Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Firehall

Editor, the Times & Transcript,

As a taxpayer, I would like to thank Moncton city council for showing the prudence and good sense to build a stone firehall in such a practical location.

The new firehall has immediate access to the highway, and is only seconds away from Mountain Road, both hospitals, north Moncton, downtown and the university. Certainly this makes more sense than locating where emergency responders would have to fight traffic every time they received a call.

And the new firehall will stand the test of time. I am so happy that City hall did not use vinyl siding. Vinyl may be cheap, but it looks cheap, especially on a public building, and after ten years would look faded and dilapidated. Brick is better than vinyl, of course, but it is not much cheaper than stone, and not as durable.

Stone is a material that demonstrates that we have a commitment to our city, that we expect it to last more than ten years, more than a hundred years, that we want to build not merely for function but also for aesthetics.

And stone is a material that demonstrates sound economic sense. It demonstrates that we are not willing to sacrifice the future to save a few dollars today. It demonstrates that we want, and get, value for our money.

As a taxpayer I want to invest in a city that is worth living in and a pleasure to visit. I want to be proud of our public buildings, not ashamed to see them on television because of the message they'll send. I want them to be around for centuries, not demolished every dozen years.

The constant caterwauling about the cost of public infrastructure is damaging to our city. New Brunswick has been poor for many years. We finally have the chance to invest in ourselves, to build a lasting future, and a few skinflints want to do everything on the cheap.

Well, you get what you pay for. If you want low low taxes, take a hike down the road and live in a city that can barely even afford water and sewage plants. If you want to live in a city to be proud of, stay here, and pay your investment in the future like the rest of us.

The Best Schools

Responding to Clark Aldrich.

I have often written, the best place to learn about forestry is in a forest, the best place to learn about law is in a courtroom.

This is no doubt influenced by my own childhood, as I spent what added up to months in summer camps.

What I learned there has nothing to do with tests or academics. But I learned to sail a boat, paddle a canoe, build a fire, find food in the wilderness, sing (badly) at a campfire, and so much more.

I also learned attitudes of self-reliance and independence, camaraderie, ceremony, attentiveness, and appreciation for wild spaces. I would not be the person I am without that experience.

I wonder, why can't childhood be a series of adventures - two months at a camp, a month in a courtroom, two months traveling with police officers, three weeks at the fire station, and more?

What I want most of out an education, I think, is to spark a dream in a child's eye, a dream born out of authentic experience in a real world, and nurtured with the best care and support a society can provide.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Hole in the Wall

Just testing, because Gary couldn't make it work in Blogger...

Copy the 'Embed this video' code from the TED page. In Blogger, switch to 'Edit HTML', paste in the TED code, then insert </embed> immediately before </object> at the end of the code. Pretty sloppy code from TED; I have to assume it's deliberate.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Take on the Top 25

Copying Emma Duke-Williams's idea - here's Jane Hart's Slideshow of the Day list of the top 25 technologies - and where they fit (or not) in my own world:
  • Firefox - It's my major workhorse. Don't use Flock.

  • Delicious - I think I added a bookmark there once. I use my own system for bookmarks (which I then send out as a newsletter). And other people's unannotated links leave me cold.

  • Google Reader - It's also a major workhorse, though I am slowly improving my own aggregator so it can take over from Google.

  • Gmail - only as a backup. GMail resolutely won't let me use my own emai laddress , which is a deal-breaker for me. My own identity is - most importantly - mine. (I still remember having my email address unceremoniously dumped when AOL bought Netscape, and I swore I'd never allow that to happen again).

  • Skype - I use it once in a while. It's certainly more reliable than other voice and video communication tools I've used.

  • Google calendar - I use this quite a bit, which is a new thing for me. Not so much Google Calendar, but the idea of using any calendaring tool at all (I used to simply remember all my appointments, but I'm getting old...)

  • Google Docs - I use it a little, but not a lot.

  • iGoogle - I never use it. I have no use for it.

  • Slideshare - I upload all my slideshows to Slideshare and find it really hand when I encounter a slide show embedded in a blog post (I will almost always view at least some of theslides).

  • Flickr - I have a pro account and have uploaded, I don't know, around 10,000 photos.

  • Voicethread - I have no use for it.

  • WordPress - I don't use it, because I have my own blogging software that I wrote myself (that nobody else uses, but I'm OK with that).

  • Audacity - I record all of my talks with Audacity. I'm also using it to digitize my vinyl albums.

  • YouTube - I use Google Video to upload videos, because I started there, and I prefer the presentation there. I watch a lot of YouTube, though.

  • Jing - I don't use it because I can't have screen captures recorded in Flash. I convinced NRC to purchase Camtasia for me. I also use Adobe Premiere Elements quite a bit.

  • PBWiki - I have my own wiki installed on my website, and don't need to use PBWiki. It's an instance of UseMod Wiki, which I've customized to work with my own login system.

  • PollDaddy - I have just installed Limesurvey on my website, and though I haven't used it yet, expect to employ it for some work this fall. For various reasons I am not willing to use a hosted polling solution.

  • Nvu - Again, since I have my own system I have no need for this one.

  • Yugama - haven't used this at all. Looks promising, though.

  • Ustream - I've done a few trial broadcasts, but haven't had an occasion to use it,

  • Ning -I agree with Emma: "I really don’t like Ning." The whole idea of a network on a single website is wrong.

  • Freemind - I'm not a mind-mapping person, because I have found that mind-maps are (mostly) logically analagous to indented lists (which I can create just fine with a tab key). A nice free-hand drawing tool that straightened my lines and rounded my circles would be nice, but I haven't found anything yet.

  • eXe - I will be testing this for a project, but I am not really a learning design person.

  • Moodle - Not really. Sometimes I have an installation running (not at the moment, though). I'm not really an LMS person.

