Saturday, January 18, 2020

Jesus (7–2 BC to 30–36 AD) – Parables and sermons... then lectures.. teaching as preaching...

Jesus, as a teacher, was primarily a man of action but in terms of instruction it was his powerful parables and sermons that stand out in the Gospels. Importantly, there is no sense of exclusion as he encourages shunned lepers, hated tax inspectors, prostitutes, criminals and especially the poor, to receive his message. When it came to powerful messages it was through his individual acts of love, kindness and forgiveness that make their mark. However, there is much to learn from how he taught. He was in many ways a radical and effective teacher.


Parables were not used by him to impose moral rules but to show, by storytelling, how to act by listening to examples of how others have acted. Jesus was clear about why he used them and why they worked, explaining this in the Gospels. Parables are image rich and allow the listener or reader to picture the scene and recall from memory. They appeal to the illiterate poor and have the power to change behaviour and lives. Indeed, Christian art is full of images that retell these parables, as most people across the ages were illiterate.


Jesus also used sermons, notably the Sermon on the Mount, to tell his story and the sermon was to become the preachers’ pedagogic weapon for centuries to come. Paul the Apostle was the man who took Christianity out to the world, preaching in major cities and shaped the way Christianity was to be spread and taught for almost two millennia. From Paul we get speeches and authoritative sermons. This is not the Sermon on the Mount but the proselytising sermon that we still hear from the pulpit to this day.

Sermon to lecture

Given the hold religion had on educational institutions until relatively recently, especially Universities, it is hardly surprising that the sermon transmogrified into the ‘lecture’, which to this day, remains the main pedagogic technique in Higher Education. In education, it moved from pulpit to lectern. The language shows the move from a pre-printing age when manuscripts were rare and had to be read to students. ‘Lectern’ means ‘reading desk’ and the word ‘lecture’, from the 14th century meant ‘the act of reading’, from the Latin ‘to read’. It was only in the 16th century that this shifted to mean a talk for teaching a specific topic or subject. The verb ‘to lecture’ is first recorded in 1590. This pre-print pedagogy remains the primary pedagogic method in Higher Education but is, in some ways, a hangover from an age when books were scarce.

Schools and Universities

The religious influence on pedagogy also meant that the sermon became the one hour lecture, which still dominates much of our educational pedagogy today. This, many argue, has held back pedagogic progress rendering much higher education a slow and too often tedious affair. Nevertheless, Christianity played a seminal role in the setting up of those early European Universities, that were eventually to become more secular.
Christianity has also played a key role in the provision of universal schooling. The need to read scripture was a powerful force after the Reformation and in the conversion process as Christianity spread around the world. 
It also laid the grounds for the scientific revolution that followed. However, this was matched by the holding back of science, witness Galileo and many others. But the study of God’s design and dominion, often by pious minds, eventually led to the elimination of design through Darwinism. This is still a threat today posed by fundamentalist Christianity, in its denial of evolutionary theory, especially in the US. 

Online learning

We can learn from the power of parables, that attitudinal change can come if we show exemplary behaviour in a way that is memorable, through story-telling. This has been the power of YouTube and video learning. We should also remember that this is not the way to treat all forms of learning. Video storytelling has its limits and can lead to the illusion of learning. Storytelling may not be appropriate for knowledge and, in the end it is through action that we learn to change ourselves. The point is not just to look and listen but to act.


Has there been any more powerful teacher? His only rival is perhaps the Buddha or Mohammed. This one man shaped two millennia of thought and culture through the use of simple parables and sermons. These were to be retold and evangelised by others such as Paul, and armies of preachers, to congregations, largely in churches, that continues to this day. Note that some, like Nietzsche, thought that this led to a two millennia aberration and, in particular, a thousand years stultifying scholasticism.


Wilson A.N. (1992) Jesus Sinclair-Stevenson

 Subscribe to RSS

Confucius (551-479BC) - Authority and assessment

Like Plato and Aristotle, Confucius had his own school, which he started in 552BC. Despite a period of exile he became a very influential official and adviser but it was through his four texts, especially The Analects that his fame was secured. China invented paper and printing which meant that the dissemination of his ideas through texts was also possible, in an early echo of Gutenberg in Europe. It may be wrong to categorise Confucius a ‘religious’ leader but he certainly had religious beliefs that shaped his view of the world and prescriptions based firmly in those beliefs. But his influence in China and beyond is immeasurable and still obvious today. His significance is in a deferential respect for hierarchy, authority, ritual and, above all, learning. 

