This is going to be a much more serious post than most; a serious topic calls for such.
I just learned that a good friend--someone who I deeply respect as a person and as a wonderfully skilled mind--has passed away. He was young and the nature of the news has left me thinking about how we see ourselves, the world, and how we conceive of our own significance.
When such a bitter wind as this upturns the covers and forces me into thought, I reach for William James, who so often provides, if not comfort, a cheaper form of it.
It is hard, and I try not to imagine the motives of great people who make decisions that I don't understand. On-lookers often grace such incommensurable events with words like "senseless," "bewildering," or "tragic." These sentiments seem to be attempts to salvage something helpful in the aftermath.
I won't approach any of these sentiments. Though they rightly express that of many, my thoughts steer elsewhere.
"When a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be."
Sometimes fortunately, sometimes not, we suffer a certain blindness to the inner exaltations and castigations of our fellow human beings.
I am reminded of Frank Warren's reflection that, "Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart." Even if we are honored with a person's inner-most secrets, we are still no closer to ridding ourselves of our unfortunate blindness: a blindness which prevents us from ever feeling another's inner life as our own.
We cannot but act on what we feel is significant. This feeling is something we can describe, but we can never share it. So, it is unwise to dwell on the inner lives of others. We may paste fleeting thoughts and memories into a collage, but a collage is no window into the soul.
"Life is always worth living, but we of the highly educated classes (so called) have most of us got far, far away from Nature. We are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite exclusively, and to overlook the common. We are stuffed with abstract conceptions, and glib with verbalities and verbosities; and in the culture of these higher functions the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions often dry up, and we grow stone-blind and insensible to life's more elementary and general goods and joys."
It is when we are removed from simplicity, by force or insidious nagging, that we come to see the monumental significance of our inner lives. It can be overwhelming. How do we interpret this significance, and what are we to do?
It is easy to get lost in memories, thoughts, and scenarios. If we take all of these together, we create a complexity so unintelligible, so confusing, that it is impossible to make sense out of things. But we must remember that such reflections are only reflections of ourselves.
Perhaps we are rendered hopeless, dazed, and confused by what we find of ourselves. Though this news concerns a wonderful person and a dear friend to many, we must remember this: our searching can ultimately only speak to our own inner lives.
"[The result of these considerations is that] it absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see interested in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us."
The friend of whom I speak was also a dear friend to many who will undoubtedly read this. The language of monumental significance is something that I believe describes our friend very well. He is monumentally significant to many people, and also, I believe, would have been so significant to a particular intellectual world. An intellectual world that sees the grand value in literature, gaming, and living philosophy.
Over the years, I spent countless hours in deep conversation with our good friend, and he opened my mind to an incredible array of perspectives that I would never have otherwise encountered. His passing is a great loss to the intellectual world, and to all those who would have benefited from his work yet to be undertaken.
[All excerpts are taken from William James' essay, "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings."]
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"I'm interested in seeing where the curiosity will lead to, not, 'Where have we been?'" (Clifford Stoll in the above video)
I'm uncomfortable with the language of "innovation." Recently, it seems as if "innovation" has become Innovation™. The activity of creative problem-solving has been packaged and is now being distributed. It is traded on the non-fiction market: people are reworking the fundamentals, delivering happiness, and building lean startups. Don't get me wrong: I'm obsessed with all of this and I love Stanford's approach. But...
In the world of innovation, we seem not to actually understand the kind of work we're doing. We treat the innovative process as a commodity and expect to create, with it, entirely new solutions to problems. But here's the problem: a commodity is a product of technology. What we're searching for requires science. Let me explain.
The first time you do something, it's science. The second time, it's engineering. The third, it's technology (Stoll).
- Science seeks to discover systems of principles that explain the world's happenings.
- Engineering uses these systems to design useful tools.
- Technology takes these useful tools, connects them with others, and packages them into distributable solutions (aka, commodities) based on the available science and engineering.
Note: the term "science" does not imply anything except for what the definition says (I'm not talking about physics, chemistry, etc.), and "technology" does not imply anything digital or computer related.
The problem is this: our technology and engineering can be rock-solid, but if our science is wrong, everything that follows only makes the problem worse. In education, our science is wrong. I've discussed this point more in-depth previously, so I won't dwell on it now.
As I designed this Urban Art class, I had several broad goals in mind:
- Create a place for our visual artists to practice, validate, and build a culture around thier work.
- Teach these young artists how to do this professionally sustain themselves through their art.
- Give my kids the authentic networking skills they'll need to build the kind of relationships that lead to amazing collaborative projects.
I've been very intentional about how I've designed an actionable method to reach these goals, particularly around the second two. There has recently been a push to, "make sure the students can explicate the day's objective," but this seems to be a misidentified mechanism...by which I mean that it is a strategy that has been decontextualized and cheapened through retail implementation.
What I told the kids explicitly was, "We'll be painting a mural on the walls of the school--whatever and wherever we want--that shows the world who we are." But a complete, beautiful mural is not the goal--the mural is the process for the goals above.
