Bertrand Russel’s proof of naïve realism being false

What is naïve realism you may ask? To put simply naïve realism is a belief that whatever you see with your senses is the reality. There is nothing more to reality than what your sense perceptions bring to you. It is a direct unmediated access to reality. There is no “interpretation” involved.

In philosophy of perception and philosophy of mind, naïve realism (also known as direct realism, perceptual realism, or common sense realism) is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are. When referred to as direct realism, naïve realism is often contrasted with indirect realism.

Naïve Realism

To put this in other words, naïve realism fails to distinguish between the phenomenal and the physical object. That is to say, all there is to the world is how we perceive it, nothing more.

Bertrand Russel gave a one line proof of why naïve realism is false. And this is the topic of this post. Also, the proof has some implications for science education, hence the interest.

Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.

As quoted in Mary Henle – On the Distinction Between the Phenomenal and the Physical Object, John M. Nicholas (ed.), Images, Perception, and Knowledge, 187-193. (1977)

Henle in her rather short essay (quoted above) on this makes various philosophically oriented arguments to show that it is an easier position to defend when we make a distinction between the two.

But considering the “proof” of Russel, I would like to bring in evidence from science education which makes it even more compelling. There is a very rich body of literature on the theme of misconceptions or alternative conceptions among students and even teachers. Many of these arise simply because of a direct interpretation of events and objects around us.

Consider a simple example of Newton’s first law of motion.

In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

Now for the naïve realists this will never be possible, as they will never see an object going by itself without application of any force. In real world, friction will bring to halt bodies which are moving. Similar other examples from the misconceptions also do fit in this pattern. This is perhaps so because most of the science is counter-intuitive in nature. With our simple perception we can only do a limited science (perhaps create empirical laws). So one can perhaps say that learners with alternative conceptions hold naïve realist world-view (to some degree) and the role of science education is to change this.

The problem with what is taught in schools

Many people have written on the problem of what is taught in schools and why children don’t like what they study. One of the major issue seems to be there is no direct relevance to what children are taught in the school and their own personal and social lives. The content in the school textbooks has been dissected of any meaningful connections that the children could make in their real lives. The school tasks are decontextualised so that they become insulated from the real world. The quote below very nicely captures what I wanted to say on this issue.

These kinds of situated-learning tasks are different from most school tasks, because school tasks are decontextualized. Imagine learning tennis by being told the rules and practicing the forehand, backhand, and serve without ever playing or seeing a tennis match. If tennis were taught that way, it would be hard to see the point of what you were learning. But in school, students are taught algebra and Shakespeare without cognitive apprenticeship being given any idea of how they might be useful in their lives. That is not how a coach would teach you to play tennis. A coach might first show you how to grip and swing the racket, but very soon you would be hitting the ball and playing games. A good coach would have you go back and forth between playing games and working on particular skills – combining global and situated learning with focused local knowledge.

Allan Collins – Cognitive Apprenticeship (The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences)

Papert too has some nice metaphors for this, and constructionism hence includes problems or projects which are personally meaningful to the learner so that they are contextualised withing the lives of the learners..

Conditioning hatred for books


The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.

“Set out the books,” he said curtly.

In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.

“Now bring in the children.”

They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in

“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.

“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”

Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.

The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.

“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.

The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.

“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”

The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.

“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”

Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.

“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

Schooled and unschooled education

It is difficult now to challenge the school as a system because we are
so used to it. Our industrial categories tend to define results as
products of specialized institutions and instruments, Armies produce
defence for countries. Churches procure salvation in an
afterlife. Binet defined intelligence as that which his tests
test. Why not, then, conceive of education as the product of schools?
Once this tag has been accepted, unschooled education gives the
impression of something spurious, illegitimate and certainly

– Ivan Illich (Celebration of Awareness)

Einstein on his school experience

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year … is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry – especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.

Seeing that even almost a hundred years later it is almost unchanged gives one an idea of how little effort has gone into changing how we learn.

Why philosophy is so important in science education

This is a nice article whicH I have reposted from AEON…

Each semester, I teach courses on the philosophy of science to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Most of the students take my courses to satisfy general education requirements, and most of them have never taken a philosophy class before.
On the first day of the semester, I try to give them an impression of what the philosophy of science is about. I begin by explaining to them that philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone, and that the philosophy of science is the application of this approach to the domain of science. After this, I explain some concepts that will be central to the course: induction, evidence, and method in scientific enquiry. I tell them that science proceeds by induction, the practices of drawing on past observations to make general claims about what has not yet been observed, but that philosophers see induction as inadequately justified, and therefore problematic for science. I then touch on the difficulty of deciding which evidence fits which hypothesis uniquely, and why getting this right is vital for any scientific research. I let them know that ‘the scientific method’ is not singular and straightforward, and that there are basic disputes about what scientific methodology should look like. Lastly, I stress that although these issues are ‘philosophical’, they nevertheless have real consequences for how science is done.

At this point, I’m often asked questions such as: ‘What are your qualifications?’ ‘Which school did you attend?’ and ‘Are you a scientist?’

Perhaps they ask these questions because, as a female philosopher of Jamaican extraction, I embody an unfamiliar cluster of identities, and they are curious about me. I’m sure that’s partly right, but I think that there’s more to it, because I’ve observed a similar pattern in a philosophy of science course taught by a more stereotypical professor. As a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, I served as a teaching assistant for a course on human nature and evolution. The professor who taught it made a very different physical impression than I do. He was white, male, bearded and in his 60s – the very image of academic authority. But students were skeptical of his views about science, because, as some said, disapprovingly: ‘He isn’t a scientist.’

I think that these responses have to do with concerns about the value of philosophy compared with that of science. It is no wonder that some of my students are doubtful that philosophers have anything useful to say about science. They are aware that prominent scientists have stated publicly that philosophy is irrelevant to science, if not utterly worthless and anachronistic. They know that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is accorded vastly greater importance than anything that the humanities have to offer.

Many of the young people who attend my classes think that philosophy is a fuzzy discipline that’s concerned only with matters of opinion, whereas science is in the business of discovering facts, delivering proofs, and disseminating objective truths. Furthermore, many of them believe that scientists can answer philosophical questions, but philosophers have no business weighing in on scientific ones.

Why do college students so often treat philosophy as wholly distinct from and subordinate to science? In my experience, four reasons stand out.

One has to do with a lack of historical awareness. College students tend to think that departmental divisions mirror sharp divisions in the world, and so they cannot appreciate that philosophy and science, as well as the purported divide between them, are dynamic human creations. Some of the subjects that are now labelled ‘science’ once fell under different headings. Physics, the most secure of the sciences, was once the purview of ‘natural philosophy’. And music was once at home in the faculty of mathematics. The scope of science has both narrowed and broadened, depending on the time and place and cultural contexts where it was practised.

Another reason has to do with concrete results. Science solves real-world problems. It gives us technology: things that we can touch, see and use. It gives us vaccines, GMO crops, and painkillers. Philosophy doesn’t seem, to the students, to have any tangibles to show. But, to the contrary, philosophical tangibles are many: Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science, which gave us laptops and smartphones. And philosophers’ work on the mind-body problem set the stage for the emergence of neuropsychology and therefore brain-imagining technology. Philosophy has always been quietly at work in the background of science.

A third reason has to do with concerns about truth, objectivity and bias. Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is. To approach it, I invite students to look at something nearby without any presuppositions. I then ask them to tell me what they see. They pause… and then recognise that they can’t interpret their experiences without drawing on prior ideas. Once they notice this, the idea that it can be appropriate to ask questions about objectivity in science ceases to be so strange.

The fourth source of students’ discomfort comes from what they take science education to be. One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist – ‘the facts’ – and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.

Students often respond to these concerns by stating impatiently that facts are facts. But to say that a thing is identical to itself is not to say anything interesting about it. What students mean to say by ‘facts are facts’ is that once we have ‘the facts’ there is no room for interpretation or disagreement.

Why do they think this way? It’s not because this is the way that science is practised but rather, because this is how science is normally taught. There are a daunting number of facts and procedures that students must master if they are to become scientifically literate, and they have only a limited amount of time in which to learn them. Scientists must design their courses to keep up with rapidly expanding empirical knowledge, and they do not have the leisure of devoting hours of class-time to questions that they probably are not trained to address. The unintended consequence is that students often come away from their classes without being aware that philosophical questions are relevant to scientific theory and practice.

But things don’t have to be this way. If the right educational platform is laid, philosophers like me will not have to work against the wind to convince our students that we have something important to say about science. For this we need assistance from our scientist colleagues, whom students see as the only legitimate purveyors of scientific knowledge. I propose an explicit division of labour. Our scientist colleagues should continue to teach the fundamentals of science, but they can help by making clear to their students that science brims with important conceptual, interpretative, methodological and ethical issues that philosophers are uniquely situated to address, and that far from being irrelevant to science, philosophical matters lie at its heart.Aeon counter – do not remove


Subrena E Smith

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

School as a manufacturing process

Over most of this century, school has been conceived as a manufacturing process in which raw materials (youngsters) are operated upon by the educational process (machinery), some for a longer period than others, and turned into finished products. Youngsters learn in lockstep or not at all (frequently not at all) in an assembly line of workers (teachers) who run the instructional machinery. A curriculum of mostly factual knowledge is poured into the products to the degree they can absorb it, using mostly expository teaching methods. The bosses (school administrators) tell the workers how to make the products under rigid work rules that give them little or no stake in the process.
– (Rubba, et al. Science Education in the United States: Editors Reflections. 1991)

The Textbook League

I came across this site while reading an article, there are interesting reviews of textbooks used in schools. And some of these reviews are gory, splitting out the blood and guts of the textbooks and their inaneness. Hopefully, many people will find it useful, though the latest book that is reviewed is from about 2002. Perhaps one should do a similar thing for books in the Indian context, basically performing a post-mortem on the zombiesque textbooks that flood our schools.

The Web site of The Textbook League is a resource for middle-school and high-school educators. It provides commentaries on some 200 items, including textbooks, curriculum manuals, videos and reference books. Most of the commentaries appeared originally in the League’s bulletin, The Textbook Letter.

Knowledge, its use and teaching

Bodies of knowledge are, with a few exceptions, not designed to be taught, but to be used. To teach a body of knowledge is thus a highly artificial enterprise. thus a highly artificial enterprise. The transition from knowledge regarded as a tool to be put to use, to knowledge as something to be taught and learnt, is precisely what I have termed the didactic transposition of knowledge.

Chevallard, Y. (1988, August). On didactic transposition theory: Some introductory notes. In International Symposium on Research and Development in Mathematics, Bratislava, Czechoslavakia.

Implicit cognition in the visual mode

Images become iconified, with the image representing an object or
phenomena, but this happens by enculturation rather by training. An
example to elaborate this notion is the painting Treachery of
Images by Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. The painting is
also sometimes called This is not a pipe. The picture shows a
pipe, and below it, Magritte painted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”,
French for “This is not a pipe.”


When one looks at the painting, one
exclaims “Of course, it is a pipe! What is the painter trying to say
here? We can all see that it is indeed a pipe, only a fool will claim
otherwise!” But then this is what Magritte has to say:

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you
stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had
written on my picture `This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!

