Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part V): Psychological Spacecraft

The title of this last part of my little 'space programme' series has an unusual genesis. It comes from the first line of a recent article in the venerable NYT. In that article, Benedict Carey summarizes the difference between modern findings about the student brain and peculiar but long-accepted ideas which amount to little more than 'psychological witchcraft'. Among these ideas are the concepts of 'learning styles' and 'multiple intelligences'.

I have mentioned Howard Gardner before, here and here. I have reconsidered my feelings then. I no longer think Gardner was scamming people, because I have read more of his stuff and I perceive that he genuinely worked his way from irreproachable truth about what education should be, to 'psychological witchcraft', and then recantation of such things. Then again, he's off on another tangent lately.

But in Atlantis, all too many people fell prey to the cult of Polygnostic Gardnerism and or that of Learning Styles. They both sounded so logical, so reifying. At that point, most people should have paused to think. As in Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, there are two main fallacies in all of educational and cognitive research — the fallacy of ranking and the fallacy of reification. In the former, we rank things that cannot or should not be ranked, because our sensory input is based on the comparison of values. In the latter, we simplify the complex overmuch because our brains are adept at eliminating detail in order to preserve focus.

The Integrated Programme of the Citadel fell easy prey to these cults. Instead of working on a solid foundation, the Citadel ended up deciding to build castles on sand, or in air, or out of cloud and light.

In a document I remember attempting to present at a convocation of the Magistratum, my team had attempted to point out that we should define a relatively compact core of content material, while also focussing on methodology of delivery and supporting activity. The sequence of material was to have been coordinated across all disciplines and woven explicitly into a whole by means of deliberately-crafted links and through specific teaching modes.

While trying to work on this basis from 1999 to 2004, the core team was assailed by people who wanted to secede from the integrated model. They found it too tiresome to justify each unit in terms of theoretical grounding and relationships with other units. They found it too tiresome to put together the exhaustive documentation we wanted. And finally, they went to the Grand Inquisitor and told him to disband us tiresome people. And so he did.

The consequence, as Gnomus put it in runes of fire that appeared upon my scrying-glass one day, was: "Inferior product. Dodgy curriculum [content]. No oversight. Unsound assessment policy. No review mechanism. No curriculum model. How to use?"

Gnomus was absolutely right. The spaceships that we were to launch had been cut down to shuttles. And the shuttles, according to the Grand Inquisitor, were to take us to the stars. "Per ardua, ad astra!" we could imagine him saying (although he took pains to tell us that he was not into 'flowery language').

What he then did was a very simple thing. As in C M Kornbluth's infamous prize-winning SF short story, The Marching Morons, the Grand Inquisitor launched the equivalent of a spacecraft design competition, in which many spacecraft were designed and decoratively advertised. Our in-house designer was kept busy producing lovely artwork for non-existent starships that were actually something like submarines. The spacecraft were purely psychological. They existed only to blast people into space. Whether they would actually get anywhere because of the spacecraft was doubtful.

The only thing that saved the programme, in the end, was that the young astronauts came with their own personal spacecraft. Some could fly unassisted, some lacked only fuel or guidance systems. Fortunately, some of us were good at supplying the missing parts. I have to say, though, that those young astronauts of the 2006-2007 batch were far better than the Grand Inquisitor could ever have dreamt. You should have seen the look of sick relief on his face when the results came out.

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Blogger dlanorpi said...

I absolutely love your space programme series. It brings many insights to light which I've been wondering about. =D


Wednesday, September 08, 2010 4:19:00 pm  
Blogger xylph said...

Thank you. Though I'm a little doubtful where I am now. Certainly not the moon or the stars. As you said, only time will tell; whether the spacecraft of mine is Apollo 11 or better, or just as good as weather balloon, afloat in the stratosphere, never beyond.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010 5:09:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

dlanorpi: haha, you of all people should enjoy reading about various IPs... thank you thank you.

xylph: some day, you too will fulfil y our promise as a child of the heavens... :)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010 9:31:00 pm  

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