So the idea that students need to be able to tell us the objective of whatever activity they're doing is reductive except in very basic cases. I think much would be lost if I were to ask/expect the artists to be able to recite or identify the three goals above. The following is a short story of how this has been working out for one of my students. This story is only getting started but worth talking about in any case.
[Note: I have recieved some great critiques regarding this post, including the thought that I may be conflating some of my concepts. See my response at the end of the post.]
This TED Talk on education data that strives to test students' ability to adapt to change and solve real, unfamiliar problems. Andreas Schleicher and his team have done incredible work. I am going to criticize their great work in this post, and I want to be clear that I see serious critique as the highest respect we can pay to work of any kind.
It means that we take the work so seriously that we are willing to devote our own energies to try to improve it. I'm not writing this preface as an apology, but mostly to make a point about critique that is often not recognized.
So, on with it...
A Bit of Background
I highly recommend that you watch the talk above--this post will still make sense, but won't hit home in the same way if you don't.
For those of you who can't listen to the audio/video of the talk:
Andreas Schleicher heads the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). What it means is: He's designed a test, given to hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds around the world (the most recent covered almost 70 nations), that offers unprecedented insight into how well national education systems are preparing their students for adult life. As The Atlantic puts it, the PISA test "measured not students’ retention of facts, but their readiness for 'knowledge worker' jobs—their ability to think critically and solve real-world problems."
The results of the PISA test, given every three years, are fed back to governments and schools so they can work on improving their ranking. And the data has inspired Schleicher to become a vocal advocate for the policy changes that, his research suggests, make for great schools.
It's very interesting and useful research; however, it's heavily overstated.
Epedemiology began as a methodology for studying and predicting the transmission of communicable diseases (primarily bacterial and viral). Because these diseases are passed through physical means, and because we understand the organic mechanism of action through which the bacterium or virus causes disease, we can draw valid conclusions/make predictions based on epidemiology.
To clarify: if we know that Cholera bacteria cause particular symptoms in all healthy humans, we can say that the physical relocation of Cholera from [Non-immune Person A] to [Non-immune Person B] will cause the same symptoms. We can say this because humans are nearly genetically identical, though they may vary widely in terms of phenotypic expression.
When using epidemiological methodology, we need causality to make any sort of valid conclusion. No exceptions, and "close" doesn't count. If we don't have causality, the furthest we can state a claim is in the form of a testable hypothesis.
Communicable disease are just about as close as we can get to showing genuine causality, as opposed to correlation, so we don't need any further investegatory steps to make valid conclusions/recommendations. Side note: for most of modern history, on of the only other things that we could really claim proper causality for was Newtonian physics...but Bohr, Einstein, Planck, etc. changed that.
We are able to draw valid conclusions from epidemiology, as the study of transmission of physical disease factors, because of the strength of the correlation coefficient, which is effectively 1 in the case of communicable disease.
What Does This Have To Do With Education Research?
Since other sciences have adopted epidemiological methodology, they have failed to recognize the above fact about epidemiological methodology.
Because correlation coefficients in other sciences are not 1, we cannot draw conclusion based on this sort of comparative/epidemiological methodology. Period. We can't even say, "Well, it's strong enough to make a compelling case for conclusion X." There are too many confounding factors. All we can say is that the correlation warrants the formation of a hypothesis, based on a proposed mechanism of action, that will then need to be tested.
Schleicher does a good job guarding against outright, cross-contextual conclusions, but the problem is that he's still looking at epidemiological factors and not making it to testing via proposed mechanisms of action. (Note: a proposed mechanism would NOT just be a context-appropriate blend of epidemiological factors.)
In nutrition, epidemiology is misused to draw conclusions (aka, recommendations) about systems of eating based on cross-context/country studies. Unfortunately, these conclusions/recommendations are, by definition, invalid. Following an epidemiological study, the next step requires that we propose and test a mechanism of action in order to reach (or work towards) a conclusion. In the case of nutrition, this takes the form of biochemical lab tests based on an understanding of organic/biochemical mechanisms.
To clarify things, let's look at an example of each kind of study. Pay close attention to the kind of thing that each study is trying to accomplish:
Example of epidemiological study: "Risk factors for subclinical atherosclerosis in diabetic and obese children."--this is the sort of study that you cannot use to make conclusion/recommendation.
Goal of study: "We aimed to evaluate early signs of atherosclerosis and investigate for predisposing factors in children and adolescents affected by type 1 diabetes."
Example of study looking at a mechanism of action: "Mechanisms of β-Cell Death in Type 2 Diabetes"--this is the sort of study that tests a mechanism of action. A series of studies like this would allow us to reach a valid conclusion/recommendation.
Goal of study: "We will show that pathways regulating β-cell turnover are also implicated in β-cell insulin secretory function. Depending on the prevailing concentration and the intracellular pathways activated, some factors may be deleterious to β-cell mass while enhancing insulin secretion, protective to the β-cell while inhibiting function, or even protective to the β-cell while enhancing function."
