education philosopher

A Mixed View of Person-First Language

Posted in Philosophy, Teaching by KevinCK on June 23, 2016

As a professor in a College of Education, my colleagues always tell students to use person-first language when referring to students with disabilities. It is not an ‘autistic person’ but a ‘person with autism;’ not a ‘diabetic kid,’ but a ‘kid with diabetes.’ The idea is that the person comes first, and the disability or difference comes second.

I get why they do it, and while I don’t want to argue against person-first language, I do want to argue the following. First, I want to argue that while first person language may not be a bad thing, the arguments for it generally don’t survive close scrutiny; those person-first languagearguments both misunderstand how we use language and maybe overestimate how the proposed language change really affects how people think. Second, I want to argue that there are arguments for why person-first language is not always appropriate; that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, and that in certain instances, it may have the opposite effect of those its users intend

So, to be clear, I’m not saying that person-first is always a bad thing, just that the arguments for it tend not to be terribly good and that there are reasons why sometimes, it may not be the best way to speak.  (more…)


What is Philosophy Good For? Wisdom or Knowledge?

Posted in Philosophy, Teaching by KevinCK on July 8, 2011

What is philosophy for? What can it, and can it not, be expected to do? I have been thinking about these questions a lot lately. First, I will be teaching a class this fall to undergraduates regarding ethical and legal issues in education; I want to make sure I use philosophy to good effect and know I will have at least some students with (good, bad, or other) expectations for a philosophy course. Second, with all the emphasis on data-driven research, we philosophers of education (and other fields) sometimes feel like we’re on the defensive, having to justify ourselves in ways that other researchers don’t.

Well, recently I stumbled on a really interesting answer to the questions of what philosophy is for and what it can, and cannot, do. Richard Taylor’s essay “Dare to Be Wise” (Taylor 1968) has a bold, but satisfying, thesis that philosophy has taken a mistaken direction in questing for philosophic knowledge:

I shall maintain that there simply is no such thing as philosophical knowledge, nor any philosophical way to  know anything, and defend the humble point t hat philosophy is, indeed, the love of wisdom (615).

I want to briefly rehearse Taylor’s argument before discussing why I see his view as a very ennobling one for philosophy. Briefly, in suggesting that philosophy is not about knowledge but wisdom, philosophy does not try and be as other disciplines, but offers something that is more unique that other disciplines can’t as adeptly provide. And, of course, I also happen to think Taylor’s argument is basically true.

Taylor starts with Socrates and the Greeks (Stoics, Epicureans). He suggests that the works that they produced and what they (likely) saw themselves as doing was offering wisdom rather than knowledge. Knowledge is the search for what can be demonstratively proved and is true in a factual sense. Wisdom is a deep acquaintance with a problem, sensitivity to its subtleties and parts, and (possibly) an acquaintance with possible-rules-of-thumb-type answers. While this may be a bit of oversimplification, think of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the quest for moral wisdom and Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals as the quest for moral knowledge; in the former case, Aristotle thinks through some moral problems and reasons about some overall possible solutions that are subtle, flexible, and not considered to be ‘true’ in any provable sense. Kant, on the other hand, had it as his mission to discover via reason a moral imperative that could be proved every bit as true as a law of physics, and that was invariant to circumstance, social convention, etc. (Where Taylor may miss the mark about the Ancient Greeks is with Plato, who conceived of the philosopher as the one who could, via reason, attain the truth in the midst of those who saw only appearance.) (more…)

Whose Incentive? Which Motivation?

Posted in Book reviews, Teaching by KevinCK on December 30, 2009

Economics is premised on a tautology – a helpful one, but a tautology nonetheless. People are motivated by incentives. What is an incentive? Anything that motivates. How do we explain why Susie did x, y, z, or anything else? She must have had incentives. What are they? Could be anything that motivates her. See, a tautology.

Recently, Daniel Pink has written a book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us to discuss exactly that: what are the best incentives to action? Geared primarily towards the business world, Pink uses several studies to show that the best incentives are autonomy, mastery, and doing better by ourselves and the world.

