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14 April, 2012

I've been trying to figure out, lately, how the hell to deal with education given the absurd complexity of the contexts from which my students hail and in which I find myself as an educator within a specific institution. Here's an educator talking about the fact that the width of social and financial disparities in a given society has a direct influence on (among other things) educational outcomes. He also goes on to discuss the scientific problem of studying human endeavors in a world of complexity and uncertainty -- the difficulty of working to be less wrong, in as many words -- and how difficult it can be to make predictions about what will be effective in education, including the false idol of standardized testing (a version of the concept/instrument distinction that I've spent a term discussing with students,1 with additional complexity from the human -- economic, political, personal -- problem that people fudge data to protect their own interests), "Because they had to make the number, not do the job right."

2011 Dec YEM - David Berliner, PhD, internationally-respected educational psychologist from SFU Education on Vimeo.

Education is a tricky subject. On the one hand, it's important to have some top-down influence: for one example that'll let me pretend there's a reason I'm posting this video to this particular blog, we need to prepare people to live in a world of difference, and if we give local school boards complete control, they'll perpetuate local problems. On the other hand, as mentioned in the closing moments of this video, the large-scale measures used when a state institution attempts to assess school performance are pseudoscientific: not only is the work-skill oriented rhetoric used to support math & science education a profound distraction from the fact that the ultimate role of public schools has always been to help us become engaged and responsible citizens (and perhaps a responsible person will be personally motivated to seek out math & science education, reducing the need for coercion in our primary schools), but the means used to assess performance are at such a remove from the complexity and diversity of individual students' experience as to be meaningless. I'd love to write more, but I've spent the day on things like this and need to go catch up on grading.

1: These articles might provide a starting point if you want to know what I mean when I talk about the distinction between concept and measurement and how this can be a problem in any and all sciences, but especially those with ambiguous targets such as psychological concepts, educational outcomes, or any concept not strictly identical with a physical object. Academic articles may be hard to find without access to certain databases or an absurd amount of disposable income, so here are not only the articles' titles but also links to places where they've been hosted online. If you can afford to pay for them or can access them directly through a group membership like those most universities offer their students, please do so; no doubt journals track access data, and these writers will be glad of the attention.

Baker & Hacker, "The Grammar of Psychology"

Essex & Smythe, "Between Numbers and Notions"

Jost & Gustafson: "Wittgenstein's Problem and the Methods of Psychology"

If you're curious about this issue within psychology specifically, I encourage you to pursue related papers by Michael Maraun.

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