Modern Art, and the Art of Educational Assessment

The spheres of science, morality and art are a recurring pattern in sociology. Weber saw these spheres split into expert cultures as religion collapsed. Habermas refers to these spheres as the objective, social, and subjective worlds. Lyotard uses the warmer terms of truth, justice and beauty. The modern world has difficulty holding these spheres together.

A failure to integrate is described by Weber as the iron cage, by Marx as alienation, by Lyotard as the terrors of performativity, and by Habermas as legitimation crises. Each thinker proffers a solution; respectively bureaucracy, revolution, paralogy, and postconventional reasoning.

As a physics teacher, science was always my strong suit.  I had difficulty with normative ethics, and as year level coordinator often couldn’t offer good argument as to why a student should comply with uniform policy. I was both year level coordinator and school timetabler for a period. I always put greater effort into the timetable. I knew if I could make sure students from 9A didn’t meet students from 9C in the quadrangle during period changeover, my year level coordinator duties would be much diminished.

The literature and art teachers hung out at the staffroom low chairs, from where a weekly cake club was also organised.  It was from these low chairs that my most fruitful teaching collaborations sprang, as well as my lasting friendships.  It was where my physics teaching merged into technology, and then into art, through subjects such as textiles and sound engineering, as well as the school radio club.

Even though a physics teacher, I knew the other subjects were the most important. I admired those who taught normative ethics through humanities, and meaning through the arts. I considered science, and functions like the timetable, as simply facilitating the more important aspects of life. These collaborations changed with the rise of neoliberalism, my interest waned, and I left teaching.

I was lucky to get a job on the PISA project as a junior, and because I could juggle technology and art in the normative context of the PISA, I was lucky enough to lead the PISA’s computer-based test of science 2006.  I had to coordinate software engineers and test developers who had to develop test items. Gunther Kress wasn’t big yet, but I’d read Umberto Eco, and so I explained this new media in terms of Foucault’s Pendulum, and the Name of the Rose, and got the job done. The project worked well, and while the PISA was a rewarding job, it really couldn’t handle the data from this new medium. I didn’t see that as a problem at the time, and I also thought the whole exercise a bit remote, like timetabling, and couldn’t see myself working for a statistics centre cycle after cycle. How boring would that be, and how wrong I was. I was in the eye of the storm.

After a decade of working in the department, I decided to revisit the assessment period of my life through a PhD. In between drafts, I have found time to revisit art. In preparation for Melbourne’s MOMA exhibition, I read Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New. And this too, told me a lot about the development in educational assessment.

Educational assessment, like art, is about creating symbols and representations. Hughes’ does a great job of describing the tortured history art has with the unrepresentable. There is a similar tension in educational assessment. Two analogies struck me, the mechanical fascination for verticality, illustrated by The Red Tower by Robert Delaunay from ~1912, and the absurd rise of the commercial art market in the 1970s and 1980s.

Robert Delaynay – The Red Tower 1911-12

The fascination with verticality in art is reflected in the fascination with the linear scale in educational assessment. It’s as if the higher you go, the further that you can see. And through the power of the gaze comes the power of the observer.

I understand the PISA’s exacting scientific methods. I also understand that it presents the best evidence, and also that at best, its evidence is just an impression. More like a Cézanne painting than a photographic snapshot.

Paul Cézanne – Mont Sainte-Victoire 1904

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the symbols that the PISA produces cannot be used as currency, in conferences, papers and arguments. But the way I see them used, it also reminds me of  Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and that educational assessment, like any symbol, can act as an  “operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and shortcircuits all its vicissitudes”.

Art tells us that educational assessment simply produces symbols that are at best a pale reflection of a preconceived reality. These symbols can be distorted and exploited, until one day their utility will diminish, and a new dawn will emerge.

Should men or society stop the Harvey Weinstein’s of this world

There is universal outrage over Harvey Weinstein’s apparent behaviour in Hollywood, and so there should be. Of greater concern are claims that this behaviour is the tip of the iceberg, and indicative of men’s behaviour in Western society more generally including Australia. Calls for men to be more proactive to address this matter is problematic however, and instead a more radical response is required.

There are circumstances when men have opportunities to intervene and call out bad behaviour of other men. However, these opportunities present only after society has already let women down, and only provide for shallow responses.  Like giving loose dollars to a homeless beggar, some succour perhaps, but too late and after the damage done.

To intervene on behalf of a woman is itself patriarchal and conservative. Other than in the most extreme circumstances, what right has anyone to interfere with the liberty of another, and to interfere with choices women make on partners. Further, abuse of women is often in private, hidden from others, and beyond imagination. This is the issue that needs to be tackled.

