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.

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

Successful Practice Requires Science and Aesthetics: Trusting in Data and Beauty

In Praise of Data and Science

MIT’s Technology Review posted the article: Trusting Data, Not Intuition.  The primary idea is to use controlled experiments to test ideas and comes from Ronny Kohavi of Microsoft (and formerly of Amazon).  The article can be summarized as follows:

(W)hen ideas people thought would succeed are evaluated through controlled experiments, less than 50 percent actually work out. . . . use data to evaluate an idea rather than relying on . . . intuition.  . . .  but most businesses aren’t using these principles.  . . .What’s important, Kohavi says, is to test ideas quickly, allowing resources to go to the projects that are the most helpful.  . . . “The experimentation platform is responsible for telling you your baby is really ugly,” Kohavi jokes. While that can be a difficult truth to confront, he adds, the benefit to business—and also to employees responsible for coming up with and implementing ideas—is enormous.

This articles further supports my thesis that Evidence-based practice, analytics, measurement and practical experimental methodology are closely related, mutually supportive, and a natural synthesis.

In Praise of Aesthetics

I do believe that, while trusting science is an important idea, that trust should also be tempered because it is a tools for decision-making and acting, not a general method for living.  A successful life of practice is a balance between the empirical and the aesthetic.  You could say that aesthetics, looking at life emotionally and holistically is the real foundation of our experience and how we live life.  Within that frame, it is helpful to step back reflexively and consider the use of empirical tools to benefit our experience, but without denying our aesthetic roots.  Wittgenstein wrote on this (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics).

“The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by” (Wittgenstein 1958, II, iv, 232).

For Wittgenstein complexity, and not reduction to unitary essence, is the route to conceptual clarification. Reduction to a simplified model, by contrast, yields only the illusion of clarification in the form of conceptual incarceration (“a picture held us captive”).

What I want is to have access to the tools of science and the wisdom to know when to choose their reflexivity.  What I’m against is;

the naturalizing of aesthetics—(which) falsifies the genuine complexities of aesthetic psychology through a methodologically enforced reduction to one narrow and unitary conception of aesthetic engagement.

A Cognitive Aesthetic for Everyday Design

Interesting article in the recent issue of the e-journal  Cognition & Culture titled The Logic of Disorder: A Dynamic View of Cognitive Aesthetics by S. Schartman, who states (from the abstract):

In observing various patterns of organization I have come to a . . . conclusion that there is a neg­entropic drive towards order . . . (and) an entropic drive (germinating from human phenomenology) towards chaos . . . along an order/disorder axis.  As these drives follow along this continuum in opposite directions a tension, or force dynamic relationship is created  . . . that results in aesthetic appeal or dynamism and is a discrete character of the cognitive underpinnings of the aesthetic experience.

Schartman provides examples of how the effects of this “force dynamic relationship” can be seen at work in numerous artistic works, but I think that this is a good model of, shall I call it, an aesthetic impulse that has much wider analytic application to everyday life and many everyday activities.  (I think Schartman might agree with this interpretation, but she only specifically addresses artistic, not everyday works.) That this model provides a useful analysis is especially true in light of what has been called the experience economy, the wide application of design thinking, and the idea of pull platforms.  I think this model of aesthetics can be a useful mode of analysis when superimposed on other interpretations of what is happening in the world.  (Note; I’m not thinking of order /  disorder as good / bad, but rather as the raw material / experience (phenomena) out of which an aesthetic mode can be used as a way to create one’s life.)

Example 1, Hagel Brown & Davison’s concept of “Pull”.

Previous management methods primarily strove to help organizations improve performance by increasing order and predictability.  The problem, as Hagel et al point out; this method’s progress seems to have peeked in that further performance improvements have been conforming to a decreasing returns curve.  Hagel et al point out that things are swinging away from the idea that increased order = performance improvement.  We’re heading towards the idea that performance is now being driven by open networks where progress is ruled by serendipity.  He is not advocating for chaos, but his method of “pull” could be described as a method for creating the conditions where an aesthetic experience can occur, an experience that better uses the order / chaos tension to generates innovation and progress.

Example 2 – The proliferation of design thinking in many disciplines.

I’ve spoken before of the application of design principles to many different situations not usually thought of as amendable to a design aesthetic.  I gave examples for why I thought  this was occurring including the following:

  • The design of our world is not just for decoration, the design of the world (like Peirce’s semeiotics) reflects who we are and who we are reflects the design of the world.
  • Tools (artifacts, concepts, theories, etc. . .) are needed to act on the world.  Science is not just about experiments.  It’s also about developing innovative, new cognitive artifices that bring new understanding about the world, help us to act in new ways and can become aesthetic instruments for conducting and creating our lives.

Example 3 – The Experience Economy

For much of human history, securing sufficient food was a major problem that was solved by the agricultural revolution.  Securing shelter and clothing was a problem solved by the industrial revolution.  These material concerns are being commoditized and what constitutes their quality is determined by the experiences they help us create in our lives.  Therefore, the quality of our life can be seen by the quality of our experience, especially in the aesthetics of our everyday experience.  The struggle between order and chaos can be viewed as the backdrop for the creative development as the artist of our own lives.