Genetics and human nature

Usually, in the discussion regarding human nature, there is a group of academics who would like to put all the differences amongst humans to non-genetic components. That is to say, the cultural heritage plays a much more important or the only important role in the transfer of characteristics. In the case of education, this is one of the most contested topics. The nature-nurture debate as it is known goes to the heart of many theories of human behaviour, learning and cognition. The behaviourist school was very strong until the mid 20th century. This school strongly believed that the entirety of human learning is dependent only on the environment with the genes or (traits inherited from the parents) playing little or no role. This view was seriously challenged on multiple fronts with attacks from at least six fields of academic inquiry: linguists, psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, anthropology, and neuroscience. The advances in these fields and the results of the studies strongly countered the core aspects of behaviourism. Though the main thrust of the behaviourist ideas seems to be lost, but the spirit still persists.  This is in the form of academics who still deny any role for genes, or even shun at the possibility of genes having any effect on human behaviour. They say it is all the “environment” or nurture as they name it. Any attempt to study the genetic effects are immediately classified as fascist, Nazi or equated to social Darwinism and eugenics. But over several decades now, studies which look at these aspects have given us a mounting mountain of evidence to lay the idea to rest. The genes do play a definitive role and what we are learning is that the home environment may not be playing any role at all or a very little role in determining how we turn out. Estimates range from 0 to 10%. The genes, on the other hand, have been found to have about 50% estimate, the rest 40% being attributed to a “unique”  environment that the individual experiences.   Though typically, some of the individuals in academia argue strongly against the use of genetics or even mention of the word associated with education or any other parameters related to education. But this has to do more with their ideological positions, which they do not want to change, than actual science. This is Kuhnian drama of a changing science at work. The old scientists do not want to give up on their pet theories even in the case of evidence against them. This is not a unique case, the history of science is full of such episodes.

Arthur Jensen, was one of the pioneers of studying the effect of genetic heritability in learning. And he lived through the behaviourist and the strong nurture phases of it. This quote of his summarises his stand very well.

Racism and social elitism fundamentally arise from identification of individuals with their genetic ancestry; they ignore individuality in favor of group characteristics; they emphasize pride in group characteristics, not individual accomplishment; they are more concerned with who belongs to what, and with head-counting and percentages and quotas than with respecting the characteristics of individuals in their own right. This kind of thinking is contradicted by genetics; it is anti-Mendelian. And even if you profess to abhor racism and social elitism and are joined in battle against them, you can only remain in a miserable quandary if at the same time you continue to think, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of non-genetic or antigenetic theories of human differences. Wrong theories exact their own penalties from those who believe them. Unfortunately, among many of my critics and among many students I repeatedly encounter lines of argument which reveal disturbing thought-blocks to distinguishing individuals from statistical characteristics (usually the mean) of the groups with which they are historically or socially identified.

–  Arthur Jensen, Educability and Group Differences 1973

As the highlighted sentence in the quote remarks, the theories which are wrong or are proven to be wrong do certainly exact penalties from their believers. One case from history of science being the rise and rise of Lysenkoism in the erstwhile USSR. The current bunch of academics who strongly deny any involvement of genes in the theories of human learning are no different.

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.

On mathematics

Mathematics is regarded as a demonstrative science. Yet this is only one of its aspects. Finished mathematics presented in a finished form appears as purely demonstrative, consisting of proofs only. Yet mathematics in the making resembles any other human knowledge in the making. You have to guess a mathematical theorem before you prove it; you have to guess the idea of the proof before you carry through the details. You have to combine observations and follow analogies; you have to try and try again. The result of the mathematician’s creative work is demonstrative reasoning, a proof; but the proof is discovered by plausible reasoning, by guessing. If the learning of mathematics reflects to any degree the invention of mathematics, it must have a place for guessing, for plausible inference.

George Polya (Induction and Analogy – Mathematics of Plausible Reasoning – Vol. 1, 1954)

Unreal and Useless Problems

We had previously talked about problem with contexts given in mathematics problems. This is not new, Thorndike in 1926 made similar observations.

Unreal and Useless Problems

In a previous chapter it was shown that about half of the verbal problems given in standard courses were not genuine, since in real life the answer would not be needed. Obviously we should not, except for reasons of weight, thus connect algebraic work with futility. Similarly we should not teach the pupil to solve by algebra problems which in reality are better solved otherwise, for example, by actual counting or measuring. Similarly we should not set him to solve problems which are silly or trivial, connecting algebra in his mind with pettiness and folly, unless there is some clear, counterbalancing gain.
This may seem beside the point to some teachers, ”A problem is just a problem to the children,” they will say,

“The children don’t know or care whether it is about men or fairies, ball games or consecutive numbers.” This may be largely true in some classes, but it strengthens our criticism. For, if pupils^do not know what the problem is about, they are forming the extremely bad habit of solving problems by considering only the numbers, conjunctions, etc., regardless of the situation described. If they do not care what it is about, it is probably because the problems encountered have not on the average been worth caring about save as corpora vilia for practice in thinking.

