tell-’em-and-test-’em

I’ve just re-read John Holt’s How Children Fail and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. It was instructive to read them in tandem.

Holt’s book is a reflection on his observations of children learning (Maths mainly) in the US between 1958 and 1961. I read it a couple of decades later during a PGCE course.  My first take on How Children Fail was that it was a series of fascinating insights into children’s misunderstandings of abstract concepts. My own Maths education in contrast – in a primary school that would have delighted Lady Plowden – was all about grasping concepts.

I re-read Holt’s book when my children were young. What struck me second time around was his use of concrete objects, notably Cuisenaire rods, to get abstract concepts across. As an Infant, I’d been introduced to Cuisenaire rods, and found them utterly confusing – fingers were far more helpful. I was a somewhat synaesthetic Infant; each finger not only represented a number, but also had a distinctive colour. The Cuisenaire rods were different colours. Fingers were also faster. You could work out 5+3=8 in about a second on your digits, but it took significantly longer doing trial-and-error matching à la Cuisenaire.

One of my children had real trouble with mathematical concepts. And with Cuisenaire rods, fingers, number lines and number sentences. The breakthrough came with the excellent Murderous Maths series. He was very keen on narrative, and found he could understand mathematical concepts explained via a story. He also discovered that if he pictured numerals in his head, they didn’t ‘move around’ like they did on paper. (We later found out he had a visual problem – convergence insufficiency – that explained all the visuospatial issues).

What stood out from my third and recent reading was how Holt deconstructs a child’s problem with a concept into its cognitive components. His description of Dr Caleb Gattegno teaching teenagers with severe learning disabilities (pp.98-101) is profoundly moving. Few teachers would have begun with the absolute basics (how patterns repeat) and few would have persevered until the students understood the patterns.

Holt and Lemov

Holt was born in 1923 and had experienced what he called a ‘tell-’em-and-test-’em’ education (p.151). He, his peers, and his teachers, learned how to game the system. Here’s Holt on a teacher giving his class a list of topics to cram for prior to college Board exams. “We got credit for knowing a great deal about ancient history, which we did not, he got credit for being a good teacher, which he was not, and the school got credit for being, as it was, a good place to go if you wanted to be sure of getting into a prestige college. The fact was that I knew very little about ancient history; that much of what I thought I knew was misleading or false; that then, and for many years afterwards, I disliked history and thought it pointless and a waste of time.”

Doug Lemov was born in 1967, soon after Holt’s book was published.  He struggled with school, due largely to social issues, but got to college and became a teacher. At which point he says “I was part of this educational system that was this great, giant ship that didn’t do the things it said it was set out to do.

After an MBA at Harvard (where he picked up more ideas about teaching), Lemov became a director of Uncommon Schools, which manages 53 charter schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Teach Like a Champion was published in 2010.  It’s jam-packed with practical tips for teachers – as is Holt’s. Lemov is deeply concerned about schools not doing their job and students failing to learn – as was Holt. He takes a step-by-step approach to teaching – as did Holt. But that’s where the similarity ends.

A significant difference between Holt and Lemov is how they frame those challenges. Lemov is about teaching, Holt is about learning. Lemov breaks down tasks into instructional steps, Holt is interested in the steps involved in students understanding concepts. Lemov is about controlling students’ learning, Holt is about them controlling their own learning. Lemov wants students from underprivileged backgrounds to have the knowledge that will enable them to ‘compete in college’ (p.39). Holt questions the quality of the knowledge of students from a tell-’em-and-test-’em system.

Both writers have concerns about schools that don’t succeed in educating children, especially those from deprived backgrounds.   Holt wants the children to understand important concepts, because the concepts will be important in later life.  If I’ve understood correctly, Lemov’s model involves providing children with the knowledge they need to get a college education, because that’s a gateway to better jobs, higher pay and could eventually bootstrap entire communities to a higher standard of living and better quality of life.

At first glance, Uncommon Schools appear to be pretty good at this. 99% of their students who graduated high school were accepted for college places, and 76% of those either graduated college or were on track to graduate. There’s no doubt that charter schools have improved high school graduation rates, but the picture is a mixed one, and I couldn’t find data on what proportion of Uncommon Schools students graduated high school.

A college education can open up many opportunities, so there’s some justification for the view that a school’s job is to do to get as many students into college focusing on students who engage and work hard. But that’s a very narrow view of education. Two rather telling phrases about college caught my eye in Lemov’s book.

no opt out

In the first, Lemov describes an Uncommon Schools Key Idea No Opt Out – ‘A sequence that begins with a student unable to answer ends with the student giving the right answer’ (p.31). The ‘sequence’ involves other students or the teacher providing the right answer, and the original student being asked the question again. In one example a student fails to read the word performance. Another student reads the word and the first student is asked to read it again. Lemov comments ‘it’s probably not worth the time to break down the error as the decoding skill the student struggles with is less closely related to the day’s objective. That said, [the teacher] has still firmly established a strong accountability loop. Lemov concludes ‘This ensures that everyone comes along on the march to college’. I’m sure Uncommon Schools would address the student’s issues with decoding, but the focus appears to be on the student’s accountability for their own learning, not on Holt’s focus – what might be posing an obstacle to it.

right is right

Another Key Idea is Right is Right, which involves using technical vocabulary. In the example given by Lemov, volume is not ‘the amount space [sic] something takes up’, but ‘the cubic units of space an object occupies’. This had me scratching my head. Cubic units are a quantification of volume, not volume per se. Also, gases have volume, but whether a gas could be described as an ‘object’ is debateable. Lemov comments ‘This response expands student vocabularies and builds comfort with the terms students will need when they compete in college.’

‘When they compete in college rather than ‘when they are in college’ seemed a rather odd way to frame college requirements. Over the past few decades of course, competition has been an underlying principle of economic policy in the developed world due to an assumption that it drives up quality. Competition can drive up quality if the competitors compete on quality. But it’s pretty clear they often don’t. The alternatives include underbidding, cheating, lying, bribing, gaming… whatever it takes to ‘win’. The sort of thing Holt describes about his college entry process.  Competition also wastes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources that could be more effectively deployed via collaboration and co-operation. If competition produces winners, it also produces losers, and being a loser can in itself create problems.

Lemov’s world is one where there are right and wrong answers. And the right answers (even if they’re questionable, as in the definition of volume) are what allows you to ‘march to college’ and ‘compete’ in it. Lemov clearly wants as many students as possible to get to college. What isn’t clear is what happens to students who can’t or won’t comply with the Uncommon Schools approach to teaching and learning, or those who find that knowing the right answers isn’t enough at college or in later life.

Those are the students Holt is interested in. The ones who, try as they might, just don’t ‘get’ key concepts, but have figured out how to give the ‘right answers’ (popular strategies included letting a teacher or another student answer first and copy them, or to read the teacher’s body language for cues). Holt is also interested in the students who get to college by giving the right answers but have no proper understanding of the subject or interest in it.

