Tag Archives: Philosophy

Engelmann and Direct Instruction (Part 2)

In Could John Stuart Mill Have Saved Our Schools?, Siegfried Engelmann and Douglas Carnine discuss the philosophical foundations of their acclaimed Direct Instruction programme (see Part 1). They write of their serendipitous rediscovery of Mill’s work and that they

came across Mill’s work and were shocked to discover that they had independently identified all the major patterns that Mill had articulated. Theory of Instruction [1991] even had parallel principles to the methods in [Mill’s] A System of Logic [published in 1843].

— location 543 Kindle edition

What Engelmann and Carnine are attempting to do is no less than develop a scientifically reliable model of education. In their view, learners learn by constructing inferences based on the evidence or examples presented by the teacher. In other words, learners use the rules of reason and logic (consciously or unconsciously) to develop general principles from specific examples by inductive reasoning.

To me, this is a fascinating idea. Have Engelmann and Carnine hit upon the elusive essence of what learning is? Is learning genuinely a matter of constructing inferences from evidence by formal or informal logical rules?

My view is that it certainly seems a plausible idea. In the light of my own experience and thinking it has a “ring of truth”, and I suspect that I am going to find this a profoundly influential idea for the rest of my career.

Many authors and thinkers have argued that human beings construct “mental maps” or conceptual models constructed by inductive reasoning from often limited information. Anthropologist Louis Liebenberg describes an example involving the !Xõ people of the central Kalahari Desert:

While tracking down a solitary wildebeest spoor [tracks] of the previous evening !Xõ trackers pointed out evidence of trampling which indicated that the animal had slept at that spot. They explained consequently that the spoor leaving the sleeping place had been made early that morning and was therefore relatively fresh. The spoor then followed a straight course, indicating that the animal was on its way to a specific destination. After a while, one tracker started to investigate several sets of footprints in a particular area. He pointed out that these footprints all belonged to the same animal, but were made during the previous days. He explained that the particular area was the feeding ground of that particular wildebeest. Since it was, by that time, about mid-day, it could be expected that the wildebeest may be resting in the shade in the near vicinity.

— quoted by Steven Pinker in How The Mind Works p. 193

The trackers were using miniscule traces of evidence and their knowledge of the environment to make inferences about the behaviour of (currently) unseen entities. In other words, they were using inductive reasoning to put together a tentative model of what their quarry was doing or attempting to do. (And I use ‘tentative’ in the sense that the model will be adapted and corrected in the light of further evidence.)

As do we all! I would suggest that all humans use similar techniques of inference, or ‘mental modules’ in Steven Pinker’s memorable phrasing, even with vastly different subject matter. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow even go so far as to suggest that:

we shall adopt an approach that we call model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality.

The Grand Design p.9

And where does this leave us? If Engelmann and Carnine are correct (and I believe they are} then education becomes a matter of logic. They argue that a vital criterion in designing what they call “sound instructional sequences” is that sets of examples should “generate only the intended inferences”. They note

that logical flaws in instruction could be identified analytically, through a careful examination of the teaching. If we know the specific set of examples and the inference that the learners are supposed to derive from the instruction, we can determine if serious false inferences are implied by the program.

— location 1514

And I, for one, find that a highly engaging and strangely comforting thought.

(You can read Part 3 here)



Filed under Direct Instruction, Education, Philosophy, Siegfried Engelmann

The Gift of Screws

Essential oils are wrung:
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws.

— Emily Dickinson, Time and Eternity XXV

It’s a memorable image that Dickinson presents: that the delightful, fragrant oil of attar does not spontaneously waft or pour from a rose, but rather it must be wrung from the petals using the force of a screw press.

Screw Press

In other words, this beautiful, natural, organic fragrance is the gift of screws.

What prompted me to recall these lines? Firstly, Leonard James’ recent excellent blogpost “Kayleigh Wants To Do Well“:

So ‘Kayleigh wants to do well’? Show me a child who doesn’t want to do well! If one accepts that the overwhelming majority of children want to do well then the vapidity of the questioning becomes clear. Extracting a meaningful dialogue from an underachieving child begins with putting their desire to achieve to one side and focusing on whether the child wants to put in the effort required to make it happen. Like many an adult who wants be thinner but doesn’t want to lay off the cake, Kayleigh wants a string of good grades without making the sacrifices required to achieve them.

This resonates with my own experience with some students: “Oh. so you do want to do well? Then do the bloody work then!” (Sorry, I’m going through that time of year that I refer to as “Coursework Hell” at the moment, so I might be on a tiny little bit of a short fuse.)

Secondly, let’s not forget that learning, proper learning mind you, is bloody hard work (and I make no apology for quoting this line yet again, since it so neatly crystallises and encapsulates what I think is the single most important lesson of my two decades in teaching) :

Learning happens when people have to think hard.

Professor Robert Coe

Learning, real learning, is also the gift of screws.

