Too many lawyers

My current read is “The War on Science” (Otto). I have found it therapeutic and recommend the book to anyone trying to understand what seem illogical and misguided decisions in the world. There may be reasons other than ignorance or self-service to consider. Before you read further, I must offer the warning that I have yet to reach the chapter that offers remedies for these various problems.

One of the more interesting arguments offered concerns the political process and why politicians seem to ignore the best evidence from social or physical scientists. The author begins by noting there are very few scientists in the house or senate (3 if I remember correctly). In contrast, he notes that 60% of these office holders have law degrees. The problem revealed by these data may be the mindset familiar to those with training in these professions. According to the author, lawyers work from a position and identify evidence in support of this position. Contradictory evidence is ignored or in some way deflected. From a charitable perspective, this is what lawyers do. They assume that the system seeks the truth and it is not their position to do so. They fashion a narrative as best they can from the facts that offer a reasonable fit and defend this approach by arguing that opponents should be able to prevail if they are wrong. Scientists, in contrast, are trained to start with the data and build an account that best fits the data. The system of science (publication, etc.) encourages the modification or even the contradiction of positions taken previously in light of new data. In other words, you can receive credit for proving that you were wrong. The goal is to build the best model/theory possible given the total evidence available.

I like this explanation because it makes sense, but the explanation does little to make me more optimistic. The explanation identifies “useful” defense mechanism against the acceptance of personal responsibility. It seems far too easy to hide behind party affiliation or the supposed wishes of my constituents than to take and argue a position based on logic and evidence. Is the logic in these hedges the assumption that the party or the majority must understand the truth? Writing this last sentence, I am reminded of Gore’s book title – An inconvenient truth. Are truths that are inconvenient in the short or long term ignored in favor of a favored narrative?

The truth of this reality may be one of those truths that cannot be accepted and a different narrative is necessary.

(My apologies to the author if I have incorrectly summarized or extended his position.)

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Another assault rifle mass murder

Another mass murder committed by someone with an assault weapon. I think it unlikely there will be an end to mental illness, terrorism, or hatred, but there some things we can control. There is no defensible reason I can think of that allows the purchase of a military weapon by citizens of this country. Mass killing is the outcome for which military weapons are intended. How can this potential be allowed or defended?

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Age bias and ignorance

It is true that I am getting old. The truth is that this reality includes a growing list of limitations. There are however also some nice benefits. I have freedom, time and resources that were simply not available to me earlier in my life. At present, I don’t think it would be fair to complain about my personal combination of disadvantages and advantages. The advantages are up on the disadvantages. However, there is one issue I do have with my age. I do not appreciate my breadth of knowledge being held against me. In the academic field, the priority that some place on recency can be annoying. My reference to “dated” ideas and research are not necessarily a sign that I am unaware of new ideas. Consider that it is very possible I am able to draw on dated ideas and research and more current work and I may consider the older work of higher quality. If you are ignorant of this original work, how could you make a personal decision that the work you prefer to promote is superior?

I have noticed this tendency before, but I started attending to the issue more carefully for a concrete reason. I know this will take me off track for a paragraph, but bear with me. Amazon currently offers two different editions of Cindy and my book – Integrating technology for meaningful learning – the 5th edition (in paper) and the Kindle edition. The difference in publication dates is probably close to 10 years, but both are listed. The Kindle edition sells for a fraction of the cost of the paper edition. I have read critical reviews for the paper version that comment on the lack of availability of promised accompanying resources and the aging reference list. Both issues are beyond my control, but I am bothered that those making a purchase decision may think the Kindle version is the ebook version of the paper version. The ebook version presently has no reader comments because it is only a few days old. This is really a complaint I direct at Amazon and Cengage because I experience the consequences.

I have no reason to discount the criticisms, but as you might expect from my initial comments I wonder about the comments regarding the reference list. There is never enough information to know which references were considered dated. I would list some myself and others I would defend as the best available. At this point in my career, selling books is mostly an interesting hobby. I know I am making decisions that would not be regarded as a sound business decision. I am more interested in challenging the traditional textbook approach as a way to explore what might be best as learning resources than generating the income we used to receive. This is one of those positive age things – the income becomes more a way of keeping score or judging interest at this point.

