About howardjohnson

I recently graduated from Temple University (doctorate in educational psychology). I'm from Northeast Ohio, US. I'm not currently working, but I would like to find an interesting project. Hobbies include music of any style. I'm proficient in any percussion, but still love to play guitar, bass, hammered dulcimer or keyboard on occasion.

Education Reformers Need the Ideas of C.S. Peirce

This post is in draft mode especially the concluding remarks


Education would be well served by the scientific approach of C.S. Peirce, especially in the light of recent reliability problems in psychological research and in their likely reproduction in new technologies. Educational practice has long been accused of being fadish, but now we’re seeing foundations called into question. The focus here is on semiotics and C.S. Peirce’s pragmatic philosophy. Educational practices are goal oriented and imbued with meaning. Research that is insufficiently grounded in the semiotics of its intended practice can’t coherently drive decisions on meaningful educational practices, but that does not mean giving up on science or data at any level.

Yes we live in a neoliberal age. Yes policy is driven by measurement and prediction and a positivist worldview, a la Habermas’s technical knowledge constitutive interests. Yes. Policymakers are looking at data.
Maha Bali

It was during (October2011) that I read Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn’s powerful False Positive Psychology paper, which demonstrates that common practices of our field—practices taught to me by my Ivy League professors—could lead us to statistically affirm patently false, sometimes absurd, hypotheses. . . . After that moment, I could no longer read articles in the same way; I could no longer trust the standard practices of our field as I had before; I could no longer treat the field’s accumulated knowledge as sacrosanct. I lost faith in my beloved field.
Michael Inzlicht

Context – What’s Going On

First, this loss of faith is important because a broad, meaningful and scientific approach is needed for a scientifically sound evidentiary approach to educational practice. Even though the two authors quoted represent very different perspectives, they both struggle to find meaning in a science that seems now to belie common sense. Paul Meehl (1986) noted that many theories in psychology are never refuted, but just fade away. Those never refuted theories also tend to leave unresolved remnants in their wake. Meehl complained that we critique logical positivism over and over instead of moving on, but that failed project inspired a model of science that has left us with shaky foundations. Duncan Watts notes the problems of logical inconsistencies that cause social science theories to be unrelated or even contradictorily related to phenomena. What we are left with is often less of coherent theory than a mass of meaningless, disjointed and at times incoherent empirical curiosities. Watts advocates for multidisciplinary solution oriented science, a move toward pragmatism that I believe is growing. It’s time to rethink the logic and philosophy underlying social science. I believe we are moving away from a past of simple mechanistic models to semantically rich and creative approaches. Consider this from Danny Quah (Professor of Economics and Kuwait Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science):

At (the Penang Free School) I’d excelled in mathematics and science, but that is now only a small part of what I need to do to be a productive contributing member of the community. What matters more instead? A good sense of what is artistically compelling and linguistically convincing. A political awareness of what ought to matter to people. . .

This idea is close to M.M. Bakhtin’s dialogical approach who said:

We must renounce our monological habits so that we might come to feel at home in the new artistic sphere which Dostoevsky discovered, so that we might orient ourselves in that incomparably more complex artistic model of the world which he created” (Bakhtin, 1984, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p.272).

Referring to James’ pragmatism, the Wikipedia article on the Gettier Problem is talking about this very concept when it states:

From a pragmatic viewpoint of the kind often ascribed to James, defining on a particular occasion whether a particular belief can rightly be said to be both true and justified is seen as no more than an exercise in pedantry, but being able to discern whether that belief led to fruitful outcomes is a fruitful enterprise.

If you are looking for universal and decontextualized human capabilities, this reeks of subjectivity. If however you are looking at way of creatively addressing specific practice, you open up the possibility of the creative use of empirical objective data that is also meaningful to practice.

In 1990 Paul Meehl wrote a paper apply titled; Why summaries of research on psychological theories are often uninterpretable. It dealt with weakness in the methodologies of psychological research and can be seen in some ways to presage the recent replicability crisis debate (Baker, 2016). While psychological research is important and methodological improvements will strengthen this research, from the standpoint of evidence-based practices, it does lend an air of pedantry when compared to research that impacts the needs of specific human practice. What changes when moving to a pragmatic perspective is to change the focus from a narrow empiricist orientation to the consequential basis of validity (Messick 1995) in an evidence-informed and measurement based practice. The views of CS Peirce’s pragmatism and model of inquiry is scientific and can be just as quantitive and data driven. It is just human inquiry that is grounded differently.

Time and Process – Looking to the Future

We must understand the past, but also look to the future. More than just policy and methodology, the future is also about data and technology. The widespread use of computing systems is coming to education and society in general. Many, if not most computing systems treat data and analysis in a similar way to the positivist styled paradigm that is being critiqued. This is true even though computing systems are embedded in practice not in research. To understand what these systems are doing their embedded measurement practices should be subject to the same validity practices as other educational measures. As Gardner Campbell notes, the venture backed Ed Tech industry often does not really go beyond Skinner’s ideas of programmed instruction and technology often seem to be directed toward replacing teachers rather that providing them with more relevant tools. Even Skinner rejected the idea that Teaching Machines could replace teachers. As Campbell says:

Mechanistic paradigms reduce learning to linear relationships within concepts that are complexly related or even formulated along multiple dimensions, while constructivist paradigms are rejected for failing to meet reductive, tautological criteria for easily-measured “learning.” . . . will we persist in our rush to redefine learning in terms of what we can easily do, easily measure, and easily replicate?

