Sunday, 28 September 2008

The Multi-faceted Nature of Higher Education

If I were to ask an academic, a student, a politician and a university vice-chancellor what is the purpose of Higher Education then I would probably get four different answers. If we restricted their answers to; wealth generation, subject engagement, personal transformation and critical citizenship then I would probably get different orders of priority, although all four might agree on the main priority.

As the numbers of students in higher education increase and the cost of going into higher education also increases then more students are taking a strategic/rational approach. Most students are not learning for learning's sake. Many students see a university degree as a stepping stone to a career, this is something you have to do, and you take the path of least resistance by taking a degree in a subject that you engage with most that will lead you towards your career goal. There is one group of students where financial considerations are less likely to be the most important factor in deciding to study and those are the lifelong learners who often take a course for their personal enjoyment and to broaden their knowledge.

The university vice-chancellor is also driven by the need for financial security and so students are transformed into customers and higher education into a market where the product that is being sold are the degrees. The demand depends on the institutional reputation also defined within league tables, which also depend on student/customer feedback.

The current educational policy aims to widen participation in higher education and to increase student numbers. Underlying this is the belief in a knowledge based economy and that a successful economy requires a better educated work-force. So again the economic priority is central.

Academics are the least likely to consider the financial consequences as the most important but they still understand that this is a driving force in the environment in which they are engaged.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Republic - Plato

Three "minds"

Plato felt that there were three mental parts that corresponded to the three classes of his community (p153):

  1. instinctive mind
  2. passionate mind
  3. reasoning mind

This seems to possibly correlate to the three stages of cognitive development:

  1. The amygdala - reptilian brain
  2. The limbic mind - mammalian
  3. The frontal lobes - human


Plato was a strong believer in eugenics and selective breeding of humanity (p173-175)

"It follows from our conclusion so far that sex should preferably take place between men and women who are outstandingly good, and should occur as little as possible between men and women of a vastly inferior stamp. It also follows that the offspring of the first group shall be brought up, while the offspring of the second shouldn't."

"And the main privilege and reward that any young men who are good at fighting or at some other activity ought to receive is the right to sleep with the women more frequently, so that as many as possible of the children are fathered by this kind of person ..."

"A woman can serve the community by producing children between the ages of twenty and forty, and a man by fathering children from when he passes his peak as a runner until the age of fifty-five"

He proposed communal weddings and a lottery so that the rulers could keep this selection secret.

Realist Philosophers

He expalins why many believe that philosophers are either corrupt or useless [this is his regular dig at the sophists] by saying that they are either not recognised for the benefit they bring or that they are feable minds that are only trying to enter philosophy to cover the inadequacies of their other capacities [politicians should stay as politicians and not also try to be philosophers] (p210). He was urging was that thinking should be based on reality and not on an abstract theoretical view of the world as this did not serve any purpose.

Plato's Cave

This is a model of knowing and of education (p240). This describes the four stages of a process:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Thought
  3. Confidence/Belief
  4. Conjecture

Knowledge in this sense is perhaps now better described as information and thought as knowledge then confidence/belief is the models we construct and conjecture is how we apply it to novel situations. This is very much like the theory of experiential learning.

Education for Government

p246 519c-e

"... uneducated people, who have no experience of truth, would make incompetent administrators of a community, and the same is true for people who are allowed to spend their whole lives educating themselves ..."

Leader must rise to the top and see the "goodness" but then they must return back to their common-place lives and not seek to remian there. This is an essential part of democracy and the problem that power corrupts as few are prepared to step back again or to make decisions that do not favour themselves. This is the difference between statesmen and politicians and in "Brave New World" people like Mond take on the responsibility of deciding for the good of the community at the cost of their own freedoms.

Education of the philosopher kings is difficult (p270):

  • Wisdom need experience
  • New ideas need youth
  • Slavish learning kills inspiration

" '... an autonomous person should never learn in a slavish fashion,' I explained. 'It is true that if physical work is performed under compulsion, the body is not impaired, but compulsory intellectual work never remains in the mind.'"