As many of the amazon reviewers who gave Drive a low review mention, though, this conclusion is based on only a few very artificial studies. The motivational picture may well be more complicated, and maybe even more when we talk about school rather than business and children rather than adults.

Pink suggests that we went through several stages of motivation through human history. Motivation 1.0 was when motivation to work was based on basic human survival. Motivation 2.0 was the “carrot and stick approach” of rewarding externally by material goods, money, etc. Pink suggests that we are now entering motivation 3.0, where we need to realize that workers are best motivated by intrinsic rewards: the pleasure of doing the job well, the pleasure of being autonomous, and the pleasure of mastering things.

Now, let’s talk about school and kids. I think it goes without saying (even though I will say it) that the best moments of student performance happen when we have tapped into a student’s intrinsic motivations as defined above. Students do best what they derive satisfaction from doing. But here is the problem: there are many situations in school where students have to do what they do not like doing. It is an unavoidable part of the school day (wrongly lamented by progressive types who would rather see kids only do what they want to do). It can be assumed that most often, workers work in fields that they at least semi-enjoy (of course this is not always the case, but it is likely the majority). Kids, on the other hand, are compelled by the state and their parents to take biology, algebra, and civics. Thus, kids will very probably experience more situations where intrinsic motivation may either be hard to come by or impossible. (Some educationists suggest that intrinsic motivation is always possible and maybe it is if one has unlimited time to try and find it. Teachers, of course, are constrained by time and class size, so it may not always be feasible to help students find intrinsic motivation.) (more…)

A Delicate Balance: Finding a Middle Ground Between Caring and Adversarialism in Teaching

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Teaching by KevinCK on September 23, 2009

In education, there is much talk about the value of the caring teacher. In particular, theorist Nel Noddings has been quite influential with her vision of the pedagogic importance of “authentic caring” (in contrast to “aesthetic caring”). Taking a cue from Dewey, and more directly, “humanistic” psychologist Carl Rogers, Noddings suggested that in “authentic caring,” teachers would embrace students as individuals in a nurturing, mutually respectful, and…well…caring relationship. In contrast, the teacher that only practices “aesthetic caring,” cares primarily about students performance on academic tasks and, according to Noddings, risks not appreciating students as individuals replete with contexts, desires, and lives that need to be individually nurtured.

I doubt that many could deny the power of a caring teacher and do not suspect that many teachers do not strive to see their students as individuals. But one of the major flaws I see with Noddings view of authentic teaching (besides the fact that for many teachers, seeing all students as individuals to be individually nurtured is impossible on numerical grounds alone) is that too much focus on “authentic caring” negates another important aspect of a teacher’s role: adversarialism. In other words, nurturing students and authentically caring about them may be good to a point, but another key role of teaching – a somewhat antithetical role – is the adversarialism between teacher and student.

Adversarialism – seems like a dirty and nasty word, yes? When we think of adversaries, we think of enemies. It is only the most sadistic of teachers who wants to be enemies with their students. But the word “adversarial” (“adverse” being its root) simply means “to be at odds with.” To say that a teacher and student are adversaries is not to say they are enemies, but simply to say that there will be times where the two have different goals. (Enemies are always adversaries, but adversaries need not be enemies.) Sometimes, the student does not want to learn x, but the teacher’s job demands that she push the student to do so. The student does not always want to take home homework (seldom does, in all likelihood) but the teacher knows that supplemental practice will be good for the student. When student and teacher have conflicting goals, they are adversaries. (more…)

“Research Based” Rhetoric and “Research Based” Reality

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on July 16, 2009

Once, my mentor teacher told me about the “10:2 theory.” It states that for every ten minutes of meaningful learning a child does, she should have 2 minutes of a “brain break.” I was open minded, but she could see a bit of skepticism in my face, so she assured me that it was a “research based” practice. I asked her if she had any literature on the theory, and she showed me a book article that also assured readers that “10:2” was “research based.”

researcherLater that night, I decided to do a bit of internet research just to see if I could find any studies that had validated the “research based” 10:2 idea. What I found was that a certain article (telling us the practice was “research based”) cited another article (which told us that same) which cited another, which cited another. Each article cited the other as proof of the 10:2 theory, but none actually had any proof of the 10:2 theory.

