Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

Psychology: Why I class it as a science.

November 21, 2011

It is sometimes said that Psychology shouldn’t be classed as a science, because psychologists can’t accurately predict what individual people will do:  in a real science, we expect testable predictions.

To be generous, I will allow all  brain-scan linked psychology to be put under neuroscience, and all chemical-linked psychology to be under psychopharmacology.  I will consider only social psychology and the study of individual behaviours.

It is clear that any situation brings out different responses from different human individuals, and that the range of these responses is predictable.

Some situational responses are very common.  In a previous post  I gave some examples of famous response patterns,  but there is a huge range of psychological research into common effects.  (For a quick start, there are many videos and books from Richard Wiseman .)  However, for every standard response there is a sizeable minority who are non-standard.  Does this invalidate the claim to scientific status for psychology?  Consider the reasons for the range of responses:

To begin with, testing of famous effects has made it clear that different cultures prime us to different response sets.  (Laura Spinney’s article on being WEIRD gives a few examples. )

On the individual level, personality and past experience also prime individuals to particular responses.   Research on resilience gives many examples of this.

Finally, for each of us, there is a probability of a particular behaviour in a given situation – even in rats with strongly conditioned responses there is a degree of variability in response.

So, psychologist have found many aspects of variability in response, and are trying to identify causes and measure their effects – alone and in combination – and are testing their predictions.   That sounds like science to me.  However, they still can’t usually predict what an individual will do. So, is that a fatal flaw?

Let us consider Chemistry – that is a science.  Given a set of chemicals, in a given environment, the outputs are predictable – right?  Well, take burning an archetypical carbohydrate:  CH2O (s) + O2 (g)  – >  CO2 (g) + H2O (g).   Can the chemist predict which of the Oxygen gas’s atoms will end in the carbon dioxide?  Consider the history of producing  isocyanides  :  the proportions of different products from a given starting mix was initially hard to predict, and much research was needed before the exact conditions for high yield were found.   With the invention of microwave ovens, chemists found  a new range of conditions for chemical reactions – and again started by finding out the changes in  mixture of products from changes in process.  ( One example is the processing of methane, of interest to the natural gas / syngas industry.)

So, I argue that Psychology can be classed as a science precisely because  (like research Chemists) the researchers accept that there are limits to their knowledge,  that they must measure reality to form ideas of what might be happening (hypotheses),  and that their predictions (from hypotheses) of the results of given processes must be tested against reality before a strong theory can be developed.

When is it time to introduce the colon, semicolon, ellipsis and dash?

June 21, 2011

Many  teachers are happy to see bright students reading authors like Paul Jennings.  I am not entirely comfortable with it, and here will explain why.  Then I get really prescriptive …

Most humans learn from example – this is so basic that I won’t bother to reference it.    Once a child has understood if not mastered the real basics – { . , ? !} – it is time for them to practice reading them, to reinforce the learning from example, and also to practice using them.  Again, I expect this is unexceptionable.

This is my contentious proposition:  If teachers are going to assess  writing using a marking format which includes complexity of sentences and punctuation, they hve a duty to make available the tools the child needs to produce the desired complexity.  If they have students who are capable of complex thought, they have a duty to equip them for self-expression as early as possible… regardless of age.  If the child reads only simple texts, where is the learning by example?

Do the above basic introduction, to be sure.   As soon as possible after this, I bellieve that any child who uses complex sentences should be introduced to the ways of punctuating them.   Any text with frequent short sentences (including newspaper articles and classroom books) should be looked at as a literary piece: are there examples ambiguities that could be resolved, repetitions that could be avoided, or relationships that could be made more clear by the use of “advanced” punctuation?  These can be used to demonstrate editing.  By year / grade 5 the class as a whole should be used to the idea of asking “Why has the simple form been used here?”   

Aside: I get the feeling that many writers underestimate (even patronise) their readers, assuming they cannot hold three related concepts in one sentence.

I have seen a (slightly above average) 10-year-old, two weeks after an  introduction to complex structures (and reading, with support, several examples of complex writing) start to talk about how one of these “simple sentence” stories could be made better by combining sentences and weeding out  a few words.

There is, of course, a downside:  an 11-year-old taught this way got into H.P. Lovecraft (try The music of Erich Zann , if you’ve not read any of his work), while ves agemates were into “Goosebumps”.

