the intended impact.

I stand by my comments to the Beijing National Day School (BNDS) visitors and think it is time for those in our profession to stop over-promising and to realize the challenges in turning good research into practice that lives well beyond specific studies and experiments. My guiding mantras are these:

  • It is not about the technology – it is about the learning.
  • It is not about the technology – it is about the use of the technology.
  • It is not what one says that matters – what matters is what one does (Gagné said that our job is to help people learn – he said that to researchers at AERA who were asking about publishing their research results).
  • What matters is the will of a society to value and support education – this is what I regard as the most fundamental challenge in the USA.

 There are no doubt successful research projects in the sense that they demonstrate some of their intended outcomes. What I have not seen are the translation of those outcomes into sustained practice on a large scale in this country. I do believe the UVA-Smithsonian STEAM effort (see https://news.virginia.edu/content/smithsonian-curry-give-students-chance-reinvent-famous-creations) will have a positive impact. It is not clear that school districts will change curricula or invest in innovation in the way that those at BNDS have been doing since 1952.

And then I think about my experience in Indonesia with multi-grade rural schools – it led to a dissertation studying 12 such schools. I visited a rural school in the Bogor District that took two hours by car to reach a village and then walking for two miles to reach the school that served three somewhat remote mountain villages. It was a three-room schoolhouse, no computers, electricity wired outside buildings, one blackboard and chalk in each room – one room for 1st and 2nd grade, one for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade students. There were about 50 kids in each of those rooms, three to a desk sharing one pencil, one pad of paper and a straight edge. I observed the 5th and 6th grade classroom. The teacher only had a two year degree but was also going full-time to get his baccalaureate as had been mandated by an Indonesian law. He was amazing. The 5th grade students were studying math – geometry. The 6th grade students were studying science – botany. When he looked at the left side of the room (5th graders), the others worked quietly on a problem. When he shifted to look at the other side, the 5th graders worked quietly. After an hour or so, the 6th graders all got up and left the classroom. He then showed the 5th grade students how to calculate the perimeter of a polygon, constructed with a right triangle on top of a rectangle. To solve the problem, they had to  know the Pythagorean theorem – 5th grade students in a rural, multi-grade school in Indonesia. I was riveted. After working two examples on the board, the teacher set them to working a problem on their own in the groups of three to a table. I watched each group work together to solve the problem -  no fighting over the one pencil or straight edge and they understood the Pythagorean theorem and used it to correctly solve the problem.

Then I began to wonder what happened to the 6th grade students. My Indonesian colleague told me that they had been sent outside to find plants that could reproduce without seeding – e.g., by plant cloning. I went outside to observe. What I saw were small groups of students (3 to 5), sharing one knife finding plants and cloning them – all without adult supervision. I was again amazed. 

At the end of the day, the parents came up from the fields to greet us and exchange ideas. They wanted to know how to improve the school and the teaching – we had  nothing to offer. Nothing. We then asked them what their goals were. Through a translator, we were told they wanted their kids to get a high school education – that meant the kids would have to leave the village and spend the week or year in Bogor (two hours away by bus). How many now go on to high school? we asked. About 10%. What happens to them? They find jobs in the city. What is your goal for these kids? For 75% to go on to high school. What happens to the village if they do not return? We only got shrugs in reply. They valued the education of their kids more than the survival of their villages. Given that amazing experience, we wanted to see if it held up in other situations, so we had an FSU doctoral student visit and study 12 other schools (I visited several of them with her and saw the same kind of commitment to education in other rural multi-grade schools in Indonesia). 

The challenges education faces in Indonesia are arguably more formidable than those we face in the USA, but I am inclined to believe the will of the people to educate their children will play a greater role than almost anything else – technology or otherwise. That is why I am optimistic. And realistic at the same time.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Confusion May Be Contagious

In discussing a number of my recent confusions with colleagues in China, I realized that my confusions were also causing a couple of the Chinese to become confused. The thought that confusions are contagious then escaped from my lips without much thought. Now I am wondering if there is any evidence to support such a claim.

Many years ago when working at the University of Bergen in Norway in the area of system dynamics-based learning environments, I devised a principle called UUPS – pronounced ‘oops’, standing for the Universal Underlying Principle of all Systems – namely, when one begins working on a complex and challenging problem the notion is that something has already gone wrong. Typical early problems include (a) misdiagnosing the problem, (b) not providing sufficient resources early in the effort to address the problem, (c) focusing on just one aspect of a complex and dynamic problem, and (d) assuming that the future will resemble the past with regard to the problem situation.

A first corollary to UUPS is the notion that mistakes rarely occur in isolation. Typically, one mistake leads to another and so on. Misdiagnosing the problem can lead one to address a symptom of a problem rather than an underlying cause. One might then develop an elegant but entirely ineffective solution. Yes, I have done so on more than one occasion although my solutions are rarely very elegant. That first corollary to UUPS is related to my current thought that confusion may be contagious. Recent political events tend to reinforce this nascient belief.

