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Educational Research in Practice, 2

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

(Still in chapter 2) p 20 amused me by quoting Popper saying "All life is problem solving" and specifying page 100 in the cite, even though the quote is also found as the book's title.

Some more general comments: so far I'm finding the writing pretty clear and not meant to impress, haven't found appeals to authority, haven't found anti-human sentiments, and have found the statements about Popper's ideas pretty accurate (by contrast, most Popperian books are wildly inaccurate when they talk about Popper's ideas).

For example some of the criticism of induction is good. Swann comments that David Miller is better qualified to defend Popper's philosophy but I think she underestimates herself. So far I like her writing on this topic better than Miller's. I hope Swann hasn't been dazzled by math and logic and a more authoritative writing style.

I'll give two comments on Miller here. One I posted previously (btw if you like my comments on Popperian writing, you'll love this older post with a lot more of the same regarding a bunch of different authors):

http://curi.us/1503-critical-rationalism-essays-for-joseph-agassi
David Miller / How Little Uniformity Need an Inductive Inference Presuppose

Discussing induction with formal symbols and a formal style does not suddenly make it interesting. Popper refuted it more than enough times, and this isn't even a refutation. Most of this is tedious analysis of many possible meanings of sentences inductivists have uttered. It also comes to a conclusion about how the more evidence you have, the less strong of an inductive principle is needed. This is a vaguely pro-induction conclusion which Miller follows up by insulting induction for some reason. And anyway it can't be true unless Popper was wrong about induction's non-sequitur status, e.g. this whole argument presupposes you can have positive evidence for statements which actually you can't.
My other comment is about Critical Rationalism by David Miller. On page X, Miller describes Popper's epistemology, as explained in _The Logic of Scientific Discovery_ as "falsificationism". He also explains Popper's epistemology in section 1.2 "Outline of Falsificationism" in which he focuses exclusively on science and speaks of rejecting ideas from science when he means rejecting them as false.

But science isn't the only legitimate field and any good epistemology ought to be general purpose: it ought to reach to all fields. Popper's epistemology does work for all types of knowledge, and presenting it as being specific to only science is a mistake.

Falsificationism is a bad description of Popper's philosophy because it has been repeatedly misunderstood as meaning to justify theories by how well they withstand criticism and their rivals don't.

It's also bad because it is taken to mean empirical falsification to be used only in science -- which it often is used to mean -- but most criticism is not empirical even in science (as David Deutsch has pointed out in his books, e.g. with the example of the idea that eating grass cures the common cold, which we reject without testing). And because of Miller's heavy focus on only science, I don't even know if he meant only empirical falsification or meant criticism in general -- that ambiguity is another flaw.

And, finally, "falsificationism" a bad description because Popper himself explicitly rejected it in print! In Realism and the Aim of Science, p xxxi, Popper says, "... my views on science (sometimes, but not by me, called 'falsificationism') ..."

Back to Swann's book, I was also glad to see Popper's schema included (though I don't like abbreviating the terms, and have expanded them below):
Problem 1 -> Trial Solution -> Error Elimination -> Problem 2
Also I didn't find any anti-Popper stuff like advocacy of justificationism so far. Maybe it's sad that that's even worth mentioning, but it matters and a lot of people don't even manage that much.

The comments on what a problem is on p20 are good. Including:
The educational implication of this alternative view [of problems] is that the teacher's role should be construed in the context of problems that originate with the students (hence the idea of student-initiated curricula, discussed later in the chapter).
p 20
When problem solving involves learning, a greater degree of creativity is involved
But all problem solving involves learning. How can a problem be solved other than creating knowledge of what the solution is? Or in other words we solve problems by learning what would solve the problem (then there's also doing it, which is trivial with sufficient knowledge and only hard when our solutions are inadequate or incomplete).

p 20
Within a process of learning, there are two points at which creativity is entailed: at P, when a mismatch [between expectations and reality] is turned into a problem (as mentioned above), and at TS, when a solution to the problem is devised. [P and TS refer to Popper's schema: Problem and Trial Solution]
But the Error Elimination step in the schema also involves creativity. We must think creatively to come up with good criticisms and find mistakes and also to think of good experimental tests.

p 21
Although the logic of learning applies equally to human learning and to the learning of creatures such as cats, dogs and chimpanzees, the scope of our learning is, of course, considerably greater than that of other creatures.
But cats never learn anything. All their knowledge is biological, they don't create new knowledge. All cat behavior can be explained without attributing learning capability to cats.

We also see here the common view that ability to learn comes in degrees. But it doesn't. How can the method of learning -- guesses and criticism (aka conjectures and refutations) -- come in degrees? Either something does the method or doesn't. And if it does do guesses and criticism, what is to limit learning? The method is powerful enough for all types of learning.

And Deutsch's explanations about universality are relevant here.

p 21
Two significant features distinguish us [humans] ... our facility for descriptive and argumentative language ... and ... our creation of and interaction with a world of objective ideas
I'm a little confused now. If only humans have ideas, then what does it mean to say cats learn? How does learning differ from creating good or useful ideas, in Swann's view? If Swann agrees a cat can't create new ideas, then in what sense does it learn and what does that have to do with the usual concept of learning?

