Sunday, August 31, 2008

managing versus stripping welfare

This is one of the conversations I had last week with teachers at my school. There is a profound difference between managing welfare (Pearson) and stripping welfare. If this report is accurate then Rudd / Gillard have got this wrong:
Cape York Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson says the Federal Government's plan to strip Centrelink payments from parents whose children skip school is tougher than the welfare trials currently underway in Queensland.

Legislation is before Federal Parliament to freeze welfare payments to parents for three months if their children are frequent truants.

Mr Pearson is the director of the Cape York Institute and says he has been at pains to ensure that in the Queensland trials payments are managed, not stripped, from families.

"The Cape York approach is that we don't take money away from families," he said.

"There is a lot of mention that we [are] stripping people from welfare, [but] nobody loses any money.

"A clamp might be put on your money to make sure that you spend it on your children's clothes and so on but our approach does not deprive people of money.

"We want to put people in a position where if they are taking responsibility there should be no interference.

"It's only where there is a breakdown, where people have failed to send their kids to school or are not abiding by their obligations, that's when there should be intervention."
- Welfare cuts tougher than Cape York trials: Pearson

OLPC in Uruguay

The OLPC wiki receives 10,000+ visits per day from Uruguay, the main recipient of the OLPC (130,000), most of the visits to the wiki's Activities page (which displays new activities for download as they are developed)

- picked this up from Tom Hoffman's blog, the original source is here

How do miserable people progress in the world?

Noel Pearson has emerged as Australia's most significant political leader tackling our most important moral issue: the deplorable life expectancy (less than 50 yo) and life chances of indigenous Australians

I was lucky to hear Pearson speak in Adelaide a few years ago and was inspired by his powerful and logical rhetoric to dig further into his writings and analysis (found at CYI). I'm reminded of this when I listen to Pearson's recent speech to the Queensland Media Club, the full audio can be downloaded from this page

He raises these questions:
  • How do miserable people progress in the world?
  • How does this ruthless society work?
  • What are the rules of the game?
He then goes on to explain in detail the three parts of the staircase metaphor:
  • strong foundations, strong social norms
  • responsibilities as well as opportunities
  • rational alignment and incentives to climb
Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, is praised by Pearson for exposing the glaring conceit in liberal thinking that we only have to give people the opportunity to make free choices. If you are not healthy and not educated then you are not in a position to make good choices.

Pearson's analysis draws on aspects of both the conventional left and right of politics. To understand Pearson you have to be prepared to think outside of a conventional mindset. If you read Pearson carefully you will understand that he is philosophical profound as well as an effective practical, policy mover and shaker. See his radical centre paper or Charles Perkins Memorial Oration paper.

The great failure of "progressive" thinking is that there is no magic mass elevator or social justice forklift. Each individual has to climb the stairs, one by one. Everyone has to climb. Social justice is the sum of individual progress.

self interest: Indigenous people are influenced by self interest just as other cultures are
ecology: Why should indigenous people be more politically correct than anyone else wrt protecting the environment? Why should indigenous people choose to live in poverty because of their cultural heritage?
welfare: If an indigenous person can make $220 per week on the CDEP (Commonwealth Development Employment Projects) compared with $170 per week in a Traineeship then they will naturally make a price calculation and choose welfare

Due to welfare dependency things have deteriorated markedly since 1968 (the year aboriginal people gained citizenship and voting rights). Obligation free income is profoundly corroding. In the current situation the way forward is to mandate individual responsibility for those receiving welfare:
  1. Send your kids to school
  2. Protect your children from abuse and neglect
  3. Obey the law
  4. Look after your house
These interventions are currently taking place in four communities in the Cape York Peninsula. There will be no more funding for irresponsible behaviour. Governments and society cannot afford to continue to keep funding drug addiction.

Rights (to Land, culture) were an important first phase of Pearson's work but he realised early on that Rights alone would not work, Responsibility is essential too. Pearson has been pushing this for the past eight years.
"We've made more progress in the four months of Anna Bligh (Queensland Premier) than we did in the four terms of the Beattie government prior to that"
Progress requires a generational committment across the party politics political divide.