Order and the status quo

Confucius is unusual in learning theory in being a conservative among so many non-conformists. He is not progressive and strongly promotes the status quo. However, there are some lessons to be learnt, in learning, that also define his approach. He did not admire a totally passive form of learning, encouraged students to be active learners but did see respect for teachers as important, along with manners and decorum. The first two books of The Analects are full of aphorisms about teaching and learning, tempered with conservative advice. However, it was submission to ritual, moderation, respect for parents, elders and teachers, and a strong moral outlook, that characterises his theory. Order is a primary concept, order in one’s own life, behaviour, speech, relations with others and the promotion of order in society. 

Instrumentalist education

Unusually, especially in modern times, he is clear that the purpose of education is not the enlightenment of the individual but the health and stability of society, especially the state. Although it has also to be remembered that neo-Confucianism in the 10th to 12th century loosened Confucius from the state toward a more personal experience. Education is the key to good government, by this he meant administrative and military efficiency. Institutions, texts based on the past, a cultural heritage; all are to be respected as worthy traditions. There is also the idea of an elite, with a common cultural core, that could rule, something that remains an ideal in modern China. Many of these ideas are still prevalent in Chinese education. 
Although China has Confucian continuity, in the 20th century, after 1949, Maoism led to compulsory Marxist-Leninist, ideological schooling, then a period of suppression during the Cultural Revolution, encouraged by Mao, where school teachers and intellectuals were ridiculed, tortured and even murdered by their students. The education system literally imploded, to be replaced by massive ideological teaching through the Little Red Book, with its emphasis on dialectical materialism and sacrifice to the state. Some argue that this was Confucianism in another guise, with respect being displaced from state to party. Although Mao wanted to destroy Confucian beliefs, he was Confucian himself, in his strong belief in hierarchy. In fact Confucianism may have been strengthened, as other rules that held people together had been so methodically eliminated.
China today is a post-Mao society, where education has exploded in just a few decades. Its cities are its economic dynamos and the Chinese salt away up to 40% of their income for their old age and education. This was exacerbated by the one child per family policy, now loosened. Strong Confucian trends have come back, encouraged by the Government, who see it as an antidote to corruption and moral decline. It also has appeal in terms of his vision of a 'harmonious society'. China’s foreign cultural and educational presences are called ‘Confucian Institutes’ and Chinese education and students are often seen by other cultures as being highly deferential.

Academic assessment

Confucian education is based on hard work, compliance to the state, a focus on personal behaviour and competitive examinations. Dismissive of vocational learning, Chinese education was for centuries an abstract, academic affair, with examinations based on a set syllabus of classic texts. This selection process has an ancient pedigree in China. Confucian exams were taken so seriously in the past that papers were kept locked up, examinees body searched, essays transcribed into identical calligraphy and read by at least two independent examiners. The penalty for abuse was death and exile for one’s family, and nepotism was avoided through quotas. In was highly meritocratic. One study showed that 83% of the top students were from lower-class families. Note that, by comparison, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that meritocratic examinations were introduced in Europe and the US.
The Imperial Examinations were only abolished in 1905 but still over 10 million Chinese sit the gaokao, the entrance exam for Universities. The cream of the crop is likely to be employed in government, still the aspiration of many students in China. Confucius can therefore be seen as a champion of meritocracy through standardising examinations.


Confucianism has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it provides stability, balance and continuity along with respect for teachers, adults, and a meritocratic approach to official jobs through state exams. Education was also promoted as a general good. He also put emphasis on learners and their role in the family, state and society. The downside has been an inflexible, instrumentalist approach, which limits innovation, critical thinking, science and vocational learning. These issues are now being openly debated as China transforms itself into a complex superpower. Confucius values may remain but the Western model of education, is now increasingly seen as also having strengths.