Choosing the texts

So, what sort of texts do I recommend?  For younger readers, mostly books from before the 1980s –  I give an exerpt from an  Andrew Davies Marmalade Atkins book below,  to give a feel for the level students age 8 – 11 have enjoyed.  His  books are playful yet challenging, so I use them,  but there are many other fine authors for this age whose works an older librarian could recommend.   For older readers, there is a multitude of works over the past 200 years from which to choose.   If you want some history / S&E, try comparing a translation of  the original Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” with the Disney book.  I like Cherryh at the moment, with examples below,  but there are other excellent authors.

 Do, however, check their pattern of punctuation.  Tom Holt is an entertaining writier (see Alexander at the World’s End) , but uses semicolons where The Penguin Guide to Punctuation would recommend a colon.  Indeed, such a style is preferred by some publishers now, to the extent that some teachers consider the older form incorrect.   Therefore, when an opportunity arises, I like to point out the existence of the two schools of thought, and allow the students to choose – and use only – the approach they prefer.   I also (as here) remind teachers of the existence of the two approaches.   (But I give out mainly examples of my preferred style, naturally.)

Examples of texts

In the first piece,  I begin with an Introductory Reference : The Colon and the Semicolon Compared, by Larry Trask .  We then see what CJ Cherryh does with them, and debate her choices.  I do not assert that her choices are always ideal,  but they are worth discussing.  (If students want to see a wider range of her style, I suggest the Russalka series.)

For older students,  small groups try to write their interpretations given those rules (they are expected to look up any words they don’t know, and figure out which words name an ethnic group/ nation / region names);   for younger students a more structured explanation sets the scene, the words are part of word study,  and it is a supervised small group or full class discussion.

CJ Cherryh  Fortress in the Eye of Time

p 246 .  [Heryn,  Lord of Amafel, has been found to have been careless to the point of being criminal concerning Prince Cefwyn’s safety.   Cefwyn, soon to be king of Ylesuin (by Heryn’s treachery), cannot prove the carelessness was deliberate action, or that Heryn has been taxing his people heavily and passing little on to the King.    Cefwyn sits in judgement – in Heryn’s castle.]

“I must bear that, then,” Heryn said, and where sarcasm might have prevailed, perhaps, there was no apparent edge to his voice, only anguish.

Something must be done with him; the whole hall waited, anxious, sceptical of Heryn alike, perhaps embarrassed in Heryn’s fall from dignity, perhaps thinking of their own weapons:  Cefwyn knew the volatility of the region all too well; but he considered rejecting Heryn and his offer, and his tax records, a moment of two longer than he might ordinarily contemplate a move to fracture the peace.

But after such a delay, enough to make Heryn’s face go to pallor, he beckoned the man to rise, and, still frowning, gave him the formal embrace courtesy and custom demanded after such an accepted capitulation.

p 382. [ Idrys is Cefwyn’s spy master, and often goes into danger for him;  Emuin is Cefwyn’s wisest advisor.  The Marhanen are the ruling family, Cefwyn’s family.  Cefwyn has become King, and has made choices that go against his land’s and his family’s traditions]

He cast a frowning look at Idrys, and knew that there was yet another danger that Emuin did not reckon of:  Idrys’ loyalty, and Idrys’ perception.  Idrys had taken an oath of homage to him.  Of fealty to him.  But in the challenge to the Marhanen that those oaths had never anticipated, he found himself without sure knowledge what Idrys’ attachment was: to him, as king; to the realm; to whatever man Idrys served – or to his own unexpressed sense of honor.  Idrys measured things by some scheme that had never yet diverged from his personal welfare.

[Note: from context, I suspect that the “his personal welfare” there is the king’s, and that she would have written “his own” had it been Idrys’ welfare. ]

p 399.  [People from a neighbouring kingdom are invading across Amefel – and the Lord of Amafel and some nobles have recently been executed for treason.  Cefwyn considers what his warlike and successful grandfather had taught him.]

It meant, of course, that the Elwynim disrupted their own harvest by taking men away from the farms, but if in years previous they had had the foresight to hold reserves of their grain, they could bring it from Elwynor, managing the extended supply that Grandfather had declared was the most important item to have secured: Never rely on the farmers for food, was another of Grandfather’s  rules; it makes the farmers mad, gives your enemy willing reports, and it never amounts to what you think it will once you most need it.

