Monday, December 30, 2013

dark morality: an argument in favour of moral uncertainty

Lecture 3: Equality and Our Moral Image of the World. In Putnam, Hilary (1987) The Many Faces of Realism.

I think this lecture resonates so strongly with me because it explains an issue that has worried me below the surface, without being able to articulate it clearly. The issue was wanting to be certain but not being certain about a variety of personal, political and cultural questions.

Putnam begins by saying that Kant kept a double set of books, one for a world we experience, our world, and the other, a world behind a veil (the Noumenal world), that we don't know about. Putnam, along with Lenin etc (Marxist critics of Kant) finds this dualism repulsive.

But unlike the marxist critics, who sometimes dismiss Kant contemptuously with one liners ("thing in itself", rubbish), Putnam finds much about Kant that is worthy and extraordinary.

Kant was the first philosopher to reject the idea of truth as correspondence to a pre-structured Reality (see Reason, Truth and History, pp. 56-7, 60-64 for more detail here)

Putnam evolved his idea of internal realism around about 1980. On the one side he rejected Big R Realism as being too algorithmic. On the other side he rejected Cultural Relativism as being too divorced from reality. Internal realism was a way to drive the philosophical chariot up the middle. This description is far too brief a summary of course, Putnam has written at length on this subject.

The fundamental idea of Kant's “critical philosophy” — especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) — is human autonomy

One version of empiricism (there are many versions) says that all we know for sure is sense data. Kant rejects this in his first critique. When we experience the outer world with our senses the actual experience is inner, not outer. Sensations, the "objects of inner sense", are caught within the web of belief and conceptualisation. They do not represent an uncorrupted given that anchors our knowledge. Kant was the first internal realist. Our conceptual contribution can't be factored out. The "makers-true" and "makers-verified" of our beliefs lie within and not outside our conceptual system

Each of Kant's critique presents a different kind of reason and a different image of the world to go with each kind of reason: scientific reason, ethical reason, aesthetic reason, juridical reason. So even though Kant thinks we have exactly one scientific version of the world, for Putnam these different kinds of reasons hint at the conceptual relativity that he supports (eg. see pp. 17-19 of The Many Faces of Realism for more detail on conceptual relativity).

Putnam's aim in this book is to sketch the outline of internal realism in moral philosophy

Kant inherited from Rousseau and the ideals of the French revolution, in particular, the value of Equality. Equality comes from the Jewish religion. All humans are created in the image of God. Greek ethics (Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic period) had no notion of universal human equality.

Note for further study: Compare this with Hannah Arendt's critique of the French revolution, that compassion for the most disadvantaged projected as the supreme virtue contributed to the destruction of Robespierre (On Revolution)

The idea of equality, when it is detached from it's religious roots becomes somewhat mysterious and exposed to scoffing. How many people really, deeply believe in human equality, beyond a politically correct platitude?

The idea of secular equality might be based on notions of something morally mysterious about humans (which is left undefined), respect, happiness, suffering or rights. It is not based on talents, achievements, social contribution etc. Nietzsche attacked the idea that we should respect the untalented. His moral elitism is perhaps still shared by many, for example, those working next to the untalented receiving the same pay, to take one example. Unions tend to oppose merit pay, is that a correct stance? Our belief in equality needs to be put under the microscope. This is one value of Putnam's essay, he is developing a more robust philosophical defence of equality.

In traditional formulations of equality (religious and secular) the notion of equality did not relate to freedom.

Kant offers a new approach that links liberty or freedom to equality. Kant's central distinction is between autonomy and heteronomy. Heteronomy is acceptance of the domination of an outside authority, human or divine. One accepts a moral system unthinkingly. It never occurs to one to "think for oneself", the great maxim of the Enlightenment. Totalitarians try to produce heteronomous people (sheep)

But what is autonomy? What is a positive characterisation of autonomy (as distinct from it being the opposite of heteronomy?)

An autonomous person asks: What should I do? How should I live?

An autonomous person uses free will and reason (rationality) to choose ethical principles. This approach is compatible with medieval (the Middle Ages, 5th - 15th C) thinking, for instance that of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Putnam praises Kant because he transcends this medieval approach.