Tell-’em-and-test-’em was widely used in early mass education systems. But many students, like those Holt observed, didn’t grasp what they were being told and tested on. In response during the post-war period, child-centred approaches became increasingly popular, and then began to lose touch with a fundamental feature of education – knowledge. The completely reasonable antipathy to learning entire lessons by rote morphed into avoiding learning anything by heart. Objections to being fed lists of facts turned into objections to learning factual information. The necessity of acquiring higher-level skills transformed into acquiring higher-level skills only. It’s not surprising that teachers who didn’t experience tell-’em-and-test-’em MkI are advocating tell-’em-and-test-’em MkII, but those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and Holt provides a vivid reminder that tell-’em-and-test-’em isn’t enough.

references

Holt, J (1965).  How Children Fail.  Penguin.

Lemov, D (2010).  Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College. Jossey-Bass.

 

 

 

Hayek, Popper… and Brexit

I’ve met a fair few libertarians in my travels. Many have cited FA Hayek, the Nobel Prizewinning economist, in support of their ideas. Curious, I read The Road to Serfdom (1944), popular amongst those who advocate market forces. Hayek’s arguments are impressive, but I wasn’t convinced. It was Karl Popper citing with approval a passage in Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) that prompted me to read more.

Hayek and Popper

Friedrich August von Hayek was born in 1899 into an academic Viennese family. He was related to Ludwig Wittgenstein and strongly influenced by his ideas. Hayek served in the Austro-Hungarian army in WW1, an experience that prompted him to choose an academic career. He joined the London School of Economics in 1931, remaining in the UK after the outbreak of WW2.

Hayek soon gained a formidable reputation as an economist, and The Road to Serfdom was highly influential. But he found himself at odds with John Maynard Keynes and JK Galbraith amongst others, and in 1950 moved to the USA, settling at the University of Chicago. He, Milton Friedman, Frank Knight, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and George Stigler founded the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society in 1947.

Contemporaries, both Hayek and Popper were born in Vienna and studied at the University there. Both emigrated from Austria before WW2 and worked at the London School of Economics. They were founder members of the Mont Pelerin Society, and for both, freedom was vitally important – Popper published the two-volume The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945, a year after Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. But their thinking is very different.

Hayek’s model

Hayek’s starting point is individualism and the principles of 18th & 19th century liberalism; in the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty entitled “Why I am not a Conservative” he describes himself as an ‘Old Whig’.

For Hayek, individual freedom (the absence of arbitrary coercion) is a paramount principle. Not only because people don’t like arbitrary coercion, but because maximising individual freedom affords the greatest opportunity for innovation – new technologies, foods, medicines, techniques, trading relationships etc.

The best safeguard against arbitrary coercion is the rule of law; not specific legislation, but rather underlying principles that everyone, including government, is aware of and equally subject to. For Hayek individualism is fundamental, so not surprisingly he considered socialism – for which collectivism is fundamental – to be the arch-enemy of freedom.

The section of The Constitution of Liberty entitled ‘Freedom and the Law’ is stunning in its scope and argumentation. And if you want to explore the downside of socialism, Hayek is your go-to source. It’s when he comes into contact with the real world in ‘The Value of Freedom’ and ‘Freedom in the Welfare State’ – that I feel his reasoning becomes distinctly wobbly.

freedom vs coercion     Hayek admits that complete freedom and a total absence of coercion aren’t possible within a social group. For society to function, some behaviours will be prohibited and others required. But these constraints are similar to those we encounter in the natural world.

safety net vs welfare state     He also recognises the need for a safety net to prevent destitution – that might require public funding. Hayek has two main concerns; that a safety net will introduce the expectation that all should be the same, and that it will become a lever for coercion on the part of government.

equality vs equalisation     Hayek wants everyone to have equal access to the safety net, not for the safety net to evolve into a welfare system that equalises everyone. He doesn’t support the redistribution of wealth, or spending significantly more resources on one group of people rather than others.

market forces vs centralised planning     The assumption that we’re all entitled to the same quality of life results in central planning. But the real world is too complex for central planning to work. People and their circumstances are all different, so fairness in a centrally planned system requires discretionary decisions on the part of administrators, and those can be used to arbitrarily limit the freedom of individuals. His solution to the complexity problem is the market, an impartial function that can respond to any situation. He advocates competition (for goods, housing, jobs) mediated by price.

impartiality     Hayek argues; “And if one way of achieving our ends proves too expensive for us, we are free to try other ways” (Serfdom, p.97). That, I’d suggest, is where his argument collides with reality. Hayek doesn’t appear to have ever met anyone who has run out of ‘other ways’ to try – whose poverty, poor health or complex adverse circumstances mean that they simply can’t bootstrap themselves out of the situation.

Hayek is aware that his model will be tough for some, but doesn’t see market forces as any different to natural ones; “Man has come to hate, and to revolt against, the impersonal forces to which in the past he submitted even though they often frustrated his individual efforts” (Serfdom p.209). What he conveniently overlooks is that throughout history people have revolted against impersonal forces (climate, geography, famine, sickness) and that revolt has been the driver for a great deal of innovation.

socialism and conservatism

For Hayek, socialism with its centralised planning is the antithesis of the kind of world he’d like to see. He points out it led to the totalitarianism of Stalinism, and that Hitler’s rise to power was facilitated by the socialist policies already in place in Germany. Understandably, he’s worried that what he sees as socialist thinking across the political spectrum in the UK will end up with the same outcomes.

Of course that’s not what happened. Not yet anyway. Hayek was right that the post-war worldview would result in successive governments, of the right and the left, centralising power and limiting individual freedom. But I’d argue that those actions are the result, not of socialism, but of a human tendency to want to increase control over our environment and to reduce the amount of information we have to deal with. And any model of society is prone to that tendency.

Hayek touches on this in the chapter ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’ in The Road to Serfdom. Those who are highly motivated to seek power and oversimplify have an advantage over those who aren’t bothered about power and who know complex issues can’t be reduced to a soundbite.

The fact that control-seeking and over-simplification are human tendencies rather than outcomes of a particular political worldview, is important because of those who subscribe to Hayek’s view risk seeing socialism as the enemy of liberty, when in fact the enemy is human behaviour to which they are equally prone.  Margaret Thatcher was heavily influenced by Hayek, but centralised and simplified like there was no tomorrow – including over-simplifying Hayek.

Popper’s model

Popper is also committed to freedom and opposed to arbitrary coercion. But his starting point is reasoning. In Conjectures and Refutations (1963) he systematically compares and contrasts empiricism and intellectualism, and shows how the latter, unfettered by evidence, leads to essentialism, utopianism, then totalitarianism.

abstract principles

Hayek is in his element with abstract principles. But when he comes up against the real world he begins to falter. He acknowledges that the real world and his market model, are complex, messy and sometimes harsh, but believes people will put up with that in order to hang on to an abstract principle of ‘freedom’. This is where Hayek and Popper part company.

