Deep specialisation key to collaboration | The Australian

Couple Elizabeth Blackburn’s comments with the Climate Change Wars, and you start to see why “science” is getting a bad name. Add in the funding models over recent times (who pays for research) and it all starts getting even murkier.

NOBEL prizewinner Elizabeth Blackburn’s discoveries in molecular biology led her into cross-disciplinary research in cancer and chronic stress, but she warns that researchers first need deep specialist knowledge.As institutions are focusing on breaking down barriers to cross-disciplinary research, the University of California-based professor cautions there is a risk of researchers being shallow if they seek to generalise early.”My feeling is not to get too cross-disciplinary and shallow and spread all over the place too quick,” Blackburn tells the HES while visiting Monash University, where she is a distinguished visiting professor.”One needs to be able to bring something very substantive to the table because I can see the temptation would be to try to be overly generalised and shallowness would be the consequence.”

via Deep specialisation key to collaboration | The Australian.

Academic freedom of expression at The University of Melbourne

Standing Resolutions of Council – Chapter 4 – General Resolutions Including Protocols : The University of Melbourne.

seems to have been replaced by this during the “Policy simplification project”

It’s a sad reflection on Australian academia that this needs to be stated clearly, but it is refreshing that it has been. (and it’s a sad reflection on my writing that I no longer know what specific point was being made, due to the link no longer being active – note to self, make sure that writing of commentary includes the key point being identified!)

My Taekwondo blog …

It is more than two years since I wrote anything in my taekwondo blog – but not because there is nothing interesting to say. In the past two years I have learned so much more about technique and application and moral culture, and it has been an exciting and challenging time to be part of USMA. Apart from my own thoughts on taekwondo, I’ve been delighted to watch my daughter’s skills develop and was very proud that she represented Australia in Argentina in the World Championships. She just missed the medal round in patterns, and performed to the best of her ability in sparring – a great effort for her first international event.

The reason that my taekwondo blog has died is a sad reflection on taekwondo in Australia – too much politics, not enough technique / application, and a seeming abyss of moral culture. To write anything about taekwondo, to question any technique, to reflect on good and bad aspects of the art form, to consider the relationship between a Korean martial art developed in a military context and modern Australian cultural context – all these are political minefields with people searching for disrespect or subversion or technical error in every utterance, rather than looking for a way forward and an open exchange of ideas to build on the wonderful foundation created by General Choi and bring it to people of all walks of life, including women and children.

When the administration of taekwondo is more about building individual business interests than serving the students of taekwondo (giving back to taekwondo in the form of leadership and instruction), the moral culture at the core of the martial art is destroyed. There will always be a very difficult path to tread through the democratic legal framework for Not-for-profit Associations versus the Dan hierarchy of a martial art, and the only way to negotiate a path through this is through plenty of discussion around common goals. Of course this is almost impossible if there are no common goals, and most parties have the goal of exerting maximum power with minimum input.

So rather than writing a whole lot of stuff about the exciting things that I’ve learned through training taekwondo with Sabum Cariotis and sharing my passion for a martial art with other people who might have thought of starting but did not know whether it would be okay for them (e.g., too old, too unfit, too inflexible, wrong demographic etc), I don’t write anything at all. It is a real shame, because so much of the way I think in my own professional area of cognitive science and spatial coding has been heavily influenced by my martial arts training. My discussions with Sabum Cariotis on space, time, temporal sequencing of movements, trigger points, options and decision-making have triggered all sorts of ways of understanding spatial coding, and I have also learned so much about cognitive aspects of training for expert skilled performance through watching Sabum Cariotis instruct and learning how to instruct martial arts under his guidance.

I have to say also that my eLearning blog has also died somewhat because of similar issues – universities are also becoming more focused on their business interests than on their core mission of community service through generating and sharing knowledge and understanding. I work for a specific institution and my academic output belongs to this institution as part of their “intellectual property” … such a strange concept, that “intellectual property” has a life of its own outside of any individual’s own intellect. It would be an interesting exercise to force university managers (and taekwondo practitioners) to study enough philosophy of mind to have a view of what constitutes knowledge (or skilled performance) and whether or not it can exist independently of the mind (or body) which is using it …

Doctor and Patient – Looking Beyond MCATs to Pick Future Doctors –

Doctor and Patient – Looking Beyond MCATs to Pick Future Doctors –

The investigators found that the results of the personality test had a striking correlation with the students’ performance. Neuroticism, or an individual’s likelihood of becoming emotionally upset, was a constant predictor of a student’s poor academic performance and even attrition. Being conscientious, on the other hand, was a particularly important predictor of success throughout medical school. And the importance of openness and agreeableness increased over time, though neither did as significantly as extraversion. Extraverts invariably struggled early on but ended up excelling as their training entailed less time in the classroom and more time with patients.