When the educational operations are black boxed the trust that is a cornerstone of pedagogy is put at risk as was evidenced by the failure of InBloom. We value and place tremendous resources on the education of students because there is meaning in the outcomes, hopes and dreams for our students. Educational programs must be grounded in these values, they must be grounded in transparent ways and they must convince us that they are valid for their design.

This still ascendant positivist worldview leads me to the fear that the nuts and bolts of educational practice may soon be out of our conscious control, guided by the blackbox of Artificial Intelligence (AI), that we will lose control of underlying educational processes and some problem may even become embedded into the unexamined infrastructure of practice. When critiquing approaches that are easily measured, the issue is not disdain for measurement or a scientific approach, but advocates for approaches that address the full range of intellectual achievement, are transparent and understandable and do not narrow the scope to meaningless measures. Technology is important not because it can replicate past pedagogy, but that it can enable teachers to adopt the best of teacher led innovative individualized pedagogies. Many current technologies individualize for students only after a standardization process designed for efficiency in producing identical outcomes. These standardized processes can be useful for standardized sub-goals, but the end goal is to develop students’ effectiveness (Richardson & Dixon). Each student is unique and needs an individualized pedagogy that reflects their uniqueness. As McLuhan said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” There is a place for technology and for standardization, but we do not want to become standardized or a servent of technology. We should shape out tools only will an deep understanding of how they will shape us.

A Central Issue is Pragmatic Semiotics  (Meaningful Solutions)

We should respond by seeking new ways of seeing that are truly data-based and scientific, but achieves a level of semantic clarity; for I believe the truest criticism leveled against positivists is that their machinations effectively obscures rather than clarifies our deeper understanding of scientific results as well as the neoliberal power structures that affect our everyday actions and theoretical stances. A positivist experimental approach, by seeking universal truths, obscures a real understanding of the intended purpose of research and disciplinary development.

Disciplines do not proceed from theoretical discovery of some universal truth of nature to specific practical applications in solving problems, but rather from specific practical problems and human needs to a wide range of analytical and theoretical and technical methods useful in various historical situations. The practical need, the human problem, determines the goal (Russell, 2003 p.177)

In the post of Maha Bali quoted above, she seems to echo Russell saying:

I have problems with privileging quantiative data in a positivist manner in education. Notice I said privileging and positivist. Having quantiative data is useful. Having it drive the questions and priorities is not.

Maha’s distrust of data does not apply a perspective where the underlying metaphysics are clear. As Russell says so well, we need technical and analytic methods, but directed toward the goal of human needs. Analytical methods and technologies are needed, but we must use them within a broader logic of science. Duncan Watts’ proposal for solution oriented social science is needed, but it should also be firmly grounded in logic and philosophy.

A Turning Point in Frege Vs. Peirce

Where to begin? Following the ideas of Paul Feyerabend, belief is not often changed by argument, but by adopting new attitudes, new standards and new ways of looking at the world and that is my intention. In addition to narrow positivism logic dualist alternatives like the quantitative /qualitative divide or Habermas’ approach also distort our view of science and its  underlying arguments. CS Peirce saw that phenomena and practice can’t be adequately addressed in an environment of “axe-welding” “demarcationist science”. Instead, find a legitimate place for semiotics and a broader logic throughout science. To begin a new way of looking I’d like to tell a story about the advent of positivism in the logic of Gottlieb Frege and Charles S. Peirce’s alternative view.

Positivism and Pragmatism both grew from the seeds of logic, a desire for clarity and the development of psychology as a science in the late 19th Century; most notably in the work of Gottlieb Frege and Charles S Peirce. These men had views that often converged, but I will make a sharp distinctions with semiotics; a parallel concern for Peirce who saw it’s importance to science. Positivism and Frege’s views became more popular in the 20th Century. Why? I will make a logical conjecture; they wished to believe that scientific data can be derived from observation in a straightforward way in order to enact a mathematically modeled logic and that this logic could be straightforwardly applied to understand human functioning and everyday practices. This was an attempt to distance both semiotics and metaphysics. The inclusion of semiotic and metaphysical aspects was thought to needlessly complicate things and led to endless regression. They wanted philosophical clarity and sought to achieve that by limiting the scope of questions that could be asked. This from John Sowa (2006) quoting Peirce;

Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics — not by any means every man who holds the ordinary reasonings of metaphysicians in scorn — and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticized metaphysics with which they are packed.(p.4)

What Peirce meant was that Frege’s approach in reducing metaphysics to mathematics did not eliminate the reality that people addressed in everyday practice, but it caused science to often become irrelevant to those things. It achieved perfect precision, but at the cost of being senseless. It was similar to what Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.

I want to qualify this idea of senselessness for everyday scientific usage in devising hypothesis and deriving conclusions. First, when we create a measurable construct, we must recognize that we are observing the world under artificial laboratory conditions; what Peirce called chunks of experience. This in many instances enables analysis, but it also create limitations as the resulting knowledge remains laboratory knowledge, not direct practice knowledge. If we then direct our hypothesize to identify abstract abilities rather than situated abilities, these abstractions again create limitations in our knowledge base vis a vis human practices. Cuncks of human capabilities can not be smoothly assembled into situated functionality. Does this mean that our scientific knowledge is invalid; of course not. But a lack of interpretive care can create points of senselessness, or as I conclude from Michael Inzlicht experience, a lack of interpretive care can lead us to affirm  false or even absurd, hypotheses. So science is not necessarily senseless, but Wittgenstein can help to understand how a science that eschews semiotics, can operate senselessly.