For Hayek, freedom is of paramount importance. For Popper, any single paramount abstract principle is problematic. Via a painstaking critique of Plato, Hegel and Marx in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper shows how making abstract principles paramount results in essentialism, utopianism, then totalitarianism.

The world Hayek envisages isn’t a utopia in the way most people would use the word, but it is in the sense Popper uses it – in Hayek’s case an ‘ideal’ world in which individual freedom is prized above everything and impartial market forces (eventually) result in significant benefits for all.

Ironically, Hayek’s model means that despite the impersonal forces of nature and the market applying equally to all, some people through an accident of birth or adverse circumstances are likely to have to be more submissive to those forces than others who happen to be in the right place at the right time with the right opportunities.

Submitting to the impersonal forces, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, can result in life being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. In Hayek’s model that fate is averted by the minimal safety net, but he doesn’t go into detail. Ironically, his model implies that it’s OK for some people never to escape the safety net because they still have their individual freedom and there are benefits for others collectively from economic advances. Hayek’s approach has been tried in the West for the last three decades. We’re still waiting for the economic benefits to trickle down.  His model has resulted in a few becoming richer, many becoming poorer, and postponing action on pre-existing crises involving raw materials, pollution and ecological catastrophe.

the real world

Popper points out that theoretically possible abstract concepts considered by philosophers and logicians are often impossible in the real world – because the real world is constrained by complex factors that philosophy and logic don’t have to take into account. That doesn’t mean you can’t base a socio-politico-economic system on abstract principles such as individual freedom and the rule of law, but it does mean making an abstract principle paramount will be problematic.

The economist Paul Krugman reportedly observed that Hayek’s ideas were more about politics than economics. A friend commented; “He must be an economist if he uses equations”. I said I hadn’t seen a single equation in either book. The response was “But equations tell you there are variables”. The challenge for most economists tackling the real world is getting all the relevant variables into their equations.   But Hayek doesn’t have that problem because he’s dealing with abstract principles and can include or exclude whatever variables he wishes.

Popper is happy to embrace abstract principles, but is well aware of what happens when they collide with the real world.  At the end of The Open Society and its Enemies: the Spell of Plato, Popper points out that if piecemeal improvements to institutions go wrong, the damage is limited, but if things go wrong with the wholesale changes advocated by utopians, it’s catastrophic (p.172). Abstract principles make great servants but dangerous masters.  As we’re discovering with Brexit.

references

Hayek, FA (1944).  The Road to Serfdom, Routledge.

Hayek FA (1960). The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge.

Popper, K (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 1: The Spell of Plato, Routledge.

Popper, K (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies Vol 2: Hegel and Marx, Routledge.

Popper K (1963). Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge.

 

Rousseauian nonsense revisited

A few days ago Greg Ashman released the proverbial cat amongst the Early Years pigeons with this tweet:

greg gibb

Early Years practitioners were a bit miffed and responded robustly; there were several requests for more detail about the ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Greg obliged in a blogpost.

He opens with a paragraph on Rousseau’s ‘work of fiction’, Émile. He goes on to contrast guidelines requiring the avoidance of formal teaching in Early Years, with evidence for its efficacy, referring to Geary’s theory of biologically primary and secondary knowledge, and  advocates a balance between play and formal teaching. Many of Greg’s posts are informative and constructive, but this one left me feeling uneasy.  I’ll start with the ‘Rousseauian’ element.

Rousseauian

Émile is indeed a ‘work of fiction’ in that it’s written as a novel – and a rambling, sometimes rather incoherent novel at that. Voltaire was typically scathing. Following its publication, Rousseau’s books were banned in Geneva and France and he went on the run to avoid arrest. Obviously, the strength of this reaction wasn’t simply down to a poor writing style or his advocating following a child’s interests.

What Rousseau challenged in Émile was authoritarianism. He’d grown up in Calvinist Geneva, later converted to Catholicism, and had seen the impact on children who’d been educated under both systems. He’d also seen the children of peasants and artisans, who lacked a formal education but were often more contented and self-assured.

Calvinism and Catholicism both used the idea of original sin to justify a strict approach to child-rearing and education. Rousseau argued that despite sin, Nature remained God’s creation. If God created children to develop in the way they did, it made far more sense for education to go with the child’s God-given nature, than to go against it.

In one section of Émile, “The Creed of the Savoyard Priest”, Rousseau abandons his novelistic approach and tackles Descarte’s model of reason head-on, in an insightful essay setting out the questions about perception, cognition, reasoning, consciousness, truth, free will and the existence of religions, that perplexed the thinkers of his day. It was the only section Voltaire thought worth publishing.

But you’d never know that to read Greg’s impression of ‘Rousseauian’. Instead he highlights a ‘central tension’ in ‘educational progressivism’ where Rousseau acts as a puppet master ostensibly following Emile’s interests whilst manipulating them behind the scenes. That tension exists only if your model of education is that it must be either adult-led or child-led. In Rousseau’s framework, the child needs to learn certain things about the world, but can do so in a way that makes sense to them. There is no tension because the teacher and the child are working together; not either/or, but both/and.

Émile is about a one-to-one education and some teachers would argue that it’s impossible to teach like that in a class of thirty children. It probably would be unworkable in a normative education system that ‘expects’ children to know specific things at a specific age, but Montessori schools have been using this approach successfully for a century, and a variant worked well at the primary I attended in the 1960s – class sizes 16 (5-6s), 24 (7-8s) and 35 (9-11s).  What Greg means by ‘Rousseauian’ is essentially a caricature of what Rousseau was saying.

Nonsense

I agree that there’s a lot of nonsense in education, and Early Years is no exception, but what Greg refers to is an antipathy to ‘formal learning’ embedded in government guidelines, contrary to the evidence supporting ‘formal teaching methods’ in developing the foundations of academic skills.  What he appears to be saying is that Rousseau came up with a daft, inconsistent idea about education, and Early Years teachers are told Rousseau was right, so they should avoid formal learning as it could be harmful.

This is again a caricature. Anyone who’s taught young children will know that a major obstacle to them acquiring academic skills is their immaturity. They have immature visual and auditory discrimination, motor control, impulse control, social skills, and awareness of how the world works. Those skills develop very effectively through play (you can see it happening), and Early Years settings almost invariably use directed play to help all children develop the skills they’ll need. There’s no tension in the play being directed, either via instruction or setting up a particular environment, because what the teacher and children do is complementary.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some early years teachers advocate undirected play and/or feel that any hint of formal learning is harmful, but my guess is they’d be few and far between. Most early years teachers use formal teaching, but it might look different to what Greg envisages. How effective is formal teaching until children can control their arms, legs, fingers, tongue, attention, bowel and bladder?