Grandfather was silent on the problems of feeding the farmers of Amafel while the armies of five provinces and all the enemy camped on their fields and their sheep-meadows – when the Amefin were farmers and shepherds of the chanciest loyalty in all Ylesuin.  As well the King did stand on their pastures;  holding Amefel otherwise would not be possible.

The next piece is good to read aloud, stopping if necessary to write up and define any unknown words.   There is then the opportunity to hand out an unpunctuated copy, for small groups or pairs of students to choose their own punctuation before seeing how Davies has done it.  This allows discussion of ways of punctuation, and thought about choices, before discussing how the piece was actually punctuated – and then discussing  how he gets away with breaking so many of the formal writing rules  (Lessons:  A  sentence can be very long and yet easy to read, if you punctuate clauses carefully.  A sentence fragment can be a paragraph – if you are writing in an informal style, and if you set up the situation correctly in your readers’ minds .)

Andrew Davies   Marmalade Atkins’ Dreadful Deeds

pp 18 – 19

Torchy was a fat white pony who went round with a secret smile on his face.  He was a very nice pony to ride if you didn’t mind stopping every few yards for him to have a snack.  The other thing he liked to do was roll on his back kicking his legs in the air, and most people found it best to dismount while he was doing this.

And then there was Rufus.  Rufus had come with the farm and nobody knew how old he was.  He wore an old straw hat that didn’t suit him but nobody had ever dared take it off, because although Rufus usually looked half asleep, there was a certain look about his half-shut eyes that warned you not to take liberties with Rufus or his hat.

After his hat, the next thing you noticed about Rufus was his coat, which was rough and thick, and several kinds of red in colour.  There were sandy tufts, and gingery tufts, and carroty whorls, and pinkish stubble.  His coat was of several different lengths, and grew in several different directions, and he looked as if he had just paid a visit to a drunken barber’s.  Despite all this, he seemed a nice old thing, and people who didn’t know him  would cry out: “Oh, what a sweet little donkey!  Isn’t he a love!” and people who did know him would clear their throats and change the subject, and Rufus himself would throw back his head and let out a sarcastic “Hee-haw!” in his very loud and vulgar voice, and if you looked into his sleepy old eyes you could see his crafty old brain ticking over, working out something bad to do.

Because Rufus was a pretty diabolical donkey.

Rufus liked to give people surprises.  One way of doing this was to come up behind them and give them a very gentle nudge with his nose.  Usually they would stroke his muzzle saying “What a sweet old thing!”  Then he would give then another nudge, a bit harder, then a very hard nudge indeed.  After about three nudges, most people fell down, and Rufus would stand on them.  Donkeys look small, but they weigh at least twice as much as your fattest auntie, and it is no joke being stood on by a donkey like Rufus.

Marmalade’s mother would try to smooth the situation over by whacking him with a twig and saying “Don’t be a bore, Rufus!” or “It’s only his way of showing he likes you!” but people who were stood on by Rufus wished he could show his affection in some other way; and those who looked up into his wickedly gleaming eyes thought, but didn’t like to say, that Marmalade’s mother was quite wrong and that Rufus did not in fact like them at all.

And in this they were usually right.

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Alexander at the World's End

Alexander at the World’s End

On teaching students to show their working

May 25, 2011

Karl F Gauss (1777 – 1855) “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”¹

I have struggled with the problem of persuading the talented students to show their thinking in any detail – the greater the gift, the less likely they are to want to explain the details.  After all, if it is blatantly obvious, who wants to discuss why it is so?

“Because I say so!” is a non-starter – too many of them can turn mulish.  The argument that it helps one to find one’s errors doesn’t work – they, having genius egos and little experience, do not really believe that they can be in error.