Peirce for Education

What should be the goals of education today. Here’s one: to guide students to stand on the shoulders of our cultural giants in order to create a vision of the future using knowledge and discourse forms as interactive tools in collaborative problem solving processes. Meanwhile, positivism’s goals seeks things like improvements on specific measures, but never explains how that process produces a viable vision for the future. Because positivism clouds visions, political programs like No Child Left Behind will allow the underlying metaphysics, their version of reality, to remain unexamined. A Peircian pragmatic educational science can help shine a light on what now remains unexamined. Sowa (2006) explains how Peirce relates differently to a broader view of philosophy in science:

In focusing their attention on tiny questions that could be answered with utmost clarity in their logic, the analytic philosophers ignored every aspect of life that was inexpressible in their logic. The Continental philosophers did address the unclear questions, but their prose was so opaque that few people could read it. Although Peirce invented the logic that the analytic philosophers adopted, he incorporated logic in a much broader theory of signs that accommodates every possible question, answer, perception, feeling, or intuition — clear, unclear, or even unconscious. With that approach, the border between analytic and Continental philosophy vanishes. In fact, all borders in cognitive science vanish, except for local borders created by differences in methodology.

The difference between the positivist school of analytic philosophers and Peirce is more than a strip down mathematic model. It includes an analysis of meaning that is grounded not just in reference to other words (like the structuralists), but includes analyzing how words are used. Like later educational thinkers Vygotsky, Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, it’s a view of semantics as tools of action and thought. The meaning of a tool like a hammer is grounded in how the hammer is commonly used as a class 2 or class 3 lever for construction. Similarly, the meaning of any word is ultimately grounded in how the word is used in discourse and action. We need educational policy that makes sense to teachers, parents and policymakers in ways that is scientific, but is also meaningful beyond numbers. This does not mean that numbers are not useful, but that they need to connect to practices and visions. For example, linear positivist style practices are useful for increasing some skill like learning basic vocabulary, improving reading levels or gaining a basic understanding of literature passages. To raise students to a higher level, students need to grow beyond simple definitions to understand their tool like nature and to practice and experiment in using these tools in different ways and for different purposes.

Reforming Practice

The problems we are addressing today belie a narrow positivist approach. Look at past positivist projects. The early 20th Century gave us Behavioralism and Operationalism, The second half of the 20th Century gave us and the lead up to the No Child Left Behind standards movement and the aforementioned replication crisis in psychology. Recently we have seen AI programs that reproduced bias in law enforcement and birth racist chat bots. Many educational technologies in development today are not built around a firm and meaningful idea of what constitutes an educated and accomplished individual. None of these programs will substantially violated any positivist principles, but they will all failed if they can’t meaningfully address the common sense needs of teachers and students that require semiotics and an ultimate purpose behind social practices. Frege’s view is that the purpose of science was finding objective truth with a mathematical precision, but that view fails in the face of the complex ever shifting reality of practice meeting the goals for a better society. The hermeneutic and metaphysical aspects of human practice can’t be waved away. The progress of Peircian science is better founded and more realistic. It grows from the shared work of scientific networks and their communities of practitioners. It’s time to look at Peircian pragmatism as a viable scientific alternative to positivism.

The key to Peirce’s modernity is his solid foundation in history. Unlike Frege and Russell, who made a sharp break with the Aristotelian and Scholastic work on logic, many of Peirce’s innovations were based on insights he had derived from his studies of medieval logic. In fact, Peirce had boasted that he had the largest collection of medieval manuscripts on logic in the Boston area. In general, major breakthroughs are most likely to come from unpopular sources, either because they’re so new that few people know them, so old that most people have forgotten them, or so unfashionable that nobody looks at them. (Sowa, 2006, p.12)

On a last note; although Peirce predates constructionism and he didn’t specifically address learning theories, and even though his intellectual mentors lend a inclination toward romantic idealist ideas; his grounding in practices still gives his thought a natural realism. In fact the demarcated science of Frege looks more idealist when compared to Peirce pragmatic grounding.

Searching for a Definition of Peirce’s Pragmatism

This is still very much a work in progress, but I would like to propose 4 principles that Peirce proposed that would be a good start to move us forward in establishing pragmatic evidentiary educational practice.

  1. Do not block the path of Inquiry
  2. Synecism
  3. Putting meaning at the center of Inquiry
  4. The Pragmatic Maxim – Putting practice at the center of Inquiry

Do Not Block the Path of Inquiry

Susan Haack describes this phrase as Peirce’s Motto and a core of his beliefs regarding science. Yes, logical positivism is no longer supported, but there are still many way in which inquiry is block by certainty (Peirce is a fallablist in a broad sense) such as ignoring any aspects of belief that lies outside of a mathematically modeled science or by saying they can’t be known. While claiming a Popperian Falabilism, many in science nonetheless strive for such a level of infallablism in they validity claims that they still walk very close to a verificationist reality.


According to Haack Synecism means that we should look for underlying continuities, and recognize that supposedly sharp distinctions may be better conceived as lines of demarcation drawn at some point on a continuum. . . . The regulative principle of synechism advises a preference for abductive hypotheses positing continuities, because “the only possible justification for so much as entertaining a hypothesis is that it affords an explanation of the phenomena”. Peirce liked the analysis of some science as taking an axe to the phenomena, breaking reality into unrelated components of being without explaining how we might put them back together and in the process setting up a barrier across the path of science. (Hack, 2015)

Another way to think about synecism is to think through the process of measurement. When we establish an operational definition of a phenomena to enable it’s measured, we also  reduce its semantic clarity and our potential to understand its full complexity as it exists in practice. There are good reasons to limit our gaze, but a synecist recognizes that this is for instrumental purposes and our conclusion should recognize inherent limitations. This process is often presented in a way to obscure these limitations when it comes to interpreting results, which can easily mask over-representation in terms of the validity of our conclusions.