Criticism of ideas

Greg says his original tweet was ‘criticism of ideas rather than people’, and claims ‘many responses to it were of a personal nature’ implying that he wasn’t entitled to an opinion because he’s not an Early Years teacher. He says he would welcome opinions on secondary maths teaching and if people are wrong, will happily point out why they are wrong. All very reasonable, except that…

  • I’m not clear how “there’s a lot of Rousseauian nonsense in Early Years” is a ‘criticism of ideas’. To me, it looks more like a throwaway comment that indirectly impugns both Rousseau and Early Years teaching without explaining why. Which appears to be a bit ad hominem itself.
  • The responses Greg screenshots don’t question his entitlement to an opinion. Instead they question is his entitlement to sling mud at Early Years teachers without explanation.
  • The responses were pointing out why they thought he, Early Years teacher or not, was wrong.

Greg’s blogpost offered him an opportunity to justify his comment about ‘Rousseauian nonsense’. Turns out it’s based on a caricature of Rousseau and of Early Years teaching, and any complaints about the comment, regardless of their validity, are treated as ad hominem.  Is there any hope for constructive debate?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skipping school: Britain’s invisible kids

This was the title of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme broadcast on Monday this week.  It was about home education and presented by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.  Ms Longfield called for a complete overhaul of the system relating to home education, but her call was based on some significant misunderstandings of the current legislative framework. There are some key principles that need to be taken into account before any legislative changes are considered.

education should be suitable to the individual child

The Education Act 1996 (s.7) gives parents a duty to cause their child to have a suitable education – suitable to the individual child (s.7 uses the now somewhat archaic ‘he’). That’s important because if the education isn’t suitable to the child as an individual, they are unlikely to learn well.

In contrast, the current education system requires teachers to deliver an education suitable to the average child. Teachers are expected to differentiate their teaching for the many children who are not average, but have little training in doing so. This inherent tension appears to be a major factor in the increasing numbers of home-educated children – all the children who appeared in the documentary had had significant problems with school.

the law treats education and welfare as distinct issues

That’s important because a child could be well educated but at risk of harm, or safe and well but poorly educated.

If it appears that a child is not receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) Education Act 1996), a local authority has powers to make inquiries about the child’s education and to issue a school attendance order if necessary.

If a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of significant harm (s.47 Children Act 1988), it has powers to make inquiries about the child’s welfare, including entering the home and seeing the child if warranted.

home-educated children who have come to harm have not been invisible

In 2014 the NSPCC published a briefing featuring seven Serious Case Reviews for home-educated children who had come to harm.  I have been unable to find any additional similar Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) prior to this date, so I think it’s fairly safe to conclude that Ms Longfield’s concern that there might be thousands of home-educated children at risk of serious harm might be disproportionate.

In each case, the child in question was previously known to the authorities. Almost 70% of the SCRs’ recommendations related to the failure of the authorities to follow procedures correctly. In five cases, the failure of healthcare services to do so may have contributed directly to the harm experienced by the child.  I’ve blogged about the briefing in detail here.

In Skipping School Ms Longfield highlighted the tragic death of Dylan Seabridge in 2011, and commented that he was ‘all but invisible’. But Dylan’s mother worked at a school in a neighbouring local authority and the Head Teacher had raised concerns about her children in 2007. In 2010 Ceredigion social services considered her vulnerability due to her deteriorating mental health, but didn’t alert the local authority for Pembrokeshire where the family lived.  Fiona Nicholson has documented this case in detail here.

The Seabridge family’s welfare was a welfare matter. The fact that the local authority didn’t have right of entry to the home to check on the children’s education is beside the point. Exactly the same conflation took place prior to the death of Khyra Ishaq, where concerns about the welfare of Khyra and her siblings had been raised by the school she had previously attended, but the local authority complained that education legislation prevented them from seeing the children.

home education and illegal schools are two different things

The boundary between home education and an unregistered school is blurred only because the criteria for school registration are unclear (notably about the number of hours involved), not because home education is on the rise.  Fiona Nicholson has documented this issue in detail too, here.

conclusion

The programme began by attributing the increase in home education to schools ‘off-rolling’ difficult pupils. It concluded by calling for local authorities to have powers to register and monitor home-educated children on the grounds of ‘the rights and best interests of the child’. But if local authorities cannot ensure that their own schools provide a suitable education for those children, where does that leave the rights and best interests of the child?

Local authorities already have powers to intervene if they have concerns about the welfare or education of home-educated children – but are often unclear about what those powers are. That lack of clarity has been a factor in home-educated children coming to harm.

I agree wholeheartedly with Anne Longfield that a good education is vital to children and the wider community, but if schools are failing to provide it, I can’t see how local authorities monitoring the education provided by despairing parents will address the root cause of the problem.

I’ve suggested in response to previous government consultations that if a child is removed from a school roll to be educated at home, their per capita funding be retained by the local authority and ring-fenced to provide resources and advice centres – maybe based at local libraries – to support any families who need it.

Home educated children are not skipping school. Nor are they invisible. And what they and their families need from local authorities is support – not ineffective registration and monitoring.

 

democracy unchained

Conspiracy theories usually turn out to be just that – theories. That doesn’t mean conspiracies don’t happen. Nancy MacLean, a social historian, uncovered one by chance. It’s a big conspiracy with potentially catastrophic consequences for most of us. You can read its well-documented history in her book Democracy in Chains (there’s a review here). This post is about the ideas behind it.

Friedman to Buchanan

Nancy MacLean is William H Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, North Carolina. In 2013, she was researching the use of education vouchers during the somewhat chequered history of public education in Virginia. In Milton Friedman’s papers on the subject, she noticed a couple of footnotes referring to James McGill Buchanan, a Nobel prize-winning economist who’d died earlier that year. MacLean became curious about Buchanan’s contribution and visited the archive of his work at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, where he’d been based. ‘Archive’ usually means shelves of carefully organised, neatly labelled papers. Instead, Buchanan’s work had simply been stacked in his former office. MacLean started at the door and began to work her way round the room…

Buchanan to Koch

What she first discovered was letters referring to Charles Koch’s investment of millions of dollars in Buchanan’s research centre at GMU, The Center for Study of Public Choice. Koch, a brilliant engineer who became a multi-billionaire via the family’s oil business, wanted a ‘climate of liberty’ in which entrepreneurship could flourish, but that wasn’t likely to happen in a world where entrepreneurs were ‘drastically underappreciated and overcontrolled’ (p.132). Koch wanted to change all that. His financial support of politically conservative research organisations was no secret. What wasn’t clear until MacLean read Buchanan’s papers, was how the organisations that Koch supported were connected, how they influenced the Republican party, or that Buchanan was the missing link.

Calhoun to Buchanan

To understand Buchanan’s views, we need to take a closer look at the ideas held by a man who inspired him. He was John C Calhoun, a contemporary of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who became 7th Vice President of the United States.

