Archive for the ‘constructivism’ Category

August 14, 2015
There are differences between judging others based on their writings, making allowance for the perils of Murphy (Muphry’s Law when one criticises others’ writing) and wishing to be accurate oneself.

The Standard English forms of spelling and grammar were set up partly to facilitate accurate communication, and the standardisation has led us to be able to share the thoughts of people who spoke dialects we would struggle to understand and who lived hundreds of years ago.  We learn our individual forms of written English (as with all languages) through our lifetime’s experiences linking form with meaning.

Accurate (that is, adhering to the Standard form) spelling and grammar are a matter of peacock’s tail (display of energy beyond essentials for survival, thus good genetics) and also a matter of courtesy to the reader (we ought not have to guess what you meant to say.) I do not mind making allowances for those with a learning disorder, but would prefer to rewrite poorly constructed comments with standard spelling and grammar before putting them online. Why? Not mainly for personal display. Not just as courtesy to readers. Largely because online items are, for many students, the main form of reading and writing, and thus the main source of background awareness and practice of spelling and grammar.

Students who have the capacity to learn the more esoteric levels of Standard spelling and grammar are not doing so, and thus are unable to read with ease more complex texts containing very deep concepts and subtle humour. They therefore fail to develop their greater potential depth of understandings and ability to describe complexity as rapidly as was previously possible, when true speed reading (not skimming, but reading well beyond speaking speeds full text perception and comprehension) made access to thought much more rapid than is possible with TED-talk transmission.  They may not develop to their full potential for thinking at all, which is a loss for Humanity.  They also miss out on great ideas and great entertainment – wonderful things which they could translate for the many who have not the potential or the time to read the difficult texts, another loss for us all.
So, as a public service, if you can be correct – do so.

OK, climb trees. Now, about the rules on fighting …

January 27, 2014

Interested in , I wondered about other rules that have been, with the best of intentions, added to schools.

I know that “Saturday night is alright for a fight” was true long ago, but attacks without warning used to be “not on.”  This has changed.  And it’s not really the alcohol/ amphetamines: youths report hearing others going out deliberately NOT using the mind-altering stuffs because they want to fight better.

Pigeons in cages  may peck each other to death once they start, because they have no innate off-signal for aggression and are unable to flee.  Dogs have submission and dominance signals.  Humans have socially determined dominance and submission signals, and social rules about when to ignore them.  The later we are trained in them, the less profoundly we are constrained by them.

I have been wondering whether the increase in young adult unprovoked violence is related to the fashion for forbidding schoolyard fighting / wrestling between consenting equals.  Consider the outcomes of the rough-and-tumble:  experiencing pain; accidentally causing more damage than intended; passing on cultural rules such as “It is cowardly to attack a weak opponent” and “Don’t kick a man when he’s down;”  developing rules about “proper” ways to start a fight – and all in the years before 9 years old, the years of setting up the rules that become “just natural” in the adult mind.

Now, consider the possibility of making young boys and girls more reluctant to attack without cause and yet more resilient in the face of physical threat.  I like it.


Culture and interpretation of actions

August 19, 2013

A preservice  teacher linked me a 40-minute 2003 documentary , “Children Full of Life.”   (“Namida to warai no happî kurasu: 4 nen 1 kumi Inochi no jugyô”) It is worth viewing by those interested in teaching for happiness and resilience, including making an emotionally supportive classroom.

My interest here is the interpretation viewers make of the teacher’s actions part way through.  This is an example of factors to consider when classes have mixed cultural backgrounds,(Western readers might watch the video before continuing.)


For those who do not watch the video, it is a class of 10 year olds.  The Class aim for the year is happiness.

Through their use of daily letters, the students have implicit permission to write about painful topics, and to have public reactions to others’ letters accepted,  This includes the sudden death of family members.

The teacher is able to hug a grieving child. but also to spend two days making the bullied know they are seen as wronged (““Bullying is contempt, and hatred, completely indefensible.”) , and to make the hidden bullies think about the reasons for their behaviour, the effects on others, and start to admit their actions.