The medievals thought we had the capacity to know human essence, to know what Happiness or Eudaemonia (human flourishing) is, in the "thick" Aristotelian sense, the inclusive human end. We use our free will and rationality to discover what one should do and then do it. Eudaemonia becomes an engineering problem.

Kant rejects this, is sceptical. Happiness can be interpreted in too many different ways to be reduced to an engineering problem.

More than this, Kant welcomes and celebrates this uncertainty about the human condition. If there was a revealed nature of Eudaemonia then that would lead to heteronomy. An objective, inclusive human end is repulsive to Kant and Putnam.

It would be a bad thing if the truths of religion could be deduced by reason because that would produce fanaticism, intense hostility to others thinking for themselves. The logical fanatic is the most dangerous type of fanatic! Fanaticism is undesirable in itself. As far as I can tell this seems to be a foundational truth for Putnam but one that I share. The problematic nature of moral truth (religious truth for Kant) is a good thing.

Being certain about our beliefs is sometimes a bad thing. We should always be open to the need to sometimes revise our beliefs (fallibilism). Scepticism, doubt and uncertainty have their place. Putnam's broader outlook is that both belief and doubt require justification. In this essay he puts the case against certainty in moral belief.

This is where Kant breaks with the medievals, that to know human essence can be reduced to an engineering problem!

At the other end, fideism maintains that faith is independent of reason or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. Kant attacks fideism too, basing religion of faith, since that also leads to fanaticism.

Kant says let us recognise that we have a religious need but let us not be fanatical about the way in which we satisfy that need. Neither Reason nor Fundamentalism (leap of faith, blind faith) can tell us with certainty how to satisfy that need.

In our secular age this message is still relevant since people embrace non religious causes with religious fervour (Environmentalism, Marxism, Libertarianism etc.) and, of course, religious fundamentalism is still a huge problem in the world (eg. al Qaeda). All of these causes contain truths but the danger that those truths will turn into dogma is real.

The respect in which we are all equals is that we all face this same dilemma, we can choose to think for ourselves without a clear guide. We are free, we can reason but there is no certainty in the outcome. That is the most valuable fact about our lives, our Eudaemonia. Putnam is arguing that this insight, linking equality to freedom originates with Kant.

Kant's ideal community is one of beings who think for themselves without knowing what the human essence is, without knowing what Eudaemonia is, and who respect one another for doing that. This is a valuable corrective to the danger of those who embrace causes with religious, fanatical fervour.

Kant, although he admired Rousseau, is very far from Rousseau's notion of submission to the general will.

This exercise in philosophical anthropology leads to the emergence of a moral image of the world. Putnam takes this phrase from Dieter Henrich.

A moral image of the world is more than a checklist of virtues or what one ought to do (rights, responsibilities etc.), rather it is a picture of how our virtues and ideals hang together with each other. It may be as vague as sisterhood or brotherhood. Putnam asserts that we need a moral image of the world, or, since he is a pluralist, a number of complementary moral images of the world.

For the medievals metaphysical realism was unproblematically correct since rational intuition gave us direct access to things in themselves.

Kant's advance on this was to celebrate the loss of essences without turning back to Humean empiricism

The core issue for me is do we really believe in human equality in a deep sense and has Putnam, interpreting Kant in this way, produced a stronger argument for equality, by linking it to freedom. That the result of believing we have free will and using our rationality as best we can is not moral certainty but instead uncertainty or pluralism, many paths open, there is not One True Way as advocated by fanatics of different stripes (religious fundamentalists, environmental alarmists, marxist dictatorships etc.). Moreover, his moral image of the world, that we start out as free, rational individuals who despite our best efforts can't achieve certainty on many big issues is far more powerful than some check list of virtues or the way we ought to be. This appears to me to be an original contribution or a deepening of our knowledge about the human condition. Putnam's argument is strong in part because it is informed by a deep knowledge of the philosophers who came before him (Hume, Rousseau, Kant).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Trevor Tao: piano plus Rubik's cube

After chess today (Andrew Saint memorial), whilst we were munching pizza, Bill Anderson-Smith mentioned a youtube video where Trevor Tao, one of the chess participants and known for his various remarkable abilties, solves the Rubiks cube whilst playing a piece on the piano ( Erik Satie's gymnopedie). Here it is:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Is Diane Ravitch missing something?