If you haven't heard him speak then don't miss the chance to listen to this audio. Pearson talk (59 minutes), Questions (10 minutes).

The mechanism put in place in Queensland by the Bligh government is better than that of the Northern Territory intervention, where there is a blanket quarantine of a certain percentage of welfare.

suddenly, teachers don't like Rudd

Interesting to hear these comments from fellow teachers in the staffroom last week:

"I don't trust Rudd"
"Rudd's educational plans are ridiculous"
"I'd rather have Howard than Rudd" (never thought I'd hear that out loud)

Through discussion it was clear that teachers are aware that attempts to lift standards through standardised testing and Leagues tables has been tried already in Britain and the USA - and has failed. One teacher said, "Why don't we try to emulate systems that have been successful, such as in Finland?"

Also, Julia Gillard was interviewed on Lateline about the "education revolution" and the interviewer actually asked her some tough questions.
  1. What apart from softer rhetoric ("transparency" versus "blaming and shaming") was the real difference between Rudd's and Howard's policies?
  2. Could she comment on Rudd's lack of passion when speaking compared to American politicians, such as Hillary Clinton?
Of course, Rudd's scheme may have some general public support. Teachers are a much maligned group these days. It's too early to say where this is heading.

Update (31st August): For the sake of completeness here is a news report, which includes some readers comments, about the new Rudd proposals: Rudd declares class warfare

Friday, August 29, 2008

question 22 @ OLPC News

I'm hoping for some discussion of Walter's question 22 and the non universals at OLPC News and/or the learning evolves wiki page.

Thanks, Christoph

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Constance Kamii on teaching maths

Questioning assumptions with Constance Kamii

This is a brilliant blog post by Sylvia Martinez, reporting on the ideas of Constance Kamii about teaching mathematics to young learners. Sylvia has done a great job in putting the theory and then illustrating it with some fairly detailed practical tips, all based on a presentation by CK. She concludes with references and links to books by Kamii

This has the unmistakable appearance of a beautiful, fragrant flower shining in the desert of information overload and systemic separation of theory and practice.

learning evolves

I've been updating these pages of the learning evolves wiki:

new XO Live CD 080812

There is a new version of the XO Live CD out, the developmental joyride version, which may be downloaded from:

Wolfgang Rohrmoser writes:
Since OLPC joyride releases begin to stabilize after the transition to Fedora 9 and the SUGAR developper team has done a lot of reorganization work, a new release of the XO-LiveCD is available

This release is based on a recent joyride build 2282 and demonstrates many new SUGAR features. Activities have been added and updated to recent versions
I have found these new activities on this release, making it well worth the download:

X2o: A puzzle solving and critical thinking game similar to the Incredible Machine; make crazy contraptions to get the O back on top of the X
video chat: Video/voice chat
stop watch: Sharable stopwatch activity
pacman: A Pacman clone
develop: Development IDE/tool
gcompris: educational games
tux paint: Paint program for young children; stamps included, localized to 70 languages, stereo sound
guido van robot: Educational programming language, IDE and lessons; Stable with 18 lessons included
simcity: Construct and maintain your own city
xo-get: A GUI for installing and removing activities

For a list and description of all the activities, go to

towards a fingernail definition of constructionism

I've been thinking about a thumbnail definition for constructionism (with an N, not a V) but when I write it down it keeps growing.

It's a very interesting word. One issue is that the constructivism word flirts with idealism in breaking with behaviourism and in this respect the discussion should remain unfinished - because we don't actually know how the mind works and the issue of representation remains controversial, although it is part of constructivism

Here is my effort, but it is more like 4 or more fingernails than a thumbnail:

internal, meta, interactive, scaffolding, mentored bit - mental modelling, self and others: Constructionist students and teachers create mental models of their own and others knowledge state (see mental modelling all the way down)

external, social and personal bit - Learning by socially and personally meaningful doing or construction

technology, education environment bit - Some tools are better than others for learning (more appropriable, evocative and integrated)