Politics is more private and personal for women than for men. Matters related to reproduction, violence, abuse and childcare, tend to affect women more harshly than men. Pain is often suffered in private, in silence, and impenetrable to communities. Individual men are often not placed or equipped to help in sometimes complex matters, but society can.

I recently read Anne Summers’ Misogyny Factor, and was confronted by how bad things are for many women today. I was also reminded of how the Office of Women’s Affairs was established in 1975, and how much progress it achieved before it was progressively dismantled. It is towards this kind of radical response to which Australia needs to return. An office of competent bureaucrats charged with coordinating public policy on women. An office responsible for developing legislation and policy, for coordinating states, for coordinating agencies, for developing education campaigns, and for reporting statistics and indices. It is only through collective effort in government that lives of marginalised women can be effectively changed.

There will be conservatives who argue against bureaucracy, against red tape, and against larger government. Others will pillory initiatives, and accuse government of social engineering. It is here where true radicalism begins, to argue in favour of building and defending institutions that fight injustice and uphold personal freedoms.

There will be other conservatives who argue that developing new consensus positions is not compatible with freedom. That it is not the role of government to interfere with the private. These need to be argued through, policy by policy, norm by norm, campaign by campaign. It must be clear, matters of rape, violence and poverty are nonnegotiable issues needing real solutions.

Some conservative commentators have sought to gain exposure and media advantage from Weinstein’s behaviour. Using this single case, in a distant land, and predominantly involving glamorous white women, to fan outrage and reproach a whole sex. As if the pain is often not experienced double by women of colour in Australia (Intersectionality? Not while feminists participate in pile-ons). As if the second X chromosome provides for telepathic communication with male HQ.  These white conservative commentaries are opportunistic and simplistic. A competition on who can express injustice most eloquently, most passionately, or with most venom. They do not proffer solutions or analyses, nor engender feasible action.

predominantly white glamorous victims Vanity Fair

My research interest in social science is not feminism, but technology and changes to work. A clear and consistent message from my research is that societies that cannot address inequalities in gender and race, will find it increasingly difficult to participate in technology’s progressive future.

Philosophy of Education – the need for design patterns

I recently saw critique from the UK Push on John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Buner, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori. The critique suggested that these historical figures hinder engagement with more contemporary research.  The critique came from a person not that familiar with research. This points to a broader problem that might be solved using philosophical design patterns that might make it easier for the lay person to engage.

Teaching – like architecture, software development and educational assessment – is a recurring activity.  Pattern language was first made popular in architecture through Alexander et al. (1977) in the book A Pattern Language. Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides (1995) directly drew on this work to develop a set of design patterns for software development. The use of a pattern language greatly assisted, for example, in the building of the internet that required working groups of various sorts to develop standards (Leiner et al., 2009).  Mislevy et al. (2003) drew on this earlier work in patterns to develop design patterns for assessing science inquiry. Perhaps it is time to extend the notion of design patterns into teaching to make teaching’s underpinnings more transparent.

Currently, most of education’s recurring patterns are represented using the names of key thinkers. This can become confusing, as often these patterns are explored by different authors from different perspectives. For example, the empirical-rational divide is commonly traced back to Kant (1781/2016), but could equally be discussed in terms of Hume (1739/1985), or a range of other thinkers. This can become confusing, not only for the likes of the UK Push not familiar with research, but also for others actively involved in research.

I here proffer possible design patterns for the key thinkers that the UK Push object to. These are by no means completely thought through, and are highly reductionist as presented here. They are provided by way of suggestion. These are the patterns that these thinkers represent for me, others will have different ideas.

John Dewey – stands for education being a social and interactive process that focuses on socialisation. This is a common theme explored throughout sociology. Key examples include the sociology of Parsons (1937/1968a, 1937/1968b), and the notion of education as initiation of Peters (2007). The dialectic is often described by others, for example Berger (1967/2011) when he declares “that society is the product of man and that man is the product of society” (p. 13).

Lev Vygotsky – stands for teaching students material they are likely to understand, more commonly referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development. This theme is drawn on, for example, by Griffin (2007) and Masters (2013) in relation to Rasch-based assessment.  Vygotsky also stands for the dialectical relationship between technology and learning. Something picked up, for example, by Papert (1993). Similarly PISA makes changes to its assessment constructs to include new elements over PISA cycles to incorporate developments in technology (OECD, 2006; 2016, p. 42). These are two patterns that Vygotsky represents for me.

Jerome Bruner – stands for the teaching of process in education, and that education is not just about memorisation. He talks of scaffolding, that refers to children building on information they have already assimilated. In this sense, Bruner’s patterns overlaps somewhat with that of Vygotsky.