John Calhoun’s grandfather, Patrick, had migrated to Pennsylvania from County Donegal. Calhoun’s father (also Patrick) had settled in South Carolina in the mid-18th century. When the younger Patrick died in 1796, the 14 year-old John found himself in charge of a group of local farms. This interrupted his studies but his brothers eventually paid for him to attend Yale College. He went on to read law, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810, and by 1824 was a Presidential candidate.

Calhoun was renowned for his robust opinions. He had especially strong views about taxation – taxes were of course a sore point at the time and had been a major factor in the United States declaring independence. What Calhoun objected to was governments having the power to tax wealthy citizens to fund public projects (roads, canals, bridges, schools etc) over which the citizens in question had no direct control. He objected particularly to other groups of less wealthy citizens being able to put pressure collectively on politicians to raise taxes to fund such projects. Calhoun felt the US Constitution didn’t go far enough to prevent the majority limiting the liberty of a minority. MacLean summarises his view as “if something must be sacrificed to square the circle between economic liberty and political liberty, it was political liberty” (p.4).

Calhoun drew attention to a fundamental difficulty with democracy as a political system. Democracy is supposed to defend the liberty of all citizens. But one-person-one-vote means that the majority prevails, and can restrict the liberty of a minority. (Brexit being a case in point.)

It’s easy to see why Calhoun’s ideas appealed to a wealthy minority in the Southern states. MacLean points out that in 1860 two-thirds of Americans with wealth exceeding $100k lived south of the Mason-Dixon line (p.2). Like Calhoun, they saw themselves as self-made men, and objected to governments being able to appropriate their hard-earned cash. What they and Calhoun conveniently overlooked was that most of their wealth had accumulated as a result of the labour of another minority – slaves. The slaves’ contribution was viewed merely another means of production, alongside horses and the cotton gin.

Calhoun’s ideas took a back seat following the defeat of the Confederates at the end of the Civil War, but they were never forgotten in the Southern states, and were revived in the 1950s by the economist James McGill Buchanan.

public choice economics

Buchanan called his field of research public choice economics.  He was particularly interested in government incentives. He’d observed that whatever their political persuasion, governments tend to behave in very similar ways. Buchanan wasn’t an impartial, disinterested academic, but one with a political agenda. He was especially bothered by how organised groups of people could control government policy by threatening not to vote for representatives who didn’t support their demands. And like Calhoun he objected to individuals being taxed to pay for public projects they didn’t necessarily approve of.

Buchanan decided that the only way to stop what he considered to be legally sanctioned gangsterism (p.xxiv) was to dismantle the institutions causing it, and to do so in a way that would make it very difficult to reinstate them in future. Koch had been told that Lenin had written the playbook for social and political change (p.xxviii), and proceeded to take some leaves from that book. He knew his economic and political model would be unpopular, and that change would need to be stealthy, piecemeal and gradual. Buchanan knew how to implement those changes.

change in Chile

Buchanan had the chance to test his plan following a visit to Chile in 1980. Augusto Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army, had declared himself President in 1974 following the military coup during the previous year.  In 1978 he appointed José Piñera as Secretary of Labor and Social Security. Piñera was one of the ‘Chicago Boys’, a group of Chilean economists who’d studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. (Buchanan and Friedman had both studied at Chicago and were contemporaries there from 1946 until Buchanan moved to the University of Virginia).

Piñera’s gift to the Chilean people was ‘the seven modernisations’ (pp.156-7):

  • ban industry-wide unions
  • privatise social security
  • privatise healthcare
  • open agriculture to market forces
  • transform the judiciary
  • limit regulation
  • introduce k-12 school vouchers.

Friedman had visited Chile in 1975, and has since defended his role as an economic adviser to Pinochet. Buchanan visited in 1980, shortly after a purge of ‘politically unreliable’ university teachers. He had been invited to advise on a new national Constitution. Buchanan advocated (p.159):

  • severe restrictions on the power of government
  • no spending without prior taxation
  • a balanced budget
  • an independent central bank
  • new expenses to be approved by a ‘supermajority’ – 2/3 or 5/6.

The stealthiest of Buchanan’s reforms was the apparently innocuous use of fine print. The level of detail of Chile’s Constitution of Liberty (named after Hayek’s book) rendered it ‘virtually unamendable’ (p.161). The Pinochet regime was ousted in 1989, but Michelle Bachelet, elected President in 2013, still struggled to implement the changes she planned due to the Chilean Constitution’s ‘locks and bolts’ (p.168).

For Charles Koch, Buchanan not only leant academic weight to his mission, but had figured out a way of bringing about the kind of world Koch envisaged. In 1997 Koch supported the James Buchanan Center at George Mason with a gift of $10m.   It’s important to note at this point that we’re not talking here about ideas that are merely ‘right wing’. Buchanan didn’t want a right wing takeover; he wanted to demolish the institutions integral to liberal democracies.  His plan for doing just that was implemented in Chile and according to MacLean, is currently being rolled out for the rest of us.  MacLean tells the compelling and well-documented story in Democracy in Chains. What intrigued me is why Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas had such appeal.

the appeal of ideas

The logical outcome of Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas is a plutocracy – control by the wealthy. It’s been argued that the USA had become a plutocracy after the ‘Gilded Age’ following the Civil War, when a handful of very wealthy men had considerable influence in the Senate.  It was a phenomenon that greatly exercised President Theodore Roosevelt – who used antitrust legislation to break up the largest corporations.

38_00392

A related outcome is oligarchy – control in the hands of a few. Robert Michels, a German economist who eventually joined Mussolini’s fascist party, argued that oligarchy was the natural outcome of any large organisation, because only a few people involved could possibly have access to all the information they needed to run it. Michels called this outcome an ‘iron law’ and pointed out that many ostensibly democratic institutions were in fact oligarchies.   Plutocracies and oligarchies might be the natural outcomes of human societies but a description isn’t a prescription.

Human beings have a tendency to lie, cheat, steal and fight each other, but such behaviour is seriously detrimental to us, so we have laws to limit it. And it was problems with oligarchy that resulted in the first recorded democracy in ancient Athens. Democracy is by no means problem-free, but as Churchill is reputed to have said “Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others.” Democratic institutions are swimming against the tide of natural outcomes, so are in a constant struggle to find the checks and balances to keep democratic systems democratic.

It’s easy to see why Calhoun’s ideas appealed to wealthy plantation owners, and Buchanan’s appealed to wealthy business owners. What’s puzzling is why anyone would consider those ideas a suitable foundation for a political/economic system. After all, slaves are rarely happy about being slaves, even if the alternative is begging on the streets. And the poor don’t usually like being poor – especially if they’re being kept poor by the wealthy. History demonstrates that oligarchies and plutocracies aren’t sustainable and usually end in tears, often those of the plutocrats and oligarchs as well as everybody else. So why did Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas catch on amongst the political/economic movers and shakers?