19 minutes in – that afternoon, teams are going to go  rafting in self-designed -and-built rafts in th school pool.

Teacher posture at 20:17 – 20:24 shows  he is angry at continued improper conduct of a student, as he bans him from the afternoon rafting,  The preservice teacher, a Manga / anime watcher, says the posture says “I show I am angry / disciplining.”

A team member protests courteously and asks others to speak, and continues protest argument for a  little.

21.51 – 22:11, 22:35 – 40 The manga / anime watcher says that the posture (folded arms, eyes shut, chin up, that expression)says “I officially disagree with you, but I want you to give me a good reason to agree with you.”

Teacher does eye-bag-at-side-of-nose scratch and slight chin lower at 22:41 as a student says “But it’s partly our fault, too” – (visual “yes, continue…”) hand returns to less closed position –  but eyes shut, chin up .  When the first speaking student claims it was a group task, not teacher task, so group has a right “If it’s all right with us, he shouldn’t have to stay behind”, 23:21 teacher lowers chin, and tilts face towards speaker. Student asks others whether invite him, and they do. 23:22:  teacher opens eyes as they murmur agreement, looks at speaker.

Speaker then notes class agreement and respectfully asks teacher to permit the boy to go in their group to rafting.  Teacher says “Well spoken, Yo.” and (by gesture) invites the teary speaker to a high-five.


From many westerners’ viewpoints, the teacher was giving strong negative signals – and risking class disruption by closing his eyes.  From the (Western ) Japanese Youth Culture enthusiast’s  interpretation,  the teacher’s posture (including  closing his eyes) was giving strong tacit, visual permission for further attempts to speak for the argument.   Do any young Japanese have a comment?

Cross-cultural teaching is such challenging fun.

Say what? Beyond jargon to brain pain

April 16, 2013

For the record:  I have university qualifications, starting my studies  in Medicine and ending with qualifications in Anthropology, Linguistics, Psychology, and Education.  Postgraduate included.  I can handle jargon from Anthropology to Zoology.

So I was impressed when a Literacy Education Theory article strained my brain.   I think it is worth examining, to see what took it beyond the usual run of jargon.  (As usual, I prefer not to name names when I find writing worth negative comment.)


To start with, my background awareness, summarized well by the OED:

Definition of semantics (noun)

[usually treated as singular]

  • the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. The two main areas are logical semantics, concerned with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and lexical semantics, concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.
  • the meaning of a word, phrase, or text

Definition of reflexive (adjective)

  • Grammar denoting a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the clause in which it is used, e.g. myself, themselves.
  • (of a verb or clause) having a reflexive pronoun as its object (e.g. wash oneself).
  • Logic (of a relation) always holding between a term and itself.
  • (of a method or theory in the social sciences) taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.
  • (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought:at concerts like this one standing ovations have become reflexive
Definition of morphogenesis  (from Greek morphē ‘form’ + genesis beginning)(noun)  [mass noun]

  • Biology the origin and development of morphological characteristics.(i.e. physical structures)
  • Geology the formation of landforms or other structures.


morphogenetic  (adjective)

morphogenic (adjective)

(Please note the idea that the form being begun is considered to be pretty much unchanging, except by metamorphosis.)

The Text

The article was talking about teachers’ decision-making, and various things in the context of decisions which affected the final decision.

It referred to teachers’ “reflexive decisions”, meaning (I inferred, eventually) decisions made after careful consideration of a range of personal and external influences.  What most of us would call “considered decisions”.

It referred to “morphogenetic”,  defined in the article as meaning “transformative”.  This usage  confused me, as the term one would expect is “transformative” or -from metamorphosis “a change of form, a transformation” – metamorphic.

A major author in the references (this was a peer-review journal, so they drop in many references) was M. Archer.  This was the source of the jargon, I think, as ve was cited as using the root “morpho” to indicate that “society has no pre-set form or preferred state.”

This led me to wonder why  experts in literacy education would willingly use jargon which a literate reader finds both confusing and etymologically unsound.  Surely one would check that one’s proposed jargon did not clash with well-recognised usage from other fields?

