Difference between revisions of "User:Mokurai/What should education be?"

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On Mon, May 5, 2008 at 8:05 AM, Greg DeKoenigsberg <gdk@redhat.com> wrote:

> I am a novice in the language of constructivism,

and Constructionism, too. And unclear on the difference.

Seymour Papert admits to a similar problem. "...when the concept itself is in evolution it is appropriate to keep intellectual doors open and this is where we are now." Let us begin with what Papert himself wrote.


That essay is the first chapter in Seymour Papert and Idit Harel's book Constructionism (Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1991). Out of print. $186.83 used at Amazon.

http://www.papert.org/articles/const_inst/ Constructionism vs. Instructionism, lecture

The following is my interpretation.--Mokurai 10:01, 28 November 2008 (UTC)

Constructionism should not simply be defined, Papert says, because that would trivialize it. What we are looking for, in the spirit of Constructionism itself, is ways to guide people to create the kinds of experience that allow them to construct similar concepts in their own worlds. Those who already have such experiences get much of the idea immediately. A suitable construct is already there, in greater or less detail, waiting for its new name. Those who are ready to try the experiment at length and in detail can readily grasp more and more of its meaning over time. The problem comes if you encounter somebody who responds to the question, "You know how you built up your own understanding of the world, don't you?" with some version of "No, I don't, and you can't make me." Since they are very likely correct on both points, it is quite difficult to help them. But not impossible.

In such a case it sometimes turns out that the other person has been given incorrect information, and correctly rejects it, or has misunderstood something. But I have encountered naysayers in this and other realms who are basically not listening because they already know the truth, and do not wish to be confused by the facts.

It would be an interesting study for some to find out how such people constructed their intellectual fortresses, although the answer in many known cases is quite depressing: Their parents and communities forced it on them. Cults, Flat-Earthers, and other such closed societies. In other cases, it results from reaction to mortal fear: AIDS deniers, knee-jerk Islam-bashers, Crusader-bashers. Cognitive dissonance is the phenomenon in which a conflict between belief and fact makes belief stronger, resulting in rwars in religion, politics, software preferences, and education theories.

The most direct way to get a handle on the real meaning of Constructionism is to pay attention to the ordinary misunderstandings that occur in your life, and what it takes to clear them up. Not what you suppose it takes, or what others tell you it takes, but what it actually takes. Observing the residue of misunderstandings that don't get cleared up is also essential, although in that case you only get to observe what didn't work.

This is a deep subject, which would be worth an encyclopedia, even a library for itself. I will have to content myself with one example here. My mentor in many things told me early on in our collaboration that she couldn't do algebra, although she had learned the formulas and procedures. The problem was that she had been told, "A variable is a number that changes its value." This is total nonsense, and she knew it. One of the hardest, most reliable facts in the world is that any number is the same as itself and different from all others, and never changes. I don't know how this collision of ideas made her unable to use procedures that she had memorized, but I had to believe her, and so should you.

I explained that variables are just like pronouns. When I say "I" and when you say "I" we are referring to different people, and similarly for the other pronouns and other words of variable reference: you, he, she, it, we, they, this, that, here, now, and so on. "Noon on Tuesday" cannot become midnight, but "now" runs through every possible time. In just the same way, x, y, z, and the rest can be 3 or -4, or can run through all numbers.

She went away for 20 minutes to try this out on what she remembered, and returned saying, "I can do it all now." That was the end of that. Mathematicians who have taught middle school have many more such stories.

The great task for children is not to get the facts right. Nobody gets to do that. Sure there are plenty of facts, but which are they, and what do they mean?

The great task is to construct a powerful and supple personal epistemology, ontology, and ethics, not as a formal system, but as behavior, even brain structure. Epistemology is the construction of evolving personal standards for telling fact from fancy, truth from fiction, and certainty from doubt. Ontology is the construction of notions of what exists, and how sure we are about each. Ethical constructions remind us of what we think is important enough so that we should do it even if we don't want to, and why. Everybody has them, and normally no two of us agree on them, not even those subjected to the most ideologically or religiously stern and rigorous upbringing.