My point: “research based” is practically an empty term in the field of education. Obviously, teachers are in no position to find out what research actually says, and (as the example should illustrate) most of those who tell us what the “best practices” are seem also to be quite gullible when it comes to figuring out what the research says. (I think my mentor teacher, a very smart woman, just heard enough people say that 10:2 was research based that she had no reason to check for herself, and they probably heard it from their friends, and so on.) (more…)

Teaching In the Blood

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on July 14, 2009

Recently, I was talking to my new neighbor who is a PhD student in one of the hard sciences (microbiology or some classroomsuch). We were talking about what our career aspirations were, and he asked whether I wanted to be on the teaching or research side of academia. Without giving it a thought, I said “teaching,” and was actually quite alarmed at how quickly I said it.

Those who know me, or have read much of my blog, know that recently I burned out of public school teaching (right on qeueapparently, because there is alleged to be such a thing as the two year teacherBut even after that, I cannot shake my desire to teach (and would notwant to). When I read teacher biographies I still get the semi-jealous feeling when I read of being in the classroom. Long and short, there is a part of me, it seems, that has teaching in the blood.

Not literally, though. None of my relatives have ever been schoolteachers of professors. So , if it is not “in my genes” what is it that makes me like to teach so?

Some might say that there is a perfectly egoistic explanation to why teachers teach. One viewpoint says that teachers like the feeling of power and authority that they get from teaching. There is a little truth to this, as one of the things I love most about teaching is the ability to be theatrical and a showman in front of students and the feeling I get when their attention is captured. So, yes, there is a small thrill to being the “center of attention.”

But anyone whose been a teacher knows that loving to be the center of attention can lead to as much headache for teachers as joy. In fact, some might say that thsoedesirous of being the center of attention should otbe teachers because teachers so rarely are the center of attention in the classroom. We fight for attention, duking it out with joke-tellers, chatter of last night’s party, the ADD student that can’t stop interrupting, and…general boredom. Yes, there are times where we get to be the center of attention but I do think that any teacher who teachers for these moments is miserable the rest of the time. Long and short: we do not teach because we like being the focus of the room. (more…)

What Makes Educators So Susceptible to Fads?

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on July 9, 2009

In the 1970’s, “open space education” was the rage. In the ning, ’80’s, it was “whole language education.” IN the 90’s, “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences” were the buzzword. The last 10 years have seen “brain-based education” and several other fads hit the field of education with full force. (A disttrict in which I taught bought in, a few years ago, to the “Capturing Kids Hearts” program offered by motivational speaker Flip Flippen. It was junked within two years.)

A 1998 article for the Christian Science Monitor notes:

Even critics note these ideas have valid points. But they were often adopted without data – without balancing the claims of competing teaching techniques – and then taken to extremes. That resulting pendulum swings are prompting a reevaluation of how educators adopt new practices in the classroom.

One reason the author sees for the field of education’s quick trigger in adapting unproven fads, is that “[a] large number of unjuried professional journals let inadequate research pass uncritically. Key decisionmakers, like urban superintendents, typically hold jobs for three years and feel pressed to show results fast.’

I have several other speculations to add to the list in order to explain education’s peculiar susceptibility to the latest and greatest fads.

First, as a teacher myself, I know firsthand how overwhelming and “full tilt” a profession teaching is. Even the best teachers are often fighting uphill battles day in and day out, trying to get this student engaged, that student to catch up to the class, and this student to stop throwing pencils across the room. Now, imagine someone – a rhetorically savy speaker with a service to sell – telling us that they have the program that will save us the headaches and heartaches.