It is interesting to see that the personality factors leading to long term future success are different from those leading to short-term “success”. Failure to consider progress over the whole training continuum is becoming a serious “quality” issue in education. The need to  enforce more rigorous standards early in training to prepare students for later training is difficult to do when evaluation is at the wrong granualarity. (Note to self: look up the Belgian study from which the data were reported)


I’ve been reading lots of Oliver Sacks over Christmas – reinforcing my view that the foundation of scientific study is observation. He provides this quote in the preface of “An anthropologist on Mars” which is itself from G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown:

Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out of ten, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science> When they say criminology is a science> They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect; in what they would call a dry impartial light; in what I should call a dead and dehumanised light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his “criminal skill” as if it were a sort of eerie growth, like the horn on a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour. I don’t deny the dry light may sometimes do good; though in one sense it’s the very reverse of science. So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious. It’s like saying that a man has a proboscis between the eyes, or that he falls down in a fit of insensibility once every twenty-four hours. Well, what you call “the secret” is exactly the opposite I don’t try to get outside the man, I try to get inside.

I have particularly enjoyed reading “Uncle Tungsten”, his memoirs of his childhood, where he had the freedom to do curiousity-driven research despite all the potential risks, thereby gaining a much deeper understanding of the world, and a thirst for knowledge gathered through detailed observation and reflection as well as through careful experimentation.

Yay! Finally fixed my login issues …

Thanks to this post, I have finally solved my WordPress login issue:

Fixing the WordPress login issue | John Hawkins Unrated.

Last May, I noticed that I had only posted 4 things in the past six months and had not been doing regular upgrades and was basically completely out of touch with the web world and the art of regular writing. I got excitable, wrote some stuff, decided to upgrade WordPress to the latest version, couldn’t log back into the admin site and have been locked out ever since. I spent two or three evenings spread across the last 6 months trying to solve the problem and decided it must be a weird Mac thing. I had pretty much given up until I read this post and cleared the plug-in entry from the database.

Job done!

The only remaining issue was to try to get my uploaded media content working again, but I solved that by linking to it elsewhere. So now I have a working blog and all I have to do is start writing!

Educational theory and “Being Digital”

I have recently re-focused my thinking on issues arising from Ilana Snyder’s “Being Digital” project that I worked on last year. I prepared a report on some of the data from that project, available online at The interesting part for me was reading some of the literature on cultural form (particularly Raymond Williams) and digital literacy practices, and trying to get my head around the academic discourse and legitimate research methodology in non-scientific research disciplines.

Having just returned to considering these ideas, I stumbled across the work of Karl Maton and, in particular, this paper on the place of theory in educational research. I wish I had written this particular piece myself, although perhaps it is a good thing to have somewhere else to point people to when expressing similar views. Of course, this would touch on whether a published opinion can add weight to my own professional opinion without an additional ingredient of “data”, and what constitutes the legitimisation of a personal opinion into a professional opinion, and then into domain expertise. I am hoping that further reading of Karl Maton’s work will enlighten me on this in a way that triggers a whole new way of expressing the core ideas in my recent research activity.

Addendum to Stephen Downes presentation

There were two things I forgot to mention in my post about Stephen’s presentation.

1) When Stephen was introducing the concept of connectivist learning, he used an example of the knowledge that “Paris is the capital of France” to talk about symbolic versus connectivist learning. He described the propositional version of declarative knowledge, and countered with the idea that we have a cloud of connections around the idea of Paris, and around what we mean by France and that, in fact, there is not a sentence in the head declaring Paris is the capital of France, but there are instead a whole host of connections that embody that information (or something along those lines). I couldn’t help but think that the example was a poor one because to me, X is the capital of Y is quintessentially the sort of declarative knowledge people have with absolutely no other understanding of Paris, of France and of the notion of “is the capital of” (economically? politically? socially? is the biggest? is the most well known?). I know many people who know the all the captials of all the small african nations without even knowing where the country is on a map, who lives there, or anything else about the notion, because either they learnt it at school, or they know it for trivia quiz nights.