Another objection to our criticism may be that great mathematicians have been interested in problems which are admittedly silly or trivial. So Bhaskara addresses a young woman as follows: ”The square root of half the number of a swarm of bees is gone to a shrub of jasmine; and so are eight-ninths of the swarm: a female is buzzing to one remaining male that is humming within a lotus, in which he is confined, having been allured to it by its fragrance at night. Say, lovely woman, the number of bees.” Euclid is the reputed author of: ”A mule and a donkey were going to market laden with wheat. The mule said,’If you gave me one measure I should carry twice as much as you, but if I gave you one we should bear equal burdens.’ Tell me, learned geometrician, what were their burdens.” Diophantus is said to have included in his preparations for death the composition of this for his epitaph : ” Diophantus passed one-sixth of his life in childhood one-twelfth in youth, and one-seventh more as a bachelor. Five years after his marriage was born a son, who died four years before his father at half his father’s age.”

My answer to this is that pupils of great mathematical interest and ability to whom the mathematical aspects of these problems outweigh all else about them will also be interested in such problems, but the rank and file of pupils will react primarily to the silliness and triviality. If all they experience of algebra is that it solves such problems they will think it a folly; if all they know of Euclid or Diophantus is that he put such problems, they will think him a fool. Such enjoyment of these problems as they do have is indeed compounded in part of a feeling of superiority.

– From Thorndike et al. The Psychology of Algebra 1926

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)

Thomas Kuhn on the role of textbooks in science education

The single most striking feature of this [science] education is that, to an extent wholly unknown in other fields, it is conducted entirely through textbooks. Typically, undergraduate and graduate students of chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, or biology acquire the substance of their fields from books written especially for students.

Thomas Kuhn The Essential Tension

Here Kuhn is trying to show us the nature of science education which is usually divergent from the historical processes and events which led to the currently accepted theories. Most of the textbooks rather show the content matter which makes sense conceptually in a rationally organised manner. Of course, the ideal goal, at least in the physical sciences, is to create a hypothetico-deductive model in which a given theory, its predictions, explanations and implications can be derived from some basic definitions and axioms. For example, an introductory text on motion in physics usually starts with definitions and assumptions usually of a mass point, and/or operations that are defined on it. The text does not describe the historical conditions in which this conceptual approach arose, rather it adapts a very pragmatic pedagogical approach. It defines the term and ends it there, but in this process, it redefines the conceptual history. This approach assumes that there is no pedagogical merit or role in introducing a concept in its historical context. This perhaps is also linked to Poppers distinction of the context of discovery and the context of justification. What we see is a rational reconstruction of historical processes to make sense of them in a straightforward manner.



Science Education and Textbooks

What are the worst possible ways of approaching the textbooks for teaching science? In his book Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science pedagogue Michael Matthews quotes (p. 51) Kenealy in this matter. Many of the textbooks of science would fall in this categorisation. The emphasis lays squarely on the content part, and that too memorized testing of it.

Kenealy characterizes the worst science texts as ones which “attempt to spraypaint their readers with an enormous amount of ‘scientific facts,’ and then test the readers’ memory recall.” He goes on to observe that:

Reading such a book is much like confronting a psychology experiment which is testing recall of a random list of nonsense words. In fact, the experience is often worse than that, because the book is a presentation that purports to make sense, but is missing so many key elements needed to understand how human beings could ever reason to such bizarre things, that the reader often blames herself or himself and feels “stupid,” and that science is only for special people who can think “that way” … such books and courses have lost a sense of coherence, a sense of plot, a sense of building to a climax, a sense of resolution. (Kenealy 1989, p. 215)

What kind of pedagogical imagination and theories will lead to the textbooks which have a complete emphasis on the “facts of science”? This pedagogical imagination also intimately linked to the kind of assessments that we will be using to test the “learning”. Now if we are satisfied by assessing our children by their ability to recall definitions and facts and derivations and being able to reproduce them in writing (handwriting) in a limited time then this is the kind of syllabus that we will end up with. Is it a wonder if students are found to be full of misconceptions or don’t even have basic ideas about science, its nature and methods being correct? What is surprising, at least for me, that even in such a situation learning still happens! Students still get some ideas right if not all.