Wondering still, I read on… “The relationship between writing, school instruction, and language cannot be underestimated.”  I deduced, from context, that an old-style editor would have corrected it to “should not”   or   “must not”.

Finally, I came to a diagram:

where would you put the arrows?

This raised more questions :  Would the “reflexive action” box be better outside the oval?  Could there be influence arrows from objective to subjective (considering Social Constructivist theory) and from the action box to internal and external headings?  Why do I always have to see things as being more complicated than proposed theoretical descriptions?  If this is the standard of those who educate teachers,  … Why does my brain hurt?

Oh, right.


Yes, I am a pedant.  Yes, I find semantic distinctions important.  Yes, I believe that jargon should be carefully crafted.

I believe that the increasing percentage of people using Engish as a second language calls for  more precise use of English:   people like me can translate poor writing,  but others rely on the correct semantics being there so that their support systems (such as the OED) can provide meanings the readers do not have as personal knowledge.

History repeats itself because too few listen: Do you see purple cats?

March 8, 2011

I recently heard a speaker state that men and women think differently, and that education should take account of that.  I would like to review recent history before I explain what this has to do with purple cats.

In the 1960s, everyone knew that men and women think differently.  Women were not good at logic  – subjects like maths and science – and complex tasks like map-reading or metalwork, and men were not good at emotional things or remembering birthdays and anniversaries (of course they could remember scheduled Rotary or Council events.)  Teachers expected the boys to shine at the logic subjects, and accepted the odd girls as talented.

The odd girls felt very odd, and were teased about their talents.  The same happened to the odd boys who appreciated classical music, visual arts, or dance – and the very odd ones who went for ballet or poetry.  It was a time when a grandmother would advise an A-student girl “Don’t let your intelligence show too much, dear, men don’t like girls who are smarter than they are.”

Women were mostly expected to leave work once they married – wages were based on the assumption that a man would support his wife and family. (Pay rates were the same whether single or married, so women supporting a family got less than single men.)  In Australia until 1966 women were dismissed from public service positions as soon as they married.  Therefore, education was based on the assumption that most women would be at-home parents.  However, things had advanced from the late 1800s, when women had to struggle to be allowed to attend University lectures and there was an assumption that too much book-learning made women … odd.

Working-class boys and girls were not expected to try for University – they often took apprenticeships by 15 years of age.  Things were changing: in the 1950s, they and Aboriginals would have been told that it wasn’t worth their trying.

Oddly enough, boys excelled at maths, science, and map-reading; few women took the science subjects in University, and few low-income families had children go on to University studies..

With the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, things changed.

Now, housing prices rely on the assumption that a family has two working parents.  It is assumed that people should get the same pay for the same work (although confidential pay agreements and sex-linked work-type pay rates somehow find men’s work more valuable.)  In many families, academic excellence in girls as seen as a great thing, opening the way to a high-status profession or at least a high-income career.  It is assumed that bright students from any background can succeed at University.

Oddly enough, more low income families have children go on to University, girls take science subjects at University, and a middle-aged man is shocked as a teenage girl reads the street directory efficiently.

Current Problem: Back to the first line.

There is concern that girls are outshining the boys academically now – is it just that previously pure logic approaches (naked Maths and Physics, for example) are being dressed up in essay-style work, where boys may be at a statistical disadvantage?  Is it that teachers are using a teaching style better suited to one range of learning preferences?  Is it the range of other activities available, and do we need more Tiger parents?  Is it that girls and boys learn differently, and we should have single-sex classes?

I suspect a combination of factors, including one not mentioned in polite society: the girls are no longer performing the 1960s’ version of the role of “girls at school”.