2) The other example Stephen used was of flying a jumbo jet from New York to Melbourne. He commented that flying a jumbo jet was so incredibly complex that one couldn’t possibly consider it to be a set of declarative propositions (or something like that – he was way more eloquent in his connectivist description of Paris and flying jets). What stood out for me, as a result of having thought about military pilot training for the past two years, is that the airline industry is the most proceduralised industry in the world, and there are checklists and procedures for every foreseeable situation. That is to say, there has been a concerted effort to write down every step of the process of flying a jet from New York to Melbourne, including every possible error-situation or event that may happen …

Anyhow – I’m not sure that knowledge carves up neatly between declarative, procedural, connectivist or symbolic. I suspect they are different levels of analysis and apply in different contexts, depending on what entrenched position is being challenged.

Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.

Vale Marysville

Less than a week ago, I was at a workshop at Swinburne’s Healesville campus, the only time I’ve ever been there. We went out for lunch in Healesville and, just by chance, I caught up with a dear friend who happened to be driving past and stopped for coffee. I haven’t seen Di for a number of years and we had a wonderful chat. We didn’t bother exchanging phone numbers because, as she said “You can always get in touch with me via the Marysville Lolly Shop”, which she owns with a friend.

It’s only a few days later, and all of Marysville, that beautiful historic town nestled in the hills is burnt to the ground.

Di – I was so happy to see you on the ABC News to know that you survived the fireball. I am so sorry you lost your beautiful lolly shop, but I know you have the courage and circle of friends and family to deal with what life throws at you. My heart goes out to all the people who have lost homes, livelihoods and more importantly, have lost their loved ones. It will take a long long time for communities to recover.

And as an aside (note that this was written on the Sunday night of the fires), although the fires and devastation this weekend have been much greater than Ash Wednesday, I think many people in Melbourne are fairly oblivious to the scale of devastation. The difference is that on Ash Wednesday, the wind blew smoke and ash onto Melbourne itself, so that people thought their own suburbs were on fire and it was impossible to ignore. There are many many young people who don’t listen to local news services and, in any event, don’t know the names and size of towns in regional Victoria.

Wednesday: An update to the aside: As events unfolded, everyone in Melbourne now knows the extent of the tragedy, but it still feels far away for those that don’t go out to regional areas much. It is as “unreal” for them as pictures of warzones in Iraq. The possibility of two large fires joining around Healesville as the warms up again is quite frightening.

Yearly updates

Today I paid a bit more attention to the fact that my sidebar on my blog seemed to have disappeared. When I went to look for it, I discovered that my sidebar had in fact been hijacked by a link injection evil-thing. This possibly explains random junk mail about Google Adword accounts (which I don’t have) and the fact that one or two domains seemed to have refused to accept my email address recently.

And then I noticed that it is more than a year since my last “yearly update” – so it is probably a timely reminder that I should either maintain my websites or shut them down. And if I maintain them, I should install updates and patches to the software running the sites.

So tonight I upgraded WordPress and deleted random other things and generally overhauled the code on my site.

It also gave me food for thought as to what I want to do with my web presence and what level of control I want to have over it. I have resisted the idea of Facebook / MySpace social networking versions of web-presence because of the lack of control and the “model of the world” implicit in them. At the same time, I have started to use open source tools in preference to hand-coding web sites, because my coding is aspirational rather than secure these days. But even though the code in open source tools like WordPress and Moodle is way way way better than mine would be, it is much more worthwhile to hack because of the number of potential targets for any one exploit.

Anyhow – the lesson learned today is to upgrade regularly. And to keep in touch with what the codebase is doing. And to have a bit more curiosity about apparently random things like the fact that my email was blacklisted by a few domains and other non-random but unsolicited junkmail. And to make sure that legacy stuff is removed from my website. And to keep backups of material. All pretty basic.


From Paul Christensen “in praise of bluffing” published in “The Antioch Review” of Spring 1999

So how was I not to bluff, if all my heroes did it, and did it well? You know the measure of your spiritual depth by how well you bluff. Cowards tell little lies and fudge a lot; poets expand the radius of the lie into illusion and allusion, and dream more. Politicians grasp the pulse of an imaginary nation and pronounce in simple boring language things that everyone should know, and the bluff is therefore stale and usually unimaginative, underreaching. Most of them have given up the bluff and gone to the pollsters to learn the trite and cliched truth. Priests bluff according to formula and repeat the doctrinal gestures and elements so often it is no longer bluff but rote habit.