Jean Piaget – stands for cognitive and moral development. Where his approach varies to that of Vygotsky and Bruner, for example, is with its focus on moral development. Themes picked up by Kohlberg (1971) and Gilligan (1977).

Maria Montessori – stands for the feminine aspects of education. Her early work with mentally challenged children shows a focus on unconditional care towards children. Her work also represents an emphasis on the sensorial in addition to the cognitive.

While I’m not expecting agreement on the pattern outlines I have suggested here, they provide a flavour of what we are referring to when we invoke Dewey, Vygotsky, Buner, Piaget and Montessori. When these names are invoked, we are not subscribing to an encompassing approach to education. Instead, we are referring to a pattern of concern. Teachers reconcile demands of these patterns daily.  These are complex decisions that the simple minded of the UK Push deride at their own peril.

 

Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A pattern language: Towns, buildings, construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gamma, E., Helm, R., Johnson, R., & Vlissides, J. (1995). Design patterns: Elements of reusable object-oriented software. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Gilligan, C. (1977). In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4), 481-517.

Griffin, P. (2007). The comfort of competence and the uncertainty of assessment. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 33(1), 87-99.

Hume, D. (1985). Treatise on human nature (A. Selby-Bigge Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  (Original work published 1739)

Kant, I. (2016). Critique of pure reason (P. Guyer & A. W. Wood, Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press.  (Original work published 1781)

Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development as a basis for moral education. In C. M. Beck, B. S. Crittenden, & Ε. V. Sullivan (Eds.), Moral education (pp. 23-92): University of Toronto Press.

Leiner, B. M., Cerf, V. G., Clark, D. D., Kahn, R. E., Kleinrock, L., Lynch, D. C., . . . Wolff, S. (2009). A brief history of the Internet. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review, 39(5), 22-31.

Masters, G. N. (2013). Reforming educational assessment: Imperatives, principles and challenges.

Mislevy, R. J., Hamel, L., Fried, R., Gaffney, T., Haertel, G., Hafter, A., . . . Wenk, A. (2003). Design Patterns for Assessing Science Inquiry. Retrieved from Menlo Park: https://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/publications/tr1_design_patterns.pdf

OECD. (2006). Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy: A Framework for PISA 2006. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD. (2016). PISA 2015 assessment and analytical framework: Science, reading, mathematic and financial literacy. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Parsons, T. (1968a). The structure of social action: A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers, voume 1. New York: The Free Press.  (Original work published 1937)

Parsons, T. (1968b). The structure of social action: A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers, voume 2. New York: The Free Press.  (Original work published 1937)

Peters, R. S. (2007). Education as Initiation. In R. Curren (Ed.), Philosophy of education: An anthology (pp. 55-67). Maldon MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Just gaming – educational assessment and performativity

The use of technology-based games in educational assessment has implications for what is valued in education. The use of games shifts the focus away from seeking common understanding to strategic goal orientation or performativity.

Lyotard’s (1984) work on performativity provides a good basis for critiquing the use of games in educational assessment, for Lyotard, technology provides for

a game pertaining not to the true, the just, or the beautiful, etc., but to efficiency: a technical “move” is “good” when it does better and/or expends less energy than another. (p. 44)

This observation concurs with my own experience when completing a unit on corporate strategy in a university delivered business degree. The corporate strategy unit included the game ‘Ages of Empire’ as part of the coursework and unit assessment. This game did not address truth. For example, the weapons were not true in relation to laws of physics, and the progress in civilisations was not true in relation to understood history. That the game required me to ‘kill’ members of my opponents’ army did not equate to understood justice. Further, while the game used colours in the way that poker machines draws in the vulnerable, the game did not represent beauty.  Instead, the game focused on a strategic orientation towards vanquishing others in the shortest time. In these respects, Lyotard is spot on.

I became very good at the game ‘Ages of Empire’. At the final exam, a guy who I had earlier worked with in group presentations was randomly next to me on the game’s ‘strategic landscape’. As per the rules of the game, I annihilated him out of the game swiftly, and went on to win the game overall. I got a high mark for the course, but a potential friendship was lost. That is the nature of the gaming.

Habermas (1985) considers social action (action involving other people) as either communicative in seeking common understanding, or strategic in being goal oriented. Action can also be instrumental (acting towards objects). Educational assessments are generally communicatively oriented, in that they to try find how much a student’s knowledge is held in common with the teacher or educational system. Educational assessment can also be instrumentally oriented, for example in how well a student can master a technology. When acting strategically, as in a game, an assessment asks a student to act, openly or deceptively, against another student or computer agent. This later scenario is the most troublesome for me.

