Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Educational Reform in Gondor

Reflection 5 (and maybe 6)
Educational Reform in Gondor

Part I

When we apply principles and theories to new and alien contexts, our understanding usually deepens. This reflection will attempt to do just that.
Leaving our hot and over-familiar island for another world and another age, we arrive in Middle Earth after the great war of the Ring. Sauron and his dark empire have fallen. The elves have left for happier shores. The heroic hobbits are back in the Shire.

King Aragorn reigns in Gondor over the last descendants of the ancient Numenoreans—the great fallen civilization of the Second Age. A new golden age has seemingly begun for this ancient kingdom. Their great enemy is no more, the orcs are scattered, and enemy human kingdoms are humbled. But clearly, many things are far from well. The loss and destruction during the war of the Ring have been enormous. The already small population has been further diminished, many irreplaceable talents have been killed (like the old Steward and his eldest son), the old capital Osiligath is still a mound of ruins, countless buildings in Minas Tirith have been destroyed, trade has been disrupted, and probably most farms around the city have become orc fodder. The economy is in the grip of a deep recession and there is no money for stimulus spending and no central bank that can cut interest rates. Most of the territories that used to be part of the empires of Gondor and Arnor are either depopulated, desolate or in enemy hands.

Gondor, the last outpost of golden Numenor, is clearly a third-world nation with a glorious past. How can judicious policies by Gondor’s MOE save the day?
First, we must recognize that the MOE has limited resources. Despite the large dowry that probably came with the new elvish queen, public finance is in a precarious state after years of deficit spending. The first question then is whether a state educational system directed from the white tower of Minas Tirith is a sound proposition, or whether King Aragorn should simply leave education to the vagaries of the free market and the preferences of individuals and guilds. At most, perhaps, given the positive externalities of education, Aragorn should channel an inner Milton Friedman and distribute educational vouchers to private citizen as a form of indirect subsidy.

Yet Gondor is a civilization with ancient traditions that date back more 6000 years to the ‘Eldest Days’. A state directed education with a centralised curriculum and the state training of teachers has a higher chance of preserving these traditions than private education in the hands of unpredictable private citizens. After all, state education allows the elite to dictate what is valuable and worth perpetuating, and that would no doubt include the fine traditions and beliefs that would produce future crops of brave soldiers with a taste for elvish literature. In addition, a state education system compels all young Gondor citizens to undergo a shared ‘national’ experience that is likely to lead to greater bonding. State education could be also designed to be uniformly Spartan in nature, including rigorous physical training that produces young men and women who can run for hours in full armor after marauding orcs. State education could inculcate a proper reverence for an aristocratic political tradition that has lasted since the remote age of the Edain. State education can inculcate discipline and obedience, and train the people of the lower classes to defer automatically to their betters and to accept their place in a glorious hierarchy where they are at the bottom. State education allows master artisans to train the young in making chairs, tables, swords and giant statues exactly as the ancient Numenoreans made them 5000 years ago. It will help shape the aesthetic tastes of apprentices and preempt any unseemly and unelvish innovations.

In short, if Aragorn wishes primarily to conserve the glories of the past, and ensure a supply of docile peasants and loyal soldiers, state education is the way to go. After all, is not one of the main purpose of education to ensure the ‘social continuity of life’? As Dewey puts it:

“Every one of the constituent elements of a social group, in a modern city as in a savage tribe, is born immature, helpless, without language, beliefs, ideas or social standards. Each individual who is the carrier of the life-experience of his group, in time passes away. Yet the life of the group goes on.” (Democracy and Education)

The medium through which the life of a group is renewed is education. It seems logical for Gondor to aim at perpetual conservation through education. Thus, should Aragorn arduously raise funds to supplement his meagre MOE budget? Perhaps he can persuade his queen to share the recipe for baking elvish bread. Giant state confectioneries baking these energizing delights for export will certainly generate enormous profits.

Yet given Gondor’s precarious situation, is mere conservation sufficient? Gondor’s technological prowess, excepting its exceptional skills in building lofty structures and monuments, is nothing remarkable. It is probably somewhat at the level of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Certainly there is no evidence from the Silmarillion or the Lord of the Rings trilogy that Gondor or Arnor have made any improvement to the craft and knowledge of Numenor over 3000 years. Indeed, there is every possibility of that technical skills have regressed. And civilizations with such primitive technology is ever in danger of being destroyed by lusty barbarians. Witness the fate of the western Roman empire, or the numerous and successful invasions of China from the north. Gondor, despite its great victory in the war of the Ring, is surrounded by hostile Harad and Umbar, and threatened by remnant Orcs.

