education philosopher

Review of Hawkins’s “On Intelligence”

Posted in Book reviews, Mind by KevinCK on July 8, 2009

Jonathan Hawkins, the creator of the PalmPilot and Graffiti handwriting software it uses, has written a book outlining a very interesting theory of what intelligence is. “On Intelligence” takes a non-behavioral (intelligence is not the same as intelligent behavior) and non-computational (intelligence is more than the ability to compute) approach to intelligence. Instead, he views intelligence as the ability to make predictions by taking stored memories and predicting future outcomes based on those memories. Hawkins suggests, uncontroversially, that this ability comes exclusively from the neocortex and, more controversially, that all operations we call intelligent can be reduced to the ability to make and adjust predictions.

Here is my review of the book, which I gave a four out of  five stars on amazon.comOn Intelligence


Jonathan Hawkins’s concern in “On Intelligence” is to outline a theory of what intelligence is that differs from ones floated around in various artificial intelligence (AI) circles. First, most theories of how to build “intelligent machines” focus exclusively on “intelligent behavior” without focus on the “thought” that must be behind it. (Think about Alan Turing’s test of an intelligent machine: if its behavior seems intelligent to humans, it must be intelligent. Purely behavioral.) Also, Hawkins is concerned that those few AI folks who have given thought to what intelligence is, apart from behavior, see intelligence as “ability to computer” and analogize it to a computer. But, Hawkins rightly notes, what we see as human intelligence -ability to synthesize disparate information, create novel solutions, apply old knowledge to new problems – is much more than computation. (more…)

Does the Brain Really Matter? Not to Education.

Posted in Brain-based learning, Education, Philosophy of, Mind by KevinCK on July 5, 2009

For a while now, I have been arguing against brain-based learning by writing that, no matter how much brain research brainwe have, it will always play second fiddle to research from the fields of education and educational psychology. How the brain works is quite unimportant; how the mind works is what we are after. (Just in case the distinction is unclear, the brain is the physical equipment, replete with synapses and neurons; the mind is the experience, replete with thoughts and experiential phenomena like colors and sounds).

I just ran across a 10 year old article by neurophilosopher Jerry Fodor that interestingly helps to articulate this idea. Fodor is bemused at why so much attention is being focused on brain research, and particularly, to finding out where different thoughts are physically represented in the brain.

I’ll give you some suggestions, not all frivolous, that I’ve heard about why it’s a good thing that science is spending so much time, money and computer power on brain localisation research. I’ll also tell you why none of these suggestions moves me much. Maybe, if I have indeed got it all wrong, someone will correct me by return of post.

Fodor takes issue with those trying to prove that different thought activities – learning vocab, playing chess, learning guitar – are phenomenologically different by showing that they have different loci in the brain. Fodor’s argument against this is that we already know that they are different. Proving that they have different brain loci does little more than prove what we already knew via psychology, introspection, and experience.

childAll of that reminds Fodor, he says, of a “funny didactic fable of Bernard Shaw’s” where Pavlov is drilling holes into dog’s mouths to prove that “expecting food makes them salivate.” When an objector tells Pavlov  that we already knew this fact, he responds that know we know it scientifically. In other words, much like brain research into where various thoughts reside in the brain, it may be interesting to do the experiments, but they only prove things we already knew. (more…)

Brain-Based Learning, Stone Soup, and the Rhetorical Eric Jensen

Posted in Brain-based learning, Mind, Teaching by KevinCK on July 4, 2009

I recently came across this article by brain-based education guru Eric Jensen titled “A Fresh Look at Brain-Based Education.”. In it, he reflects back on the twenty year history of brain-based education to let us know that,  as a result of years of work by brain-based educators, educators are a far more informed profession.” Despite twenty years of criticism, Jensen suggests, brain-based education has proven itself useful and worthy.

synapseThose who’ve read my posts before know that I am critical of brain-based education; I am not critical of its conclusions as much as its methodology. I am skeptical, in other words, of whether knowing about neurscience studies can help a teacher anywhere near as powerfully as studying children’s minds. Knowing about neurons, synapse connections, myelin, and other brain equipment and functions does not seem anywhere close to as helpful as knowing how children learn and experience (in mental, rather than neurological, terms).

And here I want to point to a subtle rhetorical strategy that Jensen (and other brain-based learning advocates) use that I like to compare to the “stone soup” fable. Repeatedly, Jensen suggests in the article (and his books) that brain research must be paired with other disciplines – like psychology and educational theory – to contribute anything of value to education.

I will make a case that narrowing the discussion to only neurobiology (and excluding other brain-related sciences) diminishes the opportunity for all of us to learn about how we learn and about better ways to teach. In addition, I will show how the synergy of biology, cognitive science, and education can support better education with direct application to schools.

This is certainly understandable. After all, no one should suggest that a varied field like education only rely on one line of research to inform their practice. But it also seems rife for an analogy to the “stone soup” fable, where a stone is placed in a bowl of soup (that also contains chicken, carrots, bullion, celery, basil, etc) only to argue that the stone was what made the soup so flavorful. In other words, I am not sure that Jensen can argue that brain-based research was the preeminent vehicle in refining teaching techniques when he also advocates drawing from research in psychology and…education. Perhaps, as I suspect, the fields of education and psychology do the majority of the work, and brain science – at best – comes in as a second fiddle supporting role. (more…)

Dan Willingham on Brain-based Learning

Posted in Brain-based learning, Mind, Philosophy by KevinCK on June 22, 2009

Here is a great videoby cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham discussing why we might be skeptical of brain-based learning and claims that brain research can or should inform education.

His primary focus is on showing that brain-based learning is premised on the faulty assumption that knowing how the brain works (and knowing how specific parts of the brain works) is in any way equivalent to knowing how the mind works. As he says, educators are best to study how the child’s mind works (what interests children, how to create engaging learning experiences, how to increase focus) rather than studying how the brain works.

I especially like Willingham’s thought that teachers who use practices that have proven effective in their classroom would not likely be moved by brain studies offering suport  or refutation by brain studies. Unless one is a neurology professor or neurophilosopher, one probably will care more about whether x practice works on the mind, rather than the brain (even if one recognizes that the two are one in the same, the former is understandable via folk psychology).

Can We Really Call Consciousness an Illusion?

Posted in Mind, Philosophy by KevinCK on June 18, 2009

After writing the previous post, calling into question whether neuroscience can inform educational practice, I began doing a little bit of research on the philosophy of consciousness (one of my old favorites). While reading through a book blurb for Daniel Dennett’s book Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, I rediscovered one of my pet peeves: the assertion that the mind and/or consciousness is an illusion. Here is the blurb that got me going:

 Like a persuasive magic show, consciousness fools us into believing that the brain’s seamless illusion is real, even though consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon.

Arguments that consciousness/the mind are illusions generally point towards the fact that thoughts, feelings, etc, are not objectively existing things (that can be observed by someone using their five senses). Therefore, since consciousness/the mind ARE those subjective experiences, these entities are illusions in that they don’t objectively exist.

I can see at least something in this point, but I do not agree with it. When we say that something is an illusion, we are saying that it doesn’t exist in any objective sense and that while it may appear to, that is only because “it” is “fooling” us into thinking that it is there. At first glance, consciousness seems to be like that.

But there is another thing that I think is necessary for something to count as an illusion – something that does not apply to the mind. It must be able to be stepped back from. In order to say that the bent twig in the water is an illusion brought about by the manipulation of the twig’s image in the water, the twig must be able to be pulled out of the water. In other words, to say that a thing is an illusion, we must be able to compare it with the reality that is being covered up. Quite literally, we cannot do this in the case of the mind. (more…)