  • Twitter - I send status updates from my facebook account, but I don't use it otherwise. If you want to tweet me, send an email.
I do find it interesting that the email clients have dropped off the list (except for GMail, which I won't even use for forwarding because of the volume of spam).

But more to the point, I find that I use my own system in place of many of the things in the list. Having my own website, and even more so, my own software, gives me tremendous flexibility, but at the cost of being a bit out of the mainstream.

That said, I don't trust the online services. I've had too many bad experiences - they all end up behaving like the phone company or the power company when they get large enough. Case in point. I would like to think that we will develop a more distributed network of personally managed online services.

That may be like tilting for windmills, I know. But I think the future will be different from the past...

Update... responding to Britt

I meant "I don't use Flock." I certainly didn't intend to tell people not to use it, simple to convey that I don't. My apologies for the confusion.

Many people find value in the tools I don't use. That's why Jane Hart surveys 115 people, and not just me.

This is what allows me to describe what *I* use, rather than to get caught in the game of recommending what other people should use.

In my own case - which, remember, is unique to me - I extend my capacities by writing my own software. This is a skill I worked very hard to acquire (it's not simply 'inherent') and the reason why I did was that I wanted to be able to do what people will be doing with *tomorrow's* tools, not just today's.

Don't confuse my own choices with NIH. In every instance, there's a cost to using my own tools. I use mainstream tools whenever I can. That's why, for example, I use MySQL, instead of the database system I wrote for myself. Or the Mod Wiki or the Lime survey tool. Or, for that matter, Firefox.

Where I use my own tools, there is a specific purpose for using the tool. Sometimes the mainstream tools don't work as well as advertised (eg., Ruby on Rails, Sunbird). Sometimes they are not flexible enough or don't manage data they way I want (eg. WordPress, Drupal).

What this means is that you can't simply take my choices as recommendations as to what tools to use. Just as well: my recommendations probably wouldn't serve you very well. Because you aren't trying to do the things I'm trying to do.

But - assuming that you believe I have some sort of handle on where the future will go - you should be able to use my report to judge what sort of changes to expect in the future.

Again, you should rely on other people as well, and not just me. Other people are better at writing software, better at predicting the future, better at understanding people.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blatant Dissemblance

Responding to Matthew K. Tabor...

Willingham's video is titled, "Learning Styles Don't Exist". I repeat the phrase in one of my summaries, and a Willingham defender comes back, "but he never says learning styles don't exist!"

Willingham says, "Good teaching is good teaching, and teachers don’t need to adjust their teaching to individual students’ learning styles." You suggest that listeners are taking this statement out of context. But it's the last line in the video, summing up, and follows the sentence, "What I've said about that theory (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) goes for the others too."

You complain, "Mr. Downes charges me [and others] with having closed the case on learning styles." In your other post, immediately after citing Willingham, "...teachers don’t need to adjust their teaching to individual students’ learning styles," you conclude, "Sounds good to me."

It's very annoying to see people say one thing, and almost in the same breath see it being denied as ever having been said. It's blatant dissemblance, and treats the reader as though he or she is unable to read.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sport and Spectators

Responding to Dave Pollard, who writes,
From now on, every time I am tempted to watch a "spectator sport", or a mass media information or entertainment production, I am going to stop myself and ask: What could I be doing instead that is more collaborative, and more participative, and take myself off the sidelines and out of the chair and into action, doing something, cooperatively, with others.
Um. No.

Two short stories.

1. I was in Memphis about a month ago. The Redbirds (local triple-A baseball team) were playing in their nice new downtown stadium. I went three nights in a row.

It was perfection. I had a seat on the first base side, even with home plate, about 6 rows in. The games proceeded at their pace, the crowd came in and cheered and chatted, the vendors sold me some hot nuts and a beer or Coke, and I simply appreciated the act, the art, of the sort. Watching Stansberry stroke a double down the left field line is a thing of beauty.

2. It's late at night. I'm listening to the Blue Jays game on the radio. They're playing in Detroit and there's a rain delay. The announcers come on, they update the other scores around the rest of the league, talk a bit about the current game, and then engage in a conversation on the game itself, some proposed rule changes, whether they should be undertaken, who they would favour, that sort of thing. Arcania.

And at the end of the conversation, a good ten of fifteen minutes later, they wrapped up, and the announcer said, "I hope you enjoyed that." And I realized, I had enjoyed that, not because of the topic, necessarily, but because it was simply high quality conversation - two knowledgable people having a friendly discussion about something that interested them.

So I don't think *my* enjoyment of sports, at least, has anything to do with the expertise or the affinity (and certainly very little to do with the competition).

I think, for me, sport is like art. I appreciate the beauty, the artistry, the spectacle, the grace. And whether this is expressed in the game itself, the setting, or the coverage, it's all the same to me - and actually, the totality of this is what really brings it together.

When I am sitting on a perfect summer evening watching a game and that little voice says, "What could I be doing instead that is more collaborative, and more participative," I have learned to say, "nothing."

Because, you know, it (life, and all that) is not about being "more collaborative, and more participative." It's about those moments of beauty, when the lead-off hitter strokes a double down the left field line, the runner scores from first in a cloud of dust, and this event, unknown to all of us in the second inning, will be what decides the issue in a 1-0 game.

The spectator is what makes any of this worth doing at all.

Not seeing that is, in an important way, not to see.

Our Abilities, and the Future of Civilization

Responding to Larry Sanger, who has allowed himself to be dragged into the ridiculous "Is Google Making Us Stupid, threatening the end of civilization" debate.

I would say that civilization, if it is threatened, is rather more threatened by television (which has robbed an entire generation of the capacity to think critically, at least according to Al Gore (_The Assault on Reason_)) and by shallow, yellow journalism (a certain amount of which, sadly, manifests itself on the Britannica Blog).

That said, even the basic observations which are apparently agreed upon by all sides in this ridiculous debate fly against any semblance of reality, as the slightest observation would show clearly.