Clearly, with a small economic and population base, and with its resources further diminished by war, merely conserving the old ways is not sufficient. It is probably a recipe for eventual national extinction.

Part II

Now, theoretically, Gondorian state education need not be merely conservative. Aragorn can wake up one morning and decide to build thinking schools and a learning nation. He can exhort his sages to teach less, so that his peasants can learn more.

The big problem is that the culture of Gondor appears to be primarily conservative, and addicted to customs and ancient literature. As Dewey wrote, ‘in static societies, societies which make the maintenance of established custom their measure of value’ education is simply about the child ‘catching up with the aptitudes and resources of the adult group.’ A good example of this would be imperial China, where classical learning and recitation, and the reproduction of tradition norms, were the most important aims of education. This is in contrast to more progressive societies, like modern industrial civilization, where education is usually viewed as a ‘constructive agency of improving society’, where education, ‘instead of reproducing certain habits, better habits shall be formed, and thus the future adult society be an improvement on their own’ (Democracy and Education). Singapore’s state education, for instance, certainly aims at producing citizens who have better knowledge, skills and habits on average than the previous generation—though how well it has succeeded is debatable.

It seems then, that if Aragorn wishes to use progressive state education as a means to strengthen Gondor, he may very well end up destroying much of its culture. This may not be a bad thing, since Gondor’s culture is apparently centred on imitating the civilisation of the Eldar (something that mostly perished in the First Age). Therefore, even at its very best, Gondor’s civilization would merely be an imitative thing, and its model citizens would be humans sculpted crudely in the alien image of immortal elves.

So let us say Aragorn takes the plunge. After all, as the first King of Gondor in a new Age, as a leader with undoubted credentials and pedigree, and with the old elite destroyed or in disarray, Aragorn has the political capital to push for such drastic reforms (unless his 3000-year-old wife, with a different perspective on things, objects). So how would a progressive Gondorian educational system look like? Given the undeveloped state of Gondor, something along the lines of modern mass education is out of the question (since it places a premium on scientific knowledge, inquiry and training—all of which clearly do not exist in Gondor). And Aragorn could not rely on private education either, since the all-pervasive conservative culture certainly implies conservative private education. For instance, the lack of progress in craft and technology over 3000 years is a telling sign that Gondor’s guild-based education is primarily about replicating the arts of Numenorean forefathers. To reform Gondor, a bold king of education with bold ideas is needed.

The best that could be done (and even that is assuming a relatively high degree of pre-existing mental culture) would be setting up institutions like Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum or the Museum of Alexandria—places where free thought and reason can flourish, and where human beings can improve their intellectual and ethical development through the cut and thrust of dialogues and inquiry. After all, one of the most crucial ingredients of a progressive civilisation is the propensity to question everything and anything. This tendency is best cultivated by institutions that encourage the use of reason to discover greater truths and critically examine existing social, ethical, technological, and religious norms in the hope of improving them. In essence, to set up educational institutions for training the philosophical heart and mind would be the foundation of a increasingly progressive and rational society, which may eventually, in centuries to come, lead to cultural, philosophical, economic, technical and even scientific achievements that surpass that of old Numenor. Such progress would make Gondor completely secure against external barbarians and less advanced nations. A parallel situation would be how western European nations managed to defeat everyone else and dominate the globe in the 19th and early 20th century.

Of course, the one problem with this cheery picture (besides the gradual or quick destruction of the old ossified culture) is that more and more citizens would be questioning the aristocratic political order. After all the rule of the ‘old Houses’ is merely customary, not based on rational justification. The military traditions of Gondor might also be undermined, with detrimental consequences for national security. And if the rule and life of reason becomes a mass phenomenon, it is almost inevitable that ordinary citizens would demand greater voice and representation in governance. Hence, the empire of Gondor would give way to the republic of Gondor. This is not inevitable, of course, since cultivating the life of reason in the masses require economic resources far beyond that of Aragorn’s Gondor and is a long-term prospect at best.