Synecism also recognizes that there are many legitimate forms of inquiry and form the basis of his idea about blocking inquiry and that all inquiry has limitations. Sowa (2006) quotes Whitehead in this regards:

Human knowledge is a process of approximation. In the focus of experience, there is comparative clarity. But the discrimination of this clarity leads into the penumbral background. There are always questions left over. The problem is to discriminate exactly what we know vaguely. (p.9)

Sowa goes on to noted that logic and poetry can be conceived as complimentary approaches to symbolic inquiry.

Contrary to Carnap, poetry and logic are not at opposite extremes. They are complementary approaches to closely related problems: developing patterns of symbols that capture important aspects of life in a memorable form. Logic is limited to expressing factual content, but poetry can express aesthetic and ethical interpretations of the facts.” (p.9)

Putting meaning at the center of Inquiry

The Pragmatic Maxim – Putting practice at the center of Inquiry

Searching for A 21st Century Pedagogy

Topics like educational reform or Ed Tech require a clear understanding of  learning processes. You might think that we already understand learning, but in fact this corner of educational psychology has been and continues to evolve and is regularly disputed; the need for scientific clarity is an issue. Pedagogically you can still see remnants of behaviorism, non-social constructivist ideas and inappropriate influences stemming from psychometric approaches. Any complete discussion of learning theories and their critics would need volumes, but I want this piece to be an evolving but clarifying foundation for claims about pedagogy. Technological change requires a 21st Century pedagogy with a good theoretical foundation.

Vygotsky and Dewey

Start with two giants of early 20th Century education, Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey who has become influential  through a social and cultural foundation to knowledge and learning. Both resisted dichotomies

The student/subject matter dichotomy, he said, gives rise to a whole set of useless oppositions and wrongly-forced choices: personal development versus content; student-centered versus teacher-centered classrooms, student interest versus disciplinary rigor; and, in a wider sense, the individual versus society and nature versus culture. For both Dewey and Vygotsky, these dichotomies echo deeper but equally useless epistemological and metaphysical dichotomies. . . .((Russell, 2003, p.175)

If there is no gulf between the mind and the world, subject and object, scheme and content, then there is no gulf between doing and knowing .. Knowledge is certain acquired habits of mind, “an instrument or organ of successful action,”(p.183)

Truths and disciplines are as organic and dynamic and vital as the student is because they are all made of the same stuff: human experience in social activity. Vygotsky also regarded disciplines (even, one might conclude, the discipline of Marxism) as dynamic. Disciplines do not proceed from theoretical discovery of some universal truth of nature to specific practical applications in solving problems, but rather from specific practical problems and human needs to a wide range of analytical and theoretical and technical methods useful in various historical situations. The practical need, the human problem, determines the goal (p.177)

This externalist view, shared not only by Dewey and Vygotsky but also by Nietzsche, Davidson, Derrida, the later Wittgenstein, and others, holds that thought is largely a product of human semiotic (interpretive and communicative) activity. As Nietzsche put it, “Consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication ….. Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; (p. 182)

(Russell, 2003); http://www.jaconlinejournal.com/archives/vol13.1/russell-vygotsky.pdf

The benefit of Vygotskian approaches are found in a clearer expression of the genetic analysis of how social tools structure the developing individual. The benefits of Dewey’s approach are found in inquiry as a method of inspecting social practices with the purpose of implementing change (Gassman, 2001). The importance of studying both are to counter the tendency to move back toward cartesian duality. There are three aspects of development and functioning on which I will focus: the social nature of development processes, the importance of tools to our mental lives and a dialogical structure of these tools and conscious capabilities.

The Social Nature of Development

We are not blank slates at birth, but come with innate abilities that serve to jumpstart social-based learning. As state in the book How People Learn, “an infant’s brain gives precedence to certain kinds of information: language, basic concepts of number, physical properties, and the movement of animate and inanimate objects. (p. 10). http://www.nap.edu/read/9853/chapter/3#10  These predisposition set us up to learning through interaction, especially social interaction, and enable parents and teachers to guide us to use language and to participate in culturally relevant practices as we grow and develop. As stated in Barbara Rogoff’s book Apprenticeship in Thinking, “Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship – it occurs through guided participation in social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of culture. The sociocultural basis of human skills and activities – including children’s orientation to participate in and build on the activities around them – is insparable from the biological and historical basis of humans as a species. (p. vii)

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press, New York.

I believe these predispositions and early experiences are much more than just early child processes. These social, language-based and actively constructive experiences establish learning processes that persist throughout our lifespans.  Alex Kozulin notes that this adds a  “new perspective into the protracted argument between empiricists versus constructivists regarding the nature of school-based concept formation in children (Hatano, 1993). Here again the issue of activity came to the forefront. From a Vygotskian point of view the child neither internalizes concepts in a ready-made form nor constructs them independently on the basis of his or her own experience. For proper concept formation the child should become involved in specially designed learning activities that provide a framework for guided construction”. Kozulin,1998)

One cannot teach writing without teaching writing about something for someone, . . . This is why both Dewey and Vygotsky insisted that writing always be taught under the pressure of some social need. It must be an activity “the child needs,” a “complex cultural activity”that should be incorporated into a task that is necessary and relevant for the child’s life (Russell, 2003)

This modifies some misconceptions of Dewey’s notion of discovery learning. Students construct knowledge through a discovery process that is not random, but is oriented toward cultural and historical relevant tools.