Diane Ravitch is a highly respected education commentator and historian in the USA. She initially supported "No Child Left Behind" but later reversed her position.
High-stakes testing, "utopian" goals, "draconian" penalties, school closings, privatization, and charter schools didn't work, she concluded. "The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers." (Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform)
I noticed a couple of books she has written which are very relevant to my research (research update here). I have just ordered her most recent book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. It contains chapters on test scores (both local to the USA and international comparisons such as PISA), the achievement gap, poverty, merit pay, teacher tenure, Teach for America and Michelle Rhee. The gloves are off, it's education war in the USA.

This made me curious about her attitude to Direct Instruction, so I did an advanced search of her blog using that phrase, "Direct Instruction" site: It appears that Diane doesn't write much about Direct Instruction but she does publish opponents of DI, such as Stephen Krashen, on her blog.

But what I found most interesting was that a supporter of DI, with the moniker Eded, challenged Stephen Krashen and IMO Prof Krashen did not provide an adequate response. Here is the exchange, including the original Stephen Krashen material initially posted by Diane Ravitch, A Literacy Expert Opposes the Common Core Standards
Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, where he taught linguistics.

He comments here in response to an earlier post about the Common Core standards:
What this excessive detail also does is
(1) dictate the order of presentation of aspects of literacy
(2) encourage a direct teaching, skill-building approach to teaching.

Both of these consequences run counter to a massive amount of research and experience.

There is very good evidence from both first and second language acquisition that aspects of language and literacy are naturally acquired in a specific order that cannot be altered by instruction (C. Chomsky, 1969, The Acquisition of Syntax in Children from 5 to 10. Cambridge: MIT Press; Krashen, S. 1981, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Pergamon Press, available at

There is also very good evidence that we acquire language and literacy best not through direct instruction but via “comprehensible input” – for literacy, this means reading, especially reading that the reader finds truly interesting, or “compelling.” (Krashen, S. 2010.The Goodman/Smith Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, the Comprehension Hypothesis, and the (Even Stronger) Case for Free Voluntary Reading. In: Defying Convention, Inventing the Future in Literacy Research and Practice: Essays in Tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman. P. Anders (Ed.) New York: Routledge. 2010. pp. 46-60. Available at
Now here is the exchange between Eded and Prof. Krashen in the comments:
December 27, 2012 at 12:24 am
Regarding the second point, I’m not aware of any research to suggest that direct instruction is counter to research.

Please have a look at papers at, my books, as well as the work of Frank Smith, Kenneth Goodman and others.

Dr. Krashen – thanks very much for posting the link to your website in response to my comment earlier. I have reviewed a few of your articles, and unfortunately I’m not seeing any research demonstrating that direct instruction is ineffective. I do see arguments presented, with some research, that motivation is important when learning to read, along with opportunities to meaningfully engage with reading. However, I haven’t seen any studies which contradict the massive body of evidence supporting direct instruction in the “Big 5″ areas of reading (see for a good list of research).

Could you perhaps provide a reference to a research article which specifically examines direct instruction vs. non-direct instruction instructional methods, and shows a greater impact of non-direct instruction methods on general reading outcomes (e.g., measures of reading fluency, comprehension)? It may be more helpful to evaluate your claims more specifically, rather than talk in broad generalities.

To the general public reading, I would highly encourage you to view the research link above and draw your own conclusions regarding direct instruction, as Dr. Krashen (and apparently Dr. Ravitch) are in the extreme minority when it comes to perceptions regarding the literature base of direct instruction.