It was shown in the 1960s to 1990s that education in gender roles begins before children can talk.  It is partly affected by the child’s preferences, and there are gender differences in some child behaviours which can affect adults’ treatment of them – I particularly like the 1999 study suggesting that male baby vocalisations tend to be preferred to female baby vocalisations based on physical structures affecting their sonorance. ( 1)  Nonetheless, it was clearly shown that infants with disguised gender were treated differently on the basis of their perceived gender, and that the adults were unaware of the biases in their behaviours. (e.g. (2))

From everyday observation I can confirm that the experiments would find the same results today.  The actual treatments the babies would receive now are different, being based on different underlying assumptions.  Indeed, with the increasing range of cultural backgrounds from both migration and the range of electronic viewing preferences available, the range of actual treatments is also greater.

It is clear that the society-wide gender assumptions are still powerful – have you seen the toy catalogues? Have you seen the “boys” and “girls” sections in book advertising (and, alas, libraries?)

The consequences of breaking society’s gender role expectations at school are still unpleasant.  I am particularly concerned for the sensitive years just before and during puberty, where breaking the expectation can lead to questioning of sexual orientation.  In real terms, schoolchildren (and some adults) assume that if you don’t think like a “real” child of your gender you must be gay.  Or a (squid / squint / nerd) asexual brain.

Therefore, students who struggle with the “proper” style for their gender in the wider culture may avoid playing to their strengths.

What have Purple Cats got to do with it?

If adults , especially teachers, accept the current “Men are from Mars …” approach, ignoring the inevitable ranges of human individuality and disregarding warnings such as Dr Fine’s “Delusions of Gender” (3)  , the risk is that they will expect boys to learn / behave  in one way (or set of ways) and girls to learn in another.

Now to the cats.

A busload of highschool students were waiting for the bus home.  They noticed a cat climbing in a nearby tree, but got only a brief glimpse before it was hidden in the leaves.  Some said it was white, some said it was grey, some said it was brown.  “No,” said one, “It was purple.”

“But there’s no such thing as a purple cat!”

It turned out that a family had dyed their white cat purple.

Are cats like babies?

It is a rare person who sees the unexpected.  One of the most common problems for those who change their behaviours is that everyone else continues acting as though they were still behaving in the same old way;  a woman who does not shave her legs or underarms and is not a radical lesbian separatist is likely to be seen by workmates as a vegetarian even if she has eaten a meat pie in the office (yes, that happened to me); and you can change many things in a scene without people noticing – it’s all in the way the human brain processes daily life.  We simply haven’t the processing space to see what is really there most of the time, so we rely on learned patterns to fill in the gaps.

If the pattern you learn is an assumption about how people think, you will be at risk of missing the moment when it is clear that you have a non-standard thinker.  It’s the things we think are so which aren’t that cause the most difficulty – avoid the delusion of gender when you deal with students.


1.  Bloom, K. Moore-Schoenmakers K.,  & Masataka, N. (1999).  Nasality of Infant Vocalizations Determines Gender Bias in Adult Favorability Ratings.  Journal of Nonverbal Behavior Volume 23, Number 3, 219-236, DOI: 10.1023/A:1021317310745)

2.  Culp, R.E., Cook, A.S.,  & Patricia C. Housley, P.C.  (1983).  A comparison of observed and reported adult-infant interactions: Effects of perceived sex.  Sex Roles 9(4), 475-479, DOI: 10.1007/BF00289787

3. Fine, C  ( 2010) Delusions of Gender:  The real science behind sex differences. Icon Books.

Masterclasses in vodcasting

April 21, 2010

I like the way many craft teachers show a completed article, show its use, show the needed skill at full speed, then break down the skill into small, slow-motion steps.  We do something similar in teaching literacy:  read to pre-verbal children as well as to primary classes;  introduce very well written texts and use them in class exercises (well, yes, I have seen terrible trash used in class exercises …);  while the students are learning the basics write for the class then write with the class.  Very Vygotsky.

So why do so many teachers talk as though they go straight to making podcasts and vodcasts?  I expect that they have used internet resources with the students, and used offline resources in similar ways.  I am not so sure that they have explicitly analysed for (or with) their students the good and bad points of these resources as products, or examined the mechanics of making them.