Harel and Papert (1990) argue that some materials are better with regard to the following criteria:

  • appropriability (some things lend themselves better than others to being made one's own)
  • evocativeness (some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought)
  • integration (some materials are better carriers of multiple meaning and multiple concepts)
philosophical, dangerous bit - Since we don't know how the mind works with any certainty then constructionists will inevitably flirt with idealism, the idea that all knowledge is subjective and idiosyncratic, that there is no such thing as objectivity - the need to stay grounded and to keep doing a theory to practice spiral (see ascending from the abstract to the concrete)

Another point not included is that we need to be concrete and give examples of real learning when talking about it - which I haven't done here

I have argued earlier that constructionism is a suitcase word. But I'm rethinking that. Certainly, constructionism is a complicated word but that's a bit different from what Minsky says about suitcase words, that they have multiple, different meanings. eg. "consciousness" (requires more explanation)

I wouldn't like to take out the philosophical, dangerous bit because that would create the risk of too much blindfolded walking. It's better if the word is associated with some risk rather than blandness and the thumbnail definitions tend to gravitate towards blandness through simplification, imply that this is a known known. Bland definitions such as "learning by doing" are mundane and meaningless.

I can't operate as a constructionist without all the above bits

Some more background information about this:

The constructivist word is not prominent in either Mindstorms (Paperts original book, it is not mentioned in the index) or Margaret Boden's biography of Piaget (only mentioned twice)

I think what Piaget did was treat young children as self directed learners through play etc. not as empty vessels to be filled by adults. The term "genetic epistemology" is more associated with Piaget - the evolution of knowledge structures in the young learner - it seems to mean the same thing for Piaget as constructivism

So the term did not originate with him probably but he might have been the first to investigate it as a concept wrt children learning seriously and consistently

Other theorist saw the learning ability as innate but needing time to unfold. Some still argue this, I think Chomsky (and Pinker) argues that for language development that we are preprogrammed genetically in "mentalese", a universal grammar

Also the idea of mental representation (cognitive stuctures) is attacked by the connectionists who think it can all be done with patterns - Downes also argues this

So Piaget, Papert and Minsky's position that humans gradually develop learning structures or representations over some years in childhood is still controversial - constructivism

This concept has been altered by social constructivists but also by others - constructivist idealists (radical constructivists) like Ernst von Glasersfeld

Post modernists who deny objective truth sometimes identify with constructivism

Boden makes the point that all constructivists flirt with idealism but they don't have to capitulate to it (pp. 79-80):
Piagest is aware that as a constructivist he must be careful to avoid idealism ... that he must answer the sceptic's challenge that perhaps all our so-called 'knowledge' is mind-dependent illusion ..." (elaborated further by Boden)
Wikipedia identifies Giambattista Vico or Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744) as the first constructivist ("truth itself is constructed") - also Kant and Dewey preceded Piaget

untangling constructionism
tidying up the constructionist suitcase (initial draft on my blog)
tidying up the constructionist suitcase (expanded version at OLPC news)
genetic epistemology
untangling Free, Sugar and Constructionism

Need to add some original Papert articles to this list

A shorter version of the above was part of a longer discussion on the IAEP list

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Greer's problem

Marcia Langton has comprehensively refuted Germaine Greer analysis that aboriginal men are perpetual and hopeless victims of rage in a magnificent essay (Greer maintains rage of racists)

What is Greer's problem?
  • recycling slogans from the past that are partially true but one sided, a one sided slogan based view of history, taking partial truths and presenting them as essential truths
  • sloppy psychological based analysis, fitting the world to her view, not seeking the truth rigorously, not listening to those who know better, not being objective
  • She uses her ideology as a blinker, not a filter. We all have ideologies but need some way to keep them in touch with objectivity
  • lofty and grandiose pronouncement from afar, not really being on the ground or in touch or up to date with the real, current indigenous problems
  • a comfortable victim hood view of the world, victims can't get over it: "Trust me I've been a victim and know what you are suffering"
Earlier on Pamela Bone exposed Greer for her lack of solidarity with oppressed Muslim women. The dialectical wheel has turned full circle: Greer from liberator of women to oppressor of women.

