Tag Archives: Wittgenstein

The Twelve Physics Pracs of Gove (Part Two)

A true-devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps

–William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona


A picture [of reality]  . . .  is laid against reality like a measure  . . .   Only the end-points of the graduating lines actually touch the object that is to be measured  . . .   These correlations are, as it were, the feelers of the picture’s elements, with which the picture touches reality.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus 2.141-2.1515


What they say of disc jockeys is also true of teachers: that someone, somewhere will remember some of your words forever; or, at least, for the duration of their lifetime. The downside is, of course, that you never know which of your words are going to be remembered. The wittily-crafted, near-Wildean aphorism pregnant with socratic wisdom — probably not. The unintentionally hilarious malapropism that makes you sound like a complete plonker — almost certainly.

To this day, I still remember Dr Prys’ sharp and appropriate response to a flippant comment (possibly from the callow 6th form me) about whether the scientific constants listed in the data book were truly trustworthy: “Look,” he said, “people have dedicated their whole lives to measuring just one of these numbers to one extra decimal place!” True devoted pilgrims indeed, mapping out the Universe step by tiny step, measurement by measurement.

I have written before on what I consider to be the huge importance of practical work in Physics education. Without hands-on experience of the hard work involved in the process of precise measurement, I do not believe that students can fully appreciate the magnificent achievement of the scientific enterprise: in essence, measurement is how scientific theories “touch” reality.

I am encouraged that parts of this view seem to be shared by the writers of the Subject Content guidance. (All hail our Govean apparatchik overlords!)

Of course, this has to be balanced with the acknowledgement that (as I understand it at least) teacher-assessed practical work will no longer count towards a student’s final exam grade. Many are concerned that this is actually a downgrading of the importance of practicals in Science and thus a backward step.

Sadly, they may turn out to be right: “We have to have this equipment for the practical/controlled assessment!” will no longer be a password for unlocking extra funding from recalcitrant SLTs (and from the exam budget too — double win!)

And, undoubtedly, some “teach-to-the-test” schools will quietly mothball their lab equipment (except for the showy stuff — like the telescope that no-one knows how to use — that they bring out for prospective pupil tours).

That would be sad, and although the DfE have, to be fair, nailed their pro-practical colours to the mast, we all know that the dreaded Law of Unintended Consequences may have the last laugh.

I would say it all depends on how the new A levels are actually put together. I will be attending some “launch events” in the near future. I will blog on whether I think we can expect an Apollo 11 or an Apollo 13 at that time.

In the meantime, I will be setting practicals galore as usual, as I’m old-fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a scheme of work…

Look at me, I design coastlines, I got an award for Norway. Where’s the sense in that? None that I’ve been able to make out. I’ve been doing fiords all my life, for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award. In this replacement Earth we’re building they’ve given me Africa to do, and of course, I’m doing it will all fjords again, because I happen to like them. And I’m old fashioned enough to think that they give a lovely baroque feel to a continent. And they tell me it’s not equatorial enough…
–Slartibartfast, from The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams



Filed under Assessment, Education, Philosophy, Physics, Science, Society

The Metaphor of Progress

Whatever anybody says, time is most definitely not money.

Time is space.

Let me explain: the language we use to describe and reason about time uses space and (more exactly) movement as a metaphor.

We may picture ourselves journeying through time, where we are physically moving toward the future; perhaps like a passenger on board a train: “We’ll soon reach the end of the month”, or “It’ll be a long time before I reach retirement age.”

train 1

Alternatively, we may picture ourselves as standing still and time moving past us; perhaps like a person standing on a platform watching a train go by: “Christmas will soon be here”, or “The examination season will soon be upon us.”

Why do we make these analogies? It is not just to co-opt words but to co-opt their inferential machinery. Some deductions that apply to motion and space also apply nicely to possession, circumstances and time. That allows the deductive machinery for space to be borrowed for reasoning about other subjects. […] The mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms.

— Steven Pinker, How The Mind Works, p.353 [emphasis mine]

I don’t want to suggest that time is only a metaphor, but rather that our ordinary, everyday ways of thinking about time are, in the main, part of the time-is-space bundle of metaphors.

And this, of course, is fine. We live our lives relying almost exclusively on inference, induction and guesswork (rather than logical analysis, deduction and rational consideration) and — usually — it’s great! These short-cuts and rules of thumb often lead us to the correct answers more quickly than other pathways. But not always.

Sometimes our machinery of inference gets things wrong. For example, who could have predicted the strange composite entity known as spacetime that is used in relativistic physics and the many counter-intuitive (but experimentally verified) predictions that stem from it?

So, if time is space, what is progress?

Pinker (pp.357-8) summarises the work of Lakoff and Johnson which suggests (amongst other things) that “virtue is up“:

He is high-minded.
She is an upstanding citizen.
That was a low trick.

It seems to me that, currently, in the world of education in general, progress buys into both the progress-is-up and progress-is-forward bundle of metaphors.

These test scores are disappointing: we need to move this class forward to show progress.
She has made excellent progress and is working at a higher level.

And my point? That although the word progress sounds real and concrete, it’s actually not. It is just a metaphor.