I added two additional corollaries to UUPS: (a) there are rarely sufficient resources to do what you believe should be done to address a problem situation involving a complex and dynamic system, and (b) others generally have good or better ideas about what can be done to improve the situation. But then I rarely listen to myself much less to others.

I seem to recall a phrase treated in some depth in one of my psychology courses many years ago around the popular claim that misery loves company. The instructor asked us to read about that notion and finds its origins and offer an explanation based in psychology that would lead some credence to that popular belief. What little I recall from that class is the notion that the evidence tends to show that misery likes miserable company. Apparently, a 14th century Italian historian named Dominici de Gravina wrote, in his Chronicon de rebus in Apulia gestis something that translates roughly as follows: "It is a comfort to those who are unfortunate to have had companions in misfortune.”

My more recent dives into the research pertaining to confusions being contagious led mainly to articles about contagious diseases. Being easily influenced by what I read, I then had he thought that perhaps confusion could be treated as a kind of disease – a disease of the mind so to speak. This notion has promise in terms of understanding how confusions are formed, reinforced and spread to others. Perhaps.

Confusion is a contagious disease of the mind. Onward through the fog, as they say at Oat Willie’s (see http://oatwillies.com/). Could it be that a person develops a malady that results in frequent confusions? If so, how might that happen? Many have written about habits of the mind (for example, see http://www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/what-are-the-habits-of-mind/). In general, those persons have taken a positive view of the habits of the mind and argued for their support and development in teaching and learning. However, a more neutral approach would be to view mental habits just as other habits are viewed – namely, in terms of repeated activation that lead to a relatively thoughtless repetition of a particular disposition in a certain kind of situation. The notion of reinforcement patterns in the brain’s neural network structure seems to support such a general analysis. So, it may be possible that through repeated activation a person develops a mental habit that is likely to result in confusion in some cases. It could be repeated reliance on one source or one authority or one perspective to account for a wide range of beliefs. I recall reading Quine and Ullian’s Web of Belief (see http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-content/uploads/W.-V.-Quine-J.-S.-Ullian-The-Web-of-Belief.pdf) years ago and thinking that when confronted with something that does not fit with prior beliefs and dispositions that one is forced to call into question an entire set of beliefs, however reluctantly.

Then I remember one of Nietzsche’s aphorism in The Dawn of Day: "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." Perhaps following that advice is one way to inoculate oneself and others from confusion. One of my philosophy mentors, Oets Kolk Bouwsma, argued that many philosophical constructs were a result of conceptual confusion (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oets_Kolk_Bouwsma). This is akin to Wittgenstein’s notion in Philosophical Investigations that language can lead one astray (see http://aprender.ead.unb.br/pluginfile.php/170854/mod_resource/content/1/RPGB%20Wittgenstein%20Phil%20Investigations.pdf). I have formed a habit of reminding myself of two of Wittgenstein’s key ideas: (a) From the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – we picture facts to ourselves (that is to say that people naturally create internal representations to make sense of things they experience that are new or puzzling; see http://tractatus-online.appspot.com/Tractatus/jonathan/); and (b) from Philosophical Investigations – we talk about those internal representations to which no one has direct access with others in the form of language games. If one only talks with those who hold similar views and dispositions, then one is not likely to question one’s assumptions or carefully examine the quality and credibility of the evidence supporting those views and dispositions (recall Nietzsche’s advice).

Well, there seems to be no lack of conceptual confusion on my part or among the general public. Perhaps confusion has reached epidemic proportions. Not to panic … one can always crawl back into Plato’s cave described in The Republic (see https://web.stanford.edu/class/ihum40/cave.pdf). Life in the shadows is sometimes easier to manage.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fake News: Spinning and Winning

Fake News: Spinning and Winning
“Truth crushed to earth, shall rise again” (William Cullen Bryant)

In Nelson Goodman’s (1954), Fact Fiction and Forecast, the notion of projectible predication arises to differentiate hypotheses based on regularities well grounded in experience and those which are not. There is a parallel treatment of counterfactuals (If X, then Y, and not-x, as in “If this thing in my hand was made of copper, it would conduct electricity but it is actually a wooden popsicle stick”) involving relationships well-grounded in experience and those which are not. What might we say about facts, fictions, and forecasts, in educational research or in the current political climate?

What are some facts in the area of educational research? A study by the 2014 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) involving 33 countries shows that 7 of those countries scored significantly higher on a literacy scale and six scored significant lower (measured understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text) than the USA and the USA was slightly below the average (see https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=69).
Here is an associated counterfactual claim: If an adult person M (say that is me – an American) is a lifelong resident of Japan, then M is more likely to be literate than N (where N is an adult American picked at random). Is that counterfactual claim reasonable?

Here is another claim supported by extensive educational research: Directive feedback (providing corrective information) tends to work well with learners new to a topic or domain whereas facilitative feedback (providing guidance and cues) tends to work well with more advanced learners (Shute, 2007; see https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-07-11.pdf). Now, suppose that P is a learner new to the domain of logic and epistemology (me, for instance – my dissertation was in that area) and someone claims that P is more likely to benefit from directive feedback in the area of logic than Q (a middle school student in rural Alabama). Is that a reasonable claim?

