Showing People How To Think
Posted by Pete Hague on 11 Jun 2012
We live in a culture that respects intelligence, and very often judges the quality of an argument by the perceived intellect of the person making it. To sustain this, there needs to be a means by which you can judge a persons intellect swiftly, without sitting them down, giving them standardised tests and asking them to submit a thesis. To make ad hominem judgements efficiently, a person has to be able to pick out things from what a person says (or how they say things) that can be used as proxies for their intelligence. I've noticed this can quickly turn into an in-group/out-group sort of thing, as I briefly mentioned in my blog post about the skeptics movement.
It follows that, when people make this kind of judgement about intelligence, their opinions on education might be shaped by the desire to teach children to exhibit what they consider the to be the signifiers of true intelligence.
The Magic Bullet
In the UK there is an environment where there are often claims of the failure of education, grade inflation and dumbing down (see your nearest tabloid newspaper for a citation on this). In such an environment, it is tempting for everyone and his dog to offer fixes for the allegedly broken education system. Clearly such fixes are going to be informed by people's biases.
Many people in the technology industry believe that teaching children to code will, to a lesser or greater extend depending on the person, revolutionise education. My brother seems to hold such a belief and I can't say I personally disagree - but both of us have been coding from an early age and work in fields that require a high degree of programming ability.
Many scientists and skeptics believe in the importance of teaching good science in schools (and, again, I unsurprisingly agree with this.) They feel that diluting science with things such as creationism is a dire threat to education, and that the population as a whole should be made more scientifically literate.
I freely admit to being biased on these things, because everybody has biases. Believing oneself to be free of bias is the most dangerous form of cognitive bias there is.
Both of these points of view I hold should be well known to anyone following the public debate, and are easily identified and discussed as points of view. I want to talk about a more insidious idea of what education should be, and one that has legislative backing in the UK.
The Great Debate
The current UK education minister, Michael Gove, is planning a reform of our national curriculum. I believe the proposed changes reflect Gove's own biases about what constitutes intellect. I am aware that any government policy is crafted by more than one person, the face is Gove has ultimate authority over this policy, and he is likely surrounded by people of a similar mindset anyway.
Having been unable to find the sources the Guardian uses (where there should be links to said sources, there are infuriating links to Guardian subheadings) I am at present only able to comment on their reporting of this new curriculum, but let us assume it is accurate for the moment. The learning of language, both English and foreign languages, is emphasised. There is a demand that children be taught poetry, and be expected to recite it in front of an audience.
The scientific method is to be disregarded in favour of observation of the natural world. As you might expect, this causes me some concern; having made their observations, how are children going to be asked to interpret them? Taking the scientific method out of the picture opens the doors for other means of interpreting nature - such as through the prism of a literal interpretation of scripture, for example. Without the scientific method being taught as a way to find the meaning of observation, I can only think lessons will fall back on debate. If this fear of mine is correct, then this policy has an unfortunate whiff of the 'teach the controversy' tactic used to try and get creationism taught in science lessons.
I believe this policy reflects Gove's own style of thought because of his background. He studied English at Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union debating society; he then had a career in journalism before entering parliament via a brief career in a think tank. Every single step of the way, he has been in an environment where truth is sought through adversarial debate. Matters are settled by who can most win over an audience through his rhetoric and the integrity of his verbal arguments. The new education policy is consistent with promoting this mode of thought and the skills it requires.
I don't mean to single out Gove in this respect; his background is very typical of politicians. Many MPs, including both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, are PPE graduates from Oxford - a course very much associated with the type of approach.
But this mode of though has some quite severe weaknesses. Through his superior debating skills, Aristotle managed to establish an entirely incorrect system of dynamics which was widely accepted until Galileo rolled some balls down a ramp, disproving the system through simple observations and mathematics, almost 2000 years later
Science long ago rejected the notion that you can find the truth simply by noting who has the most rhetorically sound argument, but this method has been retained in politics (where arguably, it is far more suitable.) The idea that what might be described as the 'political method' might be prioritised over the scientific method in the classroom is not a welcome one to those who appreciate the scientific method.
There is a long and unpleasant history of political meddling in science, from the church's reaction to the Copernican model, through to eugenics and Lysenkoism. In the modern age, politics have impinged on science through things such as climate change denial and anti-vaccine campaigning.
Thinking About Thinking
This blog post may seem a bit abstract and perhaps a bit meandering, but bear in mind that it is inherently difficult to write about this subject. I'm talking about methods of thinking (and what methods of thinking we should impart on children), whilst myself being trapped in my own favoured methods of thinking.
I can't argue against children being taught the intricacies of language, or the skill of public speaking, but I would hope that the Michael Gove has an attack of good sense soon, and doesn't try to do so exclusively at the expense of the scientific method - because that method of thinking has given us a society where we can debate things more complicated than "where are we going to get food from" and "why is everybody dying of the plague"?
Posted by Rob Hague on 11 Jun 2012
Interesting post, and I (yet again, unsurprisingly) agree. To clarify my opinion on the subject of teaching coding, I certainly agree that it's a useful thing (and something that our generation was uniquely well served for, due to a fortunate confluence of circumstances), but I'm undecided as to whether doing so in a classroom should be a priority. The curriculum is already crowded, so merely adding another subject without rationalising elsewhere would make matters worse, not better. I'll leave it to those closer to the issue (in other words, teachers) to square that particular circle. In the meantime, projects like the Raspberry Pi can do a great deal in a more informal, extra-curricular context.