When we say that students are “making progress” what are we actually saying? Are they gaining higher test scores? Are they copying stuff neatly off the board? Are they writing coherent, original paragraphs in their exercise books? Are they working on a higher textbook page number than last week? Are they able to solve more difficult problems? Do they collaborate with each other to solve problems? Are they more often in brain-state X rather than brain-state Y?

I am not sure. If I say (and I have said it before and will probably continue to say it again, both verbally and in writing): “Student A has made progress. She is working at a higher level than she was last term.” —  is there actually any useful information in that first sentence other than the implication than I like what Student A has done?

Again let me reiterate that I, myself, am not sure about this. But since the idea of progress is central to much of appraisal and performance management in education, I would like to feel we are not building on sand. Is there a way of nailing this idea of progress, other than “I knows it when I sees it”? (For some reason, I hear this said in a Yorkshire accent.)

When inspectors ask to see evidence of students making progress in a lesson, are they actually only asking to see “some stuff that I like”?

Let me emphasise that I am not averse to metaphor, especially professionally useful metaphors, but I am not sure if progress is one of those.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He  must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

Is it time to throw away the simple ladder idea of progress? Just asking…

The only way is up, baby
For you and me, baby
The only way is up
For you and me

— Yazz and the Plastic Population

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Filed under Education, Philosophy, Physics, Science

National Curriculum Levels: worth keeping?

There is a tide in the affairs of men, or so opined Brutus in Julius Caesar.

Likewise, there is something like a tide in the edu-blogosphere, or at least a prevailing wind. And the prevailing wind right now seems to blowing against the idea of National Curriculum levels (try Joe, Daisy or Keven for their wiser, more coherent thoughts on this issue.)

But here’s the thing: I’ve always quite liked the idea of levels.

There. I’ve said it. Now I feel like Captain Rum in Blackadder:

Aaaaaar! All them other scurvy-bloggers be sayin’ be rid of NC levels! But I says…

Edmund: Look, there’s no need to panic. Someone in the crew will know how to steer this thing.

Rum: The crew, milord?

Edmund: Yes, the crew.

Rum: What crew?

Edmund: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.

Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.

Edmund: Oh, really?

Rum: Yahs. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.

Blackadder II, Episode 3: Potato

Now this is not to say that some schools did some mighty strange things with levels and sub-levels. Like insisting that Key Stage 3 students should progress by two sub-levels per year. And woe betide any teacher that did not achieve this minimal standard of progression, or — horror of horrors! — reported that a student had made negative progress. How dare one cause even the minutest blip on our glorious straight lines on our graphs (drawn in Excel! with colour coding!) of student progression!

And so, for a quiet life, some rascally teachers may have looked at last year’s level, added two sub-levels to it, and entered that.

And, lo, it came to pass that everybody was happy: “Yea, we have numbers, and numbers are scientific. Gosh, some of us even use numbers and letters, which is beyond scientific: I mean, it’s more like advanced cognitive calculus of your learning soul, right? And Ofsted want to see progress over time. Which is shown by our graphs. In Excel. With colour coding. A glorious and undeviating straight line. For every single student. God, we are so good, aren’t we? Outstanding, even.”

That said, I am still in favour of keeping a form of assessment level. No, not the hyperformal “Oh-they’ve-got-to-sit-both-SATS-papers-in-order-to-get-a-reliable-level-and-sublevel” type of level.

What I have got in mind is an approach that was introduced to me many, many moons ago. It was called the CONTROL WORD approach to levels (ring any bells for anyone else yet?)

Level 3: DESCRIBES cause and effect using everyday language (e.g. “The wind blew the door shut”)

Level 4: Uses scientific TERMINOLOGY (e.g. “A force is a push or a pull.”)

Level 5: EXPLAINS cause and effect using scientific terminology (e.g. “The boat slowed because of the drag force of the water.”)

Level 6: Explain cause and effect using an ABSTRACT concept (e.g. “The bulb became dimmer because the resistance of the circuit increased.”)

Level 7: Uses a scientific MODEL to explain a phenomenon (e.g. “The wire has resistance because the freely moving electrons collide with the atoms of the wire and lose energy.”)

Level 8: Links PHENOMENA using a sophisticated model [or models] (e.g. “The atoms vibrate with greater amplitude at higher temperatures. This means that the freely moving electrons will collide more frequently with them. Thus the resistance of the wire increases with temperature.”)

The sublevels were allocated as follows:

(c) can do this with coaching or with highly structured prompts

(b) can usually do this with some prompting or coaching

(a) can do this relied on to do this independently

I’ve always secretly applied this assessment schema when asked for NC levels, and my rule-of-thumb-pulled-out-of-thin-air level has usually been at least comparable with “two-sodding-SATS-papers-to-bloody-well-mark-just-to-generate-one-number-and-one-stupid-letter approach”, or the T.S.S.P.T.B.W.M.J.T.G.O.N.A.O.S.L Approach, as an educational consultant might call it.

Anyhow, now my secret is out. Please feel free to pile on and criticise.

I shall sign off with what I think is an appropriate quotation from Wittgenstein:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54


Filed under Assessment, Education, Philosophy, Physics, Science