Aha! Yess! Of course!! you say. “Of course it is not a pipe! Of
course it is a representation of the pipe. We all know that! Is this
all the painter was trying to say? Its a sort of let down, we were
expecting more abstract thing from the surrealist.” We see that the
idea or concept that the painting is a \emph{representation} is so
deeply embedded in our mental conceptual construct that we take it for
granted all the time. It has become so basic to our everyday social
discourse and intercourse that by default we assume it to be so. Hence
the confusion about the image of the pipe. Magritte exposes this
simple assumption, that we so often ignore. This is true for all the
graphics that we see around us. The assumption is implicit in all the
things we experience in the society. The representation becomes the
thing itself, for it is implicit in the way we talk and communicate.

Big B and D

When you look at a photo of something or someone, you recognize
it. “This is Big B!” you say looking at the painting! But then you
have already implicitly assumed that the representation of Big B is Big B. This implicit assumption comes from years of implicit training from being submerged in  the sea of the visual artefacts that surround and drown us. This association between the visual representation and the reality it represents had become the central theme of the visual culture that we live in. The training that we need for such an association comes from the peers and mentors that surround us from the childhood. The meaning and the association of the images is taught/caught over the years, so much so that we assume the abstract association is the normal way things are. In this way it becomes the implicit truth, though when one is pressed, the explicit connections are brought out.

Yet when it comes to understanding images in science and mathematics, the same thing doesn’t happen. There is no enculturation of children into understand the implicit meaning in these images. Hardly there are no peers or mentors whose actions and practices can be imitated by the young impressible learners. The practice which comes so naturally in other domains (identifying actor with a picture of the actor, or identifying a physical space with a photo) doesn’t happen in science and mathematics classrooms. The notion of practice is dissociated from the what is done to imbibe this understanding in the children. A practice based approach where the images become synonymous with their implied meaning is used in vocabulary might one very positive way out, this is after all practitioners of science and mathematics learn their trade.

Millions of Computers for Millions of Children

Yesterday ( it should be now read “a couple of years back”)while giving a talk, I was asked this rhetorical question (not verbatim, but close):

“What did you say was the sample size of your study?”

“Two. This was a case study.”

“So, considering that the activity that you have designed requires a computer and expeyes (a hardware for collecting data). How can you scale it up to schools which have millions of children?”

It seems that the person who was asking the question, for lack of any other question asked this. In seminars and academic institutes, there are always people like this, who will ask the question for sake of it. Just to make their presence felt. Anyways, it was good for me. I was expecting that this question would be asked. And I was very happy that it was asked.

The short answer that I gave was:

“You give a million computers to a million children!”


Some people thought, this was a rhetoric answer to a rhetoric question, which incidentally was also humorous, as it also generated a lot of laughter, but this was not the case. In this post, I would like to elaborate on the short answer that I gave.

Of course, most of these ideas have come from reading and hearing Seymour Papert (who has recently demised, the article was started before that, but due to my lethargy never seen completion). The memes have been transferred, and now I am trying to make sense and adapt them to my own experience. And I would like to assert again that reading Papert has been an immensely rewarding and enriching experience for me. His are perhaps few books which I do not mind reading again and again. I like his writing style of giving parables to explain points in his arguments because the points he wants to make do not need a backbone of statistics to survive. Here also I will give a hypothetical example (derived from Papert) to explain what I meant.

The technological tools that children are using now mainly in the traditional school system are the pencil and the book. In this case, almost all educationalists would agree that every child would require to have one pencil to write and book for study. Even then there are some children who do use computers, some because their parents have them, some because the school has them, some have both. Now we consider a time 50 years back. Computers were almost non-existent, as we know them now. Computers were one of the most complicated and expensive technological artefacts that humans produced. But the enormous amount of money and efforts were put in the miniaturization of computers. So finally now we have computers that have become devices that we now know. In the last 50 years, the computer technology has grown exponentially, while the prices for the memory and computing power that one gets are falling, their usage.

Consider a classroom of 50 years back. Though there were computers they were something to be wondered about, something like very very expensive toys. The computers were not mature enough that children could handle them. In the classroom, the only available technological artefacts were used. The technology in the classroom was the pencil
and the printed book and a notebook to write with the pencil and of course, there was the blackboard.

Wait, you might be thinking we are in a digital age technology by default means computers, be it in your smart-phone, laptop or a desktop or at least a projector for god’s sake. But here I would like you to think about somethings which are very deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. The very fact that many things which we take for granted are
all technologies. For example, the writing instruments that you have to be it a pencil or a chalk are all technologies. But most of us don’t think of them as such because they are so common and most of us have had our experience with them. The mystery is lost. As the Arthur C. Clarke once said about technology and magic as his Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So deeply embedded this image is that we define it as the normal for our learners to be able to use this technology. Rather the entire edifice of our educational system rests on it. For example, your educational achievement is more or less based on the fact how much you can “write” in a limited time, from memory. And this we call assessment, examination and the like. Also the written text, from the time of Gutenberg, has more
or less complete hold over our intellectual activities. The text formed the basis of our discourse and analysis of the world. Why do children use to write with a pencil on piece of paper in order to learn. The drill typically starts with the children trying to
recreate elegant fonts in some shape or form which is decipherable for the teacher. You have to write “A” 500 times to get it right, ok? How would you write words when you cannot write alphabets? How would write sentences when you cannot write words? How will you write examinations if you cannot write sentences?

Is it the only way in which we can learn language? If we observe this in detail we see that only reason we ask them to write “a” 500 times in a notebook is because it comes from an era when there was no other technology to write. And this is the same learner who can converse well and answer questions, but yet we need them to write it down with their hands. It was the only possible solution. And generations of humans were trained using this method. So much so that most of us still think this is the only method for education. Any deviation from hand-written text is seen as a abomination. But typing on a computer provides us, and especially, young learners with cognitive offloading of immense task of holding a writing instrument and shaping an alphabet, a word, a sentence out of it. Children learn to type much much faster than they learn to write with a pen. And what is even more important is that the written text is in electronic form, which can be revised and shared with their peers and teachers. In hand written text there is no question of revision, the original takes too much effort to produce so there is no question of revising it.


Considering the amount of cognitive load the child has to undergo to produce decipherable alphabets, words and sentences in order to “write”, a thing which he can perfectly do orally, are the results worth the effort? Are there any studies which show that this is an efficient method? Yet is used everywhere without exceptions and we accept it meekly without challenge because this is how it was done in the past and someone in the past must have had good reason to use this hence, we should also use this. Papert calls this as “QWERTY Phenomena”. Somethings just get culturally embedded because the are
suited for an bygone era, the are like relics in the current era. And writing with pencil and paper is just one of them.

Now consider the question that was asked at the beginning of the post. Replace the computer with a pencil. The question then becomes,

“So, considering that the activity that you have designed requires a
pencil and a notebook. How can you scale it up to schools which have
millions of children?”


Suddenly question seems rather bizzare and at the same time sotrivial. Of course you might say but the pencil and notebook is so much cheaper than the computer. Yes. It. Is. But if you consider that a well designed laptop like OLPC, can serve a learners for 5-6 years and can remain with them through the schooling years. Then calculations show the investment that we seek is rather modest. In general when something becomes more
common, it also becomes cheaper. Mobile phones provide an excellent proof for this argument. And it is not happening in some first world country but in our own. What has promoted a rapid growth in the number of mobile users? How do tariff plans compare
from 15 years back to now? How come something which was something exclusive for the rich and the famous, just a few years back, is now so common? It is hard to find a person without a phone these days. Even people who do not have access to electricity have a
phone, they get it charged from some place else. Now if some sociologist would have done some study regarding usefulness of mobile phones for communication, perhaps 20 years earlier, they might have had some statistics to show, but critics would have said,

“but the cost is too prohibitive; this is perhaps ok for a case study you seriously
think all (or most) of the people can have this; and people who cannot
read and write will be able to use this; people do not have
electricity and food to eat and you want to give them mobile phone?”

But look at where we are, because people found contextual and personal value in using a mobile, it became their personal assistant in communicating with others, an inherent human trait, they got it. With proliferation of the mobiles, the cost of hardware came down, the cost of tariffs came down, almost everyone could afford one now.

It is sensationalist to compare a pencil and laptop in terms of cost, but when you consider the kinds of learning that can happen over a computer there is simple no match. They are not different in degree but in kind. Note that I have used “can happen” instead of will happen. This is for a reason, a laptop can be used in a variety of ways in learning. Some of the ways can be subversive, disruptive of the traditional education system, and redefine radically the ways our children learn. But in most cases its subversion is tamed and is made submissive to the existing educational system. And computers are made to do what a teacher or a textbook will do in a traditional context. So it is blunted and made part of a system which the computer has the potential to alter radically.

Some people then cite “research studies” done with “computers”. These studies will typically groups “with” computers and “without” computers. Some tasks are given and then there are pre and post tests. They are looking at the submissive action set in a highly conservative educational system. Even if such studies show the use of computers in a positive light, all these studies are missing the point. They are just flogging a dead horse. The point that computers when used in the right way, the constructionist way, can change the way we learn in a fundamental way. There are many studies which “prove” the counter-point. That computers don’t improve “learning”. Typically children will have limited access both in terms of time and sharing it with more people. One computer shared by three people, one hour in a week. Even then children learn, with computers if
used correctly. Continuing with out example of the pencil, consider this: one pencil shared among three children, once a week! Seems absurd isn’t it? But this is what typically happens in the schools, children are not allowed to develop a personal relationship with one of the most powerful learning ideas that they can have access to. Access is limited and in most cases uninformed involving trivialisation of the learning ideas that can redefine learning.


Politics Science Education or Science Education Politics or Science Politics Education

I am rather not sure what should be the exact title of this
post. Apart from the two options above it could have been any other
combination of these three words. Because I would be talking about all
three of them in interdependent manner.

If someone tells you that education is or should be independent of politics they, I would say they are very naive in their view about society. Education in general and formalised education in particular, which is supported and implemented by state is about political ideology that we want our next generation to have. One of the Marxian critique of state formalised education is that it keeps the current hierarchical structures untouched in its approach and thus sustains them. Now when we come to science education we get a bit more involved about ideas.

Science by itself was at one point of time assumed to be value-neutral. This line of though can be seen in the essays that some of us wrote in the schools with titles like “Science: good or bad”. Typically the line of argument in such is that by itself science is neither good or bad, but how we put it to use is what determines whether it is good or bad. Examples to substantiate the arguments typically involve some horrific incidents like the atomic bomb on one hand and life saving drugs on the other hand. But by itself, science is not about good or bad values. It is assumed to be neutral in that sense (there are other notions of value-neutrality of science which we will consider later). Scientific thought and its products are considered above petty issues of society and indiduals, it seemed to be an quest for eternal truth. No one questioned the processes or products of science which were assumed to be the most noble, rational, logical and superior way of doing things. But this pretty picture about scientific enterprise was broken by Thomas Kuhn. What we were looking at so far is the “normative” idea of science. That is we create some ideals about science and work under the assumption that this is how actual science is or ought to be. What Kuhn in his seminal work titled The Structure of Scientific Revolution was to challenge such a normative view, instead he did a historical analysis of how science is actually done ans gave us a “descriptive” picture about science, which was based on historical facts. Keeping up the name of the book, it actually revolutionised the way we look at science.