Trying to guess what could be meant: sometimes people abuse language and say things like that computer hard disks learn, and try to refer to all information storage as learning. Cats do learn just as much as computer hard disks do: they store information and later retrieve it for use in computations. But that isn't learning in the usual sense that humans do. Swann has not made this mistake and hopefully won't.

Previously Swann tried to explain learning in terms of gaining new expectations. Cats, however, never gain new types of expectations that are not already defined by their biology/genes. Dogs will make a better example here since cats don't do as much. When we teach a dog a command like "sit", "stay" or "fetch" it's easy to confuse that with learning. But it isn't going beyond the dog's biology. But it sort of looks like it is. I'll explain:

When we teach the "sit" command the dog remembers it (stores information) and seems to gain a new skill. And we could try to phrase this in terms of creating a new expectation: the dog now expects that after hearing "sit" it will get rewards for sitting and complaints for walking around.

But the whole thing is scripted by the dog's genes. The "teaching" process for the command, the storage of information, the retrieval of that information, the behavior algorithms that take into account that information when present. Dogs don't actually have expectations in the human sense: they aren't actively thinking and wondering about what will happen and coming up with ideas and predictions and expectations. Rather, dogs don't think, they just run computations like Microsoft Word or Angry Birds. Those computations compute what behavior the dog will perform, taking into account input data from both the dog's senses and memory (information storage).

If you try to teach a dog a trick that doesn't fit with its genetic programming, you will never succeed. If you try to teach a dog to form an expectation that white has a large material advantage in a chess position it can see then white will usually win unless it's an odds game or white is about to get checkmated or something, then the dog will never be able to create that expectation. Dogs can't create expectations in general, they can only store information that is taken into account by the algorithms that control all their behaviors.

p 22 makes some points connecting Popperian epistemology, and a rejection of conventional epistemology, to education. I agree and think this is important. For example it points out that the following list of common ideas about what learning involves are wrong:

  • direct instruction from the physical or social environment
  • direct copying of what we see
  • the exact replication of something we have done previously
  • the accumulation of confirming evidence
However then p 22 says:
The case in support of a Popperian position, and against the common assumptions stated above, is complex.
But it's a non-Popperian mistake to judge issues by how much "support" they have or to believe ideas can be supported at all. That is justificationism!

The book then provides some references and leads for getting further information and moves on to the topic of attempts to apply Popper's ideas to education in the UK. Taking Children Seriously, David Deutsch's Popperian educational philosophy, is not mentioned.

Swann gives a list of things she thinks should be avoided when promoting learning (p 23):

  • restricting autonomous activity
  • discouraging confidence and desire
  • penalizing the discovery of error
  • offering inappropriate and inadequate criticism
  • offering 'unwanted answers to unasked questions' (Popper 1992b[1974], p. 40)
  • using objectives-based (in contrast to problem-based) planning and evaluation
What is inappropriate criticism?

And what is inadequate criticism for that matter? Our ideas, including our criticisms, are never perfect. We always use and learn from flawed criticisms.

I agree with the others.

Swann goes on to talk about "safe" learning environments without explaining what "safe" means. She also, in the same paragraph, praises a "critical attitude towards ideas". So presumably "safe" doesn't mean never being told you're wrong, as some people might mean it. But what does it mean? Does it merely mean that no one should be mean or hurt each other? Does it mean no "inappropriate" criticism, whatever that is?

p 24
A distinctive feature of the approach we have adopted in our own educational practice, and advocate in our publications, is the development of student-initiated curricula, whereby students are responsible, with tutor support, for devising their own learning programmes based on their own self-formulated learning problems.
It's good to allow students to do this. But what if they don't want to? Making them responsible for doing this sounds bad to me. I think they should have the option of using default curricula as much as they want, and using their own as much as they want, too.

Elliot Temple on March 25, 2012

Comments (1)

On Miller

The criticism of Miller is false, because, although he does no consider a more general theory of knowledge, that is not his intention in the essay and would only detract from his discussion, which is, as the title 'the problem of induction' would suggest, about the demarcation of science and else, Popper's view here is falsificationist, whether or not we can, per deutsch, reject a conjecture for other reasons. Saying that he 'explains popper's epistemology as falsificationism' is just a misreading, he makes it clear that it is a methodological proposal; Popper's epistemology is, as Miller, rightly points out, fallibilism not falsificationism. Miller is not misrepresenting Popper you are misreading Miller.

You also say that in this section he focuses excusively on science. well yes, becaus he is discussing falsification, which is about science, as you yourself, if you had thought through your criticism of his labeling of Poppers epistemology as falsificationism( which he did not do) would have understood. The whole essay focuses excusively on the demarcation problem, which is a problem in the methodology of science. If you reject something from science that has original been allowed in, you would only reject it because it is false. the reason the emphasis is on rejecting it from science is because he is concentrating on the method acceptance and rejection in science.

Andrew Crawshaw at 12:39 PM on May 6, 2015 | #2466

What do you think?

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