No, the bluff pure and ethereal is reserved for geniuses and mad people. No modern poem ever reaches the condition of pure bluffness. The poem is a sad little grocery list with a bit of ego linking up the potatoes and carrots. Everyone wants a practical lesson in life and living, and the poor little lyric bag of syllables serves us a dim copy of that desire, as tasty as a box of Stove Top Stuffing or Hamburger Dinner. Predictability is a passion of our times, and preordained answers are far more welcome than the unexpected twist. People ask stupid and unbluffable questions and begin nodding and coaxing out the expected language before you can answer. “What’s the best car to buy, huh?” The Chevrolet Metro has the best mileage, according to the news we all watched last night, and remember partly. “Uh huh, that’s right. That’s right, uh huh.”

We cannot bluff now because we all have a uniform, slightly squared-off consciousness shaped for us by the same media exposure. We all watch the same shows, listen to NPR, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered, and then proceed to have, not conversations exactly, but trading sessions. I say part of a fact and you supply the rest; I was picking my nose at some critical moment of Bob Edwards’s comments and missed something, and you were sitting idly and retained it. So we talk as if we put together a rehab unit’s jigsaw puzzle: a portrait of Art Linkletter’s house at nightfall, just as Lawrence Welk begins playing an old rerun on the tube.

We all see the same movies, eat the same food, hear the same music, and read the same books and magazines, so we live in a lit circle of shared cultural noodles and broth. And the diet is so cloying and indigestible that we hardly ever want to regurgitate our nightly consumption.

By disposition the majority would prefer to remain behind the fence of such shared common shallowness, such boiled news and pre-owned food. We go along inside used and tired minds, trading tokens of consciousness that we already own in duplicate and triplicate. Maybe that’s why conversation is dead in America; what’s there to say that’s new? Nothing much. I’m okay, are you fine, too? Yeah, sure. Bye now. Bye.

In my current research, I am looking at the pattern recognition and the ability to deal with uncertain information that characterises expertise, so the notion of bluffing as a manifestation of implicit pattern recognition is appealing. It resonates with the concept of confabulation as part of a normal epistemic process as described by Hirstein (2005) in Brain Fiction, and of using simple heuristics described by Gigerenzer (2007) in Gut Feelings, among others.

TV masks a human cognitive surplus caused by having “free time”

The quote below is from Clay Shirky’s piece on “Gin, TV and Social Surplus” in which he describes how our American cousins spend 200 billion hours a year watching TV, which he equates to 100 million hours each weekend just watching the ads!!! I have no idea how he comes up with these astonishing numbers, but they sound impressive … as does the 100 million hours of human thought spent he calculates has been spent so far on Wikipedia …

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

iCue – “Immerse. Connect. Understand. Excel”

iCue (MIT’s collaboration with NBC) turns social networking and some cool gaming stuff into a Collaborative Learning Community. I admit that I have not explored the site closely, but although it looks like it might have some good things in there, it’s interesting that brand association (MIT / NBC) and marketing can reposition a social network site as Educational. There is a big difference between Education and Learning – learning is what we do every day, not just when we are being educated and I don’t understand the obsession with chasing attention-spans to make everything into a branded, certified Learning Experience.

Education, intelligence and soul

from Michael Leunig in The Age:

It is said that many people sell their souls and live with good conscience on the proceeds. I know for a fact there are rats in good schools.

But education excellence or not, intelligence suits us all, and intelligence may be just another word for sensitivity as far as I can understand.

You have to grow it whenever and wherever you can and sometimes you have to survive an education system, an academy or any web of convention, authority or conformity to do it. Life’s a long time and that’s the achievement, that’s what matters in the end — to come through, not necessarily with excellence and brilliance, but with soul.

Opinions, rigorous thinking and self esteem

I am at a loss to figure out how children will learn to think clearly, to evaluate quality, and to show appropriate courtesy and respect to others if they are not given accurate feedback about their own thought processes, opinions and behaviour. Negative feedback can be delivered politely or impolitely, sensitively or insensitively, but is absolutely necessary if positive feedback is to carry any meaning. Without exposure to negative as well as positive feedback, self-esteem has no basis, and hence no on-going value.

