Friday, July 17, 2009

Debating Science in Education

I've had a leisurely debate lately on the ASSESS listserv with Richard Hake about whether or not scientifically-based education is an oxymoron. In actual definition, of course, it is obviously not an oxymoron as defined in the 'pedia:
An oxymoron (plural oxymora (greek plural) or, more often, oxymorons)("sharply dull" in Greek) is a figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms. They appear in a range of contexts, from inadvertent errors such as extremely average, to deliberate puns like same difference, to literary oxymorons that have been carefully crafted to reveal a paradox.
A true oxymoron would be something like piano forte, which literally means soft loud. Since "scientifically-based" and "education" are in no way opposites, the phrase doesn't qualify. In common usage, however, people seem to bend the use of the word. In the present sense, it would be more direct to ask "can education be approached scientifically?" The answer to that question would be "yes" since anything can be approached scientifically. Science may not be able to tell us much about the subject, but we can attempt to use the methods of science on any subject we like. That, however, doesn't make for an interesting debate!

Dr. Hake takes the position that science-based education is not only possible, but happening. Here are the links to this thread. You can find current posts on this topic, including ones not cited below, here by searching for "scientifically-based".
In my last response I used a fact that I learned or was reminded of recently: that speech production and understanding happen in two different parts of the brain. They are called Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area, respectively. They're actually pretty far apart, but both on in the left hemisphere. In light of the creativity versus analytic thinking that I'm always going on about, this was obviously interesting. It also explains why I can understand far more German than I can produce, and suggests that the only way to get better at producing speech in a foreign language is to actually practice it. I'm sure all the language people know all this already.

The book this comes from is highly recommended. It's a short little thing I read on the flight back, called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Jill is a brain scientist, who had a stroke in her left hemisphere one morning. The first-hand account of her brain deconstructing is fascinating:
[...] I was literally thrown off balance when my right arm dropped completely paralyzed against my side. In that moment I knew. Oh my gosh, I'm having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!
The text is very readable, and describes the areas of her brain that were affected, and how she perceived those areas going offline. With the left hemisphere's speech centers debilitated, her right hemisphere took over:
In this altered stated of being, my mind was no longer pre-occupied with the billions of details that my brain routinely used to define and conduct my life in the external world. Those little voices, that brain chatter that customarily kept me abreast of myself in relation to the world outside of me, were delightfully silent.
As my consciousness slipped into a state of peaceful grace, I felt ethereal.
At the very least, this little book can make long committee meetings more bearable, by suggesting you how to tap into the mellow side of consciousness.

Another book that bears on the question of science and education tangentially is the current one I'm reading. Okay, it's a stretch, but bear with me. The book was sent to me by my historian friend Bob, after our discussion about the Russian Revolution. It's a classic called Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and translated from German to English by Daphne Hardy. The pertinance to the topic at hand is the adherance to a pre-determined political position, despite facts on the ground. I would say it's a fair criticism of the accountability in education movement that it assumes we can assess far more accurately than we actually can the skills and knowledge of learners. And if that's a weak segue to this lovely piece of literature, then it's my fault and not Mr. Koestler's.

Here, the protagonist (and I presume the author) confronts the results of the Party's deep commitment to principles, to the ends justifying the means:
The cause of the Party's defectiveness must be found. All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but wherever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared. Our will was hard and pure, we should have been loved by the people. But they hate us. Why are we so odious and detested?

We brought you truth, and in our mouth it sounded a lie. We brought you freedom, and it looks in our hands like a whip. We brought you the living life, and where our voice is heard the trees wither and there is a rustling of dry leaves. We brought you the promise of the future, but our tongue stammered and barked. ...
This is another in long history of warnings that ideals and theories and principles and beliefs are useful only as long as they are fluid enough to conform to reality. A theory should be like a suit you use on occasion and then put back in the closet, not like a suit of armor to climb in to before viewing the world through its helmet's grating.

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