These are real problems which I believe can be extended to other contentious issues such as the Iraq war (Iraq is now finally emerging as a democratic state) and the alleged environmental catastrophe. It's easy to fall back on long held beliefs that add together to become a world outlook, it's easy to avoid the hard yards of rigorous analysis, it's easy to be a comfortable victim of forces so powerful they are hard to deal with, it's easy to seek attention with short blog posts like this that ride off the hard work of others. It's hard to be objective, really hard.

In this case, it's clear to me that Marcia Langton has done the hard yards and Germaine Greer has not. Read her essay.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

what alan kay said about Universals / Non Universals

What Alan Kay said about his Universals / Non Universals slide at the EuroPython 2006 keynote (transcribed by me from source). I've started a new page on the learning evolves wiki whose purpose is to expand and elaborate further on the meanings and educational implications of the list of non universals. Being accurate about what Alan said seemed to be a good place to start.

  • 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)
"In effect anthropologists have been studying humans for about a Century now and firstly 3000 human cultures seem to be very very different. Then they start realising that they seemed surprisingly parametric. Every culture had a language, every culture told stories ... (goes through some of the items on the Universals list)

If you look at these you can see our modern internet culture - it's basically social, it enables us to communicate in various ways and so forth, basically a story based culture"

  • 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
"What's interesting is to look for things that are not universal, that seems to have some importance as well. Most people have lived and died on this Earth for 100,000 years without reading and writing, without having deductive maths and model based science .... (goes through non universals list)

These are a little harder to learn than the ones on the left 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. It can be argued that if you are trying to be utopian about education what we should be doing is helping the children of the world learn these hard to learn things. Equal rights is a really good one to help children learn. No culture in the world is particularly good at it."

Friday, August 15, 2008

how the taboo was broken

Indigenous policy: this is about the historical unfolding of awareness and policy making in Australia in the last 50 years. Twilight of old radicals? by anthropologist Peter Sutton is a must read for those who wish to further their understanding of these issues. There is historical detail here about what unfolded politically in Queensland that I haven't seen before. I have written a summary and included some quotes below for my own benefit but suggest you read the original:
  • Before 1960 the Left supported assimilation as a right offering opportunity to aboriginal people
  • Some Missions were compassionate protectionists and did some good work but were dissolved by the 1970s
  • The new "progressive" consensus was that these communities should be self managed with Land Rights
  • Traditional culture would be encouraged; assimilation was seen as racist
  • This 70s consensus has come undone as welfare dependency and drug abuse in many of these communities has spiraled out of control
  • Queensland Aboriginal activists and administrators have led the way forward to a new analysis
  • Things began to turn around in 1991 with the emergence of indigenous intellectuals such as Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton
  • The old guard activists still held street march demos focused on the symbolic and rights agenda but the leaders workshopped alternative legislation for governments
  • Wayne Goss (Queensland Premier) and Kevin Rudd (then Goss's cabinet office director-general) were far too precious as this unfolded
"In the meantime, the old rights-based progressivism in indigenous political thinking had a few more years to go before a relentless decline in the standard of living and safety of people in Aboriginal communities forced so many of us to ask an appalling question: Why did this descent into a seriously dysfunctional state seem to coincide with liberal progressive policies based on the rights agenda, and the creation of new degrees of community autonomy? The taboo on raising this was finally broken by an avalanche of evidence no one could ignore"
  • Pearson broke the logjam of public discourse about community dysfunction in several hard-hitting papers published in 1999 and 2000
  • print media in the north led the way forward and the southern urban soft Left has lagged behind discovering reality
"The issues now included welfare dependency, community autonomy, organisational corruption, the future of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, frontier history wars, racially differential morbidity and life expectancy, poor school attendance, declining literacy and numeracy, substance abuse, violence against women, child sexual abuse, customary law as a criminal defence, staying in versus leaving versus orbiting in and out of the ghettos, service mainstreaming, gang warfare and public rioting, the entry permit system and restrictions on media access, the future of funding for remote settlements, and the imminent expectation of rocketing urban migration by Aboriginal people leaving failing outback communities"
  • The taboo on reporting aboriginal dysfunction became broken
  • anthropologist have agonised over whether to report on the distinctive nature of Aboriginal communities or the overwhelming evidence of levels of dysfunction and abuse ...
"We have tended to be protective of the people with whom we have worked, to the point where the recent descent of so many places into dire conditions seems almost scientifically inexplicable"
  • two important factors which have been neglected but must be faced are the social and cultural factors influencing mental health, and the nature of changes in sexual behaviour
"Truth is not necessarily a good uniter of people. Fictions or simplifications so often better bind us, at least for a time"
  • the pieces of this puzzle are in the air, no one yet knows where they will fall