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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Science, Society

A Letter from Talleyrand: ‘Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities’ by Dominic Cummings, aged 39¾

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings

If Michael Gove can be likened to Napoleon, would that make Dominic Cummings his Talleyrand? (after Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord 1754-1838, Napoleon’s éminence grise.)

The Duke of Wellington once remarked that the battle plans of Napoleon were made of marble, whereas his own were made of little bits of string. Napoleon’s plans were brilliant and effective, as majestic as a triumphal arch. However, they all shared one fatal flaw: if one little bit went wrong then the whole edifice came crashing down. Wellington said that his own battle plans were different: if one string broke, he would merely knot two other strings together and the plan would continue on.

The pdf what Cummings wrote*  has the feel of man attempting to build a Napoleonic battle plan in order to sort out, once and for all, all the tiresome disagreements about educational policy.

And there’s no denying the man has been busy: he has read a lot. An awful lot. From a very wide range of authors. And it’s quite an interesting and eclectic read.

But it also gives the impression of being no more than an energetic exercise in quote mining, and not a dispassionate investigation of the issues. In other words, I strongly suspect that Cummings read so widely in order to find extracts to support his pre-existing views, rather than thoughts or insights to help form or challenge them.

Reading this document, I was put in mind, more than once, of the fictional doctor, Andrey Yefimitch:

“You know, of course,” the doctor went on quietly and deliberately, “that everything in this world is insignificant and uninteresting except the higher spiritual manifestations of the human mind … Consequently the intellect is the only possible source of enjoyment.”

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Cummings laments that “less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation.” That, though true, is not necessarily a reason for lambasting our current education system as “mediocre at best”. For me, this seems a curious priority.

Sir Isaac Newton was roundly criticised by his contemporaries for lacking a solid theoretical foundation for the infinitesimal calculus: Bishop Berkeley accused him of trafficking in “the ghosts of vanished quantities”. A couple of centuries later, the rigorous** notion of a limit laid that criticism to rest. Now of course it is generally better to understand more rather than less, but would learning about the foundational difficulties of the calculus be the most pressing priority of a 18th Century student of Physics? I would argue no, not necessarily.

For my part, I have thought long and hard about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (in Eugene Wigner’s phrase). I have discussed it with students. I think it’s a fascinating issue, and I adore far-ranging, off-spec discussions of this ilk. But is it an educational priority? Not in my opinion.

Other parts of the pdf seem just plain odd to me:

It would be interesting to collect information on elite intelligence and special forces training programmes (why are some better than others at decisions under pressure and surviving disaster?). E.g. Post-9/11, US special forces (acknowledged and covert) have greatly altered … How does what is regarded as ‘core training’ for such teams vary and how is it changing?

— Cummings, p.98

Interesting, sure. These special forces teams are (I presume) made up of already highly-motivated and highly-capable individuals. Cummings overarching priority always seems to be towards the individuals on far right of the “bell curve” (another Cummings hot topic: see pp.13, 20, 67, 224 and others). He genuinely seems to recoil in fastidious horror at the very concept of being “mediocre”.

This essay is aimed mainly at ~15-25 year-olds and those interested in more ambitious education and training for them. Not only are most of them forced into mediocre education but they are also then forced into dysfunctional institutions where many face awful choices: either conform to the patterns set by middle-aged mediocrities (don’t pursue excellence, don’t challenge bosses’ errors, and so on) or soon be despised and unemployed.

–Cummings p.4

Compare with Dr Yefimitch:

Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full conciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.

— Anton Chekov, Ward 6

Apparently, Mr Cummings plans to leave the DoE and take up the headship of a Free School. Although I have serious reservations about the Free School programme, I welcome this as an encouraging example of a politician putting his money where his mouth is. And I wish him well. I genuinely do.

However, from my own experience I have to say that I do not think his abstract philosophy will be as reliable a guide for navigating the choppy waters of a headteacher’s life as he believes it will be.

I have quoted from Chekov’s Ward 6 already. This masterful short story is the best description I have ever come across of the result of a collision between a man with an abstract philosophy and real life. In a discussion with a lunatic, Dr Yefimitch proposes that: “There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this [cold, freezing] ward … A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.” However, disaster strikes and he is committed to the asylum:

Andrey Yefimitch was even now convinced that there was no difference between his landlady’s house and Ward No. 6, that everything in the world was nonsense and the vanity of vanities. And yet his hands were trembling, his feet were cold, and he was filled with dread…

Now, I am not suggesting that our Dom will end up in an insane asylum, or even cold, hungry and alone. What I suggesting is that since one Free School head of what might be described as “the-how-hard-can-it-be?” tendency has, sadly, already bitten the dust, Mr Cummings may find that running a school (or just being a plain old teacher for that matter) requires far more than is dreamt of in his philosophy.

Unless, that is, he learns to make his plans out of string rather than out of marble…


* This joke ©Morecambe and Wise c.1972, as are most of the rest of my jokes
** Now where have I heard that word before?

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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Politics