A curriculum which does not see a point in assessing concepts has no right to lament at students not being able to understand them or lacking conceptual understanding. As Position Paper on Teaching of Science in NCF 2005 remarks

‘What is not assessed at the Board examination is never taught’

So, if the assessment is not at a conceptual level why should the students ever spend their time on understanding concepts? What good will it bring them in a system where a single mark can decide your future?


On not learning or con in the context

We will, we will, fail you by testing what you do not know…

We live in a rather strange world. Or is it that we assume the world
to be non-strange in a normative way, but the descriptive world has
always been strange? Anyways, why I say this is to start a rant to
about some obviously missed points in the area of my work. Namely,
educational research, particularly science and mathematics education

In many cases the zeal to show that the students have
‘misunderstandings’ or are simply wrong, and then do a hair-splitting
(micro-genetic) exercise on the test the students were inflicted
with. Using terse jargon and unconsequential statistics, making the
study reports as impossible to read as possible, seem to be the norm.

But I have seen another pattern in many of the studies, particularly
in mathematics education. The so-called researchers spent countless
nights in order to dream up situations as abstract as possible (the
further far away from real-life scenarios the better), then devise
problems around them. Now, these problems are put in research studies,
which aim to reveal (almost in evangelical sense) the problems that
plague our education. Unsuspecting students are rounded, with
appropriate backgrounds. As a general rule, the weaker socio-economic
background your students come from, the more exotic is your study. So
choose wisely. Then these problems are inflicted upon these poor,
mathematically challenged students. The problems will be in situations
that the students were never in or never will be. The unreal nature of
these problems (for example, 6 packets of milk in a cup of coffee! I
mean who in real life does that? The milk will just spill over, the
problem isn’t there. This is just a pseudo-problem created for satisfying the research question of the researcher. There is no context, but only con.

Or finding out a real-life example for some weird fractions) puts many off. The fewer students perform correctly happier the researcher is. It just adds to the data statistic that so many % students cannot perform even this elementary task well. Elementary for
that age group, so to speak. The situation is hopeless. We need a
remedy, they say. And remedy they have. Using some revised strategy,
which they will now inflict on students. Then either they will observe
a few students as if they are some exotic specimens from an
uncontacted tribe as they go on explaining what they are doing or why
they are doing it. Or the researcher will inflict a test (or is it
taste) in wholesale on the lot. This gives another data
statistic. This is then analysed within a ‘framework’, (of course it
needs support) of theoretical constructs!

Then the researcher armed with this data will do a hair-splitting
analysis on why, why on Earth student did what they did (or didn’t
do). In this analysis, they will use the work of other researchers before
them who did almost the same thing. Unwieldy, exotic and esoteric
jargons will be used profusely, to persuade any untrained person to
giveup on reading it immediately. (The mundane, exoteric and
understandable and humane is out of the box if you write in that
style it is not considered ‘academic’.) Of course writing this way,
supported by the statistics that are there will get it published in
the leading journals in the field. Getting a statistically significant
result is like getting a license to assert truthfulness of the
result. What is not clear in these mostly concocted and highly
artificial studies is that what does one make of this significance
outside of the experimental setup? As anyone in education research
would agree two setups cannot be the same, then what is t

Testing students in this way is akin to learners who are learning a
new language being subjected to and exotic and terse vocabulary
test. Of course, we are going to perform badly on such a test. The
point of a test should be to know what students know, not what they
don’t know. And if at all, they don’t know something, it is treated as
if is the fault of the individual student. After all, there would be
/some/ students in each study (with a sufficiently large sample) that
would perform as expected. In case the student does not perform as
expected we can have many possible causes. It might be the case that
the student is not able to cognitively process and solve the problem,
that is inspite of having sufficient background knowledge to solve the
problem at hand the student is unable to perform as expected. It might
be the case that the student is capable, but was never told about the
ways in which to solve the given problem (ZPD anyone?). In this case, it might be that the curricular materials that the student has access
to are simply not dealing with concepts in an amenable way. Or it
might be that the test itself is missing out on some crucial aspects
and is flawed, as we have seen in the example above. The problem is
systemic, yet we tend to focus on the individual. This is perhaps
because we have a normative structure to follow an ideal student at
that age group. This normative, ideal student is given by the so-called /standards of learning/. These standards decide, that at xx age
a student should be able to do multiplication of three digit
numbers. The entire curricula are based on these standards. Who and
what decides this? Most of the times, the standards are wayyy above
the actual level of the students. This apparent chasm between the
descriptive and the normative could not be more. We set unreal
expectations from the students, in the most de-contextualised and
uninteresting manner, and when they do not fulfil we lament the lack
of educational practices, resources and infrastructure.

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.

Children and you

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot
visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
— Kahlil Gibran