Thursday, August 14, 2008

question 22

walter bender's question 22:
(22) What “shoulders of giants” should we stand on? What is it that children should learn? Are there any universals? How do children decide whom and what to believe?
I've been providing what I think is a good answer to these questions for some time now (since December 2006: what should schools teach?) but often the response is muted and contradictory. It's not my original answer, it originates from alan kay and his analysis originates from anthropologists.

The answer is not that children should learn the universals but what Kay has called the "non universals". From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, Kay presented two lists, the first were universals, the things that all human cultures have in common. This list included things like:
  • language
  • communication
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • vendetta, and more
He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
  • 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
The non universals have not arisen spontaneously, they have been discovered by the smartest humans after hundreds or thousands of years of civilisation. Hence, it follows that children need guidance in learning them, they will not be discovered by open ended discovery learning. There is an objective need for some version of “school” - where advanced knowledge is somehow communicated from those who know it to those who don't.

The resolution of the tension (between how children learn and the complex, non spontaneous nature of the development of advanced scientific or Enlightenment ideas) is to develop an honest children's version of the advanced ideas. For some of these ideas (not all) the computer can aid this process. Which ones? The list would include the laws of motion, turtle geometry, calculus by vectors, exponential growth, feedback and system ecologies. I think this should be the starting point or at least one of the starting points for thinking about how computers should be used in schools.

Part of the discussion here is establishing that computers are not currently used to their full potential in schools. IMO once the above vision of how computers could be used in schools is understood then it becomes obvious that they are currently poorly used in schools.

I've been wondering why this particular idea, the non universals, is not spreading more. I think it's because it goes against the culture of pseudo progressiveness which advocates that process is more important than content, that discovery is more important than knowledge and/or that education should be entertaining or at least laid back, that we shouldn't put too much pressure on children. The problem is how to teach the non universals without sounding like a "back to basics" fundamentalist. But that is a real problem that needs to be faced and resolved.

Is this an example of the unsane, the mental state where our ideas don't fit reality, the map doesn't represent the territory. We like to think of ourselves as mostly "sane" and contrast that with a few "insane" personal moments or the more permanent state of a few unfortunates. But the "unsane" idea makes room for a different self perception. What if more often than not we are unsane?

powerful ideas discourse (follow the links there for a fuller discussion)
in general programmers are not creatures of the Enlightenment (or why I quit teaching year 9 computing skills and went back to teaching maths and science)
our human condition "from space" (sources the unsane idea)
alan kay's educational vision (summary of a presentation I gave about alan kay's ideas)

walter bender's 23 questions

twenty-three questions on technology and education

Seymour Papert asked a number of probing questions about the nature of School and the use of computers in School, which originated from Piaget's ideas about how children learn and which initially focused around a piece of software or "object to think" with called logo. I see Walter's list as continuing in this tradition with some updates involving issues arising from networking, the prospect and new reality of far cheaper, mobile computers, the FOSS model, the need to scale learning democratically and others.

Some of the questions strike a strong chord with me (eg. 2, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 22) whilst others push me in the direction of the need to expand my areas of knowledge or expertise. For me, the main point is not that the questions are the best possible questions or whether the categories are correct but the meta issue that new innovative hardware / software (OLPC or Sugar as "object to think with") creates the need for thinkers to step forward and ask questions like this that span multiple disciplines (computer science, engineering, education, economics and social sciences). We need polymaths.