One way to treat counterfactuals (IF-Then claims with the IF-clause clearly false) is to dismiss them as trivial or even meaningless. Yet some seem to make sense to some people. Other counterfactuals can be used to make jokes as in: “If I knew everything, then I would know _______________ .” I forgot to mention that this was a pop quiz. How did you fill in the blank? I used this phrase: “… then I would know where parallel lines meet.” Math humor is not so humorous to very many people.

On to fictions. I just love fictions. Sometimes I think about my training in philosophy … one of my professors said that the never-ending business of philosophy was to help us understand the boundaries between sense and nonsense. My own take on philosophy is that it is a kind of thought in slow motion. Fictions – claims that do not hold up under scrutiny. Scrutiny is when you close one eye and take a closer look for those of you taking notes. There are some blatant fictions as this one I discovered in a book on medieval logic: “I just ate the last cannibal” spoken in a group of monks who had taken vows of silence. Bouwsma’s (one of my professors) example was this: “I just suffered a fatal heart attack.”

There are many less blatant fictions. Here is one: “Humans only came to the Grand Canyon area about 4,000 years ago.” Here is another one: “All of the fossils found in the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies were fossils of creatures still living somewhere.” Consider this one: “There is no evidence that human activities contribute to climate change.” Some people believe what they want to believe and are reluctant to take a closer look at evidence or consider alternative perspectives or beliefs. There is a difference between advocacy for something and evidence supporting something. A critical issue concerns the nature of good and compelling evidence. Just as there is a fuzzy boundary between sense and nonsense, the boundary between advocacy and research is somewhat fuzzy. 

Just as counterfactuals turn out to be somewhat problematic, there is another kind of IF-THEN claim that is also problematic. I call it an unconditional conditional and it has the general form of If X, then Y, where no matter what is put in for X the person making the unconditional conditional claim will maintain the truth of Y. No refutation of the unconditional conditional is considered possible. In such a case, one cannot conclude that Y is a fiction … one can only walk away from the unreasonable challenge of the advocate of the unconditional conditional in trying to offer evidence that Y or the unconditional conditional with Y as the then-clause may not be true. 

Does this ever happen in educational research? In medical research? In political discourse? The challenge of finding examples in each of those categories is left to the reader – this is the mid-term exam. Hint – the answer to the first set of three questions  is ‘yes’ – this does not constitute timely nor informative feedback. It is merely encouragement to keep on keeping’ on.
When you have completed the mid-term exam, you may want to continue on to forecasts. My forecast is that some of you will pass the mid-term. After all, it was a take-home exam … or take-to-the-bathroom exam.

Having said a few things about IF-THEN claims, it seems natural to apply some of that discussion to forecasts, as these often come in the form of complex IF-THEN statements, such as:” “If W, and X and Y, then Z” – W might refer to the learning or instructional context and X might refer to the students or teachers and Y might refer to the intervention or treatment. Obviously, each of the parts of the complex IF clause could be compound, which means that the forecast result Z depends  on a conjunction of a set of contributing factors. If Z does not occur, the advocate of Z is likely to look for one or more deficiencies in the set of contributing factors. Another approach is to construct a replication study or a revised version to see if Z might occur. Yet another approach is to revise Z and conduct a replication study. Forecasting or predicting and then confirming or refuting or refining is not easy … it is what scientists and meteorologists and other investigators are trained to do. 

I have a vague memory of reading Fact, Fiction and Forecast about 45 years ago. I was fascinated by the concept of the hypothetical predicate ‘grue’ for things that are green before some future date and blue after that date. At this time, ‘all emeralds are green’ and 'all emeralds are grue’ are both true and confirmed by the same evidence. However, few believe that after that future date that emeralds will all be blue. I also realized that I did not understand what a meteorologist meant by a forecast of 40% chance of rain. Was it that 40% of the area covered by the forecast would surely receive rain, or that any random spot in the forecast area would have a 40% chance of rain or that it will rain 40% of the day or ??? Forecasting still bewilders me. I recall a sports enthusiast being asked to predict the outcome of an event about to begin. The sports enthusiast replied “Let’s just watch and see what happens.” My respect for sports enthusiasts rose significantly that day.

I suppose we need a final exam since we have had a pop quiz and a mid-term exam. The final exam is a single multiple choice question:

Which of the following statements is true?
  1. There is someone in this room who loves all and only those persons in this room who do not love themselves.
  2. Never in the course of human history have events so resembled the present as they now do.
  3. It is a fact that X leaked Y but that fact is fake news
  4. There are an even number of planets in the Milky Way galaxy
  5. If X is a human being, then X knows less than X is typically inclined to believe that X knows.
  6.  More than one of the above is true
  7. More than one of the above is false.
 Truth? What is truth? I will go where you go, answered Ruth. My trumpet is louder than yours so follow me said someone else. The truth they are telling might only be the truth that is selling. And the slow one now will later be fast said the Nobel laureate.