Politics and Politicians p 283.

"You are talking about a political system which is a thorough mixture of good and bad," he remarked.

"Yes, it is a mixture," I agreed, "but thanks to the predominance of the passionate element, there is only one aspect which particularly stands out - all its competitiveness and ambition".

"Outside of the house, the young man hears and sees more of the same sort: he notices that people who mind their own business are regarded by the rest of the community as stupid and are despised, while those who don't are respected and admired. so, when the young man hears and sees all this, and also listens to what his father has to say, and sees his way of life from close quarters and compares it with the alternative, he is pulled in two directions: his father irrigates and nurtures his rational mind, while everyone else nurtures the desirous and passionate parts of his mind. Now, he isn't a bad person, but he has been exposed to some bad influences, ..." p285

"You have given a perfect description of an egalitarian," he said.

"Yes," I said," and I think he is also multi-hued and multi-faceted, as gorgeous and varied a patchwork as that community is. His way of life can be admired by many men and women, because he contains examples of so many political systems and walks of life." P301.

"Freedom," I replied. "I'm sure you've been in a community with a democratic government and heard then claim that there is nothing finer than freedom, and that this is why democracy is the only suitable government for a free man."

"Yes, one hears the claim repeatedly," he said.

"So, to complete the question I was about to ask a moment ago," I said, "is it insatiable greed for freedom and neglect of everything else which causes this political system to change and creates the need for dictatorship?"

"How would it do that?" he asked.

"In its thirst for freedom, a democratically governed community might get leaders who aren't any good at serving wine. It gets drunk on excessive quantities of undiluted freedom, and then, I suppose unless the rulers are very lenient and keep it provided with plenty of freedom, it accuses them of being foul oligarchs and punishes them."

"Yes," he agreed, "that's what it does."

"Then those who obey authority have abuse heaped upon them," I said, "and are described as voluntary slaves, nonentities; admiration and respect are given to people who, in both their private life and in public, behave like subjects if they're rulers; and behave like rulers if they're subjects. Isn't it inevitable that a community of this kind will take freedom as far as it can go?"

"Of course."

"Equally inevitably, my friend," I said, "lawlessness seeps into everyone's homes; ultimately, even animals are infected." P305.

On p355 Plato rails against the idea of necessary deceptions, later Walter Lippmann would use the opposite argument in a Preface to Morals where he is comparing the statesman to the politician. In the case of Plato it applies to artistic reality, which he considered an appalling deception but most artists including famous examples from Constable, Canaletto, Van Dyck and Carravagio manipulate the scenes to create the view that they want even if that is not a physical reality. Plato was opposed to all such retellings of reality.

On p359 Plato warns of the difficulties of controlling emotion and how this will perturb our objective view of the world. For this reason he spoke against poetry because it deforms reality which must be maintained. On p361 he goes so far as to ban the epic poets except in poetry praising the gods, and so he believed that reading Homer was bad for a reasoning community as this should not be taken as an example for our future conduct.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Structure of Scientific Revolution - Thomas Kuhn

Kuhn believes strongly in the textbook as source view of education – when science reaches textbooks it has become the established paradigm.

P28 Perhaps it is not apparent that a paradigm is prerequisite to the discovery of laws such as these. We often hear that they are found by examining measurements undertaken for their own sake and without theoretical commitment. But history offers no support for so excessively Baconian a method.

P47 On the contrary the process of learning a theory depends upon the study of applications, including practice problem-solving both with a pencil and paper and with instruments in the laboratory. If, for example the student of Newtonian dynamics ever discovers the meaning of terms like 'force,' 'mass,' 'space,' and 'time,' he does so less from the incomplete though sometimes helpful definitions in his text than by observing and participating in the application of these concepts to problem-solving.

P59 The Discovery of X-rays meant that previous science had to be re-evaluated considering this new phenomenon which had not previously detected.

Previously completed work on normal projects would now have to be done again because earlier scientists had failed to recognize and control a relevant variable. X-rays, to be sure, opened up a new field and thus added to the potential domain of normal science. But they also, and this is now the more important point, changed fields that had already existed.