The Tools Metaphor of Higher Psychological Processes

Let’s unpack these active social language-based processes a little more. The tool metaphor fits into the social / language / apprenticeship type processes seamlessly. Again from Kozulin;

‘The development of the “tool” metaphor led Vygotsky to the hypothesis that the structural properties of language must leave their imprint on the entire activity of the child, and that the child’s experience itself gradually acquires a symbolic quasi-linguistic structure (p. 17) Like material tools, psychological tools are artificial formations. By their nature, both are social. However, whereas material tools are aimed at control of processes in nature, psychological tools master the natural behavioral and cognitive processes of the individual . . . Psychological tools are internally oriented, transforming the inner natural psychological processes into higher mental functions.’ (pp. 13-14) (Kozulin, 1998)

In this perspective teachers do not program students, but they involve them in designed activities that extend upon and build through those predispositions with which we are born.  It is with the nature of language use that we must extend our metaphor. Language is not a neutral medium, but is a set of tools that we use to expend our capabilities and exert self-control and orientation.

The Dialogical Structure of the Conscious Mind

Many ideas about learning obscure that thinking is something that involves more than just the neurological functions within our heads.  The nature of cognitive apprenticeships is that the process and our resultant thoughts develop dialogically and contextually through interactions. We must abandon mechanistic models for we are much more than machines trained through reinforcement schedules. It’s not that we can’t develop habits that way, but it is not our primary modus operandi. Adaptation to our environment is a better model, but it also leaves our the social tools that elevate us beyond the processes we see in animal. A tool-based social learning model is more accurate. In other words, our inner thoughts tend to reflect our outward experiences As John Shotter says; (from 1993, The Cultural Politics of Everyday life):

. . . why shouldn’t the expression of a thought or an intention – the saying of a sentence or the doing of a deed, for example – originate in a person’s vague and unordered feelings or sense of the context they are in? And their appropriate orderly realization of formation be something that people develop in a complex set of temporally conducted negotiations between themselves (or their selves’), their feelings, and those to whom that must address themselves?  Indeed, why shouldn’t the process ‘within’ people be similar to the transactions between them . . .

Toward a New Model of Pedagogy and Education

This is not to say that current pedagogical methods are without merit and there is certainly a place for an educational foundation that includes traditional knowledge and skill development. But consider recommendations for 21st Century skills sets like: communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, initiative, entrepreneurialism, self-direction, social and cross-cultural interaction, productivity, accountability, networking, negotiation and accessing collective intelligence. We are only beginning to envision possible ways of developing these capabilities and current pedagogical methods are way inadequate to our educational needs. My future thought will be based on identifying new pedagogical frontiers based on the theoretical ideas presented here. Technological innovation will improve the efficiency of education, but it must also lead to better education that needs clear pedagogical foundations.

A response to Stephen Downes


Stephen posted recently on meaning in language in a way that I don’t generally understand in conceptualizing education practice. He divides word use into units like token or types, similar to a computational method. He goes on to criticize constructivism saying:

This is also why constructivism is so hard to criticize. There are many different ways to make meaning. If you show that one way of making meaning is inadequate, then the constructivist always has another one to show you. After all, the theory (mostly) isn’t about some specific way of making meaning. It’s about the idea that ‘to learn’ is ‘to make meaning’, and these can be made in different ways

I generally think on a practice or pragmatic unit of analysis. Thinking of Bakhtin’s concept of Genres; recognizable ways of speaking, or Wittgenstein’s language games. Take the drunken artisans from Dostoevsky’s “Diary of an Author”, whose six characters repeat a curse word six times, but each repetition indicates a different meaning conveyed by the inflection and position of the speaker as well as the genre the speaker is referencing. Same word, but six different meanings. Meaning does not come from the words or from reference, but from re-cognizable practice. Maybe a pragmatic nominalism. Here’s something from an old blogpost of my I was thinking on earlier today but makes an example of how practice could constitutes meaning in assessment:

To see the future (think prediction), students and teachers should focus on their horizons. Horizons here refer to a point in developmental time that can’t be seen clearly today, but that I can reasonable expect to achieve in the future. Because many aspects of this developmental journey are both precarious and dependence on future actions, this joint vision can’t be wishful thinking, but must be clearly framed in terms of privileges and obligations. When it is treated this way, assessment is not a picture of student achievement, but is a methods for making both student and teacher visible to each other in a way that is rational, meaningful and conducted in an ontologically responsible manner; that is, in a way that is true to who we we want to become.

This references John Shotter’s “Cultural Politics of Everyday Life”.
The point I’m making is that meaning begins with assessment items and scores, but it does not become meaningfully useful until it allows student and teacher to “see” each other in their mutual journey toward an agreed upon horizon or end point and the privileges and obligations that makeup the path. This is where the general concept of assessment is fails because of the limits we place on the “genre” of assessment Another example is Vygotsky’s conception of a baby’s grasp for a rattle. The Mother interprets the grasp as a desire and slowly guides the baby into what the mother considers an understandable practice. I agree that there are too many conceptions of constructionism, and I like to ground it in practice which I fell is more secure, but still suffers in many ways from George Lackoff’s limitations of cognition and speech as metaphoric.

Sidebar: Reference on Computational Thinking

Mike Guzdial’s recent post points out that you can’t assume far transfer in learning, in this case specifically for computational thinking. This thought is also relevant for adapted learning programs and George Siemen’s critique that these programs consider students as part of the system architecture. Advanced learning must include social interaction and what happens within a computer interface is only small part (even if it is a critical part) of becoming an educated person.