Educational assessment experts have been playing with game-based assessment for some time. Shute and Torres (2012) argue that game-based assessment support views that consider learning as goal oriented. Mislevy, Behrens, Dicerbo, Frezzo, and West (2012) also find principles of game design as compatible with principles of learning; particularly when it is framed around the structure of reasoning. However, for me, the question remains, what is being assessed.

While game-based learning and simulation environments make it possible to assess students’ interaction with complex systems (Frezzo, Behrens, & Mislevy, 2009), a concern remains that they will drift into performativity. That is, away from truth, justice and beauty, and into a performance maze where what is considered as performance is determined by computer programmers, and what is considered good performance is determined by input/output ratios. Performativity par excellence (Lyotard, 1984; Lyotard & Thébaud, 1985/2008). It evokes the dystopia of the films The Hunger Games and The Matrix (I haven’t seen either though).

The key philosophical thinkers in the latter half of the twenty first century were all profoundly moved by what happened in World War II. When we start to think about game-based assessment, we need to follow their lead and think whether we want students to learn when it is just to kill, or if we want them learn to kill as many as they can in a short time.

 

 

 

 

Frezzo, D. C., Behrens, J. T., & Mislevy, R. J. (2009). Design Patterns for Learning and Assessment: Facilitating the Introduction of a Complex Simulation-Based Learning Environment into a Community of Instructors. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 19(2), 105-114.  10.1007/s10956-009-9192-0

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, J.-F., & Thébaud, J.-L. (2008). Just gaming (W. Godzich, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  (Original work published 1985)

Mislevy, R. J., Behrens, J. T., Dicerbo, K. E., Frezzo, D. C., & West, P. (2012). Three Things Game Designers Need to Know About Assessment. 59-81.  10.1007/978-1-4614-3546-4_5

Shute, V. J., & Torres, R. (2012). Where streams converge: Using evidence-centered design to assess Quest to Learn. In M. C. Mayrath, J. Clarke-Midura, & D. H. Robinson (Eds.), Technology-based assessments for 21st century skills: Theoretical and practical implications from modern research (pp. 91-124).

Empirical is only half of it

I am concerned about the UK Push’s emphasis on the empirical. While a focus on empiricism maybe understandable given contemporary proliferation of data (Behrens & DiCerbo, 2014), the historical tension between the empirical and rational is ignored by the UK Push; as it drifts away from reason into ideology.

There are many ways of characterising the rational side of science. Plato uses forms, Kant uses categories, Kuhn uses paradigms, Morgan (1997) uses metaphor, others use the concept of structures. Each of these different characterisations address different aspects of the rational in the rational-empirical divide. In this blog, I will use the term mental model drawn from Senge (1992).

Mental models frame how we conduct empirical activities, they frame how we collect and interpret data. This has traditionally been a chicken or the egg argument; does the mental model or the data come first. Contemporary approaches consider there to be dialectic between the two, where one informs the other. That is, mental models evolve with the awareness and availability of new data and evidence.

Mental models can frame how educational assessments are conducted. For example, TIMSS and PISA describe their mental models in respective frameworks. Each program uses a different mental model, and this results in different empirical data and claims. These claims can often be reconciled through further reasoning; as Wu (2009) does, for example, for mathematics achievement in TIMSS and PISA.

Different mental models sometimes exist for the same phenomenon. Light provides a good example.  In physics, light can be considered a particle studied using methods and equations used for the study of billiard balls. Light can also be considered a wave studied using methods for studying waves in a pond. The wave and particle model are equally valid with their use depending on purpose.

Sometimes new mental models supplant older ones that no longer fit. The movement of planets provides a classic example. Once the earth was considered stationary and at the centre of the cosmos. This led to complicated equations to describe the movement of planets. Copernicus came up with a better model that considered the sun as stationary. This led to less complicated equations and easier science. This is what Kuhn (1970) characterises as a paradigm shift.

An important feature of paradigm shifts, and better ways of knowing, is that it requires the development of a better model. Paradigm shifts cannot be created simply by criticising old ideas as is the want of the UK Push. The criticism from the UK Push is the kind that Galileo experienced from the Roman Inquisition when he first proposed that the sun be the centre of planetary motion.

Different mental models can be used for the same phenomena in different spheres of life. Music provides an excellent example. Sound can be studied through the science of physics to make technologies for creating music, special effects and so forth.  Performers of music on the other hand communicate differently using scales, chords, time signatures etc. The discipline of music can vary across cultures and is distinct from the discipline of physics. Then there is the aesthetic experience of enjoying music which is considerably subjective and can be oblivious to theories in both music and physics.

