Changing Schools; Changing Futures

But here’s the thing — the first step toward shifting a system is knowing what it’s meant to do.

The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauungbut is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear. (CS Peirce via Wikipedia)

I thank David Ng for pointing to your project, which I think I share though I have focused more on paradigmatic change rather than on Systems. Recently Ezra Klein debated Sam Harris on Charles Murray and the Bell Curve. Harris (supporting Murray) kept saying, “But you can’t argue with the science”. “Well”, I thought, “that is exactly where I would start my argument”. My project is to show that educational policies reflecting standardization, efficiency and the like, stand on a shaky scientific and philosophical foundation. It’s not just that it doesn’t make any practical sense, it doesn’t make any sense from a scientific perspective. Yes, I want to argue from the science!

First, what is the mind, what is cognitive development, and what role does education have in cognitive development?

“(L)anguage 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; . . .” Margolis, 2012, p.133).

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; (Russell, p. 182)

Traditionally, social cognitive development was thought to proceed by the individual observation of models of behavior in an account that is consistent with both a Piagetian and a behavioralist perspective. Educational and philosophial theory on cognition now favor a different, more interactionist account.

(Vygotsky’s) stance significantly differs from Piaget’s analysis of an infant’s earliest attempts to grasp an object. In Piaget’s (1952/1963) account, first the child gropes, but gradually eye–hand coordination emerges so there is an increasing congruence between what the child sees and what he or she reaches for. This coordination of the thumb and forefingers continues until the child can reliably reach for an object and grasp it. The focus is on the individual interacting with the physical world.

Vygotsky (1978) also begins with an infant moving his or her hand in the direction of an object, but his discussion illustrates how even the most basic activity is social and cultural in origin. The baby’s movement means something to the mother; her response to an unsuccessful grasping movement establishes its function as pointing. Eventually, the child begins to understand that the movement communicates intention. The function changes from an object-oriented movement to communication with another person. (Kritt, 2013)

The (Vygotskian) point I’m making here (echoing both Margolis and Russell) is that the social nature of cognition is not an add-on to some ongoing process, but is present from the very beginning of our cognitive development as humans. Our fully developed cognitive structures are still based on and reflect this social nature. Likewise, learning is not an individual activity, but is deeply rooted in interaction and educational activity should emphasize interactions, whether it is peer learning or the teacher student interaction as found in the accounts of Plato.

A New Vision for Pedagogy

Here is a potential model for how school might proceed with a proper focus on student — teacher interaction as a foundation for pegagogy. (This is a paraphrase from a passage of John Shotter’s Cultural Politics of Everyday Life, 1993)

Oriented toward the future, students and teachers should focus their joint conceptual horizons at a point in developmental time that can’t be seen clearly today, but that one can be reasonable expect to achieve. 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. At its best, this 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 as students want to become and also to reflects the hopes of our teachers on that becoming.

Finally, what is the purpose of school?

As stated in Barbara Rogoff’s book Apprenticeship in Thinking (1991),

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)

This view is restated by Alex Kozulin in his book, Psychological Tools (1998):

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.

The purpose of schooling then is to develop students abilities with the tools provide by culture and maximize the cognitive and social capabilities that we have developed as a natural species.

What is Wrong with Existing Systems: An Example

Lastly, what is wrong with existing methods that I critique like standardized testing as it is currently being used. (Emphasis here is not on the technical aspects of the science, and it is not anti-science even as it exists, but rather it is based on how the science is being deployed.) Standardized testing is an excellent way to test for knowledge memorization, and it has become much better at testing for skills, and knowledge and skill are a by product of intellectual activity. But intellectual activity does not result from knowledge and skills. I am making an analogy with the process of writing as presented by (Thomas and Turner 2011).

Why is American prose as bad as it is, even though we have more writing programs than ever? Our answer is that writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and that skills visibly mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them. . . . Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities (p.2).

As standardized testing, efficiency processes and the like are currently being used, they are directing the focus of our schools towards knowledge and skills and in the process, it is standing in the way of intellectual development. The intellectual development of students and of our species is the proper focus of school. I hope that this helps to clarify the need for system change.