Please keep looking. Many of us have published research showing the extreme limitations of direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, grammar, in direct response to the claims of the big 5 and National Reading Panel, and supporting the hypothesis that PA,phonics, vocabulary, grammar and competence in text structure are the result of reading (especially self-selected reading). Much of it is summarized in one place: Please see Comments on the LEARN Act, (A lot of it has been published in major journals, eg Phi Delta Kappan, Reading Research Quarterly, Garan’s papers in Language Arts, Kappan.)

Thanks for your response Dr. Krashen. Certainly one of the difficult aspects of this discussion is that it’s so broad. It’s not very easy to making sweeping generalizations about broad categories of interventions, as any particular side can start pointing at particular niches in the research, or studies within those niches, to prove points.

As such, I’ll respond to your comments on the LEARN Act specifically related to Phonemic Awareness (PA). Your main citation is a review of studies cited by the NRP about phonemic awareness, where you cite an insignificant effect of PA training on reading comprehension. In response, I’d direct you to this meta-analysis which shows a moderate effect size for PA on reading skills, and a large effect size for PA training on phonemic awareness skills:

I’d also point out a limitation of the parameters of your meta-analysis:

You only examine the effect of PA training on reading comprehension, as opposed to more component skills such as decoding, word reading, and reading fluency. It is entirely possible that PA training would have little or no direct impact on reading comprehension in later years of a child’s educational career, but have a more significant impact on more basic, foundational skills such as decoding. As such, it may be that phonemic awareness training is not sufficient in producing effects related to reading comprehension, and perhaps not even necessary with some (or many) kids, but it may nevertheless be a necessary component for some struggling readers in terms of acquiring beginning reading skills. As such, citing evidence that PA instruction fails to single-handedly produce long-term reading gains is not evidence that PA training is unnecessary.

Consider this analogy: a beginning swimmer receives instruction on how to breathe properly, but receives no additional swimming instruction. Is breathing instruction sufficient to producing good swimmers? No. Do all good swimmers breathe well? Mostly. Did all good swimmers learn, through explicit instruction, to breathe properly? No. Is any of this evidence that explicit instruction related to breathing properly is unnecessary or unhelpful to beginning swimmers, particularly those who struggle with breathing? Absolutely not. In fact, instruction on breathing may be absolutely critical to swimming, but may show little if any effect on a swimmer’s ability to swim a 500 meter butterfly stroke fluently, as beginning breathing is not sufficient to produce those gains.

As I mentioned before, it’s very difficult to discuss in blog comments a topic so wide as “direct instruction.” As such, my main point here is not to debunk your entire statement that there is no support for direct instruction as such a discussion would have to be much larger. Rather, my point is to highlight to other readers that your assertions (and Diane’s assertions) about direct instruction are not “givens” in research, that most folks do support the use of direct instruction, and that your research links/comments are not without challenge.

I’d also like to add a note of thanks for your willingness to engage in discussion on this blog – too often there is a gap between research and practice, and your willingness to engage in discussion with the “average reader” is a testament to your desire for research to be actually used rather than simply created. I’d also welcome follow-up comments and challenges, as I think those reading this blog post would be most informed by a more specific discussion of the research, as opposed to general statements about broad categories of interventions.

The failure to find a clear relationship between PA training and reading (reading comprehension) is consistent with the meta-analysis you cited. Also, there are other arguments, eg: some people learn to read quite well with very little PA, PA develops without instruction, adult illiterates have low PA, then their PA improves after they learn to read. Also we have to ask how millions of people learned to read before experts “discovered” PA. (We have made similar arguments for PA in second language development,Krashen, S. and Hastings, A. 2011. Is Phonemic Awareness Training Necessary in Second Language Literacy Development? Is it Even Useful? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 7(1). Available at

Again, PA training may not have a significant, direct impact on the general outcome of reading comprehension, but may have an impact on component, foundation skills such as word reading. Simply because an intervention is not sufficient in producing a general outcome does not mean that it isn’t a helpful component. There has been a causal link established between PA training and development of word reading skills, between word reading skills and reading fluency, and between reading fluency and reading comprehension. As such, it appears that PA training is mediated by variables such as word reading and reading fluency, and thus does have an impact on reading comprehension, if only indirectly.

