Category Archives: Philosophy

The Life and Death of Stars

Stars, so far as we understand them today, are not “alive”.

Now and again we saw a binary and a third star approach one another so closely that one or other of the group reached out a filament of its substance toward its partner. Straining our supernatural vision, we saw these filaments break and condense into planets. And we were awed by the infinitesimal size and the rarity of these seeds of life among the lifeless host of the stars. But the stars themselves gave an irresistible impression of vitality. Strange that the movements of these merely physical things, these mere fire-balls, whirling and traveling according to the geometrical laws of their minutest particles, should seem so vital, so questing.

Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1937)

Star Maker Cover

And yet, it still makes sense to speak of a star being “born”, “living” and even “dying”.

We have moved on from Stapledon’s poetic description of the formation of planets from a filament of star-stuff gravitationally teased-out by a near-miss between passing celestial orbs. This was known as the “Tidal Hypothesis” and was first put forward by Sir James Jeans in 1917. It implied that planets circling stars would be an incredibly rare occurrence.

Today, it would seem that the reverse is true: modern astronomy tells us that planets almost inevitably form as a nebula collapses to form a star. It appears that stars with planetary systems are the norm, rather than the exception.

Be that as it may, the purpose of this post is to share a way of teaching the “life cycle” of a star that I have found useful, and that many students seem to appreciate. It uses the old trick of using analogy to “couch abstract concepts in concrete terms” (Steven Pinker’s phrase).

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 16.49.15.png

I find it humbling to consider that currently there are no black dwarf stars anywhere in the observable universe, simply because the universe isn’t old enough. The universe is merely 13.7 billion years old. Not until the universe is some 70 000 times its current age (about 1015 years old) will enough time have elapsed for even our oldest white dwarfs to have cooled to become a black dwarf. If we take the entire current age of the universe to be one second past midnight on a single 24-hour day, then the first black dwarfs will come into existence at 8 pm in the evening…

And finally, although to the best of our knowledge, stars are in no meaningful sense “alive”, I cannot help but close with a few words from Stapledon’s riotous and romantic imaginative tour de force that is yet threaded through with the disciplined sinews of Stapledon’s understanding of the science of his day:

Stars are best regarded as living organisms, but organisms which are physiologically and psychologically of a very peculiar kind. The outer and middle layers of a mature star apparently consist of “tissues” woven of currents of incandescent gases. These gaseous tissues live and maintain the stellar consciousness by intercepting part of the immense flood of energy that wells from the congested and furiously active interior of the star. The innermost of the vital layers must be a kind of digestive apparatus which transmutes the crude radiation into forms required for the maintenance of the star’s life. Outside this digestive area lies some sort of coordinating layer, which may be thought of as the star’s brain. The outermost layers, including the corona, respond to the excessively faint stimuli of the star’s cosmical environment, to light from neighbouring stars, to cosmic rays, to the impact of meteors, to tidal stresses caused by the gravitational influence of planets or of other stars. These influences could not, of course, produce any clear impression but for a strange tissue of gaseous sense organs, which discriminate between them in respect of quality and direction, and transmit information to the correlating “brain” layer.

Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1937)



Filed under Philosophy, Physics, Science

Corinne’s Shibboleth and Embodied Cognition

You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. How can you be so dead?

— R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes

In modern usage, a shibboleth is a custom, tradition or speech pattern that can be used to distinguish one group of people from another.

The literal meaning of the original Hebrew word shibbólet is an ear of corn. However, in about 1200 BCE, the word was used by the victorious Gileadites to identify the defeated Ephraimites as they attempted to cross the river Jordan. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the “sh” sound and thus said “sibboleth” instead of “shibboleth”.

As the King James Bible puts it:

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.

Judges 12:5-6

The same story is featured in the irresistible (but slightly weird) Brick Testament through the more prosaic medium of Lego:


Sadly, the story did not end well for the Ephraimites:

Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

This leads us to Corinne’s Shibboleth: a question which, according to Dray and Manogoue 2002, can help us separate physicists from mathematicians, but with fewer deleterious effects for both parties than the original shibboleth.
Corinne’s Shibboleth

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.39.11.png

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 10.40.05.png

Mathematicians answer mainly B. Physicists answer mainly A.

This is because (according to Dray and Manogoue) mathematicians “view functions as maps, taking a given input to a prescribed output. The symbols are just placeholders, with no significance.” However, physicists “view functions as physical quantities. T is the temperature here; it’s a function of location, not of any arbitrary labels used to describe the location.”