Back to my original topic. Here are a couple of examples that likely only make sense to those with a background in education. More importantly, the examples may make no sense even to those with this background and to these individuals I would suggest you take the time to explore before you assume you know what is going on. A couple of “hot topics” in education are individualization to address learning speed and coding. I write about both topics. Both of these topics are actually experiencing a rebirth. The coding/computational thinking thing is nearly identical to the LOGO programming activities of 15 or so years ago. A key focus of individualization revisits the mastery learning interest of the 1970s. The newer technology of the day offers great opportunities for present implementations, but the research from the earlier implementations was far superior in terms of quality and quantity. I find it astounding that few are capable of making the connections and positions taken suffer as a consequence. Why forge ahead ignorant of what is already known? Why repeat mistakes when productive approaches have been identified? Why assume that the interesting ideas of today have not been imagined before and at a time when these ideas were investigated with greater rigor?

I assume you can anticipate how I would answer these questions.

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Why apologize?

Highly educated adults – particularly those who have attended graduate school – are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values.

So says PEW after surveying individuals of different levels of education and asking about their political leanings. BTW – the report has many other interesting observations including the growing schism between Republicans and Democrats.

It is not clear how those with different levels of education come to their opinions on such values. What has always bothered me is the notion that being more educated is somehow a liability. I would propose instead that those with more education are more open to helping out. I assume you understand my logic here. Those with more education as a group make a little more money. These same individuals on average supposedly endorse more government programs and are willing to pay to support these programs.

From everyone who has been given much will be required; and from him who has been entrusted with much, even more will be demanded. (for those on the “religious right”).

 

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Teacher unions and sick outs

This comment concerns the situation with Detroit schools and their strike (I mean sick out). I write this mostly because of a comment Joe made on the program Morning Joe. He was quite critical of the teacher action and suggested that teachers cared more about themselves and their money than their students.  Hmm ….

As an educator, statements such as this concern me and I tried to better understand the situations by seeking other sources. As I understand the situation, the prime reason for the strike/sick out was the statement of the city that they did not have money to pay teachers after some point in mid-summer. If this happened, those teachers who received their salary over 9 months would be paid in full but those who asked to receive their salary spread across 12 months would not. At this point in the school year, it would mean those teachers paid across 12 months for their work during the school year would have completed their contractual obligation in full but would then not be paid in full for this work. Does this seem appropriate to you?

There were other issues – a request for detailed information regarding how the city found itself in this situation and why were teacher salaries the focus of the shortfall, but this request was dropped once the city said they would honor the teacher contracts.

I would think the worst case scenario should have required that the city terminate the school year at that point when they could not honor the commitment they had made to the teachers. This would harm the teachers and the students, but it would at least be a fair response to a difficult situation. It would have also avoided the implication that the situation was the fault of the teachers rather the economy or those responsible for budgeting.

 

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Stuff you don’t experience in North Dakota

I spent a lot of time in North Dakota. A university in a small state and a small community was probably great for me. I could concentrate on what I valued without the overhead required by a more complicated environment. I traveled a lot – every state and nearly every province – but the setting in which I lived was very predictable.

I have retired in a way that changes this. I now live in a suburb of Minneapolis and also spend a lot of time in a remote area of northern Wisconsin. A diversity of people and cultures in one location and trees in the other.

Today, I was on my daily walk around the neighborhood and encountered a cricket match in our local park. First time I have watched cricket in person and it was especially cool to watch a pickup game.

cricket

 

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I wouldn’t call this a smirk

I would not call it a smirk. It is that little smile you get when observing the cute reaction of youngsters in the discovery of something new to them. It is their delight and satisfaction in the experience and recognizing that you have known the same feelings that generate this smile.