With your “other route” concept – that some people learn to read quite well without PA training, consider mapping directions from your house to the mall. There are likely multiple routes, and the existence of one route does not imply the lack of existence of all others. You might take the highway, or the back roads. Those supporting PA training are not claiming that PA training is the only way to become a proficient reader, but that it is one route, particularly for struggling readers. In fact, it’s a common assertion that MANY readers do not require direct, explicit instruction in PA, phonics, etc., and that other, informal processes are at play.

In terms of PA developing without instruction, consider the case of a diabetic not producing insulin. The fact that many healthy people produce sufficient insulin is not evidence that diabetics do not. Similarly, that some children develop PA in a healthy manner is not evidence that other children do not.

In terms of PA developing as a result of other reading processes developing, I agree that there is not necessarily a unidirectional influence of PA (or many reading variables). For example, phonics instruction contributes to PA. However, that phonics instruction contributes to PA is not evidence that PA training does NOT contribute to phonics skills.

Again, bringing this discussion back to a point of relevance to this blog post, my hope is that those reading this discussion will not take for granted Diane’s comment that direct instruction “run[s] counter to a massive amount of research and experience.”

Credit/blame where credit/blame is due: the comment that direct instruction “run[s] counter to a massive amount of research and experience” comes from me, not Diane Ravitch.

Ah, I apologize – I was reading what I thought was her interpretation. Again, I’ve enjoyed the discussion. Looking forward to more exchanged in the future hopefully…

RE: PA, may have an impact on component, foundation skills such as word reading. Maybe word reading is not foundation skill but also a result of reading experience. (The comprehension hypothesis).

I think I understand you theoretically, but how do you make sense of evidence that phonics instruction improves word reading, that better word reading results in better fluency with connected text, and that fluency with connected text is what (in part) enables comprehension?

Complex phonics, word reading, fluency are all the RESULT of real reading for comprehension.

Dr. Krashen, in response to your last comment in our discussion above about phonics, word reading, and fluency being the result of comprehension as opposed to building toward comprehension, I’d again return to my “multiple pathways” comment: Some if not many children do not require explicit phonics (or other) instruction to read fluently and comprehend – they may independently acquire those skills, facilitated in part by being provided motivational and engaging reading contexts. However, with struggling readers (and others as well), research has suggested that explicit instruction in foundational reading skill areas (e.g., phonics) can lead to acquisition of more advanced skills such as reading fluency.

In other words, we both seem to be right, in that kids seem to be able to learn to read with both direct instruction and non-direct instruction. The question then becomes which modality to use in different situations, which would be directly answerable by research investigating the differential effects of DI vs. non-DI approaches in different instructional contexts. I am familiar with a variety of studies which support DI in across contexts, and am not familiar with any studies which examine DI and non-DI approaches side-by-side, and find greater effects for non-DI approaches. Could you provide any links to studies that would suggest favorable results for non-DI approaches over DI approaches?

Stephen Krashen
December 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm EdEd to avoid clogging up Diane’s blog, please write me off line and I will send you some sources and papers. My email:
Reading wars morph into research wars and it's hard to keep track of it all. But I thought that Eded had the better of this exchange, with Stephen copping out at the end. From my reading of the evidence it does favour Direct Instruction over the Whole Language views of Stephen Krashen. For instance see Kerry Hempenstall's essay, Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components (long, 46pp), for a very thorough review of the evidence.

Diane Ravitch's position is that poverty trumps teaching methodology. That is a powerful argument but we can't put on hold better education until the poverty question is solved. The education establishment and teacher unions have a duty to study the evidence and deliver the best possible education to poor students in the here and now.

Monday, December 16, 2013

rediscovering the purpose of school: reply to Barry York's education revolution article

A response to Barry York's article, Can we have a real Education Revolution?

Barry commences by pointing out that class size has reduced from 50 to 25 over a generation.