In addition, while progressive and technologically advanced societies like ours are fully secure against external barbarism, it is far more capable of mutual- and self-destruction. A prospect of a world like ours, which is threatened by nuclear apocalypse and a grisly parade of man-made horrors, is not a pretty one. Gondor may be able to avoid our fate by developing the whole life of reason in its progress instead of just a few lucrative aspects of it. Modern civilization has developed the scientific and economic domains enormously, but comparatively neglected the ethical, metaphysical and aesthetic dimensions. Nor has it succeeded in truly developing a high level of intellectual culture among the masses. If Gondor manages to do what we have failed to do, it may well be able to survive its own power.

It is a pity that both Gandalf and Galadriel, with their mystical abilities and knowledge have left for Valinor. It would be most ideal if Gandalf could be persuaded to ‘dumbledore’ a Gondor Academy of Magic, or at least train a cadre of flame-wielding wizards for national defense. If something of their knowledge and lore had been retained, it may be that Gondor can develop into mystic civilization instead of a technological one (mystic training of course requires a mystic pedagogy beyond the scope of these reflections). But since that is clearly no longer a viable alternative, it appears that Gondor has to philosophise or perish.

Reflection 4

Reflection 4

This reflection will continue discussing the principles of teaching thinking.

Writing is thinking

One of the best and most natural ways to teach thinking is to teach writing. Firstly, writing incarnates thought, whether we are considering economics essays, philosophical discourses, literary criticism, argumentative essays or fictional writings. Quality writing requires the pre-existence of quality thought. Secondly, for any type of writing, the writer must always consider his purpose, and then consider the best way to achieve his purpose given his audience and context. Strategic thinking is therefore crucial.

We will begin by considering the first point with reference to several types of writing.

There are a number of text patterns ('top-level' structures) which can be found in non-fiction writing. Two main types are argumentative structures where reasons are used to support claims and explanatory structures with cause and effect chains. For the first, students can only write good arguments if they first able to construct them. And they are only able to do this if they are able to use sound premises to support intermediate conclusions (if any) well, which in turn serve as premises for the final claim. Justification of claims is clearly a thinking skill. To a great extent, this skill is innate—most human beings have some a priori knowledge of the rules of inference. Philosophers argue much about how this is possible, but not many would deny we do know the rules of logic to some extent without being taught; and when we are taught these rules, the teaching seemingly reminds us and makes us more aware of something we already know.

We should be midwives who help students to give birth. We should help them to practice and refine the innate reasoning power they already possess. One of the most effective ways to do this would be to teach students how to turn a cloudy and wordy argument in their heads into a clear diagram on paper—a key skill used in informal logic ('put into standard form'), and one that can be integrated into the planning stage of process writing. The clear distinction made between premises, intermediate claims and final claims, and the greater light shed on the materials and architecture of thought, mean students are able to employ their reasoning abilities more effectively. To complement this, students also need to be taught (or perhaps reminded of) the standards of sound intellectual standards and habits (like those from Richard Paul) to evaluate and be meta-cognitive about the quality of their arguments.

For explanatory writing, equivalent strategies are necessary. For instance, pupils need to be clear about the cause and effect chains through the use of graphic organisers like the fishbone diagram. They also should know and apply the criteria for good explanations.

For fictional writing, creative thinking comes to the fore. Students need to be taught strategies to fluently generate a variety of ideas for characters, settings, plot and so on. They need to use visualisation skills to evoke scene, experience them with all five senses, and enter into their mood and atmosphere; students need to experience their characters, and even become the characters they craft, experiencing their thoughts, passions and characteristics as one’s own. They need to generate different plots and complications, preferably driven by the desires and natures of the characters.

Moving on to the second point, students have to think strategically to cater to their audience after generating sound and creative thought. In their planning, they have to be taught how to take into account the prior knowledge and perspectives of their audience, when framing their arguments and explanations and stories. They have to address gaps in knowledge, misconceptions, and entrenched points of views. Besides appealing to logos, they also need to appeal to pathos and ethos by carefully targeting the emotions of their audience and maintaining credibility through the use of appropriate tone, language and appealing authorities.

In essence, when we teach students to write effectively, we are teaching them to think effectively. For Fuhua students, I would probably have to differentiate for readiness and ask them analyse and construct simpler arguments, explanations and stories. I will have to use less complex resources and provide more scaffolding. But I do think the fundamental strategies or aims should not change, and I have the faith that they would enjoy thinking as much as my former students. They may use simpler words or less immaculate grammar, but I firmly believe they can produce quality thought.