> * Our attention span is naturally shortened if we spend our time hopping from item to item online.

First of all, the statement is counterfactual. Some people spend some of their time hopping from item to item online. Many people - including most academics - continue to read lengthier works, whether or not they are online. I can think of any number of book-length items I have posted in my newsletter. I read them, and from what I can judge, others read them as well.

Moreover, our online time is not simply spent reading items on the web. A significant amount of time is spent playing games or otherwise interacting. Think of the hours spent by people building things in Second Life, or forming clans in World or Warcraft. My own introduction to the online world was to spend twelve hours at a time studying code, so I could learn how to build online dungeons. Millions of people, as can be easily seen by the creativity exercised on the web, spend hours upon hours in deep, concentrated thought on a single item.

And second, even granted the antecedent, the consequent does not follow. The presumption here is that the only way we could have a long attention span is if our attention is guided in some way, as in a lengthy novel or other work. However, a person can demonstrate a lengthy attention span even when flitting from one thing to the next. I did that this afternoon, in fact, working my way through a series of issues related to Sunbird calendaring with Thunderbird on Ubuntu. I went through dozens of divverent sites, following a concentrated chain of reasoning that existed nowhere in print, but only in my head, as I deduced the solution to my problem one clue at a time. This is very typical of web reasoning; I have documented the process in some of my writing (for example, 'Setting Up Sunbird'). In short, we can develop our capacity for concentrated thought through mosaics as well as with chains - and I daresay the skill that results from the former is a strengthened version of the latter, hardly weaker.

> * Many of us report that we’re more easily distracted now. (I admit it, but I’m not proud of it and I think I can improve.)

One wonders, more distracted than what?

Let us imagine, say, a person from the 50s. Do you think this person could concentrate on his or he work on the computer, with email in the background, occasional instant messages, a mobile phone, and the TV playing in the background (showing the Olympics, naturally, which jumps from thing to thing - as I am watching right now as I type) and my wife commenting on the action.

I daresay, not.

The suggestion that we are 'more easily distracted' flies in the face of observation. The most causal look at out environment makes it clear that we are deluged with distractions. And yet we are able to maintain our focus through that - you to type your missive, I to type my reply (and later on I'll go read some William Gibson while listening to the ball game).

We do more things, sure. But to say we are 'more easily distracted' is most assuredly false.

> * A lot of what is “happening” occurs online, not in professionally published books, journals, or magazines.

I'll grant you that.

But that's a good thing, especially considering the detritus that passes for 'quality' in books, journals and magazines.

> * There is far more out there that we want to read than we possibly can read.

This has always been the case, from some time after the Middle Ages on.

> So we tend to skim and read superficially, not thoughtfully.

There is no evidence of this. Indeed, the emergence of 'fisking' suggests a phenomenon quite the opposite. It was rare in the lump-publishing world to see a point-by-point refutation of an argument. In the online world, this is common. And the whole phenomenon of 'fact checking your ass' was an almost unknown talent in pre-internet days, an era when writers and politicians routinely got away with howlers.

What people need to recognize is that we've learned, in the electronic age, to process content - and especially textual content - at different speeds. We skim when we're searching - here we are looking for keywords, patterns, telling points, whatever. When we hit something important we slow down, and take in the content. When we hit the point where we want to engage, we take the content apart, considering it line by line, point by point.

Probably at no time in history have so many people been closely analyzing so much text. This will only increase as our skills at it increase (remember - we're coming from a pre-literate age, compared to what we can do today).

> * The classics have no constituency online.


> Tolstoy isn’t in the blog ranking.

Google: "Results 1 - 10 of about 7,020,000 for tolstoy." I'll leave calculating the Google page rank for the various pages as an exercise for the reader.

> Dickens doesn’t appear atop

False. Google again: "Results 1 - 10 of about 1,330 from for dickens."

> Newton and Leibniz aren’t going to be Slashdotted.

False. Google again: " Results 1 - 10 of about 1,780 from for newton." and " Results 1 - 10 of about 68 from for leibniz" (there's another 10 results for 'Leibnitz').

Did you even check these statements before making them?

Dickens, Tolstoy, Newton and Leibniz will all continue to have a constituency, precisely because they are classics (and, arguably, they are considered classics *because* they have a constituency). The suggestion that they don't show up in Technorati or Digg (aside from being false) is irrelevant. They show up in their own way, because they are a different type of work. And - ultimately - they all *will* show up, even in the blog rankings, as we can see from the 'Pepys Dairy' blog that was popular for a while, or the just-started 'Orwell Prize'.

My feeling is that the emergence of the internet (and the web) has come at just the right moment in history, because we could probably not have endured another generation raised in a state of semi-hypnosis glued to their televisions. The United States has raised a generation of children that believes a large number of things that are known to be false. Their media - the much vaunted 'voice of authority' has systematically misled them on matters of science and religion, history and politics.

Larry, I have less and less patience for a small self-appointed set of critics who are apparently darlings of the publisher set but who have no good grasp of the sort of thinking and learning that is taking place online and where it is leading us. It is an arena in which matter of fact and reason appear to have no place, where the sole currency is self-promotion, a dross best achieved by writing what the publishers want to hear. Such places are best avoided by those who pursue truth and reason, rather than mere self-aggrandizement.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NIH - No Irvings Here

Responding to Tom Young.

When I visited Saint John a year or two ago I was staying down near the convention centre and the mall downtown. I walked along the public path around the inner harbour, and it was very nice.

Then I decided I wanted to see the waterfront out on the Bay of Fundy itself, not just on the river. I walked all through Saint John looking for that waterfront, but all I saw was run-down housing and industries. The main part of Saint John is completely blocked from the sea!

If you were to design a coastal city, you couldn't do it worse. How do you take the city's most prime real estate, that should be a pleasure to live in, and completely block it from the sea?