Mental models around social constructions – how people relate to each other – have been considerably challenged in the past decades. Major blind spots have been identified since Jefferson found it self-evident ”that all men are created equal” in 1776. That statement itself left out women leading to the feminist movement (for example Butler, 1990/2007; Irigaray, 1995). Former colonies felt marginalised leading to postcolonialism (for example Said, 1978/1994; Spivak, 1985/2010).  There is also Foucault (1990) who challenged traditional perceptions of sexuality and marginalisation. Crenshaw (1991) highlights how race, gender and other identity categories feed into politics and marginalise individuals. These forces challenge shared mental models in the social sciences.

Language is central to mental models and to how they work in the social sphere. For example, Butler (1990/2007, pp. 12-13) notes that social science refers to things like gender as a dimension of analysis, but gender can also be applied to a person, where language is used to create a person’s gender. Here Butler is drawing on the work of the British philosopher Austin (1962/1975) in How to Do Things With Words. Austin points out that not only can words be used describe things, words can also use to construct things like gender. In this way, mental models, as articulated through language, can be used to construct or reinforce the identity of individuals including students.

Empirical evidence is therefore only half of the scientific method. Scientific arguments also requires examination of the rationales, mental models, and language used. London based Driver, Newton, and Osborne (2000, p. 289), for example, argue that empirical work should not be portrayed as the basic procedural step of scientific practice. Instead, they consider empirical evidence as providing evidence for knowledge claims that can be tested using argument through models such as proposed by Toulmin (1958/2003).

With its fixation on empirical evidence the UK Push are oblivious to the mental models that furnish interpretations of data, evidence, and about what works. Conscious or unconscious ideologies underpinning their mental models remain hidden from scrutiny, argument and debate. That the UK Push’s focus is on debasing and ridiculing existing ideas, often drawn from the margins of the literature, points to a reductive and dangerous form of reasoning. Particularly in the absence of proffering new well-formed ideas. In not being able to create new ideas, all that is left is to import the ideas of others, such as the UK phonics check.

 

Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words (J. O. Urmson & M. Sbisá Eds. 2nd ed.). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.  (Original work published 1962)

Behrens, J. T., & DiCerbo, K. E. (2014). Harnessing the Currents of the Digital Ocean. In J. A. Larusson & B. White (Eds.), Learning analytics: From research to practice (pp. 39-60). New York: Springer.

Butler, J. (2007). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. London: Routledge.  (Original work published 1990)

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Driver, R., Newton, P., & Osborne, J. (2000). Establishing the norms of scientific argumentation in classrooms. Science education, 84(3), 287-312.

Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume I. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.

Irigaray, L. (1995). The question of the other (N. Guynn, Trans.). Yale French Studies(87), 7-19.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (Second Enlarged ed.): The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Morgan, G. (1997). Images of Organization. California: SAGE Publications.

Said, E. W. (1994). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.  (Original work published 1978)

Senge, P. M. (1992). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Milsons Point: Random House.

Spivak, G. C. (2010). Can the subaltern speak? In R. C. Morris (Ed.), Can the subaltern speak?: Reflections on the history of an idea (pp. 21-78). New York: Columbia University Press.  (Original work published 1985)

Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The uses of argument (Updated ed.). New York: Cambridge university press.  (Original work published 1958)

Wu, M. (2009). A comparison of PISA and TIMSS 2003 achievement results in mathematics. PROSPECTS, 39(1), 33-46.

Rejoinders – Learning Styles and bovver boys

Comment one

One “side” approaches T&L from a scientific POV, the other from a sociological POV. You won’t agree as you are arguing past each other.

Rejoinder one

To afford the UK Push the status of a side is to elevate them beyond their competence. They are not my interlocutors.  Education brings many perspectives, of which Australia has an abundance. My interlocutors include:

  • anybody seeking to engage for new objective, social and personal understandings
  • philosophers from analytics and continental (German & French) perspectives, including feminists and post-colonialists
  • academics from education and other perspectives (plus their literature)
  • educational theorists on validity and approaches to argument
  • curriculum developers
  • test developers
  • teachers and early childhood workers working from an ethic of care
  • educational leaders including leading teachers, principals, regional, state and federal managers
  • organisations implementing global assessments
  • organisations implementing national assessments
  • state organisations implementing secondary school certificates
  • schools performing evaluations
  • teachers assessing in the classroom
  • parents of infants who are required to assess their new born
  • bureaucracies coordinating resources for school systems
  • teachers of initial teacher education
  • professionals providing professional development and coaching to the teaching workforce
  • teacher organisations and unions
  • authorities that develop teacher education standards
  • higher education providers that implement teacher education standards
  • human resource units the support teachers
  • employ health and safety organisations that seek to support teachers, particularly to address bullying

There over 300,000 across 8 states and territories, plus those working in higher education, bureaucracies and consultancy roles, that provide for a diverse Australian educational landscape. Whenever I engage with these interlocutors I am regularly humbled by their depth of knowledge and expertise.

