Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Consider the molecules in a glass of water.

Randomly, some will diffuse upward, some downward. But this mobility is not equal; a molecule that reaches the top may escape into a more rarified state, escape the surly bonds of hydrogen bonding and be one with the upper air. Indeed, what holds most molecules of water back is other molecules of water.

Now consider this statement.

"The progress of the lowest 90% of the population is far lower than that of the highest 1% of the population."

There is nothing new under the sun. How can it be otherwise?

Well, yes, there are alternatives. If your glass of water is a glass of steam, then most of the molecules are in random motion and will soon escape the glass. Some will hit a glass wall and condense, having lost sufficient energy or been sufficiently attracted to the glass or other molecules of water. If your glass of water is a glass of ice, nobody goes anywhere.

But a glass of water is normally taken to be just that — a glass, with liquid water in it.

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thirteen Theses

Somewhere else in the proximate blogosphere, thirteen points were raised about education in Atlantis.
For ease of reference, I list them below in modified form (italics) and add some comments. You can always refer to the original post for the unmodified form.
1. Examinations should exist primarily to test progress/knowledge and should not be used to impart value/rank.
That's a matter of opinion, really — and the kind of society that sees a need for examinations and is deploying them. In practice, passing any examination affirms 'progress/knowledge', thus raising the perceived value of the individual and hence imparting value/rank.
2. Our current system of exams plus streaming creates elitism, stratifies society and demoralises/devalues much of our human capital.
This is true of any human process that validates progress (how ever defined), except to the degree in which human capital is demoralised/devalued (another social construct).
3. Since only 1% of those who leave primary school do not progress to secondary school, we do not need a Primary School Leaving Examination for promotion purposes (we may still need it to fill places, but that is a different barrier to be broken). We can look at through-train programmes to Sec 2 / Grade 8 (for 14 year olds) or something.
At which point, you'd deploy another examination? If the assumption is that we still need promotions and still need to measure progress (implicit in thesestatements), then it's only a matter of shuffling the standardised tests around. I don't think this particular statement adds much to the discussion.
4. Teacher 'key performance indicators' (KPIs) should not be weighted significantly towards the exam results of their students.
One major school of thought has it that the success of a teacher is measured by student outcomes. It's the most reasonable school, in general. The key point here is that certainly we don't have to use standardised exam results as the only indicator of teacher performance, and the debate should be on what else to use, in that case.
Indeed, if KPIs are not significantly weighted towards student results at all, then there aren't any meaningful AND useful criteria by which to judge teacher performance. For example, a great teacher is often considered so by the quality of her/his students' lives later on, and their concomitant attribution of their quality of life and deeds to what that teacher taught them. But that often results only in long-delayed (or even posthumous) recognition of teacher performance.
The opposite problem is selecting KPIs that are too short-term. This tends to lead not to performance (i.e. a cohesive, coherent and concerted exhibition of professional skill) but to performativity (teaching to the test in order to extract bonuses etc).
5. We need to lower the stakes of major examinations by relaxing cut-off points for schools.
The thing about this is that the cut-off points for schools are a matter of market forces. That is, if 350 students apply for 120 places, the 120 with the 'best' (how ever determined) results get in. To relax cut-off points normally entails deliberate loosening of criteria and may lead to accusations of lack of consistency — because progressive loosening means that different people would be able to justify the entry of different students on different grounds. You could also apply random or semi-random selection or just use centralised planning approaches. Otherwise, the main point is that schools and ministries don't set cut-off points — the 'market' does; the more people want to apply to a school, the higher the cut-off tends to get.
6. Change philosophies about the value of non-academically inclined students.
Well, first you'd have do define 'non-academically inclined'. You might also want to consider changing the values of society, the values of the students, etc. And lastly, consider how 'non-academically inclined' students might not want to think about philosophy at all.
7. Since all schools are good schools, we should pro-actively begin to dismantle the concept and influence of “elite” schools, starting by bringing the SAP, GEP and IB (note: various Atlantean elite programmes — Speech Alternative Plan, Greatly Exaggerated Plan, Intentional Baccalaureate) programmes (or elements thereof) into all schools (or a very significant portion of schools).
Background first. Yes, but some schools are good for other reasons. Especially those predating such programmes. They were therefore historically chosen to host such programmes.
The thing these programmes have in common is that they cost extra to run, which is why there are so few of them. They are sometimes culturally supported only in some kinds of schools (schools for the culturally well-defined, schools for the weird and peculiar, etc). And they aren't for everybody, so why deploy them everywhere?
8. There are alternative ways to fill posts in secondary schools.
Yes, there are. See point 5 above. We need to ask whether these alternative ways are acceptable to society. Otherwise, change society and/or admit you are trying to assert a perspective that society deems impractical. Good debate to have, though.
9. Restructure education so that the wealthy make only marginal/high risk gains from investing heavily in education.
Betrays a lack of historical perspective, or perhaps just an inexact formulation. In Atlantis, and many other parts of the world, the roots of mass education lie in the long-term vision of the wealthy who saw investing heavily in education as a route to great gain for society as a whole.
At present, let's consider what happens if the wealthy make NO (or insignificant) gain from investing heavily in education. Economic theory tells us that they will stop investing in education and invest elsewhere. Then you might get really uneducated and very rich young people out there, or you might end up with a society that sees no value in education relative to other pursuits, or any combination of similar deflationary possibilities with respect to the value of education.
And how would you restructure it anyway?
10. Fix teacher workloads, drastically increase supply of allied teaching professionals.
This is a great point, if by 'fix' we mean something concrete to reduce teacher workload to the point where it no longer compromises their professional duties. However, if by 'drastically increase supply' we mean pouring lots of money into recruiting teacher aides who would otherwise be running other essential parts of society, I would be rather concerned. Society needs allied teaching professionals like assistant teachers, administrators, special-needs educators, educational researchers, some kinds of counsellors, etc. But augmenting the supply shouldn't mean undermining the workforce in another key area.
11. Allow technical education to lead to degrees, or diplomas.
On the surface of it, excellent. But these routes already exist in Atlantis, so a bit of a non-point.
12. Skilled craftsmen and artists should have a separate basic qualification before moving on to tertiary.
This assumes that skilled craftsmen and artists NEED (presumably) paper qualifications at all. In many cases, the apprenticeship model and other models leave the creative production of the craftsman/artist as the only qualification needed. And why would they want to move on to tertiary education if they are already skilled? I hesitate to call this point wrong or irrelevant. It's just confusing.
13. Lower the cost of national university education further.
Well, see point 9 above. Also, consider the fact that Atlantean education is already very heavily subsidized. It's a matter of degree then, and whoever promotes this point must be set to propound a specific lowering. How much lower? And how justified?