Confucius (Transl. Lau 1979) The Analacts, Penguin Classics
Jaques M. (2009) When China Rules the World Allen Lane

 Subscribe to RSS

Friday, January 17, 2020

Algorithms to Live By The Computer Science of Human Decisions Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

Very few books combine cognitive science with AI. This is therefore a rare treat, a book that bridges AI with real life, computers with brains, algorithms with life.
An algorithm is just a piece of software, a bit of maths, a set of steps used to solve a problem. And they were around long before computers, as they have been used by us since the Stone Age and earlier. This book is all about human algorithm design used to solve problems we encounter in daily life. In that respect it is theoretical but eminently practical.
Thinking algorithmically is what we do, thinking more carefully with better algorithms is the gift that maths and AI can deliver. The melding of mind and machine is well underway and this book gives us concrete examples of how each dialectically inform the other. There is some great work being done using computers and AI to unravel how the mind works. The idea that our minds are Bayesian engines is a lively area of current research. Rather than adhering to some sort of dualist position, many now see mind and machine as usefully informing each other. Algorithms happen to operate in both.
Every decision is a sort of prediction and the chapter on ‘overfitting’ is quite simply brilliant. Overfitting is a known feature in AI, the idea that having too many factors, almost counterintuitively, leads to less accurate, even wildly inaccurate results and in human terms, behaviour. For example, our brains have evolved to algorithmically select scarce salt, sugars and fats but this leads to us overeating when these are available in abundance. This is our brain overfitting. 
The authors explain each type of algorithm, or problem, in both human and mathematical terms. In the case of overfitting, the wise warning is that data, in life, is almost always noisy and messy, making overfitting more likely. We need to stop idolising data and learn to be careful. This is exactly what AI does through a battery of statistical and coding techniques – cross-validation, regularisation and early stopping. The beauty of the book, perfectly illustrated in this chapter, is that this is why we tend to think that ‘more is more’, when ‘less is more’ and why we regularly run with fads – we overfit. They recommend a bit of conservatism, to learn a bit from history, to be a little cautious. For example, don’t overwork learning materials, as students want the ‘need to know’ stuff and not the detail. Less is usually always more.
Other algorithms are given similar human and statistical treatments. Optimal stopping, when to stop expanding and exploring options – turns out the 37% rule applies. Sorting turns out to be a more complex than you thought. Memory makes rather clever use of caching algorithms , as we need relevant stuff to be at the forefront of our minds. Scheduling or time management – that’s a perennial. Bayes Rule is a big one – our brains are, essentially, Bayesian engines. Networkshave to overcome congestion and latency – turns out the bigger the network, the more reliable it becomes. Finally there’s the complications of Game theory in human interaction. 
This book takes a bit of reading, as it tries to deal with both the statistics and human dimensions but it is worth the effort in terms of unpacking both how you think and how AI can help us think and make better decisions. I wouldn’t ‘live’ by it but it’s good enough to read and be influenced by. It may change how you deal with the world.

 Subscribe to RSS

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), Euclid (~ 300 BC), Archimedes (287-212 BC) – Men of mathematics

Greek mathematicians had a significant influence in not only developing mathematical theory but also in embedding mathematics in the classical and modern curricula. Apart from Pythagoras, who not only set up a school but has strict rules around behaviour and the basis of all knowledge in numbers, they were not learning theorists as such but their influence on what has and is still taught is substantial.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC),

In Raphael’s fresco, Pythagoras is the figure writing in a book in the foreground on the left, surrounded by acolytes. He represents abstract mathematics and, in opposition to Socrates, the idea that learning is about the master transmitting immutable knowledge to their students. Both Plato and Aristotle are wary of Pythagoras, as he is a figure shrouded in myth. What we do know is that he was a teacher with students in something resembling a cult or fraternity, shrouded in secrecy. We also know that he had rules about not eating living things and beans, an early advocate of vegetarianism, along with lists of other rules, such as putting your right shoe on first, not looking backwards and so on. Pythagoreanism is a school with students, perhaps more akin to disciples, but also a school of thought. He gives us the archetype for the charismatic teacher and leader, with followers who engaged in a communal lifestyle.
Pythagoras’s theorem, although well known, may not have originated with him. It was known and used centuries earlier by the Babylonians and Indians. That is not to say that he didn’t introduce to the Greeks. But mathematics is said to have lain at the heart of his system, especially geometry. The number 10 (1+2+3+4) was of mystical significance. Other such as Hippasus moved number theory on to irrational numbers, like the square root of two, expanded into a theory of irrational numbers by Eudoxus. 
He is also famous for having discovered the mathematical nature of musical intervals as having numerical ratios. If number lay behind music, does number lie behind all phenomena? There is speculation that he also applied this idea to the movement of the planets. His status during the Middle Ages and influence on Copernicus, Kepler and Newton have ensured his fame.