Quality questions are needed for quality thought

This principle is central to Socrates’s pedagogy. To be a midwife of thought, one needs to ask good questions that promote higher order thinking. For this, we can depend on some taxonomy like Revised Bloom’s or Marzano’s, or use Paul’s elements of thought to generate questions that cause pupils to consider different perspectives, justify their opinions, evaluate their evidence, generate new ideas, question their assumptions, infer multiple implications, categorise ideas and so on.

In addition, one can use these taxonomies to train students to generate higher order questions. Indeed, this is arguably even more important than asking higher order questions (though the teacher would of course have to model the practice). For we want to produce students who have the habit of critically questioning what they read and hear about, whether from peers, from books or from us. As such, a functioning thinking classroom would be one where the teacher steps aside quite frequently, and where students take up much of the burden of discussion and thinking.

Is this possible for my students in a mainstream school? With suitable differentiation and adjustment, and with enough time and patience, there is no reason why it is not.

Concepts unify; concepts engage

The final principle is to that even in a largely skills-based subject like English, we need to base our teaching on concepts and generalisations. I use Hilda Taba’s definition of a concept as a word describing a class of objects with common elements, like love, setting, animals, justice, energy, demand and so on. Generalisations are statements that express relationship(s) between two or more concepts (e.g. energy cannot be created or destroyed, equity is often secured at the expense of efficiency). By their very nature, concepts and generalisations unify discrete facts, and can be applied to understand different phenomena and to solve problems in many contexts. As such, they tend to organize our knowledge, and produce ‘aha’ moments where we feel that our understanding of ourselves and the world has grown. By contrast, teaching that is largely mainly on discrete facts and skills tend to be much less engaging and cognitively stimulating.
Unlike the teaching of facts, one cannot teach concepts and generalisations by simply telling them to students, unless the students have the training and readiness to spontaneously connect the concepts and principles to their prior knowledge and experiences. Generally, it is important even when using direct instruction to exemplify concepts and principles extensively, and/or to use different strategies to stimulate pupils to relate what they know to the concepts and principles. It is in fact often better to use inductive methods like concept attainment, concept development or inquiry where pupils infer generalisations from examining phenomena or facts. In that way, pupils would be more certain and convinced about the grounds for their knowledge. Similarly, to achieve deep understanding, it is important to put contradictory generalisations and theories (which are constructed from a set of coherent generalisations) together, so that pupils are forced to consider different perspectives and acquire a comprehensive appreciation of the grounds for the generalisations or theories—including why opposite opinions are not true.
It is probable that students who are weaker in their linguistic abilities would require a significant dose of skills training (though even this can easily go beyond drill and recitation), and thus less time is available for concept development and learning. Yet, to promote reading, listening, speaking and writing skills students need to understand concepts like audience, coherence, setting, plot, climax and so on. And many effective strategies that undoubtedly improve language skills have the potential for concept teaching. Examples include integrating themed literature to hook students to read, using debate and discussion to consider social issues, teaching vocabulary acquisition strategies based on word categorisation, and teaching students reading comprehension strategies that help them connect their reading to personal experiences, other texts and self.
All in all, I look forward to new experiments, new adventures and new discoveries in my next posting.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Reflection 3

In the previous reflections, I have considered a vision of education and the reasons supporting its incarnation. In the next few reflections, I would consider some concrete applications.

For the past 5 years, I have had many educational adventures. As I was a teacher of GEP students (now called 'SBGE' (school-based gifted education) pupils), I had the opportunity to teach essentially JC topics to S4 pupils, while teaching 'normal' language and literature topics to S1-S2 pupils. As HCI, my previous school, had a 'sabbatical' system where teachers could use 1 week per term to teach whatever they wanted, I also initiated courses featuring metaphysics on the one hand, and economics on the other. When I departed to GE Branch, I continued mentoring some former students in English and economics--and this tutoring 'CIP' later evolved into a course on economics and philosophy. I relished the opportunity to continually translate what I learnt at the Branch into immediate practice.