A special note here to references Mike G’s reference of Jeannette Wing’s definition of computational thinking – something that should be a part of 21st century skill discussion:

Computational thinking enables you to bend computation to your needs. It is becoming the new literacy of the 21st century. Why should everyone learn a little computational thinking? Cuny, Snyder and I advocate these benefits [CunySnyderWing10]:

Computational thinking for everyone means being able to:

  • Understand which aspects of a problem are amenable to computation,
  • Evaluate the match between computational tools and techniques and a problem,
  • Understand the limitations and power of computational tools and techniques,
  • Apply or adapt a computational tool or technique to a new use,
  • Recognize an opportunity to use computation in a new way, and
  • Apply computational strategies such divide and conquer in any domain.

Computational thinking for scientists, engineers, and other professionals further means being able to:

  • Apply new computational methods to their problems,

  • Reformulate problems to be amenable to computational strategies,

  • Discover new science through analysis of large data,

  • Ask new questions that were not thought of or dared to ask because of scale, but which are easily addressed computationally, and

  • Explain problems and solutions in computational terms.

The Place of Tech in Ed Tech

This is a follow-up, or another view relevant to my last post. George Siemens posted this goodbye to his involvement in Ed Tech because:

(E)ducational technology is not becoming more human; it is making the human a technology. Instead of improving teaching and learning, today’s technology re-writes teaching and learning to function according to a very narrow spectrum of single, de-contextualized skills. . . . (Ed Tech programs) require the human, the learner, to become a technology, to become a component within their well-architected software system. Sit and click. Sit and click. So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.

2 pointsOne, this is partially the result of Tech without ontology and an appropriate teleology. There is no question that Ed Tech is more efficient at whatever it is doing, but without specifying an ontology, it’s really not possible to know what it is doing. This was an underlying problem with Behaviorism. Behaviors were being changed but without a framework that would clue you in to the “what”, “why” and to “what end”. This is why so much Ed Tech is no more than a more complex Skinnerian teaching machine.

Second point, Tech can be used as a more efficient substitute for a human in simple transactional interactions, (think ATMs, self-checkout lines or checking your flight status) but not in systems that are highly variable (Try getting software or customer support help from an automated system. It’s usually a disaster.) Simple decontextualized skill acquisition is an important part of education, but only a small part. Current Ed Tech is good for memorizing math facts, increasing reading levels or memorizing basic decontextualized domain facts, but the hope for education is for much more. Ed Tech is striving to do more, but here are 3 aspects where I believe Ed Tech is not near to being a substitute for a teacher:

  1. Fostering creativity. This is advanced language use (including math) to evaluate and synthesize knowledge and to reach new combinations, new uses and new ideas.
  2. Engaging in social practices. Most of what we do is not to just use knowledge, but to engage with practices that we share with other people, or as Wittgenstein put it; to engage in language games. These are things that even deep AI cannot come close to imitating.
  3. Develop meaningful networks and connections with other people. This may be the most important ability in the future and the only way it can be learned is in direct engagement with other people.

I believe that Technology can help in these areas, not as a substitute for teachers, but by fostering new affordances for teachers which is an intense pedagogical research project and will require new tech from what I’ve seen so far. As an example consider the text editor. Conceived as a replacement for hand writing or the typewriter, it allows new affordances like email, blog posts, spelling and grammar checking or language translation. All these things extend human capabilities, but cannot substitute for it. Ed Tech will require teachers to become more capable and knowledgable with advanced pedagogy and it will make teachers more efficient but only if it creates new affordances for teachers. It must recognizes and constitute a new pedagogical framework that centers on the teacher and the teacher student diode.

Responsible and Principled Ed Tech Design:The Need for Ontology and Teleology

It’s being said that the future of education is machine centered and algorithmic, and the greatest critique of this vision centers on a lack of transparency. ( Waters and Williamson). If we want to understand the impact of Ed Tech and Big Data, as well as to shape our own future, we should start with clarity; a clear eyed view of who we are, who we want to be and the pedagogical processes to get there. That is, let’s specify the ontology (who is an educated person) and the teleology (developmental pedagogical processes) of principled and well-structured Ed Tech information systems designed to serve the educational needs of networked people in dialogic relations.

An ontology defines a common vocabulary for researchers who need to share information in a domain. It includes machine-interpretable definitions of basic concepts in the domain and relations among them.  . . .   There is no one correct way to model a domain— there are always viable alternatives. The best solution almost always depends on the application that you have in mind. (Noy & McGuiness, )

This ontology should reflect evidence-based competencies, not just the parroting of knowledge.

When higher level skill sets are the real objects of measurement, it is necessary to evaluate assessment activities not by their surface similarities with learning domains but by their deep structural correspondences with intended learning outcomes; . . . To ensure that assessment activities yield useful data for making inferences about student learning beyond simple knowledge claims, principled assessment design must guide the development and structure of the assessment. Principled assessment design can be viewed as a plan, comprising a visual or textual scheme, to guide the purpose, expression, development, internal structure, and defensibility of an assessment. (Shute et. al. 2014)

If we don’t achieve specificity, algorithm designers will continue to do it for us in opaque and thoughtless ways. I believe that transparency problems can exist not only because of interference with corporate interest as Dr Williamson implies. but also because of a lack of clarity in principled system design. Specifying the underlying ontology and teleology of Ed Tech and Big Data Systems will go a long way to improving this situation.

For further clarification, ontology in machine learning can be seen as different from ontology in philosophy, but when we look at these applications as educational processes, we need to look well beyond the code. A common refrain in Ed tech is that the field is populated by programmers with little understanding of the history and concepts of education. This is to say that programmers think of ontologies and applications as limited to the current program code, but educational applications should reflect networked people in dialogue. In defining a common vocabulary, an ontology’s domain should support students, student development, and the the educational process. This aspect forms the core  ontological commitments that allow a model of the domain to be created in a way that is meaningful across the domain for teachers technologists and students. This ontology is also important for interpreting the analysis and applying the data analysis to the process of educational and personal student development. Without an interpretation that also reflects ontological commitments it can’t fully communicated and implemented in the kind of educational practices we expect today.