It reminded me of the day before, when I went to see the Reversing Falls. The falls were there all right - but somebody had built a big factory (it looked like a power plant) right on top of them!

You see - the problem isn't just this one project, and it isn't just this one bit of harbourfront. It's that Saint John has been so badly treated by industry over the years - including, especially, Irving, which routinely gets breaks from the City government.

Now there's nothing left for people. Every last bit of real estate is taken by companies, like Irving, that seem to have a lock on city council.

Before I moved to New Brunswick 8 years ago I thought Saint John would be a nice place to live. But now I realize that we have more ocean front here in Moncton than they do in Saint John.

I think we should have a campaign here, targeted toward the poor people in Saint John who can't ever see the sea behind the factory fences:

NIH - "No Irvings Here"

Not strictly true, of course, as our laughingstock of a newspaper proves to us every day. But at least we use the best and most scenic land in our city for parks and recreation, not Irving offices.

And at least it looks like our Council - realizing that it must serve the interests of the city population and the other businesses in the city - has managed to learn not to cave every time an Irving asks them for a handout.

Our Councils (Moncton, Riverview, Dieppe) - despite the loud wails of protest from the Irving newspaper - spend money on parks, nice roads, bicycle paths, bridges, schools, swimming pools, and the rest. Come here to Moncton and you see a modern city with clean streets and buildings in good repair.

In Saint John, where the Irvings hold such sway, exactly the opposite is the case. After giving huge breaks to the Irvings, and browbeaten into keeping taxes low for the rest, the city of Saint John looks like it could not afford a dog-catcher, much less a public infrastructure program.

In your column you ask us to imagine that some other company was thinking of that land. Well it wouldn't happen! You can't set up shop in Saint John unless you're partnering with Irving - because if you aren't, you won't get any breaks from Council. And if you partner with Irving you understand that Irving is the top dog. Any breaks you get, you get through Irving. Period.

Tom, I am not opposed to industry and commerce, and I would normally support the efforts of a large company to locate in the city. But the Irvings have used an essential monopoly on commerce in the city - and media in the city - to create a system that enriches themselves while impoverishing everyone else.

We have managed very well in Moncton without the presence of Irving head offices or Irving refineries (especially once we finally got rid of that polluted eyesore the Irvings left on our riverfront). We have a diverse commercial and industrial base, with city government taking into account the needs of all citizens, not a privileged few.

The problem isn't the presence of industry and commerce - it's the special deals the Irvings manage to get as a result of their comfy relationship with government and stranglehold over media, a special relationship that favour them but drives out all other industry (all other competition!) in the city.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How Far Did You Roam As A Child?

John Larkin links to Bill Kerr along with an article in the Guardian, Kids need the adventure of risky play and an article in the Mail online, How children lost the right to roam in four generations.

The premise is that children today have lost their right to roam, and that this sort of protective attitude is harming them.

Maybe. I ranged far and wide as a child: below is a map of the places I visited on my bicycle between the ages 10-14:

After I was 14, I got a part time job in Ottawa, and my attention was focused on the city. Between the ages of 14 and 16 I wandered in and out of the city pretty much at will, and my range included the entire city. At 16 I got a motocycle, which gave me a range of about 300 miles in diameter. I also traveled to Britain with a school group (which I ditched once we hit London, giving me that entire city to roam).


Here is my range at age 78, in Candiac, on the south shore of Montreal.

What We Learn and How We Learn

Responding to Joanne Jacobs, who writes:
DNA could determine whether children learn from mistakes or cope with abuse, some scientists now believe
Lots to criticize in this report. It doesn't even say who made this 'discovery' and where it was published (telling us that it was an experiment at the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Germany is insufficient).

And the idea that a particular genetic difference will result in a particular behavioral change is a bit suspect. While genetics no doubt influences outcomes, there is a long and complex relationship between them. Brains are plastic, not static, which means that they are not built at birth, but rather, grow from a seed.

But all of that said, let's take these results at face value. Let's suppose that (among other things) children with fewer dopamine receptors are less able to learn from mistakes. Then it would follow that there *are* learning styles, as Howard Gardiner suggested. That, some children - such as these - do not learn as well by doing (trial and error), but rather, by hearing (being told).

Contra people like Willingham it would be the case that the way we learn influences what we can learn. It is not simply the case that there are different kinds of knowledge (linguistic, musical, interpersonal, etc.) but that these are also different ways to learn, that would correspond with these forms of knowledge.

And if this is the case, then it follows that the idea that there is a single way to teach children - and, indeed, a single way to test them - is absurd. Children with fewer dopamine receptors, say, may have the same knowledge as other children - that 'Paris is the capital of France', say - but it would be unreasonable to attempt to teach this knowledge to them in the same way, nor to test them for this knowledge in the same way,

What we learn and how we learn are influenced by a wide range of factors. The child's genetic structure is one of these factors, and rapidly becoming one of the easiest to detect. The nutrition a child receives, pre- and post-natal, is another factor. The child's exposure to varied environments, including the provision of role models and exemplars to follow, is another.

All of these have an impact on what we should teach and how we should teach it. Supposing that any single intervention - small schools, quality teachers, phonics - will resolve an education deficit is absurd and irresponsible.

The only effective intervention is also the most difficult - across the board improvements in a child's social and physical environment (good nutrition, quality experiences, positive social connection) along with personalized learning programs designed address the child's strengths (in both learning domain and learning methodology) where possible and weaknesses where necessary.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Disingenuous and myopic

Responding to Ken DeRosa, who suggests that he has been 'waiting' for 17 days for "evidence on the effectiveness of Broader, Bolder." In response to Leo Casey, who says "Disingenuous calls for 'evidence' that community schools work require a willful myopia on the effect on life in poverty on education," DeRosa says,

> I'll take disingenuous and myopic...

