Monday, January 07, 2013

reinventing myself

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction
- Otto Neurath
I love the practice of Zig Engelmann's Direct Instruction but am not happy with his philosophical underpinnings as expressed in sections of Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools? Engelmann and Carnine just seem to take extracts from a variety of philosophers and throw them together in a grab bag: some James, JS Mill, Peirce, Plato, Skinner, etc. In other places serious thinkers such as Dewey and Piaget are dismissed without a full consideration of their contribution.

Nevertheless, the practice of Direct Instruction is very impressive, for disadvantaged learners, and I have to embrace it.

Since I like to think of myself as a philosophical person this creates a dilemma. I think of Direct Instruction as excellent in practice but insufficiently theorised.

It has led me to study philosophy again. I have some general background knowledge in the works of Karl Marx, Seymour Papert, the evolution debate between Stephen J Gould and Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Marvin Minsky, Alan Kay and Noel Pearson. These thinkers have seriously influenced my thinking.

But they haven't yet provided me with the comprehensive thinking tools I need to evaluate Direct Instruction.

So, I've began a review of the history of the philosophy of science. Since Engelmann has at times described his method as "Logico-Empirical" (p. 125 of the JS Mill book mentioned above) then I needed to understand why logical empiricism as well as logical positivism had been decisively rejected by modern philosophers. A reasonable introduction (but it's only an overview with good references) to this question is provided by Peter Godfrey-Smith in Theory and Reality.

Arising from this study I've now discovered a seriously profound contemporary philosopher, Hilary Putnam, who forces me to think in new ways, who challenges my ideas in ways which I can't ignore. What this means is developing a toolkit of philosophical ideas which inform my world outlook and current practice in trying to help indigenous kids, who are behind in their learning, to learn more effectively.

Perhaps I'll write a few blogs outlining some of these new thoughts in the near future. Thinking aloud and having a conversation or debate on these issues does help.


Tony Forster said...

An empirical approach to education has 3 problems (1) ethical constraints on experimentation (2) difficulty measuring outcomes particularly higher order skills (3) teaching to the test. It might be useful to look at the history of medicine and psychology which share some characteristics

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

Just becoming clear about the language is a preliminary problem, eg. the word empiricism. I think you are using it just in the sense of gathering data or results or test results. I think Engelmann uses it in a similar way. There is a big emphasis on collecting data to evaluate programs. His materials are rigorously field tested before marketing which can't be said for most textbooks, for instance. I see this as a really strong point of his programme.

However, philosophers use the word empiricism in another sense. The logical empiricists tried to argue that experience is the only source of knowledge in the world. They argued that scientific meaning can be reduced to sensory experience. They attempted to structure the use of language along those lines. ie. that meaningful language was restricted to statements which were capable of being verified. The rest of language was just noise. This view is wrong but the refutation is not particularly easy. I think you have to read Quine's "Two Dogmas" to really understand why holism is valid. I hadn't understood the importance of holism before that. When Engelmann drifted into using that phrase logico-empirical I don't think he realised the philosophical implications. Nevertheless, the history of logical positivism and logical empiricism is not irrelevant to what Engelmann is trying to achieve either.

I agree that higher order skills is a different issue. Rhonda Farkota argues along those lines too. I have some earlier blogs about her if you want to search. It's just that I'm mainly concerned at the moment about the basic issue of indigenous kids learning the 3Rs. That's a huge issue of concern.

I think medicine is fairly similar to Engelmann's approach. Basically there are standard procedures which have been shown to be reliable to meet presenting conditions from patients. A doctor would be taking a huge risk if they departed from the standard procedures.

As for psychology I'm not there is much agreement amongst "experts". A psychoanalyst and a behaviourist use different methods, for example. Not sure what you are getting at there.

Tony Forster said...

Yes, I confess to being a little out of my depth here, nevertheless,

Early science believed in four elements, medecine four humors. This was based less on what was observable and more on what felt internally consistent, a thought experiment carried out almost independantly of the observable universe. So strong was this belief that it persisted for 2000 years. Only quite recently has the scientific method taken over from the philosophical method.

To me, medecine of 100 years ago is very similar to educational research today. Its more about what sounds consistent with other theories and less about what can be observed.

Psychology and economics are today more about what sounds right and less about what can be observed.

Bill Kerr said...

"Only quite recently has the scientific method taken over from the philosophical method"

hi tony,
I've been busy reading more philosophy, mainly Hilary Putnam.

He's changed my thinking a lot. He argues that there isn't a unified scientific method, that science is more diverse than that. He's critical of scientism, the idea that a scientific world view will become an all encompassing human perspective. So, I'm thinking that philosophy is still important for providing a broader perspective on human flourishing.

It's hard to explain briefly :-)