I think the stage we are at is getting the questions right as well as the answers - that walter's act of modelling such a process would bear fruit if others took up the same challenge that he has taken up, to be a grass roots intellectual spanning disciplines as well as having expertise in particular domains. In many ways this is going against the dominant trend of intellectual discourse (truth slips from view ... ), so I'm grateful to Walter for giving it a try.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

genocide in darfur

Two views on what to do about genocide in Darfur

Team Darfur is a website created by elite athletes who are attempting to make a difference about genocide in Darfur. The founder, Joey Cheek, has had his visa revoked by the Chinese government, preventing him from competing in the Beijing Olympics. More here and here

another view:
Why China won't save Darfur (June 2007)
China is a convenient whipping boy for celebrities and governments who are evading a more determined approach to the issue of genocide in the Sudan
But threatening a “Genocide Olympics” alone will not bring peace (or peacekeepers) to that troubled region. No amount of criticism will convince Beijing to pursue a coercive strategy and a nonconsensual deployment of U.N. peacekeepers that Khartoum rejects. Yes, China has the economic leverage to gain the ear of President Bashir, but that hardly means it has the ability—or, more to the point, the will—to bully him into accepting a large U.N. peacekeeping contingent in Darfur. China’s multibillion dollar investments in Sudan’s petroleum industry are a much-needed source of energy for its mushrooming economy. Beijing may make tactical moves to pressure Sudan, but it will not choose human rights over oil, a matter of paramount national interest.

And, even if China were capable of delivering Bashir, the Sudanese government is not the only impediment to an effective peace process. Nowadays, more people may well be dying from tribal clashes than from marauding janjaweed or government forces. The infighting of fractured rebel groups and the sheer number of displaced people with no homes to return to are also immediate and significant obstacles to peace. But China has little influence over the rebel movements and is ill-positioned to act as a mediator between them.

Nor is China a good choice to be our moral compass. The West embraces human rights and international humanitarian law, but China emphatically does not. The continuing crisis not only threatens the lives of millions, but the weak Western response undermines those grandiose principles such as the “responsibility to protect” — hallmarks of our international moral code. Moreover, it is the U.S. government, not Beijing (nor the U.N., for that matter), that has invoked the label “genocide” to describe the Darfur crisis. Morally and legally, the responsibility to lead is America’s.

Ending the Darfur conflict requires much more than what China alone can offer. Rhetorical flourishes from world leaders, limited Western unilateral sanctions, and promises of firmer action at some indeterminate time in the future are also patently insufficient. Only a top-level, sustained, and aggressive multilateral mediation effort backed by the United States, the European Union, and African, Arab, and Chinese governments can stop the violence and reverse the massive displacement of people.

Monday, August 04, 2008


Beautiful photo from Carla Gomez Monroy in the capital of Mongolia; Ulaanbaatar. OLPC is currently deploying 20,000 laptops to Mongolia. The laptops were funded by the generosity of doners during the Give One, Get One program of late 2007 (source)

cotton wool culture

A major study by Play England, part of the National Children's Bureau, found that half of all children have been stopped from climbing trees, 21 per cent have been banned from playing conkers and 17 per cent have been told they cannot take part in games of tag or chase. Some parents are going to such extreme lengths to protect their children from danger that they have even said no to hide-and-seek ...

The Play England study quotes a number of play providers who highlight the benefits to children of taking risks. 'Risk-taking increases the resilience of children,' said one. 'It helps them make judgments,' said another. Some of those interviewed blamed the 'cotton wool' culture for the fact that today's children were playing it too safe, while others pointed to a lack of equipment or too much concrete in place of grass. The research also lists examples of risky play that should be encouraged including fire-building, den-making, watersports, paintballing, boxing and climbing trees
- Kids need the adventure of 'risky' play

the missing piece of the jigsaw

Finding the "missing piece of the jigsaw" in the quest to shift Aborigines from welfare to work

Noel Pearson has been more subdued publicly since the election of the Rudd government, with far fewer opinion pieces written for The Australian. I have been fearful that real indigenous policy reform, which Pearson leads, might have stalled at the Federal level - despite the ongoing welfare reform gains in Queensland. Pearson and Rudd have an antagonistic history going back to Rudd's "Dr Death" days in Queensland politics.