I think there are several reasons, all to do with the way human cognition works. Over millennia, our brains have developed default cognitive strategies that maximise our chances of survival. If faced with an immediate threat to life or limb, we don’t have time to gather all relevant information, work through decisions logically and systematically, and weigh up the possible outcomes. We stand a much better chance of surviving if we process only information that’s immediately relevant, take the first decision that makes sense, and prioritise our own interests.

The problem with these strategies is that they are default strategies. They’re the ones we tend to use first and fast and that result in plausible – and often premature – conclusions. And they’re the opposite of the strategies needed for long-term, sustainable political and economic planning. Here are some of the default strategies key features:

cognitive load

Our working memories can handle only a small amount of information at any one time; we have a low cognitive load. That protects us from being overwhelmed by information and paralysed by choice. But when dealing with complex matters like public policy, it means we have to make a conscious effort to consider all relevant information, not just the first three bits that spring to mind.

incomplete information

Due to the limitations of cognitive load, we make many decisions based on incomplete information. The planters represented by Calhoun  liked the Athenian idea of direct democracy – citizens voting on every decision, with women, children, slaves, freed slaves and foreigners excluded. But the fledgling American republic was trying an experiment; a representative democracy with a broader franchise. No one could have known at the time how that would pan out.

prioritising self-interest

If we’re making decisions based on incomplete information, even the most altruistic of us have more information about ourselves than about others, so our own interests tend to carry more weight.

ingroups and outgroups

First noted by Henri Tajfel when researching social identity, people tend to identify with others whom they perceive as like them (ingroup), and differentiate themselves from people they perceive as different (outgroup). Outgroups are often viewed as more homogeneous than they actually are, and are often viewed negatively.

aversion to loss

People prefer avoiding a loss to making a gain of equivalent value. Representative egalitarian democracies that redistribute wealth do result in significant losses for slave owning planters or billionaire businessmen. Their aversion to prospective losses despite their considerable wealth isn’t surprising.  Even if the plantation owners and billionaires were the most compassionate, altruistic and public-spirited persons imaginable, they would still have to work at not focussing on a few issues only, seeing other demographic groups as negative ‘others’, and seeing their contribution to the common good as a loss.

Calhoun and Buchanan

I think we can cut Calhoun a bit of slack because neither he nor anyone else could have predicted how the American experiment with representative democracy would pan out.  Buchanan is a different matter.  He would have been aware of the plutocracy that emerged from the Gilded Age, the need for Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust legislation and the Wall Street crash – its impact mitigated by Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal.  But his interpretation of events wasn’t the orthodox one.

Although Calhoun and Buchanan paid considerable attention to detail, they paid less attention to the framework within which they were working. Although ostensibly concerned about the tyranny of the majority, their focus was on the threat a representative democracy represented to the wealth and property of a small number of individuals, and on the risks of corruption and freeloading by government officials.  What they glossed over was the contribution to the wealth of individuals made by the slaves and the poor, the misery caused by slavery and poverty, and corruption and freeloading in non-democratic governments.

Liberal democracies are by no means problem-free, but the last 200 years shows they’ve had better outcomes overall than plutocracies and oligarchies. Dismantling the democratic institutions that limit corruption and offer protection to the most vulnerable is likely to have catastrophic consequences. But if Nancy MacLean is right, dismantling democratic institutions is exactly what Buchanan’s followers are intent on doing.

reference

MacLean, N (2017).  Democracy in Chains:  The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. Penguin.

acknowledgement

Cartoon by By Joseph Ferdinand Keppler – http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Ga_Cartoon/Ga_cartoon_38_00392.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24889994

life as a lobster

Jordan Peterson is a controversial figure. He’s made some provocative statements in interviews and discussions. And inconsistent ones. One inconsistency was in his (in)famous interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54, on the subject of the gender pay gap. Peterson says it doesn’t exist (5m45s). Later, when Newman refers to his comment, he denies that’s what he said. He should, of course, have said that’s not what he meant. But then he adds “Because I’m very, very, very careful with my words” (8m27s).  Verbal slips are easy to make. I guessed Peterson might be more careful in his writing, and might present a clearer picture of his worldview. So I read 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

The rules emerged from Peterson’s experience as a clinical psychologist and had proved popular on the Quora website. Each rule gets a chapter in the book, explaining its rationale. Peterson’s worldview is grounded in ancient myths that have stood the test of time and resonate with us today. Fundamental, for him, is the yin-yang principle; the interdependence of two opposite forces, notably order/chaos and masculine/feminine. He’s also intrigued by the account in the book of Genesis of chaos, order, man, woman and the consequences of sin.

lobster life

Peterson draws further support for his philosophical framework from comparative zoology – in the form of lobsters. Lobsters are crustaceans, an ancient sub-phylum believed to have arisen around 350m years ago. Male lobsters compete for territory using aggressive displays and sometimes fights, resulting in a social dominance hierarchy. Female lobsters choose dominant male lobsters to mate with, so high status lobsters get the best territory and “all the girls”. A lobster’s social status is mediated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter with a role in the human nervous system. In lobsters and humans, social status correlates positively with serotonin levels.

What this means for Peterson, is that biology determines culture. “…the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism…communism…the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy – that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence…There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.” (p.14)

If lobsters and humans exhibit dominance hierarchies mediated by serotonin, Peterson reasons, the dominance hierarchy must be what drives their behaviour and its outcomes. “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain… It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society… If you’re number one… you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” (p.15)

Note that Peterson is not talking to lobsters here – in the next paragraph he refers to the “verbal tricks and strategies” available to high status females. But in Peterson’s model serotonin doesn’t result in the disorder of unfettered competition; it leads to order because high status humans in whom “the serotonin flows freely“, are “confident and calm, standing tall and straight. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.” (p.17)

The passages I’ve quoted are in the chapter about Rule 1: Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back. Peterson’s argument is essentially that Nature is Nature and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better. The argument is a persuasive one. But the evidence Peterson marshals for it is highly selective. What he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. Let’s start with serotonin.

serotonin

Serotonin is far more ancient than lobsters. It’s made by all bilateral animals, which first appeared around 550m years ago. It’s also found in many plants and some species of amoeba. Most of those organisms don’t have dominance hierarchies. That’s because serotonin’s role is primarily to mediate the perception of resources – usually food. It’s no accident that most human serotonin is produced in the gut, where it regulates intestinal movement. In the brain, the serotonin pathway works in concert with dopamine pathway that mediates reward. It’s only a couple of short steps in neurological terms, to associate food with territory, then territory with social dominance signals. So it’s not surprising that neurologically more complex animals have made that connection.

male and female

Then there’s male and female. Peterson claims “when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the pre-human animal social world. …Our most basic category – as old, in some sense as the sexual act itself – appears to be that of sex, make and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.” (p.40, Peterson’s emphasis.)