It is often claimed, by the political right, that reduction in class size hasn't improved educational outcomes. The statistics support this position of the right. John Hattie has become an often quoted authority about effect sizes:
"... a synthesis of meta-analyses and other studies of class size demonstrate a typical effect-size of about 0.1–0.2, which relative to other educational interventions could be considered ‘‘small’’ or even ‘‘tiny’’, especially in relation to many other possible interventions—and certainly not worth the billions of dollars spent reducing the number of children per classroom. The more important question, therefore, should not be ‘‘What are the reasons for this enhanced effect-size?’’, but ‘‘Why are the effect-sizes from reducing class size so small?’’"
- Hattie, J. (2005).The paradox of reducing class size and improving learning outcomes. International Journal of Educational Research, 43, 387–425
I believe that the Gonski report is yet another iteration of this process. It throws money at schools but lacks an evidence-based plan to actually improve educational outcomes.

Barry fondly mentions "a wonderful History teacher by the name of Itiel Bereson". I agree that great teachers make a difference and that this is far more important than class size.

I also agree that the teachers union plays a very limited and sometimes negative role in real educational reform because they are more interested in teacher conditions than teacher quality. I'm angry at the Union for not supporting performance pay for teachers in remote indigenous communities, conditional on them achieving measurable improvements. If the teachers union had responsibility for determining the nature of teacher training in Universities then they would feel more pressure to actually come up with an educational approach that works, rather than focusing too narrowly on teacher rights.

But when Barry argues that classroom teachers "know best" there is some lack of the clear thinking he extols beginning to creep in. If there are only a few great teachers like Mr. Bereson, one wonders why they as a group "know best"? Barry is expressing the belief here that those who do the real work, those at the chalk face, as a result of their nitty gritty day to day experience, "know best". Yet, if they really know best why do they support a union that focuses on worker conditions, promotes the same green issues that Barry objects to and doesn't push hard enough for quality teaching?

Who really does know best? One group that I have been taking a lot of notice of recently are those who promote evidence-based criteria and have the skin in the game of actually working with and improving the learning of disadvantaged students. In Australia, this would include Kevin Wheldall, Robin Beaman-Wheldall and Kerry Hempenstall as well as the initiative promoted by Noel Pearson in Cape York, using the American derived teaching materials of Zig Engelmann.

Barry goes on to counterpose Learning to Teaching as though there is no real connection between them. Moreover, he claims that the social purpose of schools is to imprison the mind and that hasn't changed for two centuries. This is simplistic argument. As always, the devil is in the detail.

This leads into Barry arguing for the end of learning as we know it and it's replacement with learning over the world wide web. We are led to believe that we can do this now because in C21st we have a "very high literacy". If only this were true. Unfortunately, the literacy rate in Australia leaves much to be desired. Although it has improved massively since the late C19th, the really important measure is whether people have sufficient literacy to be highly functioning members in today's society.

My research indicates that roughly 44% or 13.6 million Australians aged 15 to 74 years have literacy skills that will make it difficult for them to independently extract useful information from the world wide web (source: Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia 2011-12

Moreover, Australian schools are not doing a very good job in teaching basic literacy. The PIRLS 2011 study into reading comprehension put Australia second bottom of all English speaking countries surveyed. 24% of Australian students had a Low or Below Low score in reading comprehension. See Kevin Wheldall's article, PIRLS before Swine for more detail.

The basic problem is that teachers have not been trained properly to teach literacy. This was the conclusion of the Brendan Nelson National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005 but none of the recommendations from that inquiry have been implemented. The real villains here are the teacher trainers in universities and the teacher unions who block reform. (the education establishment). Many of them are still wedded to discredited whole language approaches.

It has been argued that there are other, more modern forms of literacy than old-fashioned "reading comprehension". These arguments sometimes take the form that it is more important to "read the world" than read the word. But a little thought is enough to convince most people that old fashioned "reading comprehension" is a prerequisite to "really learning" on the Internet.

So, the statistics reveal that at least 44% of adult Australians and 24% of young Australians, still at school, are going to miss out if Barry's model of school reform is implemented. Of course, the internet has incredible learning potential for highly literate and self motivated learners. But Barry has made too many sweeping generalisations in his historical and social analysis of the actual nature of schools. If you are not clear about the actual problem then how can you be clear about a viable solution?