In my adventures through English, literature, economics and philosophy—subjects which are pretty different from each other—I managed to apply and test many practices for teaching skills, understandings and facts. Throughout it all, my belief in the importance of engaging pupils in thinking continued to grow. In my last reflection, I have illustrated some of the grounds for that belief. It was a belief that I had from the beginning-though my methods and knowledge were primitive then, being largely confined to some basic training in Paul's elements of thought. This training was later supplemented (before and during MLS) by my readings in informal logic, questioning techniques, concept teaching strategies, concept-based curriculum and the analysis of text structures. Whatever I learnt, I quickly practised. Of course, many things did not work well, but many did.

Soon, I will be heading to Fuhua Secondary School as their SSD. While Fuhua pupils are relatively strong academically (compared to most mainstream schools), the profile of students there would be quite different from those I used to teach. A key concern then is how to differentiate the teaching of thinking for readiness. In this reflection and the next, I would reflect on some principles garnered from reading and experimentation that might prove useful in my personal teaching. I would have to reflect on my staff development work in future reflections.

Before I begin, I think it is useful to focus on a conception of teaching suited for the cultivation of thought. To be good teachers of thinking, we must, to some extent, be midwives. As Socrates, the archetypal midwife, puts it in the Theaetetus::

Soc. Well, my art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but differs, in that I attend men and not women; and look after their souls when they are in labour, and not after their bodies: and the triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth. And like the mid-wives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself….And therefore I am not myself at all wise, nor have I anything to show which is the invention or birth of my own soul, but those who converse with me profit. Some of them appear dull enough at first, but afterwards, as our acquaintance ripens, if the god is gracious to them, they all make astonishing progress; and this in the opinion of others as well as in their own. It is quite dear that they never learned anything from me; the many fine discoveries to which they cling are of their own making. But to me and the god they owe their delivery.

To be a good teacher of thinking, we must first have the correct self-image. We need to shift our self-conception from being solely a fertile dispenser of information (the clich├ęd ‘sage on the stage’), to being a barren Socratic midwife. Our objectives, instructional activities and assessment tasks should include at least some provision for easing the birth of thought and understanding, and for building our students’ capacity to give birth. We also need to have the constant habit of “thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man [person] brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth”, and provide feedback and adjust our instruction accordingly.

From this vision flows the rest.

1) Apply an Eclectic Conception of Thinking to Guide Instruction and Assessment

Midwives of thinking need to know a reasonably comprehensive list of thinking skills—they need to know the babies they want. Ideally, they should know at least one pedagogically useful model of thinking. There are many of these out there. The one I have used most frequently would be Richard Paul’s model of critical thinking. This model is useful for questioning (‘Socratic questioning’), and the design of instructional and assessment tasks. In addition, the model can be applied across most subjects—certainly it can be used in the four subjects I have dabbled in. (Math GEP teachers seem to have some difficulty using Paul’s wheel though, preferring Polya’s heuristics.) The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy is also useful for the same purposes, and its higher levels can be used to stimulate both critical and creative thinking. Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind are also a valuable and user-friendly list of intelligent dispositions that can guide our teaching and assessing.

Beyond these ‘pedagogically’ oriented models, I have found it extremely helpful to apply the insights of argument analysis in my teaching. The concepts of logical validity and soundness, and the distinction between premise and claim, the difference between deductive and inductive arguments (in informal logic, the former means the kind of logically valid arguments where if the premises are correct, the claim must be correct; the latter means the kind of arguments where even if the premises are correct, the claim is only probable) are also useful for the analysis of thinking. The art of turning a cloudy and wordy argument into a clear diagram on paper (‘to put into standard form’) is one that can usefully used to help students to examine their own thinking, and to help them construct arguments (more on that later).

For myself, I think the most optimal mode of operation would be to use Paul’s wheel and model as the basis for instructional and assessment design, but complement it with other perspectives (like the ‘creating’ level of Bloom’s; the different Habits of Mind; the concepts and skills of informal logic) where necessary. This is quite possible as there are significant areas of overlaps between the different taxonomies and models (after all they are dealing with the same phenomenon), and they are seldom contradictory.

Such an eclectic approach will probably allow maximum flexibility to differentiate for readiness, interests and learning profiles—something that will likely be sorely needed in my new environment. It is probably ideal to know a few models of thinking, and then apply them flexibly according to the situation.

In my next reflection, I would illustrate a few other principles for teaching thinking.