This post was originally published at:



Social Science Has Failed (by Any Practical Standard)

Time for a Wholistic Reconception or Why Science Needs Philosophy

Let’s start with a short list of disappointments:

  1. The Replication Crisis in Psychology,
  2. Little Progress in Evidence-based Social Science,
  3. Problems in Ed Reform and Ed Policy,
  4. The Failure of Standardized Testing
  5. the Scaling Back of AI Expectations;

It’s time to get real about the human sciences! Clear progress is not being made and methodological tweeks or better dissemination doesn’t look like a real answer. Individual studies can bring light to a specific question, but demonstrations of answers to larger questions in a large social field are few and far between. Let’s take the idea of Evidence-based Education, that educational practices should be based on the best education science; logically, it just can’t be questioned. But decades of reforms and the best technical tools and measures have largely failed to show progression in the field at large. We should at least be clear about what the issues are, but clarity seems to elude our grasp. What is going on?

First, A Look Back

At the turn to the 20th Century intellectuals sought ways to find or create conceptual clarity in philosophy and science. There were 2 primary camps in this project. One led by Carnap and the Logical Positivists, built on the work of Comte and previous positivists. A different approach was led by CS Peirce, John Dewey and the Pragmatists. Carnap’s project was based on existing European concepts, but Peirce and Dewey’s idea were developed from their understanding of semiotics, grounded in everyday experience and were more radical for the time. The analytic — synthetic distinction and other efforts to unify philosophy and science that were important to Carnap, were largely discredited, but Peirce’s approach was never taken up. As a result, clarity in science remains as problematic as ever and can go a long way to accounting for the problems noted earlier. It’s time to reconsider Peirce’s project who Sowahas recommended as an important philosophier for the 21st Century.

(Side Note — These differences should not be construed as polar oppositions like modernism — postmodernism. Both sides are based on empirical science and both acknowledge pragmatic elements. The primary differences relate to where and to what extent these pragmatic elements come into play.)

Hempel and Salmon explicitly agree that explanation has a pragmatic dimension . . . what is distinctive about pragmatic approaches to explanation is not just the bare idea that explanation has a “pragmatic dimension” but rather the further and much stronger claim that the traditional project of constructing a model of explanation pursued by Hempel and others has so far been unsuccessful ( and perhaps is boundto be unsuccessful) and that this is so becausepragmatic or contextual factors play a central and ineliminable role in explanation in a way that resists incorporation into models of the traditional sort.. . . traditional approaches are inadequate in principle because of their neglect of the pragmatic dimension of explanation. (Woodward, J., 2014)

More on some differences between the two approaches. The traditional goal of the sciences has been to build an edifice of knowledge (Rorty, 1999) that explains the natural world and to use that knowledge to clarify and guide our actions. Various philosophical approaches were taken to lay the foundation for this edifice in a way that would allow for law like propositions that could generalize across contexts. The analytic synthetic distinction, nomological deduction and generalization, operationalism, unity in science . . etc. By and large, much of this foundation was not successful and the resulting edifice can’t support its intended purpose. Why? As mentioned by Woodward above, this foundation failed to eliminate contextual factors in explanations. Consider this from Daniel Little (2008):

So where does this take us with regard to “unified social science”? It leads us to expect something else entirely: rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible

In term of the social sciences, this practically screams out for a pragmatic approach over the building of knowledge edifices. Take recent discussions of the marshmellow effect as an example. Walter Mischeldid experiments on delayed gratification using marshmallows and theorized that the ability to delay rewards would lead to success in later life. The long famous theory depends on delayed gratificatin as a stable personal trait. Recent replications of that experiment has found that though there is an beneficial effect, when environmental and other factors are accounted for, the significance becomes questionable (Kidd, Palmeri and Aslin, 2012; Watts, Duncan & Quan, 2018). The effects of contextual factor predominates.

A Wholistic and New Pragmatic Way

When WVO Quine (1951) critiqued Carnap’s Analytic/Synthetic distinction in his Two Dogmas of Empiricismpaper, he also critiqued the reductionism that depended on the Analytic Synthetic distinction and noted that this critique required a move toward a wholistic pragmatism. The exact way this should play out is not established, but John Dewey’s 3 fold theory of inquiry would be a good place to start. Leonard Waks (unpublished)describes Dewey’s theory of inquiry in 3 stages:

Stage one begins with an unsettling problem within a community or a community of practice.

Stage two continues through inquiry by various institutions of science to understand the nature of the problems and to develop knowledge and responses to the problem.

Stage three represents the application of knowledge to resolve the original problem and to demonstrate the validity of the results of the inquiry.