Now keeping in mind this disctinction between “normative” and “descriptive” views is very important. This is not only true for science but also for all other forms of human endeavours. People often tend to confuse or combine the two or many times are not even aware of the difference.

After Kuhn’s groundbreaking work entire new view about science its processes and products emerged. Various aspects of the scientific enterprise which were initially thought about outside purview of science or not affecting science came in to spotlight. Science was dissected and deconstructed from various points of view. Over the next few decades these ideas emerged into full fledged disciplies on their own. Some very valid criticisms of the scientific enterprise were developed and agreed upon. For example, the idea that there exists “the scientific method” was serisously looked into and was found to be too naive. A modified view was adopted in this regard and most of philosophers of science agreed that this is too restrictive a view. Added to this the post-modernist views about science may seem strange and bizzare at times to the uninitiated. This led to what many call as the “science-wars” between scientific realists and postmodernists. The scientific realists who believe that the world described by science is the real world as it is, independent of what it might be. So in this view it implies that there is objective truth in science and the world it describes is real. This view also implies that there is something like “scientific method” and it role in creating true knowledge about the world is paramount. On the other hand postmodernist critics don’t necessarily agree with this view of the world. For example they question the very idea of objectivity of the scientific world-view. Deriving their own meaning into writings of Kuhn (which he didn’t agree to) they claimed that science itself is a social construct and has nothing to do with the real world. The apparent supremacy of “scientific-method” in creating knowledge or presenting us about the world-views is questioned. The entire scientific enterprise from processes to products was deciphered from dimensions of gender, sexual orientation, race and class. Now, when you are teaching about science to learners there should be an awareness about these issues. Some of the issues are usually overlooked or have a logical positivist nature in them. Many philosophers lament that though considerable change has happened in ideas regarding scientific enterprise especially in philosophy of science, it seems corresponding ideas in science education are not up to date. And this can be seen when you look at the science textbook with a critical focus.

With this background I will go into the reasons that made me write this post and the peculiar multi-title. It seems for post-modernists and some others that learning about politics of science is more important than learning science itself. And they feel this is the neutral view and there is nothing political about it. They look at science as an hierarchical enterprise where gender, class and race play the decisive role, hence everyone should know about it. I am not against sharing the fact with learners of science that there are other world-views, what I am against is to share only a peculiar world view which is shaped completely by one’s ideology and politcal stance rather than by actual contents. Many of the people don’t actually know science, yet they feel that they are fully justified to criticise it. And most of these people would fall on the left side of the political spectrum (at least that is what their self-image is). But the way I see it is that these same people are no different from the right-wingers who burn books without reading them. The pomos may think of themselves as intellectually superior to the tilak-sporting people but they are not. Such is the state of intellectuals that they feel threatened by exclusion of certain articles or inclusion of certain other ones in reading courses. They then use all their might to restore the “balance”. At the same time they also tell us only they have some esoteric knowledge about these issues which people like me cannot have. And no matter what I do I will never be able to do what they can. Perhaps they have super powers which I don’t know about, perhaps in their subjective world view the pigs can fly and this fact can be proven by using other methods than the scientific ones. Last point I want to make in this is inspite of all the criticims of science and its products it doesn’t stop these people from refraining use of these products and technologies! This is hypocrisy, they will curse the phone or the computer if it doesn’t work, what they perhaps don’t realise is that it might be working just that the pomos are not able to see it in their worldview.

A Piagetian Curriculum?

There are those who think about creating a “Piagetian curriculum” or “Piagetian teaching methods.” But to my mind these phrases and the activities they represent are contradictions in terms. I see Piaget as the theorist of learning without curriculum and the theorist of the kind of learning that happens without deliberate teaching. To turn him into the theorist of a new curriculum is to stand him on his head. – Seymour Papert, Mindstorms


Main purpose of the educational sector

The main purpose of the health sector is not to provide other sectors with workers in good health. By the same token, the main purpose of the educational sector is not to prepare students to take up an occupation in some other sector of the economy. In all human societies, health and education have an intrinsic value: the ability to enjoy years of good health, like the ability to acquire knowledge and culture, is one of the fundamental purposes of civilization.

via Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Radical Openness – Scientific Research

“The more we’re getting into this the more it’s apparent this is a radical new way to scientific research. Traditional research is done in an institution with patent protection. IP protection and patents slows progress because it reduces collaboration and makes it harder to build on the work of others. Our project, we don’t have a central body. It’s the public, they’re the ones who get excited. Because we’re not beholden to shareholders we can create a community.”

via Glowing Plant| Singularity Hub.

I just hope that this project is successful and will create a new way of doing scientific research which will involve common people.

Sharing knowledge and learning collaboratively at schools

(This article was written for a college magazine.)

We have a vision for a better society in which the values of sharing and collaborating knowledge and technical know-how form an integral part. There are two aspects to this issue. One is why it should be done, and given the current social structure how it can be done. Though the why question is as important as the how one in this article we will try to focus more on how it can be done with aid of proper technology and what are the possible implications of this intervention to the citizens of the future.

The current education system does little to promote and impart the ideas of sharing knowledge with peers to the students who will be the future citizens. In our educational system it is more like each-one-for-oneself; if you help your peers you will be at a loss in the future. Another aspect is that the educational system by its nature is consumerist. By consumerist we mean that the schools system treat the students more like consumers, who are then passively fed in what has already been produced by others. There is no or little scope left for students to produce or construct anything meaningful. So the platform/technology which will address these issues should have the following qualities:

  • It should be based on principles of Free Software (see
  • It should allow for collaboration / sharing of knowledge.
  • It should allow for active, meaningful and collaborative production / construction contexts, through which students will learn.
  • It should give immediate feedback to the student, not the delayed one (year end) which the current school system has. This is essential as it makes children reflective about the work that they are doing.

Learning in the context of constructing some tangible thing is a philosophy of education proposed by Seymour Papert, called constructionism. Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. A closely related term that you might have heard is that of constructivism, but there are differences though.

The potential for transforming classrooms in a revolutionary way is present in the constructionist way of learning, which the existing CBTs (computer based tutorials) do not challenge but reinforce. The advances in technology have made it possible now to implement constructionist ways of learning to masses. So where are the examples of this?

The Sugar learning platform  is just one such example which is specifically developed keeping in mind the above considerations. But the idea of constructionist learning is not limited only to using computers. displayed. The very idea of the platform is centered around the idea of constructionism. Though initially developed for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project, now it can run on almost all computers. Learning in an environment where sharing knowledge is an inherent principle rather than an added externality provides the students with a whole new way of learning. Each activity on Sugar is designed keeping in mind the collaborative, construction context and immediate feedback principles.

The Sugar platform provides construction contexts from different areas to learn collaboratively like language, mathematics, science, drawing, music, games, programming, photography, audio and video recording among other things. For each of this activity can be done collaboratively by the students and can be shared with others. This also provides students to make meaningful connections between different concepts. In this context we have seen a strong urge in the children to share the knowledge and activities that they have with others, but in the current school system there is no or little provision for this. Sharing of activities provides context for feedback from peers, which in turn is fruitful in improving learning. Thus we see that the tools and time is ripe for changing our perspective towards education for a more inclusive and better society, whose core values are sharing of knowledge and collaboration.

There are pilot projects of Sugar running at many places across India, one is the Khairat Project which is running successfully for past 4 years at a primary tribal school of first generation learners near Mumbai, another one is at Merces School near Panaji in state of Goa.

Science, a humanistic approach

Science is an adventure of the whole human race to learn to live in and perhaps to love the universe in which they are. To be a part of it is to understand, to understand oneself, to begin to feel that there is a capacity within man far beyond what he felt he had, of an infinite extension of human possibilities . . .
I propose that science be taught at whatever level, from the lowest to the highest, in the humanistic way. It should be taught with a certain historical understanding , with a certain philosophical understanding , with a social understanding and a human understanding in the sense of the biography, the nature of the people who made this construction, the triumphs, the trials, the tribulations.

Nobel Laureate in Physics

via Project Physics Course, Unit 4 Light and Electromagnetism Preface

Do see the Project Physics Course which has come in Public Domain hosted at the Internet Archive, thanks to F.  James Rutherford.

Science And Certainty

Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking, at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only it’s not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure, but because they are the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they are the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment, we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far, its mostly correct.

via | Edge

This is something that I think separates science from religion. Religion is about absolutes, trust in the absolute God. And this is the difference that should be also taught to the students of science.

Experiment in The Classroom

“The experiment is already on, Sir! It is my personal experience that the story is a wonderful magic pill that helps to establish rapport between the pupils and the teachers. Those very boys who were not prepared to listen to me on the first day and who had unnerved me with shouts and catcalls, have become quiet since I started telling them a story. They now have a sort of affection for me. They listen to me and sit as I ask them to. I don’t have to shout at them to keep them quiet. And they don’t leave the school even after it is over!”

via| Diwaswapna

Hope that every classroom would be like that, where the children like to come and don’t like to go home…

Reason and Faith – Misconceptions in Science Education

Reason does not work in matters of faith. But it may have a chance at clearing misconceptions.

via Tehelka

Truly so. In case of my field of study, namely science education research, it may be the other way round. The classic studies in science education aim at identifying the misconceptions that the learners have regarding a particular subject and then finding a mechanism by which they could be addressed.

This was a very simple but very basic presentation of  what most studies try to achieve, though the methodology may be different. There are some studies which present us with a conceptual framework so that all the responses and the problems with the learners can be seen in light of a theoretical construct. This they say will enable us to make sense of what we see in the classrooms, and what is present as representation in the learners mind. What I think they are trying to say is that we need to get to the conceptual structures that lead to formation of the misconceptions.

Now mind you that many of these misconceptions in science are very stubborn and people are very reluctant to give them up. The reason may be that many of these misconceptions come from direct factual experience in the real world. And from what I know about Philosophy of Science, we might want to make a case that all science is counter-intuitive to our everyday experience. This would explain why misconceptions in science arise. But would this case explain all the known misconceptions?

Let us do some analysis of how a particular misconception might arise.There can be two different reasons for a misconception to arise, if we adhere to deductive logic. That is to say we assume that we have a set of starting statements that are given, whose authenticity is not questioned. And from these set of statements we make certain deductions regarding the world out there. Now there can be two problems with this scenario, one is that the set of statements that we are taking for granted might be wrong, the other is that in the process of deduction that we have followed we made a mistake. The mistake is learnt only when the end result of our analysis is not consistent with the observations in the real world. Or it might be even the case that the so called misconception will lead to a correct answer, at least in some cases.  In these cases we have to resort to more detailed analysis of the thought structure which lead to the answers. Another identifying characteristic of the misconceptions is presence of the inconsistencies across different areas known to the learners. Whereas they might get a particular concept clearly and correctly, in applying same thing for another concept they just might revert to a completely opposite argument and in doing this they do not realise the inconsistency.

We will be clearer on this issue when we talk with a few examples. Suppose that we have a scenario in which we are trying to understand the phenomena of day and night, its causes and consequences. A typical argument in our class goes like this:

How many have seen the Sun set?

Almost all hands would go up, then comes the next question:

How many have seen the Sun rise?