Such is evident from his words. Consider his treatment of the 'evidence' surrounding a series of claims made by Casey, including one that teachers "have seen asthma reach epidemic proportions among students living in poverty, and they know that the lack of preventive and prophylactic medical care leads to more frequent attacks of a more severe nature, and more absences from school."

De Rosa cites some studies that appear to refute this conclusion. He comments, "Notice how the subjective measures (teachers' grades and parental reporting of grades) conflict with the objective measures (standardized test results and school-recorded absences)."

Let's examine them (the Clark study, at least - the Evans one doesn't show up on Google at all and as usual you provide neither links not dates).

It's clear DeRosa quotes Clark from their abstract. One wonders whether he read further. To find this, for example, summarized by Gale Jurasek:

"One disappointing result was the failure of the investigators to connect with the children’s primary care clinicians and obtain an asthma action plan. Baseline data indicated that only one quarter of the asthmatic children in the study were receiving adequate treatment..."

Gee, don't you think receiving treatment might be important?

In the study where adequate medical care *was* provided (Halterman JS, Szilagyi PG, Yoos HL, et al.) a positive result was obtained in many cases:

"The children in the intervention group missed a mean of 6.8 days of school, compared with 8.8 days missed in the usual care group...."

Wait. That is what Casey said.

Worth noting was that "the intervention was ineffective for children who were exposed to secondhand smoke at home, but it was highly effective for the other children."

Do you think controlling for tobacco smoke in the home might have been important?

It is also worth noting that all studies - including the ones DeRosa cites - conclude (to quote the Evans, study):

"Overall, the intervention provided significant benefits, particularly for children with persistent asthma."

So an examination of the research shows that it does not support the conclusion DeRosa says that it does, and indeed, explicitly states the opposite.

But, of course, DeRosa's demand for evidence was, as Casey stated, disingenuous. He isn't interested in the conclusions actual researchers in the field draw. Rather, he will map their results against his own idiosyncratic definitions (of, say, 'improvement') and declare, contrary to all the researchers, that the asthma programs are ineffective.

And what - that they should be scrapped?

As for the rest of Casey's argument, why, DeRosa leaves it untouched. As though there were somehow no evidence for the propositions that:

- eye problems impact the ability to learn how to read (tell me, how does DeRosa account for the programs set up for blind children?)

- lack of proper medical care heightens the severity of childhood illnesses and makes them last longer (guess DeRosa hasn't been following the deaths that result when parents withhold treatment, refuse inoculations, prohibit transfusions, and the like - or the evidence from epidemiology about the spread of untreated disease)

- untreated asthma leads to more absences from school - this was clearly stated in the studies cited above. And it's worth noting that Casey makes *no claim* about asthma and grades or testing - this is something DeRosa brings to the table, a straw man set up for the attack

- screening for lead poisoning happens least for children in poverty - why doesn't DeRosa read "The dimensions of poverty among children in the United States" - it's the second freaking link in Google (right after the D-Ed post, bet DeRosa's proud)

... and the rest. The points cited by Casey are disputed only by the willfully ignorant, by people who - like the creationists and global warming sceptics - will not allow any body of evidence to change their beliefs.

Continued, responding to response... italic quotations are DeRosa's, the rest are m response.

> Unlike double-standard Downes, I cited these two research studies because they actually met some minimum standards of social-science research. See Coordinated school health programs and academic achievement...

Unlikely. You found one survey, and then began picking references out of the survey, without bothering to read beyond the abstract.

I can see why you didn't list it among your citations, even though it is your primary source. look what it says:

"The strongest evidence from scientifically rigorous evaluations exists for a positive effect on some academic outcomes from school health programs for asth­matic children that incorporate health education and parental involvement."

Oh, hey, that's the *opposite* of what you are claiming. You are saying there's no academic gain, and yet here is your own metastudy, not even mentioned in the original post, that concludes that there is a *positive* effect.

> These two studies were only two of about a half dozen studies related to school health programs that met generally accepted research standards.

18 studies in all were surveyed, but only two had to do with treatment of asthma (others dealt with nutrition programs, physical fitness, counseling, etc. and found positive benefits for those* interventions as well).

It would be more interesting to discuss what counts as a 'generally accepted research standard'.

> Thanks for unwittingly proving my point once again. I don't doubt that the school bungled the treatment...

I haven't proven your point at all. This study is evidence that *you* have found that you say supports *your* point. The fact that it contains a serious flaw undermines your position.

Indeed - what I would really like to know is how your citation such research can count as falling under 'generally accepted research standards'. It certainly doesn't evaluate the result of treatment of asthma, even though you cite it as though it does.

> that's what schools do -- they bungle.

There's a sweeping generalization for you, one more interesting for the bias it reveals than for any information it contains.

> Here's what the study tells us: even under experimental conditions, the school couldn't implement the treatment regime adequately such that it could improve student outcomes.

No, it says the school *did* not implement a program, not that it *could* not.

No citation?

Halterman JS, Szilagyi PG, Yoos HL, et al. Benefits of a school-based asthma treatment program in the absence of secondhand smoke exposure. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158:460-467.

Foolishly I assumed that you had read the one-page summary in the link that I provided.

> No determination if it meets minimal standards.

Why should I do your work for you?

> It was excluded from the 2007 Murray et al. meta-anlysis cited above.

I have no idea why it was excluded. The article only provides a generalized list of criteria, not a specific criticism of individual papers. For all I know, their research assistants couldn't find it.

> Oh, that's right, it agrees with your world-view so it must be true. The Downes double-standard rears its ugly head again.

Actually, pretty much everything I read on the subject 'agrees with my world view'. That's how I form my 'world view' - I read the literature, and come to an unbiased conclusion based on that reading.

You are the only person in this conversation cherry-picking and misinterpreting the texts. Accusing me of this is a case of what Freud used to call 'projection' - a phenomenon very common among political commentators.

> Substantively, however, I fail to see how gaining two school days (a 1 % increase) has ever led to an increased student achievement. Maybe you can find a cite for that?