Of course, we are all a little susceptible to programs – weight loss, addiction, etc – that offer a magic fix. And education, being a field beset by constant uphill struggles, is rife with ready consumers. Just tell us what the magic pill is and we’ll swallow it. (more…)

Want to Raise Tenacious Kids? Be Careful in How Your Praise.

Posted in Self-esteem movement, Teaching by KevinCK on July 6, 2009

Journalist Po Bronson wrote a 2007 articlethat recently became the springboard for his book Nurtureshock (cowritten by Ashley Merryman). The article runs counter to what used to be conventional wisdom about praising kids for intelligence. “[A] growing body of research strongly suggests…  [that g]iving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”

good jobAt first blush, this may sound bizzare. You mean we shouldn’t praise our kids for their smarts?, one might ask. Actually, that is what Bronson – and many researchers in child psychology – are concluding. One of the most touted researchers (brought up both in Bronson’s Nurtureshockand Daniel Coyle’s magnificent book The Talent Code) is Carol Dweck.

Dweck and her team gave several fifth-grade classes a non-verbal test of puzzles, easy enough that they could be quickly solved. After grading the tests (almost all good grades), the researchers told half of the “subjects” that they did well and must be very smart. The other half of the “subjects” were told that they did well, and must have worked very hard. After this, all students were offered a choice: take another test of about the same ease, or take a harder test.

The results: almost uniformly, the students praised for smarts chose to take a similar test while the students praised for effort chose the harder test. Dweck and her group repeated this test several times with different classes and got the same result each time. When effort is praised, kids respond better to challenge than when smarts and intelligence are praised.

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed. (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…)

How Authentic Is “Authentic Learning”?

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Teaching, Uncategorized by KevinCK on July 2, 2009

Several months ago, I was talking to a peer about the buzz over “authentic learning,” a term we educators hear a lot about. Half jokingly, she asked me whether all the stress on authentic learning somehow meant that most of what goes on in schools is inauthentic learning, and whether there was really any type of learning that was inauthentic. So I ask two questions: (a) what exactly is “authentic learning,” and (b) is what we term “authentic learning” really that authentic?

First, we must find out what the dictionary definition of “authentic” is. While “authentic” can mean several things, the most common (and most likely to be the meaning we are  looking for) is “not false or imitation.” In other words, what is authentic is what is genuine and not what is a copy. An authentic antique is a real antique rather than a replica, and an authentic signature of John Adams is John Adam’s real signature, rather than a forgery.

So praise for “authetnic learning” is praise for learning that is real, and not a copy. I suppose that what is meant by this is that “authentic learning” is realistic learning, as opposed to learning from second-hand sources like textbooks. That definition is supported by this paper about authentic learning:

Authentic learning typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice.

 Right off the bat, I think that this is rhetorically presumptuous. To call “real world, complex problems” learning “authentic learning” is to call non-real-world learning – book learning, etc. – “inauthentic learning,” or, learning that is somehow less real. It can certainly be argued that learning in real-world ways may be a more engaging style of learning  – and possibly a more lasting type of learning – than book learning (or learning by lecture), but I am not sure that there is any good reason to say that the latter types of learning are less real simply because they may be less engaging.This sounds exciting! We are teaching students not just how to do math, but how to think about math like a mathematician would; not just facts about science, but how to think as a scientist would. This, it seems, is what schools are designed to do: teach students how to do things, not memorize things.

How do we achieve authetnic learning? The article suggests the following approach: rather than teaching students about a subject, engineer an environment where they can learn by doing and by trial and error.


learning environments] are “not constructed in order to teach geometry or to teach philosophy. A learning environment is similar to some ‘real world’ application or discipline: managing a city, building a house, flying an airplane, setting a budget, solving a crime, for example.

Another website devoted to giving tips on what authentic learning should look like says something similar:

 Authentic learning says that…we should learn what happens in the “real world”, and become “cognitive apprentices” to the experts.  When we learn about math, we learn to think like mathematicians.  When we learn about the weather, we learn to use tools that a meteorologist would use.  When we learn to draw, we are taught techniques that real artists use. 


But look a bit closer. (more…)