Almost same number of hands go up, excepting a few, who are late risers like me. Some of the more intelligent and the more knowledgeable would say,

“Wait! Sun doesn’t rise and set, it is the Earth that is moving, so it causes the apparent motion of Sun across the sky, the start and end of which we call as day and night. So in conclusion the Sun doesn’t rise and set, it is an illusion created by motion of Earth.”

To this all of the class agrees. This is what they have learned in the text-book, and mind you the text-book represents truth and only truth, nothing else. It is there to dispel your doubts and misconceptions and is made by a committee of experts who are highly knowledgeable about these things. Now let us continue this line of reasoning and ask them the next question in this series.

Does the Moon rise? If so, does it rise everyday?

The responses to this question are mixed. Most of them would say that it does not rise, it is always there, up in the sky. Some would gather courage and say that it does rise.

Does the Moon set?

Again to this the response is mixed, and mostly negative. Most of them are adamant about the ever presence of the moon in the sky. The next question really upsets them

Do the stars rise and set?

Now this question definitely gets a negative response from almost all of them. Even the more knowledgeable ones fall. They have read different parts of the story, but have not connected them. They tell you the following: “No the stars do not move, they are there all the time.” They also tell you that there is something called as the fixed stars and this is in the text-book, which cannot be wrong. And when asked:

Why are we not able to see the stars during the day time?

They tell you “Of course you cannot see the stars during the day time. This is because our Sun, which is also a star, is too bright and the other stars too far away and hence are dim. So our Sun’s brightness, overwhelms the other stars, and hence they are not visible during the day time, but they are there nonetheless. In the night time, since the Sun is no longer visible, the stars become visible. Have you never noticed that during the evening twilight the stars become visible one by one, the brighter ones first. Whereas in the morning the brightest are the last ones to disappear.”

Of course, the things said above and the reasoning given sounds good. So much so that the respondents are convinced that they understand how things work, and have an elaborate reasoning mechanism to explain the observed things, in this case the formation of day and night and appearance / disappearance of stars during night and day respectively.

You ask them:

Don’t you think there is a problem with what you have just said?

“Where is the problem?”, they tell you. “We just explained scientifically how things are in heaven.”

Then you open the Pandora’s box,

“Well you have just said that the Sun doesn’t move really, it is the Earth that moves, and hence we see the apparent Sun rise and Sun set.”

Then they say, “Yes, that is the case. The Sun doesn’t move, but the Earth does.”

You ask, “How do you know this? Do you see that the Earth is moving?”

They say, “The textbook tells us so ” Some of the more knowledgeable ones say that “Galileo proved that the Earth moves and not the Sun. Since we are on Earth, we see only apparent motion of the Sun.”

You say: “But wait, just now you said that the Moon does not move, it is always in the sky. Also you said that the stars do not move, they are there all the time. Now if the Earth moves, then all these bodies should also move, if only, apparently.Then the stars must also move, just like the Sun does, do not forget that Sun is a star too! So other stars should also just set and rise like the Sun, and so should also the Moon!”

Or you can argue just the opposite: “I claim that it is the Sun that moves, Earth does not move. Isn’t it a lot more easier to explain this way, why we do see the Sun moving, because it moves. And we anyway do not see Earth moving! How will disprove me?”

Then the grumbles start. They have never thought about this. They knew the facts, but never connected them. This lead to the misconceptions regarding these things. They were right in parts, but never got a chance to connect the dots, metaphorically speaking.The reason for these misconceptions is the faith in the text-books, but if the text-books fail to perform the job of asking them the right question, where the reasoning alone can get rid of many of the misconceptions.

If we choose the alternative question, of challenging them to disprove that the Earth is stationary, almost most of them are unable to answer the question of disproving that the idea that the Sun moves and not Earth. They would suggest that we can see this from the satellite in the sky (Can we really?).

Most of us take the things for granted and never question many (or as in most cases, any) of them. And many times the facts are something we do not question. We say that “It is a fact.” This statement basically posits that the information which we think is out there can be unquestionable. But there are many flavours of the post-modern philosophy which challenge this position. They think that the facts themselves are relative, that is to say that one culture has different science than another one.  But let us leave this, and come back to our problem of the stars and the Sun and Moon.

Lets put out the postulates for the above arguments and try to deduce deductively the results that were obtained.

Claim 1: Sun doesn’t move.

Claim 2: Earth moves.

Observation 1: We see the Sun moving across the sky daily, it rises and it sets.

Explanation 1:  Since the Earth moves, and the Sun is stationary, we see that Sun moves apparently. This apparent motion of the Sun is seen as the Sunrise and the Sunset by us. This is what causes the day and night.

But we can have Observation 1 explained by another set of claims, which is exactly opposite, namely, that the Earth doesn’t move but the Sun moves.

Claim 3: The Sun moves.

Claim 4: The Earth does not move.

Explanation 2: Since the Earth does not move, and the Sun does, we just see the Sun passing by in the sky, around the Earth. This causes day and night.

We see that Explanations 1 and 2 are both valid for Observation 1, if the claims 1 and 2, 3 and 4 are true then the respective deductions from them, in this case the Explanations 1 and 2 respectively are also true.So in this case the logical deduction is correct, provided that the Claims or assumptions are correct. But this process does not tell you whether the claims themselves are true or not. But both set of assumptions, cannot be true at the same time. Either the Earth moves or it does not, it cannot be in a state of both. If at all we had an explanation which came from these assumptions which did not correspond with the observations, but was logically deducible, then we can question the assumptions or premises as philosophers call them.

Of course, the things said above and the reasoning given sounds good. So much so that the respondents are convinced that they
understand how things work, and have an elaborate reasoning mechanism

We can have one example of this type.

Assumption 5: Stars do not move, there are so called “fixed stars”.

Assumption 5: During the day time the Sun is too bright, as compared to the other stars.

Now in this case combining Assumption 5 (A5) with Observation 1 (Ob1) we would get the following:

Explanation 3: The stars are too dim as compared to Sun, hence we cannot see them during the day time, but they are present. Hence they do not move.

In Explanation 3 (E3) above the deduction has a problem. The deduction does not follow from the assumption. This is the other problem in which we talked about above.

Most of the people who would suggest these responses have mostly no background in astronomy. Even then the basic facts that Earth goes round the Sun and not the other way round are forced upon them, without any critical emphasis on why it is so. Neither are they presented at point with the cognitive struggle of another view point, namely the geo-centric view. So presenting the learners with opportunities that will make them observe things and make sense of the explanations in light of the assumptions that were made, will enhance the reasoning and help them to overcome some of their misconceptions.

But there is another observation which can be made of the skies. And it can be either done in the classroom with the aid of Free Softwares like Stellarium. After the round of above questions, we usually show the class the rising of the stars from the east. In a darkened room with a projector the effect is quite dramatic for those who have not witnessed such a thing before. So you can show the class, just as the Sun rises, all other celestial bodies like the Moon and the stars also must rise and this is an observed fact.

Observation 2: The stars and planets and the Moon also rise and set everyday.

So how do we make sense of this observation, Ob2 in the light of the assumptions that we have.

Assumption 6: Sun is a star.

Explanation 4: We observe that Sun moves during the day, from East to West. Sun is a star, hence all other stars should also move.

Now why this should be the case will be different for the geo-centric and the helio-centric theories. In case of H-C theory the explantion is simple. The Earth moves hence the stars appear to move in the opposite direction. And this applies to all the objects in the sky.

Since the Earth moves all other celestial objects will appear to move. In case of G-C theory we have to make an assumption that the
stars are “fixed” on some imaginary sphere, and the sphere as a whole rotates.

But coming back to the misconceptions, it is just the ad-hoc belief that the stars do not move (“fixed stars”) in conjunctions with another observation that in presence of too bright objects dim objects cannot be seen leads to belief that the stars are immobile and do not rise and set as the Sun does. There is another disconnection from another fact that they know, or are told in the textbooks, that  the apparent movement of the Sun is caused by the actual movement of  the Earth. There is no connection between these two facts which is  made explicit.

We think that providing opportunities for direct observation aided by software, Stellarium in this case, which help in visualizing the movements of celestial bodies will help in developing the skill of reasoning and explaining an observed phenomena.

The PhD Octopus

Thus, we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of
the inability of men who are not distingues in intellect to pass our tests.

This is something the American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote in the Harvard Monthly of March 1903 The Ph.D. Octopus.

Brilliancy and originality by themselves won’t save a thesis for the doctorate; it must also exhibit a heavy technical apparatus of learning; and this our candidate had neglected to bring to bear.

To our surprise we were given to understand in reply that the quality per se of the man signified nothing in this connection, and that the three magical letters were the thing seriously required. The College had always gloried in a list of faculty members who bore the doctor’s title, and to make a gap in the galaxy, and admit a common fox without a tail, would be a degradation impossible to be thought of.

"This must be a terribly distinguished crowd,-- their titles shine like the stars in the 
firmament; Ph.D.'s, S.D.'s, and Litt.D.'s bespangle the page as if they were sprinkled 
over it from a pepper caster."

“No instructor who is not a Doctor” has become a maxim in the smaller institutions which represent demand; and in each of the larger ones which represent supply, the same belief in decorated scholarship expresses itself in two antagonistic passions, one for multiplying as much as possible the annual output of doctors, the other for raising the standard of difficulty in passing, so that the Ph.D. of the special institution shall carry a higher blaze of distinction than it does elsewhere. Thus, we at Harvard are proud of the number of candidates whom we reject, and of the inability of men who are not distingues in intellect to pass our tests.

But the institutionizing on a large scale of any natural combination of need and motive always tends to run into technicality and to develop a tyrannical Machine with unforeseen powers of exclusion and corruption.

First of all, is not our growing tendency to appoint no instructors who are not also doctors an instance of pure sham? Will any one pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? Notoriously his moral, social, and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever. Certain bare human beings will always be better candidates for a given place than all the doctor-applicants on hand; and to exclude the former by a rigid rule, and in the end to have to sift the latter by private inquiry into their personal peculiarities among those who know them, just as if they were not doctors at all, is to stultify one’s own procedure.

The truth is that the Doctor-Monopoly in teaching, which is becoming so rooted an American custom, can show no serious grounds whatsoever for itself in reason. As it actually prevails and grows in vogue among us, it is due to childish motives exclusively. In reality it is but a sham, a bauble, a dodge, whereby to decorate the catalogues of schools and colleges.

We advertise our “schools” and send out our degree-requirements, knowing well that aspirants of all sorts will be attracted, and at the same time we set a standard which intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction.

It forms an interesting reading considering this is what we are exactly doing and what is happening around us. For example the rule that prevents permanent appointments in colleges if the candidate is without a PhD. Or for that matter the ‘stamping’ that happens if you are from a so called privileged institute.

As the first quote that I have used from the article, summarizes the way our society recognize academic talent. If you are the selected ones from 10,000 odd people then indeed you are smart and the institute that selects you is indeed greatest. The ratio of the people applying for the courses to the ones that are actually accepted forms a good indicator of the ‘quality’ of the institute. The same institutes when choosing a faculty would apply even higher standards and even more people with decorations, on the list.

JEE and school system

“The old JEE (is?) destroying school system, leading to rampant coaching industry, biased in favour of urban areas and boys.”

“IITs cannot pursue excellence at the cost of the school system. They must also have a stake in Board exams.”

via Firstpost.