Notice that the first (epidemiological) study, if combined with other studies, at best allows us to pose a hypothesis that would become the subject of the tests in the second (mechanism) study. Only after we have verified a mechanism of action can we then reach a conclusion/recommendation (which would then be subject to review, verification, etc.).
Note: The above two studies are not the best examples because they concern biologically distinct disease states, so we wouldn't stack them in the progression I present above, but it's close enough to make the point.
But What About Education?
An example of an education study using epidemiological methodology? The video above.
An example of an education study that looks for mechanisms of action? I've never seen one. I've tried to lay the groundwork for this in my thesis because I have not seen it anywhere in education research, nor much of any social science research in general.
It's easy enough to come up with examples of mechanisms in the physical sciences if you're science literate: tidal forces, β-cell death, heat transfer, etc. But what would a mechanism of action look like in the social sciences?
An example of work that comes close to reaching for a mechanism of action in the social sciences is, perhaps oddly, Peircean Semiotics. Whether Peircean Semiotics is helpful or not, it is still a proposed mechanism of action. It represents a relatively easy-to-grasp example of the kind of thing I mean when I point towards mechanisms of action in the social sciences. It is a mechanism in part because it is not a nod towards particular populations or their features, but rather a look at certain rules that these populations are subject to.
Elsewhere, I received the critique that I'm conflating statistical methods with epidemiology, and that what I'm talking about actually has nothing to do with epidemiology. Here is my response:
I should be more clear: problematizing this through the lens of epidemiology is helpful because it points out the shortcomings in such a way that we have a very wide range of possible solutions immediatley available to us. Statistics alone is too broad of a scope to look at the problem, because it is a tool that is used across all sorts of different applications. In other words, yes, both use statistical methods, but if we're interested in ameliorating a specific issue, we need a context-specific methodology that allows us to do so. Statistics-broadly does not give us any such context-specific method, but epidemiology provides an analogical, context-specific method that we can learn from.
Any practical recommendation we make based on data is not part of statistics-proper. We may make statistical inferences, and even this is falls at the furthest reaches of what we might still call statistics, we have still not yet made practical recommendations for actually people to follow. Once we start (implicitly or explicitly) making practical recommendations, we're not only using statistical data, but we now require much context-specific methods that are out of the realm of statistics. This is why it is helpful to look at this problem through the lens of epidemiology--epidemiology is a practice that often misuses statistics in similar ways to education research, but the best biochemists know how to make statistical data valuable in a methodologically valid manner.
[I very much regret not being able to include names or give credit to specific students in this post, but I'll be adding credits and posting some student profiles as soon as I receive all of their media releases.]
In addition to the four sections of Writing that I teach, I am co-teaching an Urban Art class with professional artists Patrick McGirr and Josh Finley. I'll publish a post in the future that more vividly paints a picture of the awesome story behind this class--complete with the amazing characters, partners, and related sub-projects--but for now I'll mostly be talking about where we are currently.
The kids are amazing and have sketched everything you see here--none of this was done by myself, Patrick, or Josh. Below is an overview of the concept and actual sketch that we have now begun to paint.
For those of you who follow my posts on education philosophy and innovative practice, I've designed this class using very interesting conceptual grammars and will be posting on this as well once as-of-yet unrevealed sub-projects come to pass.
The 1000+ square foot mural begins with a large "5280," a reference to the mile-high city. The symbolic number floats above Sloan's Lake, where our school sits, and just below a sky/outer-space-scape. Near the end of the numerals, the lake ends with a representation of our school building, and the mural continues into the Rocky Mountains--the backdrop of our school.
Our mural also begins with a huge film canister, the contents of which zig-zag through the entire mural, housing individual student art in each frame. Follwing the "5280," the film spells out "303," Denver's area code.
The film continues after spelling out these numerals to weave through the "community wall"--a wall that bears the word "respect" spelled out in large graffiti lettering. The entire stretch of this section of the wall, several hundred square feet, will be packed full of symbols and representations of our community and the individuals who make it up.
The film continues on to the final section of the mural, where one frame fills an entire section of the wall, and Patrick and Josh will do their own collaborative piece centered around the name, mascot, and themes of our school, Strive Prep - Lake.
After our first day painting, the energy among other students surrounding our students' mural was palpably more intense. The amazing students who have put so much work into this already have begun to earn some serious cred (among peers and others) through their art, and we're barely getting started.
I have rarely seen students so enthralled with such a project, and I'm particularly impressed given that most adults would be overwhelmed by the size and scope a project like this. It's incredibly exciting to be working with the students, school admin, teachers, supporters, and other partners who I have both mentioned and omitted (for now) in this post.
I'm very much looking forward to keeping you all updated on our progress. If you'd like an occasional email letting you know that I've published an update, just click here, enter your email, and be sure to click the confirmation link that shows up in your inbox.