Euclid (~ 300 BC),

A parallel figure in the foreground of Raphael’s fresco, on the right is Euclid, from the Greek colony Alexandria in Egypt, by far the most important Greek mathematician, leaning down to demonstrate his mathematical proofs, on what looks like a slate, with callipers, where the students are in discussion, working through the proofs in their heads. Again, this contrast exists between the didactic teaching of a canon and the more learner-centric view of the learner as someone who has to learn by doing and reflection. 
Elements, in 13 books, is his most famous work, where his theorems and, more importantly, proofs were deduced from axioms. Familiar examples include the proof that the angles of a triangle add up to180 degrees and Pythagors’s Theorem. It is this logical rigour that is remarkable, influencing the entire history of mathematics and science. It was used as the main textbook in mathematics for over 2000 years, well into the 20th century and all University students for centuries used this book as part of the quadrivium.
One fascinating feature of Euclid’s Elements, was the first ever algorithm in print, a method to calculate the Greatest Common denominators for any given number, an oft-quoted forerunner for the current age of algorithms.
Beyond this he wrote on the rigour of mathematical proof, conic sections, the geometry of spheres and number theory. In his Phaenomena, Euclid aims at astronomy with a treatment of spherical geometry. This was

Archimedes (287-212 BC)

Eureka! Is the word most associated with him, where he supposedly submerges a Golden Crown in a bath of water, measured the displaces volume. The next step, where he divided the mass of the golden crown by its volume, determined whether it was silver or gold. But the story does not appear in any of Archimedes writings.
His reputation rests on his mathematics but also on the practical application of this mathematics. In addition to explanations of levers and fluid mechanics, he is said to have invented the Archimedes Screw for lifting irrigation water, compound pulleys, and many war machines, including an optical device to focus the sun’s rays on invading Roman ships and a crane and claw for sinking ships and improved catapults.
It is his work on circles, spheres and cylinders, parabolas, centres of gravity, law of the lever, curves, conoids, spheroids and floating bodies, along with that famous number ‘pi’, that has ensured his lasting fame. He also appears to have anticipated modern calculus by using a method of exhaustion, increasing the sides of a polygon towards a complete representation of the circle. Archimedes is arguably the greatest of the Greek mathematicians. In the same period, Eraytosthenes (~250BC) used geometry to estimate the circumference of the earth. He noticed that the sun shone down a well in Aswan at midday. On the same day of the year he also measures the shadow of the sun from a column further north in Alexandria, From this he ingeniously calculated the circumference of the earth. 


Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes, along with other Greek mathematicians and astronomers put mathematics, mostly geometry, at the heart of the western educational system. It was an indispensable feature for many of the major Greek thinkers who saw it as the foundation for rigorous thinking about the world. They gave mathematics a status in Western thought that has never waned. Its emphasis on geometry, proof and the need for quantitative rigour lies at the heart of later scientific revolutions.
They also made advances in what we would now call engineering, the practical application of science and mathematics into machines and architecture. Beyond this astronomy also benefited from their mathematical bent.
Mathematics is unarguably a subject that needs to be taught and learnt. It has given us advances in medicine, finance, technology, economics, psychology, astronomy and science However, one could argue that its status as a compulsory subject is exaggerated in terms of supposed needs and transferable skills. Roger Schank argues that we have no real need to teach areas of abstract mathematics to most children, such as algebra, quadratic equations and surds, as they are unlikely to ever be used in the real world. When was the last time you used Pythagoras’s Theorem, if ever? The focus on abstract, as opposed to the basics, problem solving, reading data,  and maths at work and in the real world, has become endemic. There is a sense in which mathematics has a gained status in the curriculum beyond its actual benefits.
The OECD PISA results, who chose as their first target maths, have become a major international attraction for educators, and have sparked off an annual educational ‘international arms race’. Yet maths has never been the sole touchstone for being 'smart' or 'employable'. In one sense, important as the subject is, maths has become a totem in the curriculum, hard to learn, hard to teach and easy to test, in other words the ideal recipe for mass failure.  Additionally, We do not actually live in a more mathematical world. We live in a world where most maths is done by calculators, computers and machines, or a relatively small number of experts. The vast majority of us need little actual maths, other than ‘functional maths’. To funnel all young people into a path that demands a mostly irrelevant, maths curriculum is to turn them off school and learning. This obsession with maths may, mathematically, be the very things that lowers our general educational attainment. In many countries, education policy is rooted in, and firmly targeted at, the PISA results. It is used by politicians as an instrument of convenience.  Both left and right now use the ‘sputnik’ myth to chase their own agendas – more state funding or more privatisation. This, some claim, is a shame, as it may be unhelpful to have yet another dysfunctional, deficit debate in education. 


Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E. and Schofield, M., 1983. The presocratic philosophers: a critical history with a selcetion of texts. Cambridge University Press.
Stewart, I., 2008. The Story of Mathematics: From Babylonian Numerals to Chaos Theory. Quercus.

 Subscribe to RSS

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Aristotle (384-322 BC) – Man of science & logic

Teacher to Alexander the Great and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle is in some ways a more important educational theorist and philosopher than Socrates or Plato. His work has resonated down the ages, and although we have only fragments from his book On Education, we have enough secondary evidence to piece together his theories on the subject.

Empirical, scientific approach

Like Plato, he founded a school, the Lyceum, but his teaching ran counter to Plato’s love of abstract reason, as he did not believe in a transcendental system of Forms, Aristotle introduced a more empirical approach to theory and learning with more emphasis on the physical sciences. Of course, much of his science is wrong, and his idea of purposefulness wrong-headed, but he set us on a path towards investigation, observation and knowledge, based on experience, that would prove to be his positive legacy over the last 2000 years.

Greek ideal

As a proponent of the Greek ideal of an all-round education he recommended a balance of activities that train both mind and body, including debate, music, science and philosophy, combined with physical development and training. This ideal has had a profound influence on the West’s idea of education and schooling. Character and ethical behaviour was also important, extolled through his theory of the Golden Mean (everything in moderation). Modern schools and universities have, to a degree, this classical ideal in their core values.

Practice as well as theory

Despite his position as one of the World’s greatest philosophers, he showed great concern for practical and technical education, in addition to contemplation. He would be genuinely puzzled by our system’s emphasis on theory rather than practice. Learning by doing was a fundamental issue in his theory of learning. 'Anything we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it...’ he says, echoing many a modern theorist. This is not to forget theory and theorising, only to recognise that education needs to be habitually reinforced through practice. Not that we should read too much into this, as he, like Plato, still had an essentially elitist view of education, with vocational training an activity for the lower classes.

Moral education

To be moral one must behave morally but also be informed by reason. This is interesting, as Aristotle recognised that one can teach young people to be moral without them having to understand why. He understood that altruism was built-in and that teaching by example was fine, only later do we engage in reflection on why this is so. Music education was of particular interest for Aristotle. He saw it as an important educational technique, a builder of character and good for the soul, as well as a useful pastime. You learn how to recognise and control the different hues of emotion. To be clear, he meant learning how to play a musical instrument and sing, not just listening to music.

Lifelong learning

Education was for Aristotle a fundamental activity in life, an intrinsic good and should not be seen as instrumental. ‘Better a philosopher unsatisfied, than a pig satisfied’ to quote his peer and contemporary, Plato. And this philosophical view of education is one of his main concerns. Education is not the mere transmission of knowledge, it is a preparation for participation in a fulfilled life that reflects and acts on ethical and political grounds. It is as much about rights than getting things right and should be state controlled until 21, then continue for the rest of one’s life.