What Kapil Sibbal says is maybe true. But the damage is already done. Lets see what is the outcome of this.

… तर मराठी शाळा बंद पडतील

मैदाने आहेत , पण क्रीडा साहित्य नाही .. प्रयोगशाळेत प्रयोगाचे साहित्य नाही .. तुटके बेंच आणि गळकी छपरे .. अशा दारुण स्थितीत असलेल्या मराठी शाळांना संजीवनी मिळावी , यासाठी वेतनेतर अनुदान तातडीने सुरु करावे , अशी मागणी राज्य शिक्षक परिषदेने केली आहे . हे अनुदान न मिलाल्यास राज्यातील शेकडो मराठी शाळा बंद पडतील अशी भीती परिषदेने व्यक्त केली आहे .

via Maharashtra Times.

आता आपण काही केले नाही तर मग कोण करणार? आमच्या खैरात शाळे मध्ये विज बिल भरायची काही तरतुदच नाही आहे. त्यामुळे तिथला विज पुरवठा खंडित पण करण्यात आला होता.

A parable on…

A Parable

Once upon a time, in a far away country, there was a community that had a wonderful machine. The machine had been built by most inventive of their people … generation after generation of men and women toiling to construct its parts… experimenting with individual components until each was perfected… fitting them together until the whole mechanism ran smoothly. They had built its outer casing of burnished metal and on one side, they had attached a complex control panel. The name of the machine, KNOWLEDGE, was engraved on a plaque  set in the centre of the control panel.

The community used the machine in their efforts to understand the world and to solve all kinds of problems. But the leaders of the community were not satisfied. It was a competitive world… they wanted more problems solved and they wanted them solved faster.

The main limitation for the use of machine was the rate at which data could be prepared for input. Specialist machine operators called ‘predictors’, carried out this exacting and time consuming task… naturally the number of problems solved each year depended directly on the number and skill of the predictors.

The community leaders focussed on the problem of training predictors. The traditional method, whereby promising girls and boys were taken into long-term apprenticeship, was deemed too slow and too expensive. Surely, they reasoned, we can find more efficient approach. So saying,  they called the elders together and asked them to think about the matter.

After a few months, the elders reported that they had devised an approach that showed promise. In summary, they suggested that the machine be disassembled. Then each component could be studied and understood with ease… the operation of machine would become an open book to all who cared to look.

Their plan was greeted with enthusiasm. So, the burnished covers were pulled off, and the major mechanisms of the machine fell out… they had plaques with labels like HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY and PHYSICS and MATHEMATICS. These mechanisms were pulled apart in their turn… of course, care was taken to keep all the pieces in separate piles. Eventually, the technicians had reduced the machine to little heaps of metal plates and rods and nuts and bolts and springs and gear wheels. Each heap was put in a box, carefully labelled with the name of the mechanism whose part it contained, and the boxes were lined up for the community to inspect.

The members of the community were delighted. Their leaders were ecstatic. They ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the quality of components, the obvious skill that had gone in their construction, the beauty of designs. Here, displayed for all, were the inner workings of KNOWLEDGE.

In his exuberance, one man plunged his hand into a box and scooped up a handful of tiny, jewel-like  gear wheels and springs. He held them out to his daughter and glancing, at the label on the box, said:

“Look, my child! Look! Mathematics! ”

From: Turtle Speaks Mathematics by Barry Newell

You can get the book (and another nice little book Turtle Confusion) here.


Mahatma Phooley’s Thoughts on Education

In this post I will reproduce the letter written by Joteerao Phooley (मराठी: जोतीराव फुले ) (in the modern times his name is written as Phule instead of Phooley as he himself wrote) one of the great reformers in India. The letter was written to the Hunter Education Commission for “opinion as to the system and personnel employed in the lower schools of the Educational Department” in 1882. Though the suggestions were largely ignored by the commission they give us an insight to the state of education and its possible remedies during that era. But when one reads the letter, one can relate immediately to the present state of education in the country, all the possible issues that one will think of are covered: the overarching presence of divisions in the society (caste, religion, gender), teacher training or rather lack of it, textbooks, syllabus, scholarships for the needy, school drop-outs, school inspections, school management, structure of fees, distance learning, privatisation of education etc.

This reminds of of a quote from Seymour Papert in Children’s Machine: Rethink of School in Age of Computers which suits very well what I am going to describe.

Imagine a party of time travelers from an earlier century, among them one group of surgeons and another of school- teachers, each group eager to see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years into the future. Imagine the bewilderment of the surgeons finding themselves in the operating room of a modern hospital. Although they would know that an operation of some sort was being performed, and might even be able to guess at the target organ, they would in almost all cases be unable to figure out what the surgeon was trying to accomplish or what was the purpose of the many strange devices he and the surgical staff were employing. The rituals of antisepsis and anesthesia, the beeping electronics, and even the bright lights, all so familiar to television audiences, would be utterly unfamiliar to them.

The time-traveling teachers would respond very differently to a modern elementary school classroom. They might be puzzled by a few strange objects. They might notice that some standard techniques had changed and would likely disagree among themselves about whether the changes they saw were for the better or the worse but they would fully see the point of most of what was being attempted and could quite easily take over the class. I use this parable to provide a rough-and-ready measure of the unevennes progress across the broad front of historical change. In the wake of the startling growth of science and technology in our recent past, some areas of human activity have undergone megachange. Telecommunications, entertainment, and transportation, as well as medicine, are among them. School is a notable example of an area that has not. One cannot say that there has been no change at all in the way we dish out education to our students. Of course there has; the parable gives me a way of pointing out what most of us know about our system of schooling: Yes, it has changed, but not in ways that have substantially altered its nature. The parable sets up the question: Why, through a period when so much human activity has been revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change in the way we help our children learn? (emphasis mine)

In this letter one gets a window in the past, regarding the practices of education in that era. It is as if we are time-travelling to the past, and we can indeed relate to most of things that Phooley says. If one were to write a diagnosis and possible solutions for the problems of education present in India, many of the sentences from the letter can be taken as they are, and they will fit in the current scenario. This letter presents shows that Phooley had a deep understanding of the educational system that he was trying so hard to reform. The educational experience that Phooley had was wide ranging, as he started the first indigenous school for girls, then went on to open the first “an indigenous mixed school for the lower classes, especially the Mahars and Mangs”, along with these he was “also been a teacher for some years in a mission female boarding school.”

In the first part of the letter he quotes extensively from Slavery (मराठी: गुलामगिरी). And sets a stage upon which the systemic way in which “Brahmin thraldom” is in place. I do not know if he is talking about Marx when he says:

A well-informed English writer states that our income is derived, not from surplus pro ts, but from capital; not from luxuries, but from the poorest necessaries. It is the product of sin and tears.

He questions the policy of the Government

Upon what grounds is it asserted that the best way to advance the moral and intellectual welfare of the people is to raise the standard of instruction among the higher classes?

And at times becomes very dramatic to describe the dire situation at hand!

I sincerely hope that Government will ere long see the error of their ways, trust less to writers or men who look through highclass spectacles, and take the glory into their own hands of emancipating my Shudra brethren from the trammels of bondage which the Brahmins have woven around them like the coils of a serpent.

The next section is in particular about the state of primary education in Bombay Presidency. Joteerao has hold of relevant statistics in this regard. He laments the absence of schools for the lower classes in general and identifies in general the cause of misery as the general lack of education.

A good deal of their poverty, their want of self-reliance, their entire dependence upon the learned and intelligent classes, is attributable to this deplorable state of education among thepeasantry.

About village he says that

In villages also most of the cultivating classes hold aloof owing to extreme poverty, and also because they require their children to tend cattle and look after their fields.

And makes a recommendation that:

… primary education of the masses should be made compulsory up to a certain age, say at least 12 years.

Citing statistics he says:

Under the promise of the Queen’s Proclamation I beg to urge that Mahars, Mangs, and other lower classes, where their number is large enough, should have separate schools for them, as they are not allowed to attend the other schools owing to caste prejudices.

As regarding the actual suggestions that he makes for the Commission, are worthy to take note of:

With regard to the few Government primary schools that exist in the Presidency, I beg to observe that the primary education imparted in them is not at all placed on a satisfactory or sound basis. The system is imperfect in so far as it does not prove practical, and useful in the future career of the pupils.

Further he has particular suggestions regarding the remodelling of the system. First of all he talks about the almost complete occupation of teacher’s posts by Brahmins and that too untrained ones. These issues particularly relate to teacher professional development. I do not know anything about the colleges for training teachers which were present then. Also he suggests the minimum salary for the teachers “To secure a better class of teachers and to improve their position,”

As to the actual content which is to be taught to the students he is very practical.

The course of instruction should consist of reading, writing Modi and Balbodh and accounts, and a rudimentary knowledge of, general history, general geography, and grammar, also an elementary
knowledge of agriculture and a few lessons on moral duties and sanitation.

And for the villages he says (a studio approach to education!)

The studies in the village schools might be fewer than those in larger villages and towns, but not the less practical. In connection with lessons in agriculture, a small model farm, where practical instruction to the pupils can be given, would be a decided advantage and, if really eciently managed, would be productive of the greatest good to the country.

The textbooks which are lamented about in almost all educational surveys find a mention here:

The text-book in use, both in the primary and Anglo-vernacular schools, require revision and recasting as much as they are not practical or progressive in their scope. Lessons on technical education and morality, sanitation and agriculture, and some useful arts,. should be interspersed among them in progressive series.

As regards to the fees paid by the students he suggests that: “fees in the primary schools should be as 1 to 2 from the children of cess-payers and non-cess payers.” And on important note he also advises on placing a quality control over the schools by inspection, but at the same time mentioning “advisability of visiting these schools at other times and without any intimation being given.” It seems the schools then as they are now are only dressed up when they are being inspected. Also he says

No reliance can be placed on the district or village officers owing to the multifarious duties devolving on them, as they seldom find time to visit them, and when they do, their examination is necessarily very super ficial and imperfect.

Further he says that the number of primary schools need to be increased and provides ways in which these schools can be funded. Though he is very much for the municipalities providing the funding for the schools, but he is totally against the management being transferred to them.

The Municipalities in large towns should be asked to contribute whole share of the expenses incurred on primary schools within the municipal area. But in no case ought the management of the same to be entirely made over to them, They should be under the supervision of the Educational Department.

Also he is particular about the handling of funds as regards to primary education.

The administration of the funds for primary education should ordinarily be in the hands of the Director of Public Instruction.

In the next section he describes the state of Indigenous Schools in the Bombay Presidency.

Indigenous schools exist a good deal in cities, towns and some large villages, especially where there is a Brahmin population. From the latest reports of Public Instruction in this presidency, it is found that there are 1,049 indigenous schools with about 27,694 pupils in them.

And this is what he has to say as regards to the content in these schools

They are conducted on the old village system. The boys are generally taught the multiplication table by heart, a little Modi writing and reading, and, to recite a few religious pieces.

And is particularly harsh on the quality of teachers in these schools:

The teachers, as a rule, are not capable of effecting any improvements, as they are not initiated in the art of teaching. … The teachers generally come from the dregs of Brahminical society. Their qualifi cations hardly go beyond reading and writing Marathi very indi fferently, and casting accounts up to the rule of three or so. They set, up as teachers as the last resource of getting a livelihood. Their failure or unfi tness in other callings of life obliges them to open schools.