The UK Push are thugs seeking to pillory and vilify those working in the Australia’s education sector, they are not seeking to constructively engage with it. They do not represent any side or perspective.

Learning styles and bovver boys

I am increasingly concerned by bullying around learning styles arising from a so called globalised spontaneous movement I’ll call the UK Push.  The UK Push into Australia is having a corrosive effect on Australia’s pluralistic educational culture and debates. I do not deny that Australia’s education sector requires attention. I’m arguing that the UK Push is regressive and toxic because it promotes blunt forms of argumentation that do not consider social context. I also consider much of the argument disingenuous in that it is goal oriented and not oriented towards understanding.

Central to my concern is how Australian educators are being harassed in the guise of myth busting using blunt forms of logic. I first became aware of this when I attended my first AARE conference in Melbourne (2016) when sharing coffee with random attendees.  The latest twitter storm was being discussed, and one person said they had abandoned twitter that morning because their AARE session had been vilified by the UK Push.

Many educators approach education from an ethic of care and are particularly prone to bullying. As Noddings (2003) explains, a person who engages others from an ethic of care “is not seeking the answer but the involvement” (p. 176). Care is of primary importance in education. It is through an ethic of care that new insights and understandings become possible. When involvement is inauthentic and hostile, those engaging can experience toxicity and distress. Of course, those who approach life from an ethic of care still need to reason, but this reasoning needs to proceed with an empathy for different perspectives. It requires moral development (Gilligan, 1977; Kohlberg, 1971; Murphy & Gilligan, 1980). This form of reasoning is lacking in the UK Push.

Deciding what is a good decision in one classroom and not in another is important in education. Context matters, and the logic of the UK Push lack this moral and ethical sophistication. By way of example, I was recently watching a video of a UK speaker – who is associated with the UK Push – describing the nature of logic. He was asked about logic and context. One question piqued my interest. The questioner said that while he accepted that it was wrong to kill, he asked if in certain situations and certain contexts this view might be different. The speaker glossed over this question, saying it was a matter of ‘generalisation’, where ‘generalisation’ refers to saying things like ‘dogs have four legs, and know that there might be some dogs without, without worrying about being inaccurate’. While acknowledging that the context may have been rushed and informal,  the speaker floundered on the question of assumptions underlying an argument, and floundered when presented with a moral and ethical question.

The UK Push lack the kind of sophisticated reasoning that is central to education. For example, the field of educational assessment has highly evolved evidentiary approaches to reasoning  (Mislevy, Steinberg, & Almond, 2003). Newton and Shaw (2014), also from the UK, provide an excellent analysis on the historical vicissitudes of educational assessment validity. A recent special edition of Assessment In Education scientifically progressed this debate (Newton & Baird, 2016). The USA also has a strong tradition through the work of Messick (1989) with its concern for social consequences, and the argument-based approach of Kane (2006). Many educators in Australia are well versed in these approaches. Not so the UK Push.

Justifying generalisations and presuppositions to an argument are key to the process of argumentation. In not providing these justifications, the UK Push are blind to the a priori assumptions behind their uses of data and evidence. Bex, Prakken, Reed, and Walton (2003, p. 142) argue that generalisations may be validly challenged on three grounds: the source of the generalisation, the circumstances in which the generalisation applies, and on the nature of the generalisation itself.

The arguments of the UK Push lack moral and ethical reasoning. Their approach to argument is based on forms of logic and reasoning that are tautological.  This is a form of argumentation where an argument’s conclusions are embedded in its presuppositions; for example, “Anne is one of Jack’s sisters; All Jack’s sisters have red hair; So, Anne has red hair.” (Toulmin, 1958/2003, p. 115).

The UK Push lack the sophisticated form of arguments that calls for the justification of claims based on evidence, and which provides opportunity for rebuttal. This is the approach advocated by British philosopher Toulmin (1958/2003),  and adopted in contemporary approaches to educational assessment validity (Kane, 2006; Mislevy, 2006).

The UK Push rely on blunt forms of reasoning that ignore claims to normative rightness and subjective truthfulness. They ignore Australia’s context and the unique legal, social, cultural, and economic constraints that Australian teachers work in. This is illustrated in the UK Push’s desire to arbitrarily translate programs such as the phonics test directly to Australia. These claims are made without justification of the appropriateness of the test for the local context. They do not reference the knowledge that Australian teachers have on phonics, nor Australia’s research on the matter, including a National Inquiry.  Further, the efficacy of the UK program remains moot (Clark, 2013; Bradbury, 2014).