P63 An experiment where some playing cards are replaced by anomalous cards (e.g. red six of spades) to see how response depends on exposure times.

P77 This is a direct attack on Popper and The Logic of Scientific Discovery. It is true that usually we just add exceptions to the rule and make the models more complex rather than reject them – for example the standard model and the epicycles of the Ptolemaic System

These hint what our later examination of paradigm rejection will disclose more fully: once it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place. No process yet disclosed by the historical study of scientific development at all resembles the methodological stereotype of falsification by direct comparison with nature.

P80 But science students accept theories in the authority of teacher and text, not because of evidence. What alternatives do they have, or what competence?

P82 There are always difficulties somewhere in the paradigm-nature fit; most of them are set right sooner or later, often by processes that could not have been foreseen. The scientist who pauses to examine every anomaly he notes will seldom get significant work done.

P84 On other occasions the problem resists even apparently radical new approaches. Then scientists may conclude that no solution will be forthcoming in the present state of their field. The problem is labeled and set aside for a future generation with more developed tools. Or, finally, the case that will most concern us here, a crisis may end with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuing battle over its acceptance.

P87 Simultaneously, since no experiment can be conceived without some sort of theory, the scientist in crisis will constantly try to generate speculative theories that, if successful, may disclose the road to a new paradigm and, if unsuccessful, can be surrendered with relative ease.

P88 It is, I think, particularly in periods of acknowledged crisis that scientists have turned to the philosophical analysis as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field.

P90 Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.

P91 The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.

P119 Galileo was not raised completely as an Aristotelian. On the contrary he was trained to analyze the motions in terms of the impetus theory, a late medieval paradigm which held that the continuing motion of a heavy body is due to an internal power implanted in it by the projector that initiated its motion.

P126 But is sensory experience fixed and neutral? Are theories simply man-made interpretations of given data? The epistemological viewpoint that has most often guided Western philosophy for three centuries dictates an immediate and unequivocal Yes! In the absence of a developed alternative, I find it impossible to relinquish entirely that viewpoint. Yet it no longer functions effectively, and attempts to make it do so through the introduction of a neutral language of observations now seems to me hopeless.

P135 But it is hard to make nature fit a paradigm … Instead, even after accepting the theory, they had still to beat nature into line, a process which, in the event, took almost another generation. When it was done, even the percentage of well known compounds was different. The data themselves had changed. That is the last of the senses in which we may want to say that after a revolution scientists work in a different world.

P140 He refers to a constructivist viewpoint

One by one, in a process often compared to the addition of bricks to a building, scientists have added another fact, concept, law, or theory to the body of information supplied in the contemporary science text.

P146 Criticism of Bayesian approaches

As a result, probabilistic theories disguise the verification situation as much as they illuminate it. Though that situation does, as they insist, depend upon the comparison of theories and of much widespread evidence, the theories and observations at issue are always closely related to ones already in existence. Verification is like natural selection: it picks out the most viable among the actual alternatives in a particular historical situation.

P151 Darwin, in a particularly perceptive passage at the end of his Origin of Species, wrote: "Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. … [B]ut I look with confidence to the future to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality."

P152 Still, to say that resistance is inevitable and legitimate, that paradigm change cannot be justified by proof, is not to say that no arguments are relevant or that scientists cannot be persuaded to change their minds. Though a generation is sometimes required to effect the change, scientific communities have again and again been converted to new paradigms.

P172 For many men the abolition of that teleological kind of evolution was the most significant and least palatable of Darwin's suggestions. The Origin of Species recognized no goal set either by God or nature. Instead, natural selection, operating in the given environment and with the actual organisms presently at hand, was responsible for the gradual but steady emergence of more elaborate, further articulated, and vastly more specialized organisms.

P193 Among the few things that we know about it with assurance are: that very different stimuli can produce the same sensations; that the same stimulus can produce very different sensations; and finally, that the route from stimulus to sensation is in part conditioned by education.