EduBlogr - Blogging in E-ducation

Of the millions of blogs out there, probably only a few thousand are specifically devoted to education. This is one of them.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Lost in the weeds?

Jay Cross has "Another Way of Looking at Instructional Design." Or so he says. He briefly recounts the history of ID, noting its roots in the need to train WWII recruits. He then quotes Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame) whose riff against "remotely-done power and glory - as via government, big business, formal education, church" epitomizes the triumph of bottom-up individualism over top-down corporativism. In further support of his argument, he cites Clay Shirky who writes,

"The great popularizer of this error was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories have done more damage to people's understanding of human intelligence than anyone other than Rene Descartes. Doyle has convinced generations of readers that what seriously smart people do when they think is to arrive at inevitable conclusions by linking antecedent facts. As Holmes famously put it "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

This sentiment is attractive precisely because it describes a world simpler than our own. In the real world, we are usually operating with partial, inconclusive or context-sensitive information. When we have to make a decision based on this information, we guess, extrapolate, intuit, we do what we did last time, we do what we think our friends would do or what Jesus or Joan Jett would have done, we do all of those things and more, but we almost never use actual deductive logic."
The problem here is that Clay is specifically criticising the way that proponents of the "Semantic Web" want to use Sherlock Holmes-style reasoning and syllogism to Web searches. That's not how people generally look for "stuff." We bring a whole lot of context to the search. It IS however, how scientists conduct research, how historians investigate the past. It's a bit of a stretch to use that statement to imply that evidence-based inquiry has no value. As my old mentor Rob would say, the example doesn't examp.

Jay then goes on with a nice gardening metaphor that echoes a comment I tried to post over at the Connectivism Blog last week, but lost because I had failed to log in first and was not prompted to log in before I attempted to comment. (Not very user-oriented, that software!) He says we should create "learnscapes" and notes that landscape designers can't make the plants grow or predict exactly what shape they will take. All well and good, but he seems to then imply from that it is of no value to plan towards outcomes.

That's nonsense, of course. When I plant daffodils I expect daffodils to come up. When I plant tulips I expect to see tulips. If I don't see those results, then it's reasonable to conclude that either I bought a bad batch of bulbs, or else I've got squirrels.

A commentor named "shaggy" takes it even further:
"while education remains so closely tied to economics we're going to find it hard to remove the concepts of performance indicators, milestones and mearsurable outcomes ... Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of a good socratic education, I just don't think it can happen in our short sighted capitalist society. "

I'd like to avoid politics here, but this is a frankly ridiculous statement. Capitalism makes higher education possible, because it generates wealth beyond ones immediate survival needs and therefore creates spare time that can be used for education. You don't see people streaming into Cuba or North Korea or mainland China in the hopes that their children will be able to get an education. They're not immigrating to non-communist socialist states like Sweden or Singapore, either. Instead, you see capitialism raising the standard of living in places like India, where students get excellent training in real-world disciplines like engineering.

Perhaps "shaggy" values the rarified world of the ivy-coated academy, where the tweeded and tenured spend their time thinking deep thoughts about trivial topics. Of course, to be taken seriously in that world, one must have the Ph.D. (not a Ph.D., the Ph.D.). One must also publish in the right journals and be cited often by the right people. But of course, those aren't "performance indicators, milestones and mearsurable outcomes," are they?

I'm all for putting Skinner in his proper historical place, and opening up the behaviorists' black boxes. Indeed, that is precisely what cognitive learning theory - which Cross completely ignores - does.