The pernicious nature of the UK Push’s use of argumentation is evident in learning styles.  The UK Push pillories those who engage with learning styles, yet provide no original research on the matter. Refusing to even consider the various constructions or models of learning styles.  Engaging not for progress, but for power and control. Scientific progress generally occurs when better ideas supplant problematic ones (Kuhn, 1970). Paradigm shifts requires real research, not badgering through cherry picked arguments from other researchers. For example, I suggest to move from learning styles towards Kress’ (2010) notion of semiotic resources. But the UK Push do not seek to progress the debate, illustrating a strategic orientation, and not an orientation towards new understanding.

While hounding people about learning styles, the UK Push do not explicate or describe the theories about which they seek to engage. The term “learning styles” is used as an empty signifier, without explication. This leads to a form of debating that Carnap (1928/2005), for example, considers pseudoproblems of philosophy, and illustrates that the UK Push are not interested in scientific discourse, but rather, in gaining power and control over other educators and educational research.

It is clear to me that the debate about learning styles is not a scientific debate. It’s a commercial pursuit into Australia’s educational fabric. Lewin (1947), for example, developed the notion of unfreeze, change and freeze in the study of group dynamics. It seems that a bastardised version of this model is happening with the UK Push.  Where bovver boys are attempting to unfreeze so a UK saviour can emerge in its wake. That Australian academics are legitimating this push is even sadder.

Bex, F., Prakken, H., Reed, C., & Walton, D. (2003). Towards a formal account of reasoning about evidence: argumentation schemes and generalisations. Artificial Intelligence and Law, 11(2), 125-165.

Bradbury, A. (2014). ‘Slimmed down’ assessment or increased accountability? Teachers, elections and UK government assessment policy. Oxford Review of Education, 40(5), 610-627.  10.1080/03054985.2014.963038

Carnap, R. (2005). The logical structure of the world: and, pseudoproblems in philosophy (R. A. George, Trans.). Chicago: Open Court.  (Original work published 1928)

Gilligan, C. (1977). In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4), 481-517.

Clark, M. (2013). The phonics check for Year 1 children in England: Unresolved issues of its value and validity after two years. Education Journal, 177, 13-15.

Kane, M. T. (2006). Validation. In R. L. Brennan (Ed.), Educational measurement (4th ed., pp. 17-64). Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger Publishers.

Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development as a basis for moral education. In C. M. Beck, B. S. Crittenden, & Ε. V. Sullivan (Eds.), Moral education (pp. 23-92): University of Toronto Press.

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: Routledge.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (Second Enlarged ed.): The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method, and Reality in Social Service: Social Equilibria and Social Change. Human relations, 1(1).

Messick, S. (1989). Validity. In R. L. Linn (Ed.), Educational measurement (3rd edition) (pp. 13-103). Washington: American Council on Education.

Mislevy, R. J. (2006). Cognitive psychology and educational assessment. In R. L. Brennan (Ed.), Educational measurement (4th ed., pp. 257-305). Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger Publishers.

Mislevy, R. J., Steinberg, L. S., & Almond, R. G. (2003). Focus Article: On the Structure of Educational Assessments. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspective, 1(1), 3-62.

Murphy, J. M., & Gilligan, C. (1980). Moral development in late adolescence and adulthood: A critique and reconstruction of Kohlberg’s theory. Human development, 23(2), 77-104.

Newton, P. E., & Baird, J.-A. (2016). The great validity debate. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 23(2), 173-177.  10.1080/0969594x.2016.1172871

Newton, P. E., & Shaw, S. D. (2014). Validity in educational and psychological assessment. London: SAGE.

Noddings, N. (2003). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The uses of argument (Updated ed.). New York: Cambridge university press.  (Original work published 1958)

The grassroots approach – being a Dave Grohl

Grassroots is a sought-after designation and is associated with an unfettered authenticity in communion with colleagues.  Australian education has a grassroots tradition.  As a junior teacher, I observed senior teachers move to work in the union movement, to the exam board, into various branches of the bureaucracy, and into academia. During the political maelstrom of Victoria’s Kennett years, teachers were being moved all over the place. In one of those moves, I was mistakenly sent to a school that was in the process of being demolished. Instead of bleating, it was at that moment that I decided to contribute to fixing the system. That’s the grassroots approach.

About a decade after being mistakenly moved to a demolished school, I worked in the role of HR Manager, in the role that authorised that mistaken move those years before. A couple of years after that, we had installed a new recruitment and payroll management system for Victorian teachers (eduPay). A few years after that, perhaps because of the transparency of the new payroll system, the anti-corruption commission cleaned out the Department. Now everything is back in a row.  That’s the grassroots approach.

On my journey into the Department, I was fortunate enough to work on the PISA project. There too the project directors were once teachers in the Victorian system. Further, Andreas Schleicher had completed his Masters at Victoria’s regional Deakin University. He too thought about a grassroots movement to provide more data to schools, he was in search of an organisation.  That’s the grassroots approach.