That's not relevant. You said there was no evidence that showed an increase in attendance. Yet here is clearly evince - in a source *you* cite and say shows otherwise - evidence for an increase in attendance.

Perhaps you can see how a series of measures, each adding 1 percent to attendance rates, might have an effect on outcome. It would be ridiculous to attempt to survey one of these measures in isolation, since the contribution of each is marginal.

> "Overall, the intervention provided significant benefits, particularly for children with persistent asthma." Benefits which apparently didn't include student achievement.

Benefits that - according to the metastudy you omitted to mention in your original post, *do* include increases in student achievement.

That you would claim the research says what it clearly doesn't is absolutely shameless.

> "So an examination of the research shows that it does[n't:sic??] support the conclusion you say that it does, and indeed, explicitly states the opposite." Only if we count outcomes not related to student achievement

And yet - I find explicit evidence in the survey paper you cite for gains in academic achievement.

> --the explicit reason given by Broader, Bolder. If we limit the outcomes to student achievement related measures the benefits, as usual, are elusive.

Actually, Broader, Bolder could cite the papers in this discussion as evidence for their position.

> I don't remember claiming that these studies didn't show any benefits, just none related to student achievement

Oh, let's quote that study again:

"evidence from scientifically rigorous evaluations exists for
a positive effect on some academic outcomes from school health programs for asth­matic children"

This would be exactly the result you say wasn't obtained.

Look at the Evans, study:

"Significant improvements noted among health education compared with controls: for academic grades (4% vs 0%; p = .05), mathematics
(8% vs 3%; p = .03), science (5% vs 4%; p = .005), and oral expression (6% vs 1%; p = .04)."

The 'academic grades' refer to the marks given by teachers, but 'mathematics ' and 'science', which are listed separately, refer to standardized tests.

Looks like this study says *exactly* what you say it doesn't. Got an explanation for that?

> a sine qua non for using limited educational resources which might be used more productively on other educational programs. (And let's not discount the infirmities of extrapolating generalized results from these small scale studies which in all likelihood have methodological infirmities)

The justification for re-allocating resources must be based, not merely on a narrow description of improvement as 'higher grades on standardized tests' (which would be ridiculous) but rather on a wide ranging assessment of *all* benefits realized from the spending, including (say) health and social benefits.

> Nice Downesian (i.e., dishonest) framing. The question is whether providing a school-based version of these kinds of intervention will show an improvement over what is already being done.

You are criticizing Casey. Casey does not make this assertion. All he says is that asthma treatments reduce absences.

The rest of it is you projecting your own agenda onto Casey.

For my own part - when I look at a study of some 835 Detroit students, and find that "one quarter of the asthmatic children in the study were receiving adequate treatment," then it seems to me that "what is already being done" is grossly inadequate.

> Surely you can cite specific school-based programs on each point which has been researched and has shown a positive impact on student achievement. Large scale, no doubt, and replicated.

For many of these, a large-scale study would be pointless and ridiculous. Why do we need more study to determine whether poor vision makes it harder to learn how to read? What genuine doubt is there about this proposition?

> Prove me wrong.

I think we're well beyond the point where we need to prove anything to you. As Casey says, your calls for evidence are disingenuous. You don't really care about what the researchers actually say, and you consistently misquote them to support your own conclusions (I've seen you do this on *numerous* occasions, not just here).

You may have a body of readers who support your position, but those readers should know that *real* researchers - people with some actual qualifications in the field, who have actually done some research themselves - disagree overwhelmingly with the sort of propositions being advanced in this blog.

> If you're going to carry Casey's water, at least do a competent job.

As compared to... you?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

About That Copyright Bill...

Here I am raising the issue of Bill C-61, the "Canadian DMCA", with our local MP, Brian Murphy. The issue was just barely on his radar, which means people need to speak out.

If enacted, the Canadian DMCA will leave Canada with one of the most restrictive copyright laws for the digital environment in the world. Far from providing assistance to the digital marketplace, this law will have a stifling effect on creativity, innovation, consumer rights, and free speech in Canada. Follow the link and take action against Bill C61.

Read up on it for yourself. More links: Online Rights Canada, CIPPIC, Canadian Music Creators Coalition, Excess Copyright, Jeremy deBeer, Copyright Watch, Fair Copyright, CCER, Copyright for Canadians,, Appropriation Art.

And speak to your local MP today.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ethics and Principles

I was involved in a conversation yesterday on a subject that has come up a few times over the last few months: the idea of crafting a statement of ethics or list of ethical principles.

I have fairly consistently opposed such initiatives in the past because I do not thing they are effective or worthwhile. I have commented, for example, that statements of such principles don't offer any useful advice to people who are already ethical, while offering the unethical a set of loopholes to hide behind.

The reason for this, I argue, is that ethical principles are not so clearly defined as you would see in a statement of principles, that the issues are not so black and while as the set of precepts would suggest.

The discussion last night turned in a slightly different direction as a participant comment that she was Christian, and so, for her, ethics are black and white. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and that is underlined by her faith.

I suggested that she might want to rethink her position - not her Christianity (I don't care whether or not people are Christian; people can choose to be whatever they want) but rather her idea that ethics are so black and white.

This is important. Because while on the one hand the provision of a set of principles - like the Ten Commandments, say - makes it seem like ethics have been clearly defined, the fact of the matter is that they are actually less well defined. Our use of language fools us, by creating the appearance of precision where there is none.

Take, for example, the principle "Thou shalt nGolden Ruleot kill." Christians accept this as one of the Ten Commandments, but many such Christians endorse capital punishment, support the exercise of war, and agree that a person has the right to defend himself. The principle, if uncharitably expressed, could have the force of meaning of "Thou shalt not kill without proper paperwork."