During the course of unpacking boxes of books (from moving house) I came across Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, which addresses some of my concerns albeit from a slightly different perspective.

“At the family dinner table, conversation standards should be rigorous. Miss Manners will even make a major exception to the rule about not leaving the table for anything other than an emergency, in order to allow a disputed fact to be checked. (Ones that take longer must be deferred, but the volunteer researcher can usually escape helping with the dishes if he reads aloud from the reference book in the kitchen while the others are working).

Opinions, in Miss Manner’s opinion, are also subject to challenge at the family dinner table. She believes that the child who is allowed to get away with baseless opinions, or who is congratulated for mouthing a family opinion without having though it through, is destined to grow into a fuzzy thinker and a bore.

It annoys her no end to hear of children’s being credited for “discussing” possibilities, so that they can then produce the “opinion” of being against it. She would hope that the most active anti-nuclear-weapons parent would insist that the child understand that the issue is not whether one is for or against destruction of the universe – how smugly children accept congratulations for coming out against it – but how countries can live in peace and protect themselves from aggression. We all want our child to share our opinions because they are so wise. But if we want the child to be wise, as well, we will not accept his arriving at these opinions without knowing what he is saying.” (from Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children)

If Miss Manner’s droll style is not to your liking, we could go to the other end of the spectrum to highlight a lack of rigorous thinking through this highly amusing catalogue of self-esteem generated through style over substance (warning: those whose political-correctness has obliterated their sense of humour will probably be offended rather than amused … so if that is you, don’t follow this link … )

Coaching, training and teaching

A letter from LS Michaelis published in The Lancet, 1946, and just as true today:

Sir, — At a time when the resources of medical education are being replanned and expanded, it would I think be useful to define these three complementary activities.

Coaching is the assembling of knowledge in preparation for a test of mental assimilation — i.e., the examination. Coaching may follow teaching, but should never precede or coincide with it.

Training is the acquisition of techniques by practical experience: It may coincide with teaching, but should never precede it.

Teaching provides a fundamental introduction, a crtical survey, and a challenge to original thought; it promotes judgement and insight, enthusiasm, and inquiry. It should precede and accompany training, but never degenerate into coaching.

Clever young graduates, with a fund of systematic knowledge, make good coaches; able technicians may make good trainers. But teaching calls for a balanced view of the part and the whole; it demands a broad outlook and a deep insight, with scepticism for the established and an open mind for the new.

When coaching is allowed to predominate in education, the body medical presents itself as a cleanly dissected corpse. When training is given more than its due, the result is a robot. Only when teaching is given its proper scope and precedence does this body medical emerge as a growing living organism.

Bias in academic courses

Young Libs campaign to out biased dons (from The Australian):

“NATALIE Karam, a second-year university law student, recently changed classes because she was so uncomfortable about the ideological stance of one of her lecturers.”

Apparently this biased lecturer stated that he belonged to the Greens, and poor Natalie, a Young Lib, felt marginalised in his class by belonging to the mainstream and moved classes. It made her think twice: what if she said something he didn’t like? … Perhaps she should have thought a third or fourth or fifth time until she came to the far more sensible realisation that this lecturer is capable of distinguishing his own bias, her bias and any other bias that creeps into academic work unacknowledged. The whole point of the academy is to analyse ideas, understand different perspectives, identify what is bias and what is “mainstream” (I’m assuming that anything “not mainstream” constitutes bias in the terms of the article in The Australian), and present a range of conflicting viewpoints. This is unlikely to happen if everyone runs off to immerse themselves in the company of like-minded people who will never challenge their view of the world.

Then again, let’s imagine that the lecturer had kept quiet about his affiliation with the Greens. Natalie would not even have known how uncomfortable she should have been!! Or perhaps the lecturer would no longer have been biased? Hmmmmm – how would that work? So perhaps what she is really saying, along with her Young Libs leader Noel McCoy, is that biased (non-mainstream, Greens-affiliated) academics should not be allowed to give lectures at all? Sweet. I wonder how Ms Karam expects to practise Law if she is not able to identify, present, analyse, or assess a line of argument in a professional capacity that differs from her own views? Then again, perhaps she won’t need to present any legal arguments when she can just go to the media and market her clients as victims.