This is how I now react to educators first discovering coding, project/problem-based learning, and the personalization of learning. The expression “been there, done that” comes to mind, but it would likely be interpreted as the typical reaction of an old guy. The stereotype typically describes those of us in reaction to so many “new” things by claiming “we tried that and it didn’t work”. Stereotypes are interesting. They tend to be based on an exaggeration and over-extension of some element of truth. Some at my age do react in this way to too many things. However, labeling any reaction of someone more experienced than yourself in this way to anything you find interesting is also likely based on anecdotal experiences you are generalizing as an assumed personality trait. Think about an issue carefully before you generalize.

Here is a perspective I would encourage learners to take. Interesting ideas in education have a way of resurfacing. This is a fact. Coding to learn (computational thinking) is not new. Neither is project-based learning or the individualization of learning. Ask yourself, what happened last time? I would suggest there are several very reasonable possibilities. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but actually did not work. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but not practical at the time. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but the idea needed some tweaking. It is very likely making the effort to get beyond the surface level excitement and digging a little deeper into what happened last time would be helpful. Without this effort, the cycle that sees ideas come and go and come and go will be repeated.

Coding makes a great example. I read pretty much everything Seymour Papert wrote on logo, the roots of logo within Piagetian theory, and computation as a form of understanding. I regard Papert as an “idea guy”. What idea guys connect with at one point in time are likely the same characteristics that resurface again and again. The “coding for all” trend in K-12 has rediscovered some of these characteristics. The excitement associated with these ideas generated a great deal of research in the last cycle. Researchers are not necessarily idea guys and they take a more pragmatic approach that attempts to determine whether the ideas as implemented at the time seem to work (according to the standards of the time) are beneficial. I think the research of the time did a reasonable job of differentiating what constituted a productive from an unproductive approach to engaging learners with programming experiences. If you are unaware of this work, you do not know whether your efforts are likely to fall into the productive or unproductive approach. Good science has a way of progressing. Interesting ideas without good science have a way of surfacing and disappearing.

One of the ideas that first interested me in education and educational research was mastery learning. This form of individualization seemed to hold out hope for optimizing the learning of all students. The interesting ideas did generate lots of research, but the ideas of a mastery approach also did seem to fade away. We now see similar ideas resurfacing in reincarnations such as the Kahn Academy. In this case, my explanation would be that mastery learning was a good idea when applied in certain situations (content that builds on itself), but faded because it was impractical to implement (unless you could afford a tutor). Technology may have changed this situation, but we need to think carefully about how we mix in mastery experiences with other learning experiences.

I apologize for my reaction to your present enthusiasm for coding, project based learning, etc. These interesting ideas are not new, but I can remember having similar reactions to what you are experiencing at this time. What I would suggest based on the wisdom of experience is that you think about the question of “why it will be different this time?” The “we tried that and it didn’t work” reaction of those my age should not discorage you, but it should encourage you to recognize that others have experienced the same enthusiasm and we now encourage you to start from what is already known to move these ideas forward. Ignore this advice and twenty years from now the youngsters you encounter will regard you as an old curmudgeon.

On a related topic, see “the emerging age bias” by Pernille Ripp.

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Be careful when claiming responsibility

I debated how to title this post and finally decided to make it about taking responsibility. I really liked “Keep your home page current”, but decided that would make less sense to those who are not active on social media.

Even though I no longer live there I still follow developments in North Dakota. The state and university are experiencing some tough times. This post is not about responsibility for the present state of affairs, but rather a particular issue I have noted in the political rhetoric associated with the state.

The economy of North Dakota is not that difficult to understand. Despite efforts to diversify, the financial well-being of the state depends on:

  • agribusiness (price of commodities)
  • energy – coal and now oil, and
  • Canadian visitors.

North Dakotans might assume things are more sophisticated than this, but they live in North Dakota and are not exposed to diversity – financial or otherwise.

Not long ago, the North Dakota economy was doing very well especially when contrasted to what was happening in the rest of the country. Politicians being politicians took responsibility for the brilliance of their contributions to this situation. I explained my reaction in a previous post noting that the past govenors had might the wise decision to locate their state on top of a vast quantity of dead dinosaurs.