This theory of inquiry is throughly Pragmatic and honors contextual and environmental factors. I think this is the core idea. A science based practice is developed through inquiry, not by the application of knowledge handed down from on high by the ivory towers. Practice needs the support and technical know-how of knowledge institutions, but only if it is garnered by addressing community problems and by seeking validity through the successful application the results of inquiry in the community. This from the Wikipedia article on the Gettier Problem:

From a pragmatic viewpoint of the kind often ascribed to (William) 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.


The results of social sciences on practical problems has been disappointing and exposes an underlying philosophical problem if we hope science to be anything more than an exercise in pedantry. John Dewey’s Pragmatic Method of Inquiry in one way to make science more relevant.

Here are 2 examples of how pragmatism might play out in a more specific example;

Finally, 2 more examples of of what a Pragmatic attitude might sound like.

This is why there is a real need to widen the scope of our thinking about the relation between research, policy, and practice, so as to make sure that the discussion is no longer restricted to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends but also addresses questions about the desirability of the ends themselves. With Dewey I wish to emphasize that we always need to ask the question of whether our ends are desirable given the way in which we might be able to achieve them. In education the further question that always needs to be asked is about the educational quality of our means, that is, about what students will learn from our use of particular means or strategies. From this perspective it is disappointing, to say the least, that the whole discussion about evidence‐based practice is focused on technical questions — questions about “what works” — while forgetting the need for critical inquiry into normative and political questions about what is educationally desirable. If we really want to improve the relation between research, policy, and practice in education, we need an approach in which technical questions about education can be addressed in close connection with normative, educational, and political questions about what is educationally desirable. The extent to which a government not only allows the research field to raise this set of questions, but actively supports and encourages researchers to go beyond simplistic questions about “what works,” may well be an indication of the degree to which a society can be called democratic. From the point of view of democracy, an exclusive emphasis on “what works” will simply not work. (G Biesta, 2007)

An emphasis on disciplinary knowledge, on knowledge already formed and organized in textbooks, suggests to students that for the most part, what they need to learn is already known. But preexisting knowledge is never adequate for todays complex problems; these problems never yield to off-the shelf knowledge applied by experts.(Leonard Waks)

Achieving Clarity Through Assessment

(P)ragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes . . . a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear. Wikipedia the Pragmatic Maxim CS Peirce CS Peirce

Some measurement specialists argue that adding value implications and social consequences to the validity framework unduly burdens the concept. However, it is simply not the case that values are being added to validity in this unified view. Rather, values are intrinsic to the meaning and outcomes of the testing and have always been . . . This makes explicit what has been latent all along, namely, that validity judgements are value judgments. (emphasis in original) (Messick, 1995) Samuel Messick

I’ve found Agile interesting because it puts purpose and values front and center in practice; a natural example of a paradigm change toward pragmatism in action. As Quine argued in Two Dogmas of Empiricism, the empirical world only impinges on our experiences along the edges, but to accommodate this edge experience, we often must re-evaluate our belief systems down to the core. It is easy to ignore these edge experiences and one reason why a paradigm change of core beliefs can be hard. I think Agile comes from this core reevaluation, but I don’t think it would be well served if the measurement paradign didn’t match the nature of the Agile Paradigm.

Assessment can be a method of reflection that constantly holds its purpose and values in view and I believe Pragmatic Assessment can clarify Agile for practice and achieve the purpose of expectations management. One way it does this is by creating an operational definition of Agile that looks not only at the score, but observes the process of how the score and how Agile is achieved. Since Agile can be implemented over time, a Maturity style assessment could help, especially if it spells out how the underlying paradigm changes through the Maturity Process. This is how assessment can clarify Agility, achieve the expectations management that you intend and spell out much of the metaphysics of Agile.

Assessments should not be written in stone, but should change as guided by a scientific inquiry process with a focus on consequences in the use of the assessment. But the purpose of the assessment remains central. François Chollet’s recent piece, The impossibility of intelligence explosion, is an example of what can happen if purpose is ignored. Alfred Benit first developed his IQ test to identify French students for an early version of special education. Later, in the rapid mobilization before WWI, the US Army adapted his ideas to help with their forced choice to identify new recruits for leadership positions. But it is something completely different to use such a test to define a construct of intelligence as we naturally understand it. It leads not only to inapproariate uses by people like Charles Murray, but also confounds our understanding of concepts like Artificial Intelligence. An operational definition of intelligence as scored by an IQ test will expose how different this psychometric definition is from our everyday understanding of being smart. Purpose, sometimes, is everything and appropriately operationalizing a fuzzy concept can really help to clarify our ideas.