But even notwithstanding these relatively unambiguous considerations, even the slightest examination of the meaning of the words reveals even more lack of clarity. What, for example, is the meaning of 'thou'? If I order the hit, but don't pull the trigger, do I count as a 'thou' in this instance? If I see a set of events about to unfold where I could easily prevent a death, but do nothing, is this a type of killing?

Or consider the scope of the prohibition. It is likely that the original formulation, among Jewish tribes wandering the Negev desert, applied to members of the same tribe only. Otherwise it's hard to reconcile the slaughters that take place later (eg. Numbers 21:24) with the declaration of principles that appears earlier. Humanity has a long tradition of treating people outside one's tribe or nation as barbarians, as non-human. But this tradition has been challenged in recent years, and some - such as Peter Singer - question whether the edict should not apply to the killing of animals as well.

This is not merely a problem for the Ten Commandments; it generalizes to the rest of religion. The Golden Rule, for example, was probably not intended by its authors to apply to masochists and the psychotic, tho whom the infliction of pain is welcomed, not feared. But when we start narrowing the domain of applicability, how do we determine what is reasonable. Should the Golder Rule apply to people who like to be ordered around by others, or should it be a rule that preserves one's freedoms?

Indeed, for pretty much any rule you can think of - religious or otherwise - the same sort of considerations apply. Think of the speeding sign you see at the side of the highway advising that the limit here is 55 (in Canada, this means kilometers per hour). Nobody really believes that the sign is intended to prohibit anyone from going 56.

Certainly, people are not arrested for this. And exceptions for various vehicles apply, along with various circumstances. We know this, which is why the penalty for speeding is not automatically applied, but is rather subject to interpretation. This process is so routine it is often overlooked, but a traffic ticket is a summons to appear in court, where a judge will determine whether the speeding was warranted (we, being reasonable people, know that it usually wasn't warranted, and so simply plead guilty by signing the document and paying the fine).

The difficulty with principles does not lie in religion, nor does it lie in the statement of the law. It is not as though we could somehow get our religious edits more correct, our commandments more precisely worded, our laws clearer and less ambiguous. Indeed, the more we try to make our laws more precise, the more the opposite seems to happen - they become so complex as to lose all meaning whatsoever, and it takes an expert to know whether a "speed limit" means anything of the kind.

No, the problem, rather, lies with language itself.

Language is a great imposter. Language fools us. It allows us to draw out these grand abstractions - everything from "red" to "brick" to "freedom" to "good" - and to treat them as crystalline-sharp concepts, the world clearly delineated, the 'red' separated from the 'non-red', the 'good' separated from the 'non-good'.

The words, however, are coarse blunt instruments. Far from being precise, by their very abstraction they seek to denote sets or classes of objects, and through their opacity, they leave undefined all manner of cases.

When is an entity red or not red? When is an action good or not good?

Crucially: the words themselves do not tell us.

By contrast, consider mathematics, where it is part of the meaning of '4' that '4+4=8'. No such structure applies to words. A word, without a definition derived by means of entities external; to the word, is merely a puff of empty air, a scrawl of meaningless symbols. Something must show us what counts as 'red', what counts as 'good'. For merely telling replaces one set of empty symbols with another, one vague meaning for another.

This is why, in my opinion, you cannot define ethics, nor adduce ethical behaviour in students, by postulating a statement of ethics or principles. Because without immediate and detailed interpretation, such principles are meaningless abstractions, undefined and confounding in their contradictions. Though a statement appears to be clear, it is not clear, and indeed, the more widely subscribed a statement of belief, the less clear it is.
So how, then, do we teach ethics?

Rather than to tell students how to behave, we should show them how to behave, by ourselves acting in an ethical manner, and by placing in their view other examples of ethical behaviour. Thus they will be able to observe, in as complete clarity as the totality of their senses can provide, ethical behaviour, and will learn what this means in the most full and complete sense, and not as abridged and abstracted by words.

For example, to return to "Thou shalt not kill," I suggested in the discussion that a more accurate formulation might be something like "respect for life." Now what constitutes "respect for life" is a multi-faceted and complex affair, which may involve eating other life forms in one instance while acting to spare their lives and alleviate their suffering in another. We can have a sense of what constitutes "respect for life" without being able to state exactly what it means.

That said, we can point to, and highlight, respect for life through numerous examples and experiences. We can - through our actions and behaviours (expressions of revulsion, say) and not just our words, convey what we feel to be instances of respect (or non-respect) for life. The people we highlight and adulate - people like Nightingale and Schweitzer and Bethune - will convey (in part) what we mean by "respect for life".

The reason we approach the teaching of ethics in this way is that it provides concrete examples a student can use to identify similar cases in the future. Instead of attempting to associate a future behaviour with a bare word, the behaviour is associated with a wide variety of cues, an entire matrix of factors, the bulk of which are not describable (or even conceived) in language.

None of this should be taken to mean that we do not talk about what we believe to be ethical behaviour, nor should it be taken to mean that we should cast students out on the world with no guidance in the matter. We need, minimally, to point approvingly to cases we believe are positive instances. Our words, our conversations, can aid students in watching what to look for in such cases.

It is only when we mistakenly say that the words are the ethical principles themselves that we run into trouble. So long as the words are like signposts or nudges in the right direction, we are fine. But the right direction is not defined by the words - it is defined strictly and solely by the examples themselves, by the paradigm cases of ethical behaviour.

This is important to understand when considering the most common sort of objection to this proposal.

How, some people ask, will we ensure that students actually do learn the ethical principle from the examples? How can they get from the examples to the statement that "Thou shalt not kill" unless we actually give them the statement?

And my answer is: they won't. But also, that it doesn't matter, because the statement wasn't ever the ethical principle in the first place.

We do not really believe "thou shalt not kill". Not because it's wrong, but because the statement offers no concrete proposition to believe in; it is just a vague fuzzy generality that means nothing.