In literacy and other communication-loaded subjects, the argument that the details are needed to help the audience understand one’s thoughts may help.  Unfortunately, if the student feels that the teacher knows the details already, ve may logically respond that details are therefore not required.   More powerful for the score-motivated, however, was the clear opening statement that the person assessing one’s work will have a mental checklist of “things to give points for”, and that including those statements will get one points.  This was particularly important for a student, asked to discuss  a complex piece of writing, who skipped all the obvious bits (the teacher’s focus, of course!) to discuss subtleties in the subtext .  However, unless the teacher has written a very careful programme, has a very clear marking key linked to the topic, and has provided examples of pieces showing discussions of  “obvious bits” ,  and the student has attended, this leads to the lesson being that the teacher wants the student to guess what the teacher wants to see –

Now,  here is a win/win situation: that “unless” sounds like good teaching practice,   and the latter outcome reflects the reality of many test and workplace experiences .²

But then, there are those with much more internal motivations.   One approach for them which  I enjoyed involves a little history and psychology:

Many experts find they “know” but can’t easily explain why – like the soldier in Afghanistan who believes there is a trap, but can only say that “that street gives me a cold feeling” – not much help when training a rookie.   I knew a mathematician who had spent three years working on proving that two different areas of extreme geometry which were using different theorems could be reduced to one set of theorems – he “knew” they were linked, but had to prove it using both sets of theorems.  In higher maths, I myself often knew the answer to a problem and then had to work to choose the approach to showing that it was so.   

Even the great scientists and mathematicians experience this:  thus, the Gauss quote: Karl F Gauss (1777 – 1855) “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.”¹ 

If all these people know things are so, then it is not surprising  that some  students will start to know also.  But how does it come to be so? 

When   one is learning to read, one remembers the shape-sound match, then sounds-out the letters, then links the sounds to find the word, and try to remember that one while reading the next word.   At each step, neurons are firing chemical messages and stimulating each other to grow and link across brain structures.  Later, the shape-sound match is known: neurons have made linkages, so the visual system gets the verbal system for the letter-sound doing its job below consciousness.   Then the sets of letters in each word start having neural networks, so the whole word is known.  Later, groups of words are linked, so that if a new word is made up of them, the set of activated networks means that the new word is known.  With much reading (and especially with good speed reading training) the networks may link so that entire sentences may be grasped by the expert neural systems rather than  read “word by word” by the conscious mind. 

In all aspects of learning, it comes to the same thing: neurons signalling and  linking and signalling.  What you practice is what you get good at.

If you practice just knowing, and you have made a faulty connection somewhere, that fault is strengthened.  That is the first reason to check the working consciously.

If you practice just knowing, you can unconsciously be using systems elsewhere in your brain – other expert systems can be involved without your knowledge.  This often happens where science uses mathematics, or any subject uses literacy.   Examining your processes can make surprising linkages available to make useful shortcuts – for example. having to remember only one of five physics formulae because they are all derived from one mathematically.  Making links where no-one else saw them is what gets people Nobel prizes.  That is a second reason to check the working consciously.

If you practice just knowing, you do not practice self-questioning.  To question one’s own inner processes is a valuable skill in later life, when more complex problems engage many neural networks – many adults spend long hours with psychologists, trying to figure why they make such bad decisions and how to improve their lives.    Start practicing with small things – like adding three-figure numbers – and develop the skills you will need for the big things later.  That is a third reason to check the working consciously.

Practicing just knowing means you cannot be sure that you have really grasped the whole of the problem.  In a hurried situation it is useful to be sure enough to gamble on, but where there is time –  conscious checking allows certainty.  That confidence is a fourth reason to check the working consciously.

If you practice just knowing, you can be manipulated by events elsewhere in your brain.  If conscious checking gives an answer different from your knowledge, you have a starting point for finding out what you know (in the normal sense) which contradicts your conscious thinking.  Sometimes, there is a fault which can derail your life (see the psychologist’s work, as above.)  And, from experts in fields from medicine to farming, there is another case:  if you know the area really well, your gut feeling is often right – and finding out why is the path to excellence.    That is a last reason to check the working consciously.

Finally, the more complex the problem, the more useful it is to do the working in writing and in a careful format, so that each step can be checked over again.  Doing this gets easier with practice – so practice doing it in writing, neatly, and in the standard form for the subject.

 Go, and justify your answers from now on.  Or I will go over this again.


1.  K.F.Guauss, cited by Paul Williams (2010) p.338.  In Afterword in Sturgeon, N. (Ed.) Case and the Dreamer (pp.327-354)
Berkeley: North Atlantic Press

2. A teacher’s view of this fact of life, and advice on teaching students to live with it:  Mark Lopez “The Little Black School Book ” Vols. 1 and 2, 2008 and 2011, Connor Court Australia.