Redish and Kuo 2015 comment further on this

[P]hysicists tend to answer that T(r,θ)=kr2 because they interpret x2+ y2 physically as the square of the distance from the origin. If r and θ are the polar coordinates corresponding to the rectangular coordinates x and y, the physicists’ answer yields the same value for the temperature at the same physical point in both representations. In other words, physicists assign meaning to the variables x, y, r, and θ — the geometry of the physical situation relating the variables to one another.

Mathematicians, on the other hand, may regard x, y, r, and θ as dummy variables denoting two arbitrary independent variables. The variables (r, θ) or (x, y) do not have any meaning constraining their relationship.

I agree with the argument put forward by Redish and Kuo that the foundation for understanding Physics is embodied cognition; in other words, that meaning is grounded in our physical experience.

Equations are not always enough. To use R. A Lafferty’s picturesque phraseology, ideally physicists should be able to hear “the stuff gurgling” in the stomach of the universe as it flies by….

Dray, T. & Manogoue, C. (2002). Vector calculus bridge project website,

Redish, E. F., & Kuo, E. (2015). Language of physics, language of math: Disciplinary culture and dynamic epistemology. Science & Education, 24(5-6), 561-590.

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Philosophy, Science

The Pedagog Teaches PRAD

Queen Mary made the doleful prediction that, after her death, you would find the words ‘Philip’ and ‘Calais’ engraved upon heart. In a similar vein, the historians of futurity might observe that, in the early years of the 21st century, the dread letters “R.I.” were burned indelibly on the hearts of many of the teachers of Britain.

In a characteristically iconoclastic post, blogger Requires Improvement ruminates on those very same words that he adopted as his nom de guerre: R.I. or “requires improvement”.

He argues convincingly that the Requirement to Improve was, in reality, nothing more than than a Requirement to Conform: the best way to teach had been jolly well sorted out by your elders* and betters and arranged in a comprehensive and canonical checklist. And woe betide you if any single item on this lexicon of pedagogical virtue was left unchecked during a lesson observation!

[*Or “youngers”, in many cases.]

But what were we being asked to confirm to? Requires Improvement writes:

It was (and to an extent, still is) a strange mixture of pedagogies which probably didn’t really please anyone.

It wasn’t (and isn’t) prog; if a lesson has a clear (and teacher-defined) success criterion, it can’t really be progressive. Comparing my experience as a pupil in the 1980’s with that of the pupils I teach now, they are much better trained in what to write to pass exams, and their whole school experience is much more closely managed than mine was. 

Equally, it wasn’t (and isn’t) trad; if the lesson model is about pupil talk, or putting generic skills above learning a canon of content, it can’t really be traditional teaching.

I think that Requires Improvement has hit the nail squarely on the head here. What we were being asked (and in many schools, are still are being asked) to do is teach a weird hybrid Frankenstein’s monster of a pedagogy that combines seemingly random elements of both PRogressive and trADitional pedagogies: PRAD, if you will.

As C. P. Scott said of the word television that no good could come of a word that’s half Latin and half Greek, I feel that no good has come of the PRAD experiment.

While many proponents of PRAD counted themselves kings of infinite pedagogic space, congratulating themselves on combining the best of progressive and traditionalist ideologies, the resulting unhappy chimera in actuality reflected the poverty of mainstream educational thought.

But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted.

— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748)

Rather than a magical wingèd lion that breathes fire, PRAD is a stubby-winged mishmash that can’t fly, can’t lay golden eggs, and that spends its miserable days hacking up furballs. It is time to put it out of its misery.


Filed under Education, Philosophy, Society

The p-prim path to enlightenment…?

The Duke of Wellington was once asked how he defeated Napoleon. He replied: “Napoleon’s plans were made of wire. Mine were made of little bits of string.”

In other words, Napoleon crafted his plans so thay they had a steely, sinewy strength that carried them to completion. Wellington conceded that his plans were more ramshackle, hand-to-mouth affairs. The difference was that if one of of Napoleon’s schemes broke or miscarried, it proved impossible to repair. When Wellington’s plans went awry, he would merely knot two loose bits of string together and carry on regardless.

I believe Andrea diSessa (1988) would argue that much of our knowledge, certainly emergent knowledge, is in the form of “little bits of string” rather than being organised efficiently into grand, coherent schemas.

For example, every human being has a set of conceptions about how the material world works that can be called intuitive physics. If a ball is thrown up in the air, most people can make an accurate prediction about what happens next. But what is the best description of the way in which intuitive physics is organised?

diSessa identifies two possibilities:

The first is an example of what I call “theory theories” and holds that it is productive to think of spontaneously acquired knowledge about the physical world as a theory of roughly the same quality, though differing in content from Newtonian or other theories of the mechanical world [ . . .]