Peterson assumes that if a category distinction is used by an entire species, or by several species, it must be ‘inbuilt’. This is a risky assumption. It was what zoologists assumed about imprinting (newly hatched birds following their mother/other conspecific/primary carer) until Konrad Lorenz discovered they would follow his wading boots if they were the first thing the hatchlings saw. And there’s been a heated dispute for decades over whether the structure of language is hardwired or constructed or both, but you’d never know from Peterson’s account that there is any biological evidence suggesting that the male/female categories, (as opposed to male/female biological characteristics) might be constructed rather than inbuilt.

He overlooks research showing that infants construct categories from the features of things in their environment such as sounds (e.g. Kuhn, 2004) or objects (e.g. Rakison & Oakes, 2008). The research shows that categories develop as the children’s knowledge of the environment increases. This suggests that if young animals are surrounded by conspecifics that generally show sexual dimorphism, they will start to form the categories male/female. It doesn’t follow that there are no alternatives. On the contrary, some crustaceans are hermaphrodites and parthenogenesis (producing viable, but unfertilised eggs) is not uncommon. Similarly, although sexual dimorphism is typical of human beings, there’s a range of biological variations on that theme in homo sapiens.

Peterson also conflates sex with gender. Sex is a set of biological characteristics. Gender is a social construct. Biology largely determines sex. It plays an important role in determining gender, but many other factors come into play.  Peterson doesn’t have much time for social constructs, which is odd, because that’s what myths are.

myths

Peterson’s focus is on order/chaos and masculine/feminine; order is inherently masculine (“the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” p.40) and chaos, presumably, inherently feminine. There are many other opposites in life of course; pleasure/pain, loss/gain, activity/rest etc. But pleasure, gain and rest don’t feature much in Peterson’s world. We’re told “life is suffering” (pp.161, 227) and reminded that it’s “nasty, brutish and short” (p.177). There are many references to the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain’s resentment and murder of his brother, and the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

Peterson says myths are “moral in their intent, rather than descriptive” (p.xxvii). For him “the great stories of the past” have “more to do with developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness” (p.xxvii). He can’t seem to decide whether his worldview is prescriptive or descriptive; whether it’s about what life should be like, or what it is like.  On the one hand, he can’t emphasise enough the grim factual realities of life – “life is suffering” and “dominance hierarchies are older than trees“. On the other hand, he blithely ignores facts about serotonin, crustacean reproduction, and human cognition that don’t support his model.

And despite citing considerable evidence showing that lobster dominance hierarchies hinge on whichever lobsters are more physically powerful, he denies Jacques Derrida’s claim that power is a prime determinant of human social status on the grounds that … it shouldn’t be. “In well-functioning societies, competence, not power is a prime determiner of status” (p.313). Wasn’t that Derrida’s point – that few societies are well-functioning?

For Peterson, “life is suffering” and the way to deal with that is “to stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open” (p.27). I understand why he wouldn’t advocate untrammelled hedonism as a guiding principle, but in reality life is more of a mixed bag. Once our basic needs are met we don’t spend all our time fighting over who gets first dibs on resources or mates; we sing, dance, tell stories, play games, solve problems and make stuff. We often do those things very well, to our enjoyment and the benefit of others.

Nor do people usually select mates by behaving like lobsters. It might feel like women get to do all the choosing if you’re a young man with low social status living in North America, but for much of human history, women have rarely had much choice about anything. One mate selection strategy popular with top human lobsters was droit du seigneur. Not popular with anyone else, however, so most communities make other arrangements.

conclusion

Much of what Peterson says is true, and most of his 12 rules are sensible, in principle at least. His arguments are plausible and convincingly made. But although his worldview is based on evidence, it’s based on only some evidence. He doesn’t consider evidence that doesn’t support his hypotheses.

He plays to the disappointment, resentment and fears of young white, North American males.  Their feelings might be real, and might need attending to, but that doesn’t make them normative. Peterson’s entire worldview appears to be constructed around how tough it is to be one of them.

His worldview is also internally contradictory. He points out “Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period.” (p.316)

Absolutely.  So where does that leave Peterson’s sweeping generalisations? Maybe he needs to be more careful with his words.

references

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

biologically primary and secondary knowledge?

David Geary is an evolutionary psychologist who developed the concept of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, popular with some teachers. I’ve previously critiqued Geary’s ideas as he set them out in a chapter entitled Educating the Evolved Mind. One teacher responded by suggesting I read Geary’s The Origin of Mind because it explained his ideas in more detail. So I did.

Geary’s theory

If I’ve understood correctly, Geary’s argument goes like this:

The human body and brain have evolved over time in response to environmental pressures ranging from climate and diet through to social interaction. For Geary, social interaction is a key driver of evolved brain structures because social interactions can increase the resources available to individuals.

Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.

Chapters 2 & 3 of The Origin of Mind offer a clear, coherent account of Darwinian and hominid evolution respectively. They’d make a great resource for teachers. But when Geary moves on to cognition his model begins to get a little shaky – because it rests on several assumptions.

Theories about evolution of the brain are inevitably speculative because brain tissue decomposes and the fossil record is incomplete. Theories about brain function also involve speculation because our knowledge about how brains work is incomplete. There’s broad agreement on the general principles, but some hypotheses have generated what Geary calls ‘hot debate’. Despite acknowledging the debates, Geary’s model is built on assumptions about which side of the debate is correct. The assumptions involve the modularity of the brain, folk systems, intelligence, and motivation-to-control.

modularity

The general principle of modularity – that there are specific areas of the brain dedicated to processing specific types of information – is not in question. What is less clear is how specialised the modules are. For example, the fusiform face area (FFA) specialises in processing information about faces. But not just faces. It has also been shown to process information about cars, birds, butterflies, chess pieces, Digimon, and novel items called greebles. This raises the question of whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces as such (the Face Specific Hypothesis), or to process information about objects requiring fine-grained discrimination (the Expertise Hypothesis). Geary comes down on the Faces side of the debate on the grounds that the FFA does not “generally respond to other types of objects … that do not have facelike features, except in individuals with inherent sociocognitive deficits, such as autism” (p.141). Geary is entitled to his view, but that’s not the only hotly debated interpretation of the evidence.

folk systems

The general principle of ‘folk’ systems – evolved forms of thought that result from information being processed rapidly, automatically and implicitly – is also not in question. Geary admits it’s unclear whether the research is “best understood in terms of inherent modular constraints, or as the result of general learning mechanisms” but comes down on the side of children’s thinking being the result of “inherent modular systems”.  I couldn’t find a reference to Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory developed in the 1970s, which explains folk categories in terms of general learning mechanisms. And it’s regrettable that Rakison & Oakes’ 2008 review of research into how children form categories (that also lends weight to the general learning mechanisms hypothesis) wasn’t published until three years after The Origin of Mind. I don’t know whether either would have prompted Geary to amend his theory.

intelligence

In 1904 Charles Spearman published a review of attempts to measure intellectual ability. He concluded that the correlations between various specific abilities indicated “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term “General Sensory Discrimination” and similarly a “General Intelligence”” (Spearman p.272).