So, it's great to see today's announcement about an initiative from Andrew Forrest (Australia's wealthiest person) to guarantee 50,000 indigenous jobs within two years. And that this initiative has the full support of the Rudd government.

Pearson's article: Off welfare, upstairs to work

Note Pearson's staircase metaphor of welfare and his looking ahead proposal to extend the Queensland reforms:
A work opportunity covenant should be available to any indigenous person whether living in Blacktown, Sydney, or Aurukun, Cape York. Wherever an individual seeks to climb the staircase to a better life through work, they should be backed.

If you can imagine the first steps on a staircase, with the first step being higher than the second. This first step upon which too many of our people are situated we call the welfare pedestal. The price on this pedestal is higher than the price on the real staircase: that is why our young people choose to stay there. Remaining on welfare, under the prevailing incentives offered by the welfare system, is a rational choice. The problem is that the small comforts of the pedestal become a permanent destination. And our people are perpetually condemned to missing out on sharing in the country's wealth, not least in the mining boom occurring in our back yards.

So it is the first step downwards that is the most bracing step. It requires a decision on the part of communities to embrace welfare reforms so that our people can step down from the pedestal and start climbing the staircase of opportunity. Four communities in Cape York Peninsula have charted these reforms for their people.

Even where communities have yet to embrace welfare reforms, the Rudd Government should enable individuals - wherever they are - to opt in to welfare reforms that apply to them as individuals. A work opportunity covenant should represent a deal between an indigenous individual, a corporate employer, and the federal Government. Under this covenant, the individual would commit to certain welfare reform conditions, the federal Government would commit to providing training and other support, and the employer would commit to the guaranteed job opportunity.
Another report: Twiggy eyes 50,000 Aboriginal Jobs

I like this touch from Andrew Forrest:
At the end of the press conference, Mr Forrest gathered Mr Pearson, Sir Rod, Mr Mundine and Mr Rudd into a semi-circle and called on them to place their hands on top of his.

When they did Mr Forrest, said: "This is the Australian Employment Covenant."

Sunday, August 03, 2008

need to integrate different approaches to AI (Minsky)

Two different ways to represent an apple - a semantic network and a connectionist network

Minsky argues that to explain intelligence we need to integrate both of these approaches and not take an either / or attitude. The popularity of a connectionist only approach has retarded research into intelligence.

Connectionist networks (based on numbers showing strength of associations) can learn to recognise many important types of patterns - without any need for a person to program them. But number based networks have limitations. Every relationship is reduced to a number or strength so there remains almost no trace of the evidence that led to it, eg. the number 12 could represent all sorts of things

I see the popularity (of Connectionist Networks), in recent years, as having retarded the search for higher level ideas about human psychological machinery ... research on commonsense thinking kept advancing until about 1980, but then it was clearly recognised that further progress would need ways to acquire and organise millions of fragments of commonsense knowledge. That prospect seemed so daunting that most researchers decided to try, instead, to invent machines that could learn, by themselves, all the knowledge that they would need - in short, to invent new kinds of "baby machines" ...

Quite a few of these learning machines did indeed learn to do some useful things, but none of them went on to develop higher-level reflective Ways to Think - and I suspect that this was mainly because they tried to represent knowledge in numerical terms....

... I do not mean to suggest that such networks are not important ... it seems safe to assume that many of the low level processes in our brains must use some form of Connectionist Networks
- Minsky, pp. 289-91, The Emotion Machine
This helps me situate the work of Rodney Brooks (behavioural AI) as important but limited.