This we can say is true for many teachers in our own era. There are a very few who will choose to become teachers, usually it is the last choice, when all other choices are gone. And further Phooley adds for the training of the teachers:

No arrangements exist in the country to train up teachers for indigenous schools. The indigenous schools could not be turned to any good account, unless the present teachers are replaced by men from the training colleges and by those who pass the 6th standard in the vernaculars. The present teachers will willingly accept State aid but money thus spent will be thrown away.

The next section he describes the state of Higher Education in his times.

The cry over the whole country has been for some time past that Government have amply provided for higher education, whereas that of the masses has been neglected. To some extent this cry is justified, although the classes directly benefitted by the higher education may not readily admit it. But for all this no well-wisher of his country would desire that Government should, at the present time, withdraw its aid from higher education. All that they would wish is, that as one class of the body politic has been neglected, its advancement should form as anxious a concern as that of the other.

About the general education in India he says:

Education in India is still in its infancy. Any withdrawal of State aid from higher education cannot but be injurious to the spread of education generally.

He furthers this by adding that the withdrawal may be partial.

A taste for education among the higher and wealthy classes, such as the Brahmins and Purbhoos, especially those classes who live by the pen, has been created, and a gradual withdrawal of State aid may be possible so far as these classes are concerned; but in the middle and lower classes, among whom higher education has made no perceptible progress, such a withdrawal would be a great hardship. In the event of such withdrawal, boys will be obliged to have recourse to inefficient and sectarian schools much against their wish, and the cause of education cannot but suffer.

Phooley also has concerns regarding privatisation of education, which we are facing now.

Nor could any part of such education be entrusted to private agency. For a long time to come the entire educational machinery, both ministerial and executive, must be in the hands of Government. Both the higher and primary education require all the fostering care and attention which Government can bestow on it.The withdrawal of Government from schools or colleges would not only tend to check the spread of education, but would seriously endanger that spirit of neutrality which has all along been the aim of Government to foster, owing to the different nationalities and religious creeds prevalent in India. This withdrawal may, to a certain extent, create a spirit of self-reliance for local purposes in the higher and wealthy classes, but the cause of education would be so far injured that the spirit of self-reliance would take years to remedy that evil.

He says that the Government schools are much superior to the private ones, one does not know whether this claim will hold in the current times, though for Higher Education this may be generally true as to get admitted to Government run colleges and institutions is much harder than private ones. But whether the reason is same for that one does not know, comparing the salaries that are paid in international schools as opposed to the Government schools the balance is upturned.

The superiority of Government schools is mainly owing to the richly paid staff of teachers and professors
which it is not possible for a private schools to maintain.

The content of what is taught in these schools is again brought under scanner as in the case of primary education:

The character of instruction given in the Government higher schools, is not at all practical, or such as is required for the necessities of ordinary life. It is only good to turn out so many clerks and schoolmasters.

And one wouldn’t agree more with what he says about the matriculation exam:

The Matriculation examination unduly engrosses the attention of the teachers and pupils, and the course of studies prescribed has no practical element in it, so as to fit the pupil for his future career in independent life.

Also he is very much for printing of textbooks by the Government, which will encourage “private studies”, thus opening up possibilities for distance education and lead to “diffusion of knowledge in country”:

The higher education should be so arranged as to be within easy reach of all, and the books on the subjects for the Matriculation examination should be published in the Government Gazette, as is done in Madras and Bengal. Such a course will encourage private studies and secure larger diffusion of knowledge in the country. It is a boon to the people that the Bombay University recognises private studies in the case of those presenting for the entrance examination. I hope, the University authorities will be pleased to extend the same boon to higher examinations. If private studies were recognised by the University in granting the degrees of B.A., M.A. &c., many young men will devote their time to private studies.

Further he has to say regarding the scholarships being granted to the students

The system of Government scholarships, at present followed in the Government schools, is also defective, as much as it gives undue encouragement to those classes only, who have already acquired a taste for education to the detriment of the other classes. The system might, be so arranged that some of these scholarships should be awarded to such classes amongst whom education has made no progress.

On this issue he further adds:

The system of awarding them by competition, although abstractedly equitable, does not tend to the spread of education among other classes.

In the final section he mentions the state in which “educated natives” are left who are not able to find public service, as most of the education that they are imparted with is “not of a technical or practical nature”.

The present number of educated men is very small in relation to the country at large, and we trust that the day may notbe far distant when we shall have the present number multiplied a hundred-fold and all betaking themselves to useful and remunerative occupations and not be looking after service.

Also in the last lines of the letter he recommends the spread of female education.

In conclusion, I beg to request the Education Commission to be kind enough to sanction measures for the spread of female primary education on a more liberal scale.

Thus the letter ends and Phooley states his status as:

Merchant and Cultivator and
Municipal Commissioner

To read the letter in retrospect about 130 years later, one cannot but help to relate to the status quo in many aspects of education in general which Phooley describes, thus reminding one of the time-travellers of Papert. One theme which runs through the entire letter is that the people who are already on the higher class of the society, are the ones who benefit most from the educational reforms, and this is detrimental to diffusion of knowledge in all strata of the society. As regards to the content of what is actually taught in schools, absence of practical knowledge, quality and quantity of teachers, prospective jobs, the quality of textbooks one would recommend almost the same things even today.

The complete letter is reproduced below. A PDF version of the letter is available here.

Continue reading

The Children’s Machine

These are some unfinished notes that I have taken while reading the Children’s Machine by Seymour Papert. Hope that someday I will weave them into something more fluid.

  Why, though a period when so much human activity has been
  revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change in the way we
  help our children learn?

* Quotes


  One could indeed make kitchen math part of the School by making School part of the kitchen.

  Are there any snakes in the house?
  Yes there are, there are zero snakes in the house!

  So. negative numbers are numbers too, and their reality grows in the course of playing with turtle.

  You can’t retire from a good project simply because it has succeeded.


  Constructionism: It does not call in question the value of  instruction as such

  The kind of knowledge that children most need is the knowledge that will help them get more knowledge.

  If the children really want to learn something, and have the opportunity to learn it in its use, they do so even if the teaching is poor.

  Constructionism looks more closely than other educational -isms at  the idea of mental construction. It attaches a special importance to role of constructions in the world as a support for those in the head, thereby becoming less of a purely mentalistic doctrine. It also takes the idea of constructing in the head more seriously by recognizing more than one kind of construction and by asking questions about the methods and materials used.

  How can one become expert in constructing knowledge?

  What skills are required?

  Are these skills different for different kinds of knowledge?


  School math, like the ideology, though not necessarily the practice, of modern science, is based on the idea of generality – the single, universally correct method that will work for all problems and for all people.


  Use what you’ve got, improvise, make do.


  The natural context for learning would be through particiaption in other activities other than math itself.


  The reason is that the educators who advocate imposing abstract ways of thinking on students almost practice what they preach – as I  tried to do in adopting a concrete style of writing – but with very different effects.


  But however concrete their data, any statistical question about  “the effect” of “the computer” is irretrievably abstract. This is because all such studies depend on use of what is known as the “scientific method,” in form of experiments designed to study the effect of one factor which is varied while taking great pains to
  keep everything else same. … But nothing could be more absurd than  an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else has changed. The entire point of all the examples I have given is that the computers serve best when they allow everything to change.


  The concept of highly rigorous and formal scientific method that most of us have been taught in school is really an ideology  proclaimed in books, taught in schools and argued by philosophers but widely ignored in actual practice of science.


  They count the same, but it’s more eggs.

  My overarching message to anyone who wishes to influence, or simple understand, the development of educational computing is that it is not about one damn product after another (to paraphrase a saying
  about how school teaches history). Its essence is the growth of a  culture, and it can be influenced constructively only through understanding and fostering trends in this culture.

  I would be rather precisely wrong than vaguely right.
  – Patrick Suppes
    It had been obvious to me for a long time that one of the major difficulties in school subjects such as mathematics and science is that School insists on the student being precisely right. Surely it is necessary in some situations to be precisely right. But these situations cannot be the right ones for developing the kind of thinking that I most treasure myself and many creative people I know.

    What computers had offered me was exactly what they should offer children! They should serve children as instruments to work with and to think with, as means to carry out projects, the source of concepts to think new ideas. The last thing in the world I wanted or needed was a drill and practice program telling me to do this sum of spell that word! Why should we impose such a thing on children?

    The opportunity for fantasy opens the to a feeling of intimacy
    with the work and provides a peep at how emotional side of
    children’s relationship with science and technology could be very
    different from what is traditional in School. Fantasy has always
    been encouraged in good creative writing and art
    classes. Excluding it from science is a foolish neglect of an
    opportunity to develop bonding between children and science.

    Errors can become sources of information.


    Although the ultimate goal was the same, the means were more than
    just qualitatively different; they were episte,mologically
    different in that they used a different way of thinking.

    Traditional epistemology is an epistemology of precision:
    Knowledge is valued for being precise and considered inferior if
    it lacks precision. Cybernetics creates an epistemology of
    “managed vagueness.”


    The real problem was that I was still thinking in terms of how to
    “get the children to do something.” This is the educator’s
    instinctive way of thinking: How can you get children to like
    math, to write wonderfully, to enjoy programming, to use
    higher-order thinking skills? It took a long time for me to
    understand in my gut, even after I was going around saying it,
    that Logo gaphics was successful because of the powet it /gave/ to
    children, not because of the performance it /got from/ them.

    Children love constructing things, so let’s choose a construction
    set and add to it whatever is needed for these to make cybernetic


    What will they [children] learn from it [Logo]? And won’t it favor
    boys over girls?

    The first question concerns what piece of the school curriculum is
    being learned but I attach the most importance to such issues as
    children’s relationship with technology, then idea of learning,
    their sense of self. As for the gender issue, I am thinking more
    about, how in the long run comoutational activities will affect
    gender than how the gener will affect the activities.

    Their work provies good examples of material that overlaps with
    School science and math, and of an alternative style applied to
    these subjects – instead of formal style that uses rules, a
    concrete style that uses objects.

    It is worth noting that the students appreciated the
    self-organizing nature of the traffic jam only because they had
    written the programs themselves. Had they been using a packaged
    simulation, they would have had no way of knowing the elegant
    simplicity of the programs underlying the jam.

    Emergent stuctures often behave very differently than the elements
    that compose them.


    The cathedral model of education applies the same principle to
    building knowledge structures. The curriculum designer in cast in
    the role of a “knowledge architect” who will specify a plan, a
    tight progra, for the placement of “knowledge brick’s” in
    children’s minds.


    What is typical of emergently programmed systems is that
    deviations from what was expected do not cause the wholw to
    collapse but provoke adaptive responses.

    We are living with an edicational systsem that is fundamentally as
    irrational as the command economy and ultimately for the same
    reason. It does not have capacity for local adaptation that is
    necessary for a complex system even to function effieciently in a
    changing environment, and is doubly necessary for such a system to
    be able to evolve.

    Defininf educational success by test scores is not very different
    from couting nails made rather than nails used.

    But calling hierarchy into question is the crux of the problem if
    educational change.