It’s worth looking at what the specific abilities included. Spearman ranks (p. 276) in order of their correlation with ‘General Intelligence’, performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination.

So, measures of school performance turned out to be good predictors of school performance. The measures of school performance correlated strongly with ‘General Intelligence’ – a construct derived from… the measures of school performance. This tautology wasn’t lost on other psychologists and Spearman’s conclusions received considerable criticism. As Edwin Boring pointed out in 1923, ‘intelligence’ is defined by the content of ‘intelligence’ tests. The correlations between specific abilities and the predictive power of intelligence tests are well-established. What’s contentious is whether they indicate the existence of an underlying ‘general mental ability’.

Geary says the idea that children’s intellectual functioning can be improved is ‘hotly debated’ (p.295). But he appears to look right past the even hotter debate that’s raged since Spearman’s work was published, about whether the construct general intellectual ability (g) actually represents ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. Geary assumes it does, and also accepts Cattell’s later constructs crystallised and fluid intelligence without question.

Clearly some people are more ‘intelligent’ than others, so the idea of g initially appears valid. But ‘intelligence’ is, ironically, a ‘folk’ construct. It’s a label we apply to a set of loosely defined characteristics – a useful shorthand descriptive term. It doesn’t follow that ‘intelligence’ is a biologically determined ‘something’ that ‘really exists’.

motivation-to-control

The motivation to control relationships, events and resources is a key part of Geary’s theory. He argues that motivation-to-control is an evolved disposition (inherent in the way people think) that manifests itself most clearly in the behaviour of despots – who seek to maximise their control of resources. Curiously, in referring to despots, Geary cites a paper by Herb Simon (Simon, 1990) on altruism (a notoriously knotty problem for evolution researchers). Geary describes an equally successful alternative strategy to despotism, not as altruism but as “adherence to [social] laws and mores”, even though the evidence suggests altruism is an evolved disposition, not merely a behaviour.

Altruism calls into question the control part of the motivation-to-control hypothesis. Many people have a tendency to behave in ways that increase their control of resources, but many tend to collaborate and co-operate instead, strategies that increase individual access to resources, despite reducing individual control over them. The altruism debate is another that’s been going on for decades, but you wouldn’t know that to read Geary.

Then there’s the motivation part. Like ‘intelligence’, ‘motivation’ is a label for a loosely defined bunch of factors that provide incentives for behaviour. ‘Motivation’ is a useful label. But again it doesn’t follow that ‘motivation’ is ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. The biological mechanisms involved in the motivation to eat or drink are unlikely to be the same as those involved in wanting to marry the boss’s daughter or improve on our personal best for the half-marathon. The first two examples are likely to increase our access to resources; whether they increase our control over them will depend on the circumstances. Geary doesn’t explain the biological mechanism involved.

biologically primary and secondary knowledge

In The Origin of Mind, Geary touches on the idea of biologically primary and secondary competencies and abilities but doesn’t go into detail about their implications for education. Instead, he illustrates the principle by referring to the controlled problem solving used by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in tackling the problem of how different species had arisen.

Geary says that such problem solving requires the inhibition of ‘heuristic-based folk systems’ (p.197), and repeatedly proposes (pp.188, 311, 331, 332) that the prior knowledge of scientific pioneers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace “arose from evolved folk biological systems…as elaborated by associated academic learning” (p.188). He cites as evidence the assumptions resulting from religious belief made by anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (p.187), and Wallace’s reference to an ‘Overruling Intelligence’ being behind natural selection (p.83). But this proposal is problematic, for three reasons:

The first problem is that some ‘evolved’ folk knowledge is explicit, not implicit. Belief in a deity is undoubtedly folk knowledge; societies all over the world have come up with variations on the concept. But the folk knowledge about religious beliefs is usually culturally transmitted to children, rather than generated by them spontaneously.

Another difficulty is that thinkers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace had a tendency to be born into scholarly families, so their starting point, even as young children, would not have been merely ‘folk biological systems’. And each of the above had the advantage of previous researchers having already reduced the problem space.

A third challenge is that heuristics aren’t exclusively biologically primary; they can be learned, as Geary points out, via biologically secondary knowledge (p.185).

So if biologically primary knowledge sometimes involves explicit instruction, and biologically secondary knowledge can result in the development of fast, automatic, implicit heuristics, how can we tell which type of knowledge is which?

use of evidence

Geary accepts contentious constructs such as motivation, intelligence and personality (p.319) without question. And he appears to have a rather unique take on concepts such as bounded rationality (p.172), satisficing (p.173) and schemata (p.186).

In addition, Geary’s evidence is not always contentious; sometimes it’s his conclusions that are tenuous. For example, he predicts that if social competition were a driving force during evolution, “a burning desire to master algebra or Newtonian physics will not be universal or even common. Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of American schoolchildren support this prediction and indicate that they value achievement in sports … much more than achievement in any academic area” (pp.334-5), citing a 1993 paper by Eccles et al. The ‘surveys’ were two studies, the ‘American schoolchildren’ 865 elementary school students, the ‘attitudes and preferences’ competence beliefs and task values, and the ‘academic areas’ math, reading and music. Responses show some statistically significant differences. Geary appears to overegg the evidential pudding somewhat, and to completely look past the possibility that there might be culturally transmitted factors involved.

conclusion

I find Geary’s model perplexing. Most of the key links in it – brain evolution, brain modularity, the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking, motivation and intelligence – involve highly contentious hypotheses.  Geary mentions the ‘hot debates’ but doesn’t go into detail. He simply comes down on one side of the debate and builds his model on the assumption that that side is correct.

He appears to have developed an overarching model of cognition and learning and squeezed the evidence into it, rather than building the model according to the evidence. The problem with the second approach of course, is that if the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t develop an overarching model of cognition and learning without it being highly speculative.

What also perplexes me about Geary’s model is its purpose. Teachers have been aware of the difference between implicit and explicit learning (even if they didn’t call it that) for centuries. It’s useful for them to know about brain evolution and modularity and the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking etc. But teachers can usually spot whether children are learning something apparently effortlessly (implicitly) or whether they need step-by-step (explicit) instruction. That’s essentially why teachers exist. Why do they need yet another speculative educational model?

references

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R.D.,  & Blumenfeld, P. (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self‐and task perceptions during elementary school, Child Development, 64, 830-847.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M.J., Anderson, A.W., Skudlarski, P. & Gore, J.C.  (1999). Activation of the middle fusiform ‘face area’ increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 568-573.

Rakison, D.H.  & Oakes L.M. (eds) (2008). Early Category and Concept Development.  Oxford University Press.

Simon, H.A. (1990). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science, 250, 1665-1668.

Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.