He was the first to study formal logic in his Prior Analytics on deductive reasoning, and another texts which together form the Organon, the ‘tool’ for argument. where he laid out types of syllogisms, or forms of logical argument. Although not complete as a system of logic, this formed the basis of formal logic for two thousand years and was to greatly influence later philosophical logic and mathematics. 


The schism between Plato and Aristotle, theory and practice, teaching and research, humanities and science, lives on in our curricula, schools and Universities. Aristotle, in the western tradition was the first to break with philosophical reasoning as the primary approach to education. He was a thorough empiricist, a scientist and logician.
As a logician he laid down the foundations for our current computational age. He was to have a huge influence on George Boole and Boolean Logic, which lies beneath much contemporary electronics, computer science, programming and artificial intelligence.
However, his theories, along with those of Plato, also gave rise to scholasticism that was to send the search for knowledge and education into more than a millennium of introspection. Nevertheless, Aristotle remains a towering figure and we have recovered components of the Greek ideal through the Renaissance (rebirth) to build educational systems that recognise this legacy.


Aristotle The Nicomachean Ethics, London: Penguin. 
Aristotle The Politics (A treatise on government), London: Penguin.
Bauman, R.W. (1998) Aristotle’s Logic of Education New York Peter Lang.
Barnes, J. (1982) Aristotle, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Howie, G (ed) (1968 Aristotle’s on Education, London, Collier-Macmillan
Jaeger, W. W. (1948) Aristotle, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Subscribe to RSS

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Plato (428-348 BC) – Man of reason... but wary of fiction!

It is through Plato that we know Socrates, but Plato is no mere mouthpiece. All western philosophy has been described as ‘footnotes to Plato’. Like Socrates, he believed in the power of questioning as a method of teaching and most of his writing is in the form of ‘dialogue’. Indeed his dialogues do not feature Plato himself, they illustrate by example his view that the learners must learn to think for themselves through dialogue. But he was a direct, detailed, and controversial commentator in his utopian vision of education in The RepublicThe Laws and other dialogues.

Plato’s Academy

Plato’s Academy is thought by many to have been the first University, open to both men and women. He founded The Academy in 387 BC, a philosophical school that remained in use until AD 526, when it was finally closed down by the Emperor Justinian. Astonishingly, having run for 900 years, it rivals any current western university for longevity. Above its door were the words Do not enter here unless you know geometry, as he saw mathematics as important training for the mind, along with the idea of clear hypotheses and proofs.

3 Rs

School, he proposes, should start at six with the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. A strict curriculum is recommended in the early years and the educational system should be designed to determine the abilities of individuals and training provided to apply to the strengths of their abilities. In other words, a severe form of streaming. These ideas were to be revived by the humanists during the Renaissance and shaped the Western schooling system with its focus on the 3 Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. 
Mathematics, he thought, provides an education in sound reasoning towards the immaterial Forms, simply amassing knowledge was seen as wasteful. However, and this is where we should take note, he did not recommend that young minds should be introduced the mathematics and abstract reasoning too early. This simply induces rejection and rebelliousness. At this early stage one must develop character.

Censor fiction

Now here comes a recommendation that sounds shocking to modern ears, that we should reject the teaching and consumption of fiction at an early age; literature and especially poetry and drama. For those who believe that education is about ‘storytelling’ Plato has some salutary warnings. Fiction can cloud a child’s mind and reduce their ability to make judgments and deal with the real world. More than this, he thought that fiction could lead to self-deception, in particular acting, where learners develop a false-sense of themselves. He also thought that they may be tempted to emulate some of the immoral behaviour in such texts. Morality was, for Plato, the bedrock of the educational process and education was a structured and intense process.
In the Phaedrus, he also cautions us about being too reliant on a technology such as writing. It may have the opposite educational effect from that intended, as it creates a sense that something is learnt but actually results in forgetfulness. He wars us that writing may be the enemy of memory, as one is not recalling from one’s own mind but the written text. Interestingly this is a strong finding in recent cognitive science, where effortful learning through retrieval is recommended. 

Mind and body

Music and sports should be brought into the curriculum with more serious attention paid to military training at the age of 18. The Greek ideal of body and mind is seen in an educational context with a structured approach to education across one’s entire lifetime. Gymnasion was literally a “school for naked exercise” and they were common in Greek cities, with complex buildings, run by public officials, often linked to games and festivals. Educational activities such as lectures, philosophical discussion and the reading of literature were also held there. 