The epistemology of Prussian-style education is, the King and his ministers are always right, and even if they weren't you would have no business questioning them. Or, at the classroom level, "It's true because I/the textbook/the authorities said so, now shut up and sit down!" The same attitude is common, even usual, in ontology and ethics as well. It's real because I said so, You have to because I said so.

It is widely assumed that failing to pound the prevailing theories on these matters into the brains of children is a recipe for unmitigated disaster. If we don't force them to adopt the prevailing wisdom, the thinking goes, they will grow up with no sense of what is real and what is fantasy, no respect for truth, and no ethics whatsoever. Actual experiment tells us otherwise. It is true that giving no support to children would turn them into lunatics, but that is not what we are talking about. We want a cohesive society based on mutual respect, not on groupthink.

One of the best historical examples occurred in in The Netherlands early in the 80 Years War with Spain, when the Dutch declared Freedom of Trade and Freedom of Conscience to be their founding principles, in rebellion against the Spanish Imperial economic laws forbidding spending any of the treasure from the Americas outside the Empire, and against the Spanish Inquisition. Everybody in Europe, including many of the Dutch, predicted with great confidence that their society would collapse almost immediately, and were confounded when The Netherlands became for a time the richest country in Europe, and the intellectual and scientific center of the world. Similarly, those who invite children to learn, and support them in learning, rather than forcing them, find that the children learn their school subjects as well as or better than anybody else, and many other essential skills of life much better.

Even in mathematics there must be room for the exploration of ideas and of alternatives. Most people assume that mathematics is a science of perfection in which everything is defined with complete clarity and proved with complete certainty. Mathematicians don't agree. The divide into Idealist/Realist (Mathematical objects and ideas have independent reality) and Nominalist/Formalist camps (Math is just syntactic games with symbols, and isn't "about" anything), among many others. (See Philosophy of Mathematics at Wikipedia for a good sampling.) They don't agree on what constitutes a proof, either, in large part because the "obvious" definitions were found to be full of holes in a difficult period in the late 19th century. Everything has been patched up an a fairly workable way, but there is a lot not to like still. Basically, the problem is that math wants to deal with infinities of infinities, but humans can only use finite methods.

The situation in all other subjects is, of course, far worse than in mathematics. Great puzzles exist in physics, where Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity cannot both be true as presently understood. A much greater variety of puzzles exist in the rest of the sciences, and some people feel that the humanities are hopeless.

Philosophy is the worst case from this point of view, because it takes on the questions where we have no method for finding answers, or where answers may not exist. But philosophy--what is true, real, important--is where we all live. Descartes said that his epistemology, starting with, "For all my doubting, I cannot doubt that I doubt," or "I think, therefore I am," led him to an ontology in which people have souls and animals don't, so animals don't have real feelings, and from there to the ethical proposition that people can do anything they like to animals, and nobody has a right to object. But perhaps that is not the correct view of his method. Perhaps those were among the predetermined conclusions he aimed at, regardless of evidence or logic. I call this the "I thought of it, therefore it is" school of philosophy.

Every other formal epistemology and ontology proposed in philosophy, religion, politics, or "practical" life seems to have similarly dubious ethical consequences, just as all of the obvious ways to construct mathematics ended in paradox. Certainly the people who hold quite other theories all think so, as do the people who maintain that no theory is adequate to the case (Christian, Buddhist, and other mystics, and also some Logical Positivists).

Perhaps the education of children should mirror the education of humanity over some thousands of years. Any advances require the freedom to question the correctness and completeness of current answers, a freedom that has existed in relatively few places, if any, throughout most of our history. Of course, we humans don't often treat our artists, scientists, and other discoverers any better than we treat our children, except for the few who break through to become superstars.