My own view is that . . . intuitive physics is a fragmented collection of ideas, loosely connected and reinforcing, having none of the commitment or systematicity that one attributes to theories.


diSessa calls these fragmented ideas phenomenological primitives, or p-prims for short.

David Hammer (1996) expands on diSessa’s ideas by considering how students explain the Earth’s seasons.

Many students wrongly assume that the Earth is closer to the Sun during summer. Hammer argues that they are relying, not on a misconception about how the elliptical nature of the Earth’s orbit affects the seasons, but rather on a p-prim that closer = stronger.

The p-prims perspective does not attribute a knowledge structure concerning closeness of the earth and sun; it attributes a knowledge structure concerning proximity and intensity, Moreover, the p-prim closer means stronger is not incorrect.


diSessa and Hammer both argue that a misconceptions perspective assumes the existence of a stable cognitive structure where, in fact, there is none. Students may not have thought about the issue previously, and are in the process of framing thoughts and concepts in response to a question or problem. In short, p-prims may well be a better description of evanescent, emergent knowledge.

Hammer points out that the difference between the two perspectives has practical relevance to instruction. Closer means stronger is a p-prim that is correct in a wide range of contexts and is not one we should wish to eliminate.

The art of teaching therefore becomes one of refining rather than replacing students’ ideas. We need to work with students’ existing ideas and knowledge — piecemeal, inarticulate and applied-in-the-wrong-context as they may be.

Let’s get busy with those little bits of conceptual string. After all, what else have we got to work with?


diSessa, A. (1988). “Knowledge in Pieces”. In Forman, G. and Pufall, P., eds, Constructivism in the Computer Age, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers

Hammer, D. (1996). “Misconceptions or p-prims” J. Learn Sci 5 97


Filed under Education, p-prims, Philosophy, Physics, Resourced-based view of education, Science

Still Working Away In Our Silos (Thank Goodness)

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

–G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (1910)

Why are teachers beavering away in their individual silos, each one of us spending hours reinventing each pedagogic wheel, crafting schemes of work and resources for the new GCSEs?

Wouldn’t life be so much easier and better if we simply shared…?

To which I say: NO!

To be honest, my favourite part of the job is designing, crafting and re-designing resources and teaching approaches. They’re not perfect, of course. I’m reminded of a line from the opening credits of South Park: “All celebrity voices are impersonated . . . poorly.” As Chesterton remarked, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

But the point is, my approaches and resources are a lot less imperfect than they used to be. I flatter myself that, over the years, some of them have become . . . quite good. I believe Michael Stipe once said that in the entire history of the world there were only ever five rock and roll songs; and that REM could play two of them quite well. There’s a parallel in that most teachers have a lesson or two (or three) that they — and they alone — can teach brilliantly.

I often think that, given the right context, most students prefer shabby, bespoke individualism rather than shiny mass-produced perfection.

As teachers, I think we sometimes overestimate the impact that we have on our students. There is no royal road to learning, and neither can all our craft and pedagogic arts construct a conveyor belt either.

As educators, the most we can hope to do is clear a few stones out of the way of our charges as they set out on the rocky path to learning.

In the end, the journey is theirs. Let us wish them well as we watch from our silos . . .

The difficulty of obtaining knowledge is universally confessed [ . . .] to reposite in the intellectual treasury the numberless facts, experiments, apophthegms and positions, which must stand single in the memory, and of which none has any perceptible connexion with the rest, is a task which, though undertaken with ardour and pursued with diligence, must at last be left unfinished by the frailty of our nature.

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, 12 January 1760


Filed under Education, Humour, Philosophy

Learning Is For The Birds

​Well versed in the expanses
that stretch from earth to stars,
we get lost in the space
from earth up to our skull.

Wislawa Szymborska, To My Friends

What do we mean by learning? To tell the truth, even as a teacher of twenty-five years experience, I am not sure. 

Professor Robert Coe has suggested that learning happens when people have to think hard. In a similar vein, Daniel Willingham contends that knowledge is the residue of thought. Siegfried Engelmann proposes that learning is the capacity to generalise to new examples from previous examples. I have also heard learning defined as a change in the long term memory.

One thing is certain, learning involves some sort of change in the learner’s brain. But what is acknowledged less often is that it doesn’t just happen in human brains.