(T)he goal of data collection and analysis is to provide insight and inform decisions. Accordingly, there is a long chain of reasoning that needs to be considered.” We recognize that data is a representation of the world and like all representations, it is an imperfect system which will not perfectly capture the detail of the world. We also believe that all of the activity coming after that (analysis, interpretation, etc.) is a human endeavor, involving all the benefits and challenges that implies. (Kristen DiCerbo, Pearson)

DiCerbo provides a chain of reasoning that lacks an ontology and teleology. “Big Date” in this view is not based on a principled assessment design. What will result is much more than an imperfect reflection of the world, but an opaque data system. What we need is more than people with knowledge on the inside. What we need is principled assessment design backed up by principled system design. More than just trust, more than just efficiency, we need systems that are worthy of guiding educational teleology.

Workforce Development in the Robot Age

Changes are needed in education and one aspect is to develop the creative capacities of students including students at the post-secondary level. But, creativity can not just be a bolt on to an existing program. I think an approach is needed to see creativity as a part of wider social cultural activities and not just make it an isolated skill.

This was a very needed article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today: “Robot-Proof: How Colleges Can Keep People Relevant in the Workplace“.

This is a comment I made:

Great piece and concept, but there is a bit of a “build it and they will come” aspect. We act into a social cultural field and this field needs to change with education. First, creativity can only occur in a personnel context in which business is ready to accept it; to know what to do with it. Not addressing this just leaves students hanging while trying to exercise creativity. Second, creativity often needs a deep level of disciplinary or functional analysis, not just a surface level. A good example are design processes that get deep into the weeds to understand what is needed. Another example is Audrey Walter’s lament about the lack of appreciation for the history and theory of education by Ed Tech efforts:
“all around me, I see Skinnerism – click-for-immediate-feedback. People as pigeons. Zynga. Farmville. Gamification. But without the language and the theory and the history to say, “hey we recognized in the mid 1960s that this was a wretched path, one with all sorts of anti-democratic repercussions,” we’re not just making the same mistakes again, we’re actually engaging in reactionary practices – politically, pedagogically.”

Another critique I missed is the behavioral critique of big data that is implied by the author’s view that analysis will be the purvey of artificial intelligence. Analysis is necessary for creativity and this level of analysis is not part of robot capability.

Education and Inequality

Higher education is often seen as an answer to inequality, but is that really the case?

Think of the contrast between highly selective and non-selective institutions of higher ed as recently presented by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford, a specialist in the economics of higher education. In terms of the knowledge of the teachers, the cutting edge curriculum,  admission standards, peer interactions, peer learning, the amount of resources provided to students, the monetary resources spent, the endowments that allow such spending or the opportunities available within alumni networks; students at Stanford (and most other highly selective universities) have much more privilege than students at any high quality but non-selective institution; and furthermore, these resources are significant for student’s and alumni’s near-term and lifelong development. The “Stanfords” may attempt to admit a diverse student body, but they are small elite institutions that educate only a small percentage of all students. They’re existence cements the continuance of educational inequality and supports inequality in general society. They may not be the elite finishing schools represented by the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, but in our current society they still function much the same.

Must we accept the inevitability of inequality in both education and in society at large? Asking Stanford students to forgo their privilege, attempting to provide that level of privilege to all higher ed students or accepting the status quo are all non-starters. I believe we must reconceptualize the meaning and the current paradigm of higher education, extend its lifelong availability and expand the roles education plays in our lives. We will not have equality of resources, we cannot expect equality of outcomes, but we must seek equality in the opportunity for personal development, economic self-actualization, and family and community development.

Why is this worth pursuing? If inequality continues to grow, it is hard to imagine a future that avoids either massive economic destruction or the development of a form of feudalism; substituting secured and gated communities for castles and knights.

In my next post I’ll consider some possible responses but this should be a wide ranging dialogue and source of experiment in the education community.

What to Do about Testing: A Response to Audrey Waters

Audrey Waters posted about John Oliver’s takedown of testing and Pearson Ed.  She asks:

How do we seize the opportunity of all this media attention to the problems with standardized testing to do more than talk about testing?  . . . Can we articulate (a better alternative) now so that Pearson and other testing companies don’t replace the old model with simply a re-branded, repackaged one?

Samuel Messick was a Vice President and Distinguished Research Scientist at Educational Testing Services (ETS).  His was an authoritative voice on test validity advocating for restraint in the use of test scores, better and more in-depth interpretations of test score. the collection of multiple sources of information for making important decisions and for consideration of the consequences of test use.  I believe that much of his legacy has been ignored, co-opted, or argued away (even at ETS I suspect).  I’ll speculate on what would he advocate;

  • using more than one or two sources of information when making complex important decisions,
  • understanding the information in the context of a decision and considering the consequences of your testing practices.
  • I also suspect that I could argue with him for the consideration of the validity of testing practices with how it fit within an overall set of district practices.  (i.e. If a student fails, how do you respond?)

Technically Pearson may not be at fault for it is the district use of tests that is most problematic, but Pearson is at least implicit in not providing better guidance and for developing ways for districts  to collect other sources of information.  Eg. The value added model of teacher assessment needs many more sources of information and in fact does not really provide an assessable model of pedagogy, only largely discredited positivist assertions. The first step is to expose those who advocate positivist models of empiricism for which even analytic philosophers would no longer advocate.