This may lead to a division in understandings: between those whose families discuss the techniques used in multimedia, who watch “The Chaser” (link to their video “say no to ads”)and “Hungry Beast” (link to their video report on google) and time-shift them (record or iView) for their kids to see – and those who just watch.  I wonder whether one could get permission to make an “extracts “ DVD, for school use, of the Chaser’s series on the film techniques of current affairs programmes?  Maybe they have / can make one – well, I’ve emailed them to ask, since it’s not listed in their DVD list.

We are playing with fire: Responsibility of a Social Constructivist teacher

March 28, 2010

We are encouraged to use a Social Constructivist approach in teaching, and to use the power of Web 2.0 in doing this.  Given what I know of Social Psychology, I agree that Web 2.0 can be a powerful platform for that approach.

Given what I know of Social Psychology, I also know how powerful an approach Social Constructivism can be.

“With great power comes great responsibility” got to be a bit repetitive in Spiderman, but it is true.  The very power of the approach makes it dangerous tool, like a psychological plasma-cutter.

Why would I say it is dangerous?  Because it relies on the forces of small group interaction. Here are some classic references; some of them I cannot find on the free-web, and comments giving links to such would be appreciated.

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment in 1971 showed the demand effect of the rôles assumed upon the behaviours of the students involved; it had to be terminated early due to the extreme behaviours elicited. Philip Zimbardo notes the similarity to what was created in Abu Ghraib: the outcome was predictable behaviour given the situation set up and his well-known work.

Kiesler, CA, & Kiesler, SB (1969). Conformity .  Boston:
AddisonWesley : conformity in behaviour and/or conformity in opinion, as affected by various factors (especially group attractiveness).

Schachter, S. (1951). Deviation, Rejection, and communication. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190-208. Stanley Schachter began the work on the ways in which groups handle “deviance” from the norm opinion, including changing patterns of communication as failed attempted conversion ends in isolation; extensions include devaluation of the dissenter’s ideas on all topics.

Solomon Asch studied the effects on behaviour of being a correctly dissenting minority of one, and of the effect of being in a small minority and then abandoned by confederates. He emphasised the frequency with which people sustained their correct responses (only 5% always complied), but other psychologists emphasised that only 25% always dissented. This is work which has been extended in depth and complexity – for example, examining the effects of an organisation’s rewards for particular decision-making approaches

Stanley Milgram, inspired by the trials of WW2 war criminals, studied the tendency of normal people to torture others to death at the command of an authority-figure. This is a recognised “classic study”; it has recently been echoed by a French documentary using a fake TV game show. According to Deutsche Welle radio, that experiment (No ethics clearance required: journalism not “research”.) found that 80% of “contestants” complied with the host and audience demand to give agonising electric shocks to a restrained victim.  (In other words, 1 in 5 were independent enough to refuse.) As usual in such experiments, participants reported feelings of “wanting to stop but not being able to”.

These are just a few of the clear findings in the area, and they involve the same forces invoked in the Social Constructivist approach.  Unfortunately, many of the key works are too old to appear on a standard web browser search, or only available by purchase – so students with access through their institutions should follow the trail before they lose access.

Students in Primary education are going through  key developmental stages, in which the emotional pressure of the group situation and the power of the authority figure combine with fragile internal world-constructs to leave the student very vulnerable.  As teachers, we have a duty to be aware of the power of these aspects of human behaviour, both for good and ill, and seek ways to make our students the minority who will argue their case – while being willing to change their minds when well-tested evidence shows they were wrong.

Don’t tell me what I need

March 23, 2010

They tell you, practically from the cradle, that Man is a social animal, loneliness is a truly terrible thing, and humans can only really be happy in the company of their fellow creatures.  Shocking, the way they’re allowed to lie to you like that.

(Tom Holt [2009] May contain traces of magic. London: Orbit)

(Incidentally, I recently suggested someone insert a “link ” to a quote from a book.   It does feel strange to cite a work correctly in a blog, which may be why I said”link”.)

Is the Social CLassroom what everone needs?

The Social Constructivists are confident in asserting that social connections are essential for deep learning,   but beyond learning social conventions (like language) I am not sure that that is completely true.