Is it possible to conceive of a useful purpose for schools? Yes, it is. Anthropological findings show that there is no easy or natural path to certain types of knowledge, including reading and writing. This type of knowledge has been called non universals (by Alan Kay) or "biologically secondary cognitive abilities" (by David Geary).

Universal knowledge, displayed by every human tribe, includes such things as:
  • social
  • language
  • communication
  • culture
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • case based learning
  • theatre
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • loud noises and snakes
  • supernormal responses
  • vendetta and more (about 300 of these have been identified across cultures)
The above categorises the level of what most people do on the world wide web (social media), despite it's potential for higher learning.

On the other hand, the non universals include such things as:
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony
  • similarities over differences
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems
These are much harder to learn than the universals because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren't easy to learn. For more details about the universals and non universals see The non universals

Some things are hard to learn. Although that hard to learn information is on the internet it is usually not sought out spontaneously by your average facebook junkie. I call the popularity of social media the you_twit_face phenomena (after youtube, twitter and facebook). Pop culture is the main form of discourse on the internet.

Learning to read is rocket science. But once you know how to read you totally forget the process you went through to learn to read. The literate then become blind to the plight of the illiterate. The idea that reading is natural, you just soak it up naturally from the surrounding environment, is BS.

The legitimate purpose of school should be to teach the non universals, the things which are not learnt naturally. That is one reason why schools were invented in the first place. They are not simply vehicles to imprison our minds.

Barry quotes Mao: "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality". I can agree with the Mao quote but like any one liner it only represents a part of a more complete picture. Mao argued for an ongoing spiral of knowledge between practice and theory. If you are going to take part in the practice of changing reality then you had better also be prepared to study / research hard and acquire a lot of knowledge, including book knowledge. We all know activists who end up doing and thinking foolish things.

In fact, there are many former radicals from the late 60s who went onto become education establishment leaders and union activists promoting non authoritarian, constructivist teaching methodologies such as whole language that have led to a quarter of our students not becoming literate. They have changed reality in a bad way due to insufficient research informed by an intuitive dislike for a form of "authority", mistaking authoritative with authoritarian.

The factory model critique is problematic when applied to education because there is some good education that fits a factory model type of metaphor. Factories in capitalism are bad because they steal from the labour of workers. Another sense in which it is used is the replacement of artisan labour with mechanical labour, but that critique is more problematic according to Marx. There is nothing wrong with a machine replacing what was previously done by an artisan.

Many intelligent people report bad experiences at schools. For example, they were told to do things, such as write answers in sentences, over and over again, something that they already knew how to do and so the experience was boring, boring, boring ...

But, could you have a good factory model in an educational setting? In my opinion, yes. One answer here would be to improve the factory, each student having their own individualised, computerised assembly line programmed to help achieve both essential literacies but also electives beyond the basics.

Another popular, related argument is that individuals have multiple intelligences or different learning styles, which have to be catered for. But those positions have pretty much been abandoned by thinking educators. Lookup Dan Willingham on the net, he is very good at debunking both of those fads (multiple intelligences, learning styles)

Direct Instruction is pretty much a factory model, a far better factory model than what happens in most existing schools, and so the intuitive dislike of it by "progressives" is strong - but wrong. In teaching basic literacy and maths the research shows that one method fits all is a very good way to go. Kevin Wheldall calls this Non categorical teaching.

In conclusion, what is my idea of a good argument for school reform? It's a matter of getting the balance right between components that need to be highly structured and other components enabling freedom of expression. Thanks to people like the Wheldalls (MULTILIT) we now know how to achieve very close to 100% literacy education through a structured approach, an individualised factory model if you will. Direct Instruction models could also be beneficial for highly literate people wishing to extend their knowledge over particular domains, eg. the contribution of Einstein to our knowledge of physics. Beyond that I agree that Barry's ideas have merit. The internet has much potential for extending our knowledge further for those who are literate and motivated to do that. But as Mao also said, you have to lift the bucket from the ground, not start in mid-air.