We all like to see ourselves as grassroots, we all like to think of ourselves as authentic, and more authentic than the systems in which we work. But as we form networks, connect with the powerful, engage with the corporations, the integrity of any grassroots claim diminishes.  Whether working in the Department, working for PISA, or working for the VCAA, when you’re in the system, when you are in an organised network, you are the system. And yes, the system has problems, and systems need to be fixed.

Most teachers would like to consider themselves as grassroots, as authentic, and being in touch with everyday life.  I’m like that too, but to enjoy that authenticity I have had to resign from jobs several times.  Bureaucratic work can be boring, and involve much comprise. I prefer to move on when the job is done, I’m like Dave Grohl, I can’t sit still. Currently, I’m fortunate enough to be below grass roots, a full-time student working part-time with refugees. And enjoying it.

My PhD addresses concerns with education in Victoria and Australia, and it considers deep structural issues and assumptions.  I’ll blog more on that later. There are always complaints against the establishment, there are always claims about what them and they are doing.  A key part of my journey has been to find ‘them’ and ‘they’ that the many talk about. I’ve always found that ‘they’ are ‘us’, and ‘they’ are ‘you’. Wherever you go, there you are. Of course there is power in the confused Canberra, in the corridors of Sydney that likes to assert itself, and then there  is AITSL which seeks to be a statutory authority but is not one. There is also AARE, and anybody who thinks they are the establishment has rocks in their head.  Everybody knows that most of them are from Queensland, and Melbourne is where it is at.

From learning styles to semiotic resources

Like many, I was introduced to several theories of learning styles in the 1990s.  Neuro-linguistic programming (Grinder, 1991) and experiential learning cycles (Kolb & Fry, 1975) were two that I remember. I never tested my students on what style worked best for them.  I didn’t even ask if they had a preference, even though Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) find that there is “ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences” (p 105). Instead, I used theories of learning styles to cycle through different ways of approaching and presenting educational content.  Cycling through various teaching approaches proved effective for the aims and objectives at the time.  I accept that these approaches are now out of date.

During the nineties, I also had an interest in cultural studies (what ever happened to that) with a focussed interest on semiotics (Barthes, 1967, 1957/1993; Chandler, 2002; Eco, 1980/1998, 1988/2001).  That was fun.

When I left teaching I was lucky enough to get a job working on the PISA project (I didn’t mention that before :-). As all the important people were busy, I found myself managing PISA’s first computer-based assessment which was a side project (OECD, 2010). Luckily, I was surrounded by competent people, mainly university students whose opinions hadn’t yet calcified, so the project went well.  It was in managing this project that a basic understanding of the visual (movies, animations and images), kinaesthetic (input devices) and auditory (sound) proved useful. As was a rudimentary understanding of semiotics.

Field operations for the PISA’s first computer-based assessment went well.  The project specified that countries cart standardised laptops to all sampled schools.  This meant that the assessment conditions were highly standardised and the data of good quality. However, national centres found lugging laptops too cumbersome, and as countries started to complain they began to call it the Koomen model.  Three countries persisted to a main trial, and when the data was analysed, that’s when the real problem began.

The data from the computer-based test made sense, but was quite distinct from the paper-based test. The movies, animations and other features suggested that the science assessed on the computer was different to science assessed using paper.  For example, boys did better on computer-based because the reading load was less.  The Koomen model didn’t work due to the heavy laptops, and because the data didn’t fit with the paper. So, I went to hide in the public service for a bit.

The mental models (Senge, 1992) I had at the time didn’t fit computer-based assessment. However, I have recently been contemplating Kress (2010, pp. 5-7) who argues that technology provides for greater ‘semiotic resources’ for meaning making. This is now becoming the key idea for me. Technology has afforded new ways of making meaning and education has not quite caught up. Education is still caught up in solid, but dated, forms of syntactic structures (Chomsky, 1957/2015), dated forms of learning styles (Grinder, 1991), and dated approaches to culture (Jameson, 1991). From my perspective, educational research could focus more on how the newly available ‘semiotic resources’ affect meaning making for students. It is these developments that are likely to underlie Schleicher’s admission that the new computer-based PISA results might not be comparable, and why ACARA is having trouble moving NAPLAN online.

Habermas (1979) argues that societies develop along cognitive-technical and moral-practical dimensions. I would also argue that societies develop along an aesthetic-expressive dimension. Habermas (1975/2005) also argues that developments along the cognitive-technical dimension can fracture normative structures and destroy barriers of participation and create dysfunction and regression.  This is the focus of my research in technology-based educational assessment.

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