Things have changed recently and I was curious about how the politicans have adapted. I visited the govenor’s web site and found he has yet to make adjustments. The web site notes that “under his leadership, the state has:

  • created 70,000 new jobs,
  • created the fastest growing economy in the country,
  • provided a billion in tax relief to the citizens, and
  • been ranked as the “best run state”.

This is why it is important to keep your web site up to date. Many of the jobs no longer exist, the billions in tax relief in combination with less revenue to tax means state institutions are not receiving the support that was committed, and the economy is tanking.

Oil prices nationwide have declined. The exchange rate for the Canadian dollow has discouraged Canadians from coming to North Dakota. Farm prices have fallen.

Politicians cannot really be blamed for most of the present problems (except the tax cuts), but I do find the inconsistency in taking responsibility somewhat amusing. If North Dakotans really believed they had exceptionally brilliant leaders, that ignorance is on them.

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This Old Mac

We are slowly going through the boxes we packed for our move to Minnesota. You find interesting things you have not seen in years. This is not because of our opening the boxes from the move, but because you just take a lot of stuff with you so you don’t have to decide whether or not to throw it out.

The most interesting treasure in the last couple of boxes was this old MacBook Pro 165.

oldmac1

After a couple of tries, I was able to get the hard drive to spin up and the software still worked. I had to use my phone to take images of the screen. Even if I could screen capture some images, this machine has no card for web access and no USB port. I might have a disk somewhere, but none were included in the boxes we unpacked.

We kind of made our publishing careers based on a couple of apps and both were on this machine.

oldmac2

HyperCard was a great app that had the characteristics so many value in an educational app – low floor, high ceiling. It was easy to learn to use and allowed coding that allowed a user to create very sophisticated products. Some see HyperCard as heralding the linking now allowed online.

I found a HyperCard stack that must have been created by our youngest daughter probably in 1992 or so. The stack provides her comments on different rooms in our house.

oldmac3

Here is her comment on the toy room. Evidently she saw the toy room as kind of a junk or storage room. This seemed to be fine with her because we did not bother to clean this room when we prepared for the cleaning lady.

oldmac4

Some of the projects that initially allowed us to attract a publisher were created by elementary students (with our help) using Kid Pix and Hypercard. The projects I remember must have been based on the next generation of hardware because these projects included images the students “colored”. This MacBook pro was still monochrome. It seems interesting to use a machine again that does not allow color.

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Wish I understood this better

I have serious concerns for the present political climate in the U.S. and the damage being done by the politicians manipulating the public as they compete for votes. While there are clearly people hurting and frustrated in this country, the solutions offered to them focus on simple solutions and an “us versus them” mentality. Those most in need of help are likely not to have the background to think critically about what they are being told and too emotional to make the effort even if capable. It seems to me this situation is knowingly being manipulated by politicians.

I doubt if immigration or trade issues have simple solutions. I doubt a separatist position has made sense for several generations and the mechanics of effective trade lie outside the control of any country. I suppose I have bought into the flat world model of Tom Friedman.

The folks who feel unable to keep jobs in the auto, heavy machinery or electronics industries because of manufacturing advantages elsewhere are the same folks who swarm the big box stores to purchase cheap electronics and goods manufactured elsewhere. To raise labor costs here and to employ more US citizens to do things similar to what is already done elsewhere would raise the cost of these products in this country. There might be potential for redistributing the wealth of middle and low-income families, but redistribution means some will win at the expense of those who lose. In addition, exports in industries such as agriculture would suffer in reciprocity for imposing artificial costs on imports. Again, some citizens might benefit, but what would be the overall consequences for the economy.

If one judges by the success of the stock market since 2008, the economy seems to be perking along. This is a real number representing real money. The question is where this money goes. If one gets past assuming we can focus only on the economics of this country and ignore the rest of world with populations who must also deal with basic issues of survival, the first questions to ask should concern the distribution of the piece of the global pie that is clearly already ours to divide.

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