Logical vs.Analogical or Symbolic vs. Connectionist or Neat vs. Scruffy - this paper by Minsky (1990) has more detail

update: I'm still summarising minsky's book on the learning evolves wiki minsky page

Saturday, August 02, 2008

one indigenous boy's story

Young Australian indigenous students have a far better chance of success in life if they leave their remote communities and attend boarding school in the metropolis.

Read the story of Cyril Johnson, a year 11 student at Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview, on Sydney's North Shore, One teenage boy says it all

Sue and Bucky kept looking after me and I became a part of their family and they adopted me, due to the thumbs up from my mum. I could tell Rebecca, my adopted sister, things I hadn't told anyone before and I wouldn't understand why she would get all emotional and start crying.

I told her what it was like not to have eaten for two weeks. You start getting pains in your stomach, your head starts spinning and you feel dizzy and weak...

It took me a while to see a new way of life. When Sue and Bucky had a few drinks at Christmas night I just thought it would turn to violence, but surprisingly it didn't. I'd just gotten so used to people drinking and being violent...

My first days at Riverview [last year] were difficult - I was so scared. I hated it so much. I hated everything … It was so different. The city was big, flash, full of cars; the school looked like a castle. I went into the dorms and they were really small and I had this massive room to myself … I felt so lonely, empty and frightened. I didn't move from that room for a week. I was shy. [Then] Ed McManus came into my room and I asked him for some help to fix my fan. He really helped me and I think that was the first friend I had made ...

I have moved away from my family to attend this fine school. I am the first person in my family to have received my School Certificate. I have travelled overseas … I am determined to finish year 11 and 12. I will be the first person in my family to receive my Higher School Certificate and maybe even the first to attend university.

It wasn't until I started going back over my life that I truly realised exactly how far I have come and how much further I can go.

There are many disadvantaged children out there, living the life I used to. I really hope that in the future that I can give back and help all Australians, especially indigenous Australians

stand tall, tony abbott

Tony Abbott, Liberal MP, shadow minister for indigenous affairs, will spend three weeks of the parliamentary winter break working with aboriginal people in the township of Coen, north of Cairns (one of the most disadvantaged areas of Australia)

He will teach remedial reading to Aboriginal children in the mornings and work with an income management group in the afternoons, helping families manage their welfare payments

Tony Abbott:
"The problem with politicians getting to know the issues in indigenous townships is that we tend to suffer from what Aboriginal people call the 'seagull syndrome' — we fly in, scratch around and fly out ... You learn a hell of a lot more living in a place than just going in and talking to people about what it's like"
- Abbott teachers what he preaches
Sadly, this down to earth, commonsense, gutsy action by an Australian politician strikes me as so extraordinarily unusual that I feel compelled to draw attention to it.

Friday, August 01, 2008

why No Child Left Behind fails

Students who attend Disadvantaged schools do not leave their social class, family backgrounds, behaviours etc. in a blue bin outside the school gate (thanks, Pat)

So, it's good when an academic, James Heckman, documents all of this and proposes some solutions - early intervention

Schools, Skills and Synapses (pdf, 95pp) by James Heckman:
This paper discusses (a) the role of cognitive and noncognitive ability in shaping adult outcomes, (b) the early emergence of differentials in abilities between children of advantaged families and children of disadvantaged families, (c) the role of families in creating these abilities, (d) adverse trends in American families, and (e) the effectiveness of early interventions in offsetting these trends. Practical issues in the design and implementation of early childhood programs are discussed.
If you don't have time to read the whole thing (I haven't read it yet) then read the 15 point summary in the introduction.

The distinction is made between cognitive abilities, which are measured in tests, and "socioemotional skills, physical and mental health, perseverance, attention, motivation, and self confidence" which provide the necessary and essential foundation for building those cognitive skills and which are often missing in children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This in turn is used to critique the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) policy which demands that teachers achieve improvement in cognitive results without providing the means to improve the socioemotional (or non cognitive) skills of these students

This is the reality for teachers and students in Disadvantaged schools, the day to day sad, funny, wretched, frustrating, stressful, exhilarating lived reality that does not need belated academic confirmation, but nevertheless, will welcome it