Finally it necessary to look at the overall model of education which is still primarily built of a mechanistic metaphor with the student as a vessel to be filled.  The metaphor should be a biological organism adapting in an environment that is primarily social, networked and interactive.  When Pearson speaks of their “potential game-changer: performance tasks”, they are talking in this direction, but their really co-opting performance tasks within the old metaphor.  They have a long way to go.  We should expunge the mechanistic metaphor from educational leadership and assessment models.

The bottom line for Pearson

You may not be technically wrong in your assessments, but when your the brunt of a comedic takedown, you should really look at the consequences of your products use and attempt to deal with it.

Education Needs Clarity

Beginnings: My Graduate Experience  (The 90s and the oughts)

My PhD was not motivated by a career path, but by my love of learning. Temple U’s Associate Professor Helmut Bartel (a proclaimed social constructionist) was an intellectual guide who helped me to recognize the relevance of social theories to my professional experiences; that is, I was by nature a pragmatist. Helmut left Temple before I could develop a dissertation topic and it was fortuitous because I needed to challenge myself to align my thoughts with new mentors. While trying to form a dissertation topic a professor said offhand, “It sounds to me that your talking about validity.” I read Messick’s chapter titled Validity in Linn’s (ed) Handbook of Educational Measurement. The references and the lineage of his ideas were all different, but the conversations where much the same and they centered around a pragmatic approach. The patrons of validity, Messick, Cronback and Meehl, were very clearly analytic in their thinking, but the logic of pragmatism was already deeply embedded in their thought.

Why Philosophy

My studies were in educational psychology, and I do find many discussion in philosophy to be tedious and boring, so why discuss philosophy.  Because, for everything we say, there are many things that are left unsaid and for everything we do, much of the reasoning is left unsaid and unquestioned.  The philosophy I discuss is about shining a light on practices to see what we are taking for granted and to understand what has been left unsaid. What we need is clarity, and that is precisely the purpose of philosophy in its analytic, neoanalytic and pragmatic forms.

Where is Validity in Educational Practice

How do you address validity questions that appear paradigmatically opposed to traditional empirical scientific practice? I begin with an adaptation of a thought who linage I trace Helmut. A successful paradigm change must account for the current paradigm in both its successes and failures in order to forge a true new order. The dominate and implicit practice paradigms today are still mostly based in a dualist objectivist analytic philosophy. Post-modern / post-structural and Marxis based critiques all excel at accounting for the ideological failures of an analytic approach, but not its successes. They fail to point to a way to move practice forward and seem to be losing steam, even as their critiques of analytic approaches remain valid. I think a better way is to consider pragmatism.
Pragmatism and Analytic Philosophy share a commitment to logic and the science method. What Pragmatism brings is a unity of science, practice and ethics (Boncompagni, 2001). Scientific practices are always situated in the midst of ethical horizons best understood as historicized ideological practices. This also matches my earlier experiences where I was working in disability services. The field was moving on from the least restrictive environment to minority rights and people first language. I thoroughly believe in the practicality of science, but science based practices were slow to adapt and often seemed to be standing in the way of ethically empowering practices. Obsessed with an unsustainable conception of objectivity, many scientists could not see how a lack of ethics impoverished science and made it weaker, not stronger.

Pragmatism to the Analytic and Back

I see the history of Pragmatism beginning with Peirce, James, Dewey and Mead, but it became overshadowed by the analytic approaches of European trained academics, especially those associated with the Vienna Circle. As problems were recognized in Analytic Philosophy there began a slow and constant evolution towards pragmatism. In Analytic Philosophy this included people and their ideas such as Quinn, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein. In educational psychology this included Cronbach, Meehl and Messick. This may not be exactly James’ or Dewey’s Pragmatism, but it’s much closer than the direction sought by the Vienna Circle or BF Skinner and I believe that a movement towards pragmatism continues today.

To understand pragmatic social science, let’s begin with Joseph Margolis’ claim: “language and what language uniquely makes possible in the way of the evolving powers of the human mind are emergent, artifactual, hybrid precipitates of the joint processes of biological and cultural evolution;” I see this as something like taking up the naturalism and social behaviorism of Dewey and Mead.  This approach may no longer provide  a foundation for infallible truths, but there is still room for an ethical, objective and empirically warranted practice. This social behavioral and empirical science should be distinguished from Skinner’s radical behaviorism in the same way logical positivism is distinguished from current analytic / pragmatic  approaches.   The knowledge radical behaviorism engenders, fails to adequately recognize the full nature of language and the social world it makes possible.  As a result radical behaviorism leaves knowledge as flat and shallow and more often results in situations (as Wittgenstein noted) where the educational problem and the method pass one another by without interacting. To be valid, empirical methods must reflect the contextualized, artifactual and ethical demands of the problems within a philosophically Darwinian framework of an organism’s adaptation to the social and physical environment. Adaptation is very personal and includes concepts like social poetics.  That is, I accept analytic tools and methods, but recognize them only within social ethical fields that are interpretive as above.  Just as analytic philosophy has moved back toward Pierce, James, Dewey and Mead, radical behaviorism can only be relevant by moving toward Vygotsky, Dewey, Wittgenstein and social poetics.


Margolis, Joseph (2012-10-17). Pragmatism Ascendent: A Yard of Narrative, a Touch of Prophecy (p. 133). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Boncompagni, A (2011). Book Review on New Perspectives on Pragmatism and Analytic Philosophy, EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PRAGMATISM AND AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY, III, 2, 290-299. http://lnx.journalofpragmatism.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/calcaterra-new-perspective.pdf

Garrison, J (1995). Deweyan Pragmatism and the Epistemology of Contemporary Social Constructivism, American Educational Research Journal, 32, 716-740.