    Each of these cases suggests ways in which a little school created
    in a militant spirit can mobilize technology as an assertion of

    I could continue in this spirit, but this may be enough to make
    the point that little schools could give themselves a deeper and
    more conscious specific identity. Everything I have said in this
    book converges to suggest that this would produce rich
    intellectual environments in which not only children and teachers
    but also new ideas about learning would develop together.

    I see little schools as the most powerful, perhaps an essential,
    route to generating variety for the evolution of education.

    The prevailing wisdom in the education establishment might agree
    with the need for variety but look to other sources to provide
    it. For example, many – let us call them the Rigorous
    Researchers – would say that the proper place for both variation
    and selection is in the laboratory. On their model, researchers
    should develop large numbers of different ideas, test them
    rigorously, select the best, and disseminate them to schools.

    In my view this is simply Gosplan in disguise.


    The importance of the concept of the little school is that it
    provides a powerful, perhaps by far the most powerful, strategy to
    allow the operation of the principle of variation and selection.

    This objection depends on an assumption that is at the core of the
    technicalist model of education: Certain procedures are the best,
    and the people involved can be ordered to carry them out. But even
    if there were such a thing as “the best method” for learning, it
    would still only be the best, or even mildly good, if people
    believed in it. The bueracrat thinks that you can make people
    beleive in something by issuing orders.


    The design of learning environment has to take account of the
    cultural environment as well, anad its implementation must make
    serious effort at involvement of the communities in which it is to


    It is no longer necessary to bring a thousand children together in
    one building and under one administration in order to develop a
    sense of community.


    I do not see that School can be defended in its social role. It
    does not serve the functions it claims, and will do so less and



  Talking about megachange feels to them like fiddling when Rome
  burns. Education today is faced with immediate, urgent
  problems. Tell us how to use your computer to solve some of the
  many immediate practical problems we have, they say.

  Impediments to change in education such as, cost, politics, the
  immense power of the vested interests of school bureaucrats, or lack
  of scientific research on new forms of learning.

  Large number of teachers manage to create within the walls of their
  own classrooms oases of learning profoundly at odds with the
  education philosophy espoused by their administrators…

  But despite the many manifestations of a widespread desire for
  something different, the education establishment, including most of
  its research community, remains largely committed to the educational
  philosophy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and
  so far none of those who challenge these have hallowed traditions
  has been able to loosen the hold of the educational establishement
  on how children are taught.

  Do children like games more than homework because, the later is
  harder than the former?

  Most [games] are hard, with complex information – as well as
  techniques – to be mastered, in the information often much more
  difficult and time consuming to master than the technique.

  These toys, by empowering children to test out ideas about working
  within prefixed rules and structures in a way few other toys are
  capable of doing, have proved capable of teaching students about the
  possibilities and drawbacks of a newly presented system in ways many
  adults should envy.

  In trying to teach children what adults want them to know, does
  School utitlize the way human beings most naturally learn in
  non-school settings?

  If it has so long been so desperately needed, why have previous
  calls for it not caught fire?

  K[G]nowledge Machine

  Is reading the principal access route to knowledge?

  Ask a symapathetic adult who would reward her curiosity with praise.

  Literacy is being able to read and write. Illiteracy can be
  remedied by teaching children the mechanical skill of decoding black
  marks on white paper.

  /Letteracy/ and /Letterate/

  Reading from Word to Reading from World

  … the Knowledge Machine offers children a transition between
  preschool learning and true literacy in way that is more personal,
  more negotiational, more gradual, and so less precarious thant the
  abrupt transition we now ask chidlrento malke as they move from
  learning through direct experience to using the orinted word as a
  source of important information.

  …. School’s way is the only way beacause they have never seen or
  imagined convincing alternatives in the ability to impart certain
  kinds of knowledge.

    * Babies learn to talk without curriculum or formal lessson

    * People develop hobbies at skills without teachers

    * social behavior is picked up other than through classroom

     Parable of the Automobile:

      … certain problems that had been abstract and hard to grasp
      became concrete and transparent, and certain projects that had
      seemed interesting but too complex to undertake became

      Paulo Freire: “Banking model” information is deposited in
      child’s mind like money in a savings account.
      /Tools/ for creating new experiments in effective fashion.

      * Ideas

    * Dewey: children would learn better if learning were truly a
          part of living experience

    * Freire: chidlren would learn better if they were truly in
          charge of their own learning processes

    * Piaget: intelligence emerges from an evolutionary process in
          which many factors must have time to find their equilibrium.

    * Vygotsky: Conversation plays a crucial role in learning.

    Why did the discovery method fail?

    By closing off a much larger basis of knowledge that should
        serve as a foundation for formal mathematics taught in school
        and perhas a minimal intuitive basis directly connected with

    The central problem of mathematics education is to find ways
        to draw on the child’s vast experience of oral
        mathematics. Computers can do this.

    Giving chidlren opportunity learn and use mathematics in a
        nonformalized way of knowing encourages rather than inhibits
        the eventual adoption of formalized way, just as the XO,
        rather than discouraging reading, would eventually stimulate
        children to read.

    The design process is not used to learn more formal geometry.

    Traditionally teh art and writing classes are for fantasy but
        science deals with facts; union of technology with biology.

    It allows them to enter science through a region where
        scientific thinking is most like there own thinking.

    Reading biographies and iterrogating friends has convinced me
        that all successful learners find ways to take charge of their
        early lives sufficiently to develop a sense of intellectual

    Piaget’s first article: a paradox?

    Schools have inherent tendency to infantilize the children by
        placing them in a position of have to do so as they are told,
        to occupy themselves with work dictated by someone else and
        that, morever, has no intrinsic value – school work is done only
        because the designer of the curriculum decided that doingthis
        work would shape the doer into a desirable form[for the

    NatGeo: Kidnet??Robert Tinker

    Researchers, following the so-called scientific method of
        using controlled experiments, solemnly expose the children to
        a “treatment” of some sort and then look at measurable
        results. But this flies in the face of all common knowledge
        of how human beings develop.
    The method of controlled experimentation that evaluates an
        idea by implementing it, taking care to keep everything else
        the same, and measuring the result, may be an appropriate way
        to evaluate the effects of a small modification. However, it
        can tell us nothing about ideas that might lead to deep
        change… It will be steered less by the outcome of tests and
        measurements than by its participant’ intuitive understanding.

    The prevalent literal-minded, “what you see is what you get”
        approach measuring the effectiveness of computers in learning
        by teh achievements in present-day classroons makes it certain
        that tomorrow will always be prisoner of yesterday.

    Example of Jet attached to horse wagon.

    … most people are more interested in what they learn than in how
        the learning happens.

    But math is not about feeling the relationship of your body to

    Turtle lets you do this!

    Intellectual work is adult child’s play.

    Example that if observation of schools in some country where
        only one writing instrument could be provided for every fifty
        students suggested that writing does not significantly help

    The change requires a much longer and more social computer
        experience than is possible with two machines at the back of
        the classroom.

    /Balkanized Curriculum and impersonal rote learning/

    What had started as a subversive instrument of change was
        neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of

    Schools will not come to use computers “properly” because
        researchers tell it how to do so.’

    It is characteristic of a conservative systems that
        acoomodation will come only when the opportunities of
        assimilation have been exhausted.

    Supposed Advantages
    * Immediate Feedback
    * Individualized instruction
    * Neutrality *

      CAI will often modestly raise test scores, especially at the low end
      of the scale. But it does without questioning the structure or the
      educational goals of the traditional School.
      Today, because it is the 15th Monday of your 5th grade year,
          you have to do this sum irrespective of who you are or what
          you really want to do; do what you are told and do it the
          way you are told to do it.

      Piaget was the theorist of learning without curriculum;
      School spawned the projectof developing a Piagetian curriculum.

      The central issue of change in education is the tension
      between technicalizing and not technicalizing, and here the teacher
      occupies the fulcrum position.

      Shaw: He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.

      The system defeats its own purpose in attempt to enforce them.

      School has evolved a heirarchical system of control that
          sets narrow limits within which the actors – administators
          as well as teachers – are allowed to exercise a degree of
          personal initiative.

      Hierarchy vs. Heterarchy

      The major obstacle in the way of teachers becoming learners
      is inhibition about learning.

The problem with `developed’ countries as opposed to `developing’ ones
is that the developed countries are already there, there is no further
development possible.

In education, the highest mark of success is not having imitators but
inspiring others to do something else.

As long as there is afixed curriculum, a teacher has no need to become
involved in the question what is and what is not mathematics.

Society cannot afford to keep back its potentially best teachers
simply because some. or even most, are unwilling.

The how-to-do-it literature in the constructivist subculture is almost
as strongly biased to the teacher side as it is in the instructionist

Some etymology:

/Mathematikos/ disposed to learn
/mathema/ a lesson
/manthanein/ to learn

\ldots mathetics is to learning what heuristics is to problem solving.

What is that feeling when you look at a familiar object, with a sense
that you are looking at the object for the first time?
It is /jamais vu/.

Attempts by teachers and textbook authors to connect school fractions
with real life via representations as pies simply reuslyed in a new

* What is the difference in learning at school and all other learning?
  Generally in life, knowledge is acquired to be used. But school
  learning more often fits Freire’s apt metaphor: Knowledge is treated
  like money, to be put away in a bank for the future.

* What does /Computer Literacy/ mean?

* The Technology of the Blackboard and The Technology of The Computer


* Lines You can use:

   The computer to program the student…
   The student to program the computer…

   Computer as an expensive set of flash cards.

   If the students scores improve, our approach must be right.

   Self-directed activities versus carefully guided ones
   If the scores improve does it mean that the strategy is effective/
   approach is right?
   Heterarchical versus Hierarchical
   Totalitarian Education or Trivialized Education

A Sociological Perspective On Education Part 1

Education is a part of an individuals becoming a social member. In this article we are considering the question of what education is from a sociological framework. What functions in the society actually the process of education serve? So we are considering two main questions viz.
  1. What is the role of education in the society?
  2. Why are the different social groups differing in their educational levels?
The idea of formal education for the masses is very recent. Only after the industrial revolution the masses were provided with free, compulsory, education by the state. Why? Earlier the education was limited to a few people who were rich enough to afford it or were part of the clergy. The same case was in the Indian context also. There were no state run “schools” which made sure that the education would be provided to the masses.
But in the last 100 years or so, education has become a major growth industry. And when anything becomes a commodity, the classical demand and supply theory does come into picture. The same has happened with education in the contemporary era. Now higher education being a prized commodity, the consumers are those who can pay for it.
First we take into account the functionalist perspective on education. The two questions that we have started with are
“What are the functions of education for the society as a whole?”
In the functionalist perspective this leads to an assessment of the contribution made by educational to the maintenance of the social structure.
The other question is:
“What are the functional relationships between education and other parts of the social system?”
This leads to analysis which examines the relationship between educational and the economic systems for example.
The functionalist view point in general tend to focus on the positive contributions made by education to the social structure.
We now consider the stand points of various functionalists’ on this issue.

According to Durkheim the major function of education was the transmission of society’s norms and values.

Society can survive only if there exists among its members a sufficient degree of homogeneity; education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child form the beginning the essential similarities which collective life demands.