In fact, I am completely sure that is not true.

In fact, I am completely sure that, for some people, the presence of other people inhibits learning.  I am also sure that some people can inhibit others’ learning.

It’s not just the autistic spectrum I am considering here.  There are also

  • those who are too sensitive to others,  whose emotions are rubbed raw by group work;
  • those too socially distracted by others;
  • those whose internal world is so different from the average that the normal “side conversations” are painful and the explanation of their opinions in “accountable talk” is a burden;
  • those who think so deeply that the usual level of “accountable talk” leads them to feel truly alienated;
  • those who think so quickly that they see where the whole thing is going three minutes into a one-hour class, and have to mark time while the others catch up;
  • those who think so slowly that they are spending time trying to understand others’ comments on the work without yet  understanding the work;
  • those who hate the whole (usually school)  social situation and are blocked by emotion from learning what they may later learn easily.
  • Those who enjoy learning but hate having others see their learner-errors.  “My angle grinder taught me a lot about metalwork!” said  one.

For many of these, the current claim that “humans can only be truly happy in the company of their fellow creatures”  leaves a feeling that they are officially diseased, or non-human.  If we add those who struggle with making sentences in the language, understanding the language, or putting complex thoughts into words,  there are many who would detest a social constructivist monoculture, particularly if it denies (as I fear some do) that books are people too.

And yet ….

We do need to develop social skills, and test our understandings against the greater society understandings,  and have the skills to defend our positions if the greater society is wrong.

Sometimes, careful selection of groups can remove the blocks to learning.

Things like wikis can give relief from real-time interaction demands.

Conclusion: Eclectic teaching is better

I would like every teacher to remember that some students find the whole thing as irritating as a “Workplace Bonding Outdoor Challenge”.

Differentiating instruction may lead one to give them some group tasks explicitly to demonstrate group / communication skills, but allow them to pursue other topics on their own while others do group activities.

Smartboards again

March 13, 2010

Whilst listening to Kate Grenville I thought:

If, as she said, remote-area Aboriginal children have a communal approach (“We went” )  as their default thinking path,  and solitary reading is therefore not culturally comfortable,   smartboard-based group use of sites may make the web learning more accessable.  The individual facing a new site is as isolated as it gets.  This tracks directly to group reading of big books or identical texts in the class, too.

Web 2.0 plus Smartboard: does that fit a constructivist approach?

March 12, 2010

Blythe suggested that web 2.0 will be unlikely to be used effectively in the WA system for a while, both from lack of resources and from lack of teacher appreciation of the potential of the tools.

In many schools there is limited access both in time and in computers, but more are getting a smartboard per classroom.  I am interested in the use of smartboard plus net access to allow large groups access to the expressive aspects of the web 2.0 approach.

Especially if the teacher is unsure of the students’ grasp of nettiquette, this could be a powerful way to demonstrate the decisions a user makes ( by voicing the choices and discussing the class’s preferences), and to provide a model for appropriate behaviour (by explaining why a suggested option is not to be in the range of choices). Modelling, turn-taking, and accountable conversation are buzzwords to drop in here …

In fact, for introducing the technology to teachers or students or both at once I can see it being preferrable to having the students go onto individual computers. If the teacher is unsure and the class is cooperative, a brave teacher might accept the interesting situation of all learning together – on a “safe” site.
This sounds very social constructivist to me.

However, as a life-long learner, I would say that  the objectivist basic skills/knowledge  transfer must be integrated into the process – time is so short in school,  the lesson plan should include essential and desirable new learnings to be covered before and  during the exploration, and how the outcomes are to be assessed.    I had a good tutor who showed us how to avoid time-wasting errors, but set the activities up so that we were likely to make errors with a strong learning outcome, and I’d like to try to do that for students eventually.   (If they have  used a hammer and you want them to work with self-tapping screws, give them a screwdriver and show them its basic use: saves having screws hammered into expensive wood, they can spend their time learning the techniques of angle, grip, and pressure. )