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Responses (Nov 2013) — Summary

The list of IB TOK Prescribed Titles for November 2013 (with some of my personal brief responses) is collected in this post.

  1. "In the natural sciences progress can be made, but in the arts this is not possible.” To what extent do you agree? 
  2. “Technology both enables us to produce knowledge and limits the knowledge that is produced.” Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge. 
  3. “Every attempt to know the world rests on a set of assumptions that cannot be tested.” Examine this proposition in relation to two areas of knowledge. 
  4. “Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are.” To what extent is this true in the human sciences and one other area of knowledge? 
  5. “... our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design, and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design” (Morris Bishop). To what extent is this true in history and one other area of knowledge? 
  6. “The methods used to produce knowledge depend on the use to which it will be put.” Discuss this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge.


#1: You have to define progress first, probably in relation to knowledge. Once that is defined, then your definitions of the natural sciences and the arts as knowledge-pursuits leading to 'progress' will frame your subsequent argument. This is actually a rather traditional question, a bit thin.

#2: This is related to the general statement '[Tech] X produces knowledge Y using methodology Z that is inherent in X or intrinsic to X'. That is, the title statement implies that technology has a knowledge-constructing function, but that the form it takes necessarily defines the kind of knowledge constructed. It's a good solid question.

#3: In order to answer this kind of question, you need to be able to define the set of assumptions on which a given area of knowledge is based. You need to show how an AOK is an 'attempt to know the world' and how you would test assumptions (in general as well as in particular).

#4: This is the easiest question, apart from 6 which is equally traditional. An AOK is in some sense a human perspective, and as such it makes claims that define humanity implicitly and/or explicitly. This 'gives us a sense of who we are', or at least, attempts to do so. This is what needs to be explored — how successfully does the AOK accomplish this? Some AOKs aren't obviously directed at humanity.

#5: This is a bit of an intellectual joke. Does Bishop mean a collage, a mosaic, or a jigsaw-puzzle? This one requires you to think about how a design can be 'pleasing' (which hints at the role of emotion in knowledge-construction) and how easy/difficult it is to cause a paradigm shift in history or another AOK.

#6: This is a related to the general statement 'Desired outcome A requires knowledge base B which is constructed through methodology C'. Hence it discusses how functionalist ('the use to which it will be put') a particular AOK is — some kinds of knowledge may be seen as having no direct/intended use.

I'll follow up on some (possibly all) of these questions in the days ahead.

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Friday, March 01, 2013

St David's Day (2013)

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
— T S Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

It's that day again. But it is a version that feels different, not for the quality of light nor of heat, but because it has seldom marked so clearly the boundary between life and life.

Last night, I ended my first-ever lecture series at a theological college; this day, I begin officially as director of a new enterprise. And always, as Dewi Sant said, I have tried to do the little things. Today onwards, as I have before, but with renewed purpose, I ask that I do the little things even better.

And in the betterment of things, we remember our hope — that the best is yet to be.

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