Rather, what we believe - individually and even more so collectively - is much more complex, much more finely nuanced, much more ineffable - something that is (more or less) like 'respect for life', something that we (as intuitive processors of complex information) can recognize as ethical behaviour, something that we can know that we are emulating, even without being able to say how we are emulating it.

My proposition, in short, is that knowledge of ethics is what Polanyi would call tacit knowledge, that it is (like other knowledge) more like a skill than it is the possession of some set of facts or creed.

It is not based on some sort of inference from foundational principles (such as utilitarianism or the categorical imperative), it is not calculated or worked out (such as game theory) but is rather felt as an instance of previous experiences of behaviours characterized as ethical. It is, as Hume said, as though we have a sense of right and wrong. We know that something is ethical in the same way we know that something is a tree.

This is important, because it tells us that even if we decide to embrace the other approach, and to formulate some statement of ethics or principles, this is not in fact what the students are learning when they are learning what constitutes ethical behaviour.

They are still looking at the examples around them - they are looking at the behaviour of the people defined as 'good' in their society, (presumably) their parents, their teachers, and their leaders. They are observing what sort of behaviours are celebrated, what sort of behaviours are rewarded, what sort of behaviours are thought of as normal, not just in their classroom, but at home and in the community, on television, in the newspapers, and increasingly, on the internet.

If they are learning the sort of thing that I am learning, they are learning that the law is something to hide behind, that the drafting of ethical principles is a means of distracting attention from bad behaviour.

But they are also, I think, learning something like a genuine morality, a global ethic - as expressed in Michael Wesch's video, a desire for global community and harmony, for the idea that we are one, that we have to care about our planet and each other. Because it is becoming increasingly difficult to shelter students from instants of this global ethic; even in a world where mass media permeates a parochial ethic of self-interest, destruction and waste, people are (now) able to see beyond that, to the much more common and much more compelling examples of ethical behaviour in society.

I think that by understanding how people learn about ethics we are in a much better position to advance that knowledge, rather than redirecting our efforts toward teaching practices that are, at best, futile, and at worst, expose our behaviour as hypocritical.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Reporting Jail Sentences

Responding to Tom Young, who complains,

> Every Canadian besides them understands that a 20 month jail sentence in this country means nowhere near 20 months in jail.

Yes, but so what? Aside from catching some reporter on some meaningless semantics, what's the point of this complaint?

This is what I don't get about this whole foo fraw about prison sentences. The people who know best what '20 months' means in terms of actual time served are the judges who issue the sentences.

20 months will probably be 13 months or so. The judge knows this. Which means when a sentence of 20 months is passed, there is no illusion about how much time will be served. The only people outraged seem to be those who do not understand how the system works. And why should we even worry about the opinions of those who, after so many years, still haven't fugured it out?

So the sentence is '20 months'. The time served will be 13 months. The question we as citizens ask is whether 13 months is adequate. The comparison between 13 months and 20 months is irrelevant and ill-informed. It means nothing, because *nobody* would suppose there was ever any intent to have the man serve 20 months.

Or, to put the same point another way, *if* we enacted legislation that said people must serve the exact amount of time sentenced, then the same judge who felt 13 months in prison was appropriate, and hence passed a sentence of 20 months, would now simply pass a sentence of 13 months.

The only effect of such a change would be to deprive corrections officials of some form of leverage - early release - with which to induce good behaviour. If 13 months meant 13 months no matter what the prisoner did, there would be no reason to take programs, speak to a counselor, or even to obey orders.

If you believe that 13 months is too short a sentence for the offense, then you should simply come out and say so. Clouding the issue with some fuzzy thinking about sentencing does not forward the discussion.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Education, Equity and the Family

Responding to John Curry, Sorry, Barack, but teachers aren’t the saviors you think they are . . .

Would have been nice if you could link to the Obama quote, so readers could fact-check it. But anyhow...

Quotes like that are common from politicians, not just Obama. It is usual to hear that 'teachers are the most important factor' in an education. This refrain comes from all sides of the political spectrum, and are uttered as some sort of initiation rite.

That said, from everything I've seen or heard, the best predictor of educational outcome is socio-economic status. Poverty is routinely related to health and nutritional issues, which in turn have a direct impact on capacity. Children living in impoverished homes are usually subject to different sets of expectations, which in turn impacts their motivations and drivers. Children living in impoverished homes will be more likely to work, more likely to walk rather than ride or drive, more likely to have to do things by hand rather than use a tool, all of which impact the amount of time they can spend learning. And children living in impoverished homes typically have access to far fewer educational resources outside the home.

All of this is well known, which it is why it is no surprise to see those countries that address social and economic inequities in society, particularly as they affect learning, to have the highest scores in international testing, such as PISA, to have the highest levels of educational attainment, and to be centres of economic stability and innovation.

The cynical me thinks that politicians say 'teachers are the most important factor' because they can then address simple factors, like funding for teachers, or testing to evaluate the result of teaching, instead of addressing the really expensive and complex factors that impact on education.

So - when a person criticizes Obama for saying 'teachers are the most important factor', I have to ask, is it because they are prepared to address, on a society-wide level, the inequities that impair a child's ability to learn?

It's all very well to day "it's up to the family" - but from where I sit I observe that children don't choose their families, that many families are dysfunctional, and that many children have partial families or no families at all. The fact is, though the family forms the basic social unit for many, it by no means forms the basic social unit for all, and is in many ways insufficient to address the factors that impact learning.

When 50 million Americans, for example, are without health care insurance, you can't address inequities in health care simply by saying "the family should provide it." That is tantamount to washing your hands of the whole issue, shrugging your shoulders and saying, "well I guess nothing can be done." The reality is that many *families* are suffering from poor or nonexistent health care, and are passing this on to their children.

I have no problem with a person focusing their beliefs and their value system on the family - but if this translates into a value system that does nothing for impoverished families, or does nothing for people without families, well then I see the focus on family as nothing but a well-developed excuse system.