Contrary to standard social science assumptions, learning is not some pinnacle of evolution attained only recently by humans. All but the simplest animals learn . . . [And some animals execute] complicated sequences of arithmetic, logic, and data storage and retrieval.
— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works (1997), p.184

An example recounted by Pinker is that of some species of migratory birds that fly thousands of miles at night and use the constellations to find North. Humans do this too when we find the Pole Star.

But with birds it’s surely just instinct, right?

Wrong. This knowledge cannot be genetically “hardwired” into birds as it would soon become obsolete. Currently, a star known as Polaris just happens to be (nearly) directly above the Earth’s North Pole, so that as the Earth rotates on its axis, this star appears to stand still in the sky while the other stars travel on slow circular paths. But it was not always thus.

The Earth’s axis wobbles slowly over a period of twenty six thousand years. This effect is called the precession of the equinoxes. The North Star will change over time, and oftentimes there won’t be star bright enough to see with the naked eye at the North Celestial Pole for there to be “North Star” — just as currently there is no “South Star”.But there will be one in the future, at least temporarily, as the South Celestial Pole describes its slow precessional dance.

Over evolutionary time, a genetically hardwired instinct that pointed birds towards any current North Star or South Star would soon lead them astray in a mere few thousand years or so.

So what do the birds do?

[T]he birds have responded by evolving a special algorithm for learning where the celestial pole is in the night sky. It all happens while they are still in the nest and cannot fly. The nestlings gaze up at the night sky for hours, watching the slow rotation of the constellations. They find the point around which the stars appear to move, and record its position with respect to several nearby constellations. [p.186]

And so there we have it: the ability to learn confers an evolutionary advantage, amongst many others.


Filed under Philosophy, Science

The Curse of Zombie-Ofsted

In his wonderful book, The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould writes of the fallacy

of ranking, or our propensity for ordering complex variation as a gradual ascending scale. Metaphors of progress and gradualism have been among the most pervasive in Western thought . . . ranking requires a criterion for assigning all individuals to their proper status in the single series. And what better criterion than an objective number? . . . one number for each individual . . . to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups — races, classes, or sexes — are innately inferior and deserve their status. In short, this book is about the Mismeasure of Man.

Humankind seems to have an inveterate propensity for sorting the sheep from the goats. There seems to be nothing we enjoy more than placing people, races, genders, things and classes in their allocated place on some putative “Great Chain of Being.”

The Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical worldview developed in mediaeval and Renaissance times but originating from Plato and the neoplatonists. In this view, everyone and everything has its place. An eagle is superior to the “worm eating” robin; the lion is superior to the domestic dog or cat; but those furry familiars have warrant to lord it over the wolf and rabbit because of their greater utility to Man.

In other words, according to this view, Man is the paragon of animals, but is himself subject to the authority of angels and Heaven. All shall be well if each being in the Great Chain knows its place and does its allotted duty.

I believe that the Great Chain of Being is an enduring but largely unconscious idea: we notice its presence like a fish notices the presence of water — that is to say, not at all. Our continuing propensity for ranking is a comfortable habit of thought that, regrettably, all of us slip into as easily as a favourite pair of slippers.

The other fallacy identified by Gould in The Mismeasure of Man is that of

reification, or our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities (from the Latin res, or thing). We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it, in part so that we can make the divisions and distinctions among people that our cultural and political systems dictate.

And so it continues. For example, Regional Schools Commissioner Dominic Herrington recently wrote to a school to ask for evidence that at least 80 per cent of teaching at the school “is rated to be good or better”, including in English and maths ( 6/11/15) — to my mind, demonstrating the fallacies of both ranking and reification simultaneously.

For goodness sake, not even Ofsted does that anymore!

However, the practice is, I suspect, still common in a large number of schools as part of their appraisal systems i.e. if you don’t get a “1” or a “2” in any one of your lesson observations then you “fail”.

The depressing truth is that even when Ofsted change their collective mind about an issue in response to evidence and reasonable argument (Yay! Go edu-bloggers!), their previous ideas and systems continue onward with almost undiminished energy, seemingly with a life and mind (or non-mind) of their own: Zombie-Ofsted, if you will.

To be fair to Ofsted, they have attempted to lay these walkers to rest by publishing clear and unequivocal guidance about their expectations about such nonsense as “minimal teacher talk” or “every lesson must include group work” and so on, but even such a well meaning stake-through-the-heart has made seemingly little headway against the strong winds of the Great Chain of Being.

Zombie-Ofsted marches, or lurches, ever onward.


Zombie-Ofsted marches -- or lurches -- ever onward

Like so much else in the crazy world of education these days, it makes the mind boggle. Or curdle. Or both.


Filed under Classroom Observation, Education, Ofsted, Philosophy