Note: The above  post was part of a conversation on medium with Stefan Wolpers about assessment in Agile frameworks, but I believe it represents assessment as a part of a process of pragmatic reflection that applies to most if not all educational measurement. Just as we wrongly think of assessment as measuring chunks of knowledge rather than aspects of performance, educational measurement measures cognitive processes.

Steven Pinker vs Leon Wieseltier: Beyond the Polemic in Science vs Humanities

Let me tell a story. The 18th and 19th Century was a time of the flowering of the enlightenment and intellectual achievement. But it was also a flowering of the idealism that lie (even if dormant) in the work of philosophers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant. Idealism was an impediment to the rising desire to exert scientific control in social areas such as management and education. By the 20th Century, people like George Edward Moore (1873–1958), Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) tired of what they viewed as rampant intellectual muddle-headedness and struck out as empirical positivists to move beyond this state of affairs. As noted by Guyer and Horstmann, Moore and Russell’s critique was so devastating that it is not possible to serious entertain an idealist position in the English speaking world today. And that is inspite of the fact that their banishment of idealism largely was unsuccessful.

In a very similar fashion Zat Rana recently cautioned us sgainst thinking too deeply in a post that echos the idealist concerns of Moore and Russell.

The trap that most of us fall into is one in which we impose too much of the invisible world onto the real, tangible world. The result of this is that we add needless context and depth that detracts from the clarity provided by the senses we use to paint the part of reality in which we commonly live.(Emphasis added)

But relying exclusively on our senses has a subtle way of re-introducing idealism back into the equation, but an idealism that can easily be ignored. Science and data are our best tools, but they always operate as a form of simplification and must be situated in a larger intellectual field to find its natural validity. WVO Quine famously critiqued this form of reductionism:

The dogma of reductionism survives in the supposition that each statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, can admit of confirmation or infirmation at all. My countersuggestion, . . . statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body. . . . (T)otal science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field. . . . Re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others, because of their logical interconnections — the logical laws being in turn simply certain further statements of the system, . . . But the total field is so undetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience . . . Each man is given a scientific heritage plus a continuing barrage of sensory stimulation; and the considerations which guide him in warping his scientific heritage to fit his continuing sensory promptings are, where rational, pragmatic. Quine’s Two Dogma of Empiricism

In fact, we might suggest in closing, the main alternative to what is essentially the epistemological idealism of a great deal of twentieth-century philosophy has not been any straightforward form of realism, but rather what might be called the “life philosophy” . . . the lived experience of “being-in-the-world”, from which both the “subjective” such as sense-data and the “objective” such as objects theorized by science are abstractions or constructions made for specific purposes. Guyer and Horstmann

What these authors address is more than reductionism but also an impulse for an anti-metaphysical approach and, as noted by CS Peirce, show me someone who claims to be beyond metaphysics, to rely simply on sense data, and I’ll show you someone whose thoughts are overflowing with metaphysical assumptions.

But we are left with the question, how do we respond to a confusing world in spite of Zat’s concerns, which are legitimate? That, I believe is the role of education; providing people with broad tools of thinking. To be able to use analytic frameworks and understand their historical development in both the sciences and the humanities and how to combine these frameworks in practices that reflect good thinking.

This brings me back to Pinker and Wieseltier. When an educated person brings good thinking to a problem, there is no bright line that separates the humanities from the sciences. To say otherwise is to return to the failed approach of the early 20th Century empiricists. The holistic approach is the essence of the whole life philosophy of pragmatism. Metaphysics, the laying out of the assumptions behind an analysis, requires both humanistic and scientific frameworks. I mostly must disagree with Pinker, not because I don’t favor science to understand the world, but because Pinker’s position implies an underlying reductionism, a devaluing of the metaphysical. In the same way that 20th Century empiricism failed to rid themselves of idealism, Pinker is not advocating for being scientific, but simply being under-educated and unthoughtful in how he analyses these science / humanity wars. In short, science needs more than methodological rigor, it also needs intellectual rigor.

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);

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).  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.