Without these “essential similarities” the social life is impossible. The creation of social solidarity is an essential task for the formation and sustenance of the societies; and education does this. Durkheim argues that:

To become attached to society, the child must feel in it something that is real, alive and powerful, which dominates the person and to which he also owes the best part of himself.


Education and in particular, the teaching of history, provides this link between the individual and the society. This view can be illustrated by the educational practice in India. The common curriculum developed by NCERT has helped to instil the shared norms and values into a population with diverse backgrounds. It has provided a shared language and a common history for immigrants from every country in Europe. The Indian student learn about the great leaders, the freedom movement and the heritage that they have. In every textbook the pledge that is presented actually socializes the student into a commitment to society as a whole. You can look at the other article in which the history and its relation to the curriculum is present.
Durkheim argues that in complex industrial societies, the school serves a function which cannot be provided either by family or peer groups. Membership in the society as a whole is not based on kinship or personal choice. In the school the individual must learn to cooperate with those who are neither their kin nor their friends. Thus the school provides a small scale model for the society.

It is by respecting the school rules that the child learns to respect the rules in general, that he develops the habit of self control and restraint simply because he should control and restraint himself. It is first initiation into austerity of duty. Serious life has now begun.

Also Durkheim argues that education teaches the individual specific skills necessary for his future occupation, which is particularly important in the industrial societies where a complex division of labour exists. The social solidarity in the industrial society comes from the interdependence of the labour in the process of production. The necessity of combination produces cooperation and social solidarity. The schools thus transmit both:
  1. The general values which provide ‘necessary homogeneity for social survival.’
  2. The specific skills which provide ‘necessary diversity for social cooperation.’
The industrial society is thus united by value consciousness and a specialized division of labour. Durkheim assumes that the norms and values of transmitted by the educational system are those of the society as a whole rather than of the ruling elite or ruling class. This produces a very different view of the role of education in the society.
Parsons argues that after the primary socialization within the family, the school takes over as the ‘focal socializing agency’. The school acts as a link between the family and the society as a whole, thus preparing the child for his adult role. In the family the child is treated in terms of ‘particularistic’ standards whereas in the society the standards are ‘universalistic’. By particularistic it is meant here that in the family the child is treated as their particular child rather than using yardsticks which can be applied to everybody; and by universalistic it is meant that the child is judged in terms of yardsticks which are applicable to all individuals.
Within the family the status of the child is ascribed, by birth. But the status in adult life is largely achieved. Thus the child moves on from the particularistic standards in the family to the universalistic standards of the society in general. The school is the preparing ground for this transition. The school has universalistic standards against which all the students are measured, these are independent of the sex, race, family background or the class of the student. The schools operate on meritocratic principles; status is achieved on the basis of merit. This is one of the essential aspects of the modern industrial society, where meritocratic principles are applied to all its members. The children are ‘trained’ to be the future citizens in the schools; they are imparted with the basic values of society. This value consensus is essential for the society to operate smoothly. Two major values that the schools inculcate in the students are:
  1. Value of achievement.
  2. Value of equal opportunity.
The value of achievement is itself fostered by rewarding the students which have high levels of achievement; and by placing the individuals in the same situation in the classroom so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality and opportunity. These values have an important role to play in the society as a whole. An advanced industrial society requires highly motivated, achievement oriented skilled workforce; and the school prepares the students exactly for this. All the students high and the low achievers see system as just and fair, as they all had an equal chance to begin with.
Another function that the school serves is that of selection of the individuals for their future role in the society. By testing, evaluating the students for their skills and capacities they can select the future jobs for which the future citizen is best suited for. Thus the school is seen as a major facilitator in the role allocation for the future citizens.

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore
Davis and Moore agree with Parsons about the role allocating function of the school but they link educational system more directly to the social stratification. The social stratification is seen as a mechanism which ensures that the most talented and able members of the society are allocated to those positions, which are functionally most important to the society.
Though the thoughts of Davis and Moore represent the common sense view of education, there are certain criticisms of them. Particularly important is the questionable relationship between academic credentials and occupational reward is loose. Another reason is doubt about the proposition that the educational system grades people in terms of ability, it has been argued that the intelligence has little effect upon educational attainment. Finally there is considerable evidence that suggests the influence of social stratification largely prevents effective grading of individuals in terms of their abilities.

Sociology: Themes and Perspectives
Harlambos and Heald
Oxford 2002

What is education?

What do we mean by education?

The word ‘education’ can be derived from one of two latin words or from both. These words are educere, which means ‘to lead out’ or ‘to train’ and educare which means to ‘to train’ or ‘to nourish’. But this etymology does not give us a understanding behind the term itself.
Colloquially it can mean the sort of training that goes in schools, colleges and universities.
We see some meanings by different people who were related to education and philosophy of it.
Mahatma Gandhi
Education is “an all round drawing out of the best in child and man – body, mind, and spirit.”
John Dewey
Education is regarded as the development of “all those capacities in the individual, which will enable him to control his environment and fullfill his possibilities.”
We see that the term education refers to two things: they point to education as the process of development of the individual form infancy to maturity a lifelong process.
J. S. Mill explains it thus:
“Not only does it include whatever we do for ourselves, and whatever is done for us by others for the express purpose of bringing us somewhat nearer to the perfection of our nature; it does more; in its last connotation it comprehends even the indirect effects of things of which the direct purposes are quite different, by laws, by forms of government, by the industrial arts, by modes of social life; nay, even by physical fact, not dependent on human will, by climate, soil and local position. Whatever helps to shape human being, to make the individual what he is, or hinder him form what he is not… is a part of his education.”
This is the wider meaning of the term ‘education’, for the narrower meaning Mill says
“the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising the level of improvement which has been attained.”
Now we look at what are the Indian views on education. The Rig Veda [ऋग वेद] regards education as a force which makes the individual self-reliant as well as selfless. The Upanishads [ऊपनिषद] regard the result of education as being more important than its nature, the end-product of education is salvation [निर्वाण].
Panini [पाणिनी] identified as the training one obtains from nature.
Kanada [कानद] considers to be a mean of self-contentment.
Yajanvalaka [याजनवालक] regarded education as a means to the development of character and usefulness in the individual.
While Vivekanand perceived education as the manifestation of divine perfection already existing in man.

“Education should aim at man-making”

By man making it is meant formation of character, increase in power of mind, and expansion of the intellectual capacities.

While Tagore says that education should help the individual child realize in and through education, the essential unit of man and his relationship with the universe – an education for fullness.
The Indian Education Commission of 1966 says:

“Education, according to Indian tradition is not merely a means to earn a living; nor is it only a nursery of thought or a school for citizenship. It is initiation into the life of spirit, a training of human souls in pursuit of truth and practice of virtue. It is a second birth द्वियाम ज्ञानम – education for liberation.”

Past this we now have a look at some Western views on the same.

Plato thought that education should enable one to attain the highest good or God, through pursuit of inherent spiritual values of truth, beauty and goodness.
Aristotle held that education exists exclusively to develop man’s intellect in a world of reality which men can know and understand.
St. Thomas Aquinas considered education to be process of discerning the truth about things as they really are, and to extend and integrate such truth as it is known.
More recently behaviorists consider education as a process of conditioning, of providing stimuli, repetition, rewards and reinforcements. ‘
The social scientists define education as the transmission of cultural heritage – which consists of learned behavior, and includes tangible objects such as tools, clothing, etc. as well as intangible objects such as language, beliefs etc.

“Education is the transmission of knowledge, value and skills of a culture.”

The meaning of the term ‘education’ can be summarily expressed as:
  • A set of techniques for imparting knowledge, skills and attitudes.
  • A set of theories which purport to explain or justify the use of these techniques.
  • A set of values or ideals embodied and expressed in the purposes for which knowledge, skills and attitudes are imparted and so directing the amounts and types of training that is given.
The educational system of any society is a more or less elaborate social mechanism designed to bring about in the persons submitted to it certain skills and attitudes that are judged to be useful and desirable in the society. The gist of all the educational system can be reduced in two questions:
  1. What is held valuable as an end?
  2. What means will effectively realize these ends?
For ordinary day to day working of the society itself makes it necessary for its members to have certain minimum skills and attitudes in common, and imparting these skills is one of the ends of education. This minimum will be different for different societies.
So we see that in the meaning of what education is, is determined by what are the aims of education. Every educational system must have an aim, for having an aim will provide it with a direction, and make the process more meaningful. One of the objectives of education from what we have seen in the definitions above has a connection to the meaning of life, which in turn is connected to philosophy of the person at that time. Thus the aims of education are dependent on the philosophy which is prevalent in society at that time. The aims of any educational system tell us what it is for. The aims determine the entire character of the educational process: curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Just because the aims are not explicitly stated it does not mean that they are absent. They can be both implicit and explicit, and can be embodied in the everyday practices of teachers and students, as well as in the government documents. The printing of aims of education in a document is neither necessary nor sufficient for education to have aims, since documents can be ignored.
Education can have more than one aim, so long as the aims are not mutually incompatible. It is not possible for example to aim to produce citizens who will obey the state unquestioningly and at the same time produce people who will question any proposal that they encounter. Many aims are broadly compatible but there exists certain tension. Partly, it is because some aims can be fully achieved at the expense of others. A society has to agree on the priority of the aims, which it wants its future citizens to have.
A listing of general educational aims is as follows:
  1. To provide people with a minimum of the skills necessary for them [a] to take their place in the society and [b] to seek further knowledge.
  2. To provide them with a vocational training that will enable them to be self-supporting.
  3. To awaken an interest in and a taste for knowledge.
  4. To make them critical.
  5. To put them in touch with and train them to appreciate cultural and moral achievements of mankind.
But are these the normative aims of education or the descriptive ones?
Following Peters [Ethics and Education 1966], the differences between education and other human pursuits are given in three different criterion.
  1. ‘Education’ in its fullest sense, has necessary implication that something valuable or worthwhile is going on. Education is not valuable as a means to a valuable end such as a good job, but rather because it involves those being educated being initiated into activities which are worthwhile themselves, that is, are intrinsically valuable. This is contrasted with training, which carries with it the ideas of limited application and an external goal, that is, one is trained for something for some external purpose, with ‘education’ which implies neither of these things
  2. ‘Education’ involves the acquisition of a body of knowledge and understanding which surpasses mere skill, know-how or the collection of information. Such knowledge and understanding must involve the principles which underlie skills, procedural knowledge and information, and must transform life of the person being educated both in terms of the general outlook and in becoming committed to the standards inherent in the areas of education. To this body of knowledge and understanding must be added ‘cognitive perspective’ whereby the development of any specialism, for example in science, is seen in the context of the place of this specialism in a coherent life pattern.
  3. The process of education must involve at least some understanding of what is being learnt and what is required in learning, so we could not be ‘brain washed’ or ‘conditioned’ in to education.
Well this is really an incoherent attempt to list out things that I have read about education? So far all the philosophers that I have read appear to give a normative meaning of education i.e. to say they tell us “What education ought to be…” Thus they give us what according to their philosophical outlook is the ‘normal’ version of education. But what I am interested in is the descriptive version; “How actually things are…” The more I look and think about the current educational system the more I think it has deviated from the aims of these great thinkers. Thus the descriptive version will tell us how much this deviation is, and also whether it is for good?