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.

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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)