Lifelong learning

We must remember that Plato doesn’t see education for all, and certainly not slaves, merely a minority destined to rule, although The Republic can also be seen as an analogy for the individual mind. He sees the mind developing over time with age as an important factor in education. The child is not capable of sound reasoning and must be protected from harmful cultural influences but in time, at 18 and 21, higher educational goals are introduced, with philosophy at 30. It is only at the age of 50 that the educated person should be allowed to rule – as philosopher kings. 


In education, the ‘classical’ education that so influenced 19th century schooling, still so influential in Western Universities, show that this Greek tradition lives on. Greek is still taught in many schools and the Glory that was Greece is still recognized in the philosophy, history and drama that is still studied to this day.
The word gymnasium lives on in Germany as a form of school and elsewhere as a place for physical exercise and sports. An education involving both mind and body lived on in the European tradition of education with its focus on competitive sports and the revival of the Greek ideal of the Olympics. We even have the Greek lettered fraternities in the US.
Plato’s lasting contribution to educational theory has pros and cons. It led to severe, selective streaming, cast doubt on the use of literature, poetry and drama and put an undue emphasis on abstract, academic knowledge at the expense of the vocational. This last point is perhaps the most pertinent, as it was based on a very abstract and metaphysical theory of knowledge (Forms). On the other hand, it led to rigour in mathematics and reason, laying the foundations for The Academy, the forerunner of the modern University. Theoretically, he mapped out a developmental educational theory that rested on the Greek ideal of mind and body and saw education as developing at different ages, an early conception of lifelong learning. 


Plato (1955) The Republic, London: Penguin (translated by H. P. D. Lee).

Plato (1955) The Laws, London: Penguin (translated by H. P. D. Lee).

Murdoch, Iris (1977) The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato banished the Artists, Oxford University Press.

Hare, R. M. (1989) Plato, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L. and McDaniel, M.A., (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

 Subscribe to RSS

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Socrates (469-399 BC) – Socratic method, man of dialogue...

Socrates was one of the few teachers who died for his craft, executed by the Athenian authorities for supposedly corrupting the youth. That in itself has earned him eternal fame. Most learning professionals will have heard of him through their acquaintance with the ‘Socratic method’ but few will know that he never wrote a single word describing this method, fewer still will know that the method is not what it is commonly represented to be.
How many have read the Socratic dialogues? How many know what he meant by his method and how he practised his approach? 
Socrates, in fact, wrote absolutely nothing. It was Plato and Xenophon who recorded his thoughts and methods through the lens of their own beliefs. We must remember, therefore, that Socrates is in fact a mouthpiece for the views of others. In fact the two pictures painted of Socrates by these two commentators differ somewhat. In the Platonic Dialogues he is witty, playful and a great philosophical theorist, in Xenophon he is a dull moraliser.

Socratic method

That the teacher should be an intellectual midwife to the student’s own thoughts is his great educational principle. His mother was indeed a midwife and he was among the first to recognise that, in terms of learning, ideas are best generated from the cognitive effort of the learner in terms of understanding, realisation and retention. Education is not a cramming in, but a drawing out.
He would claim that he taught nothing as he had nothing to teach and his lasting influence is the useful idea, that for certain types of learning, questioning and dialogue allows the learner to generate their own ideas and conclusions, rather than be spoon-fed. 
What is less well known is the negative side of the Socratic method. He loved to pick intellectual fights and the method was not so much a gentle teasing out of ideas, more the brutal exposure of falsehoods. He was also roundly ridiculed in public drama, notably by his contemporary Aristophanes in Clouds, where he uses the Socratic method to explore idiotic ideas using petty, hair-splitting logic.

Socratic philosophy of education

Beyond the famous Socratic method, he did have a philosophy of education that included several principles.
Knowledge and learning were seen by him as a valuable pursuit, with a ruthless pursuit of questioning even basic assumptions. This was achieved socially through dialogue, not by lecturing or the transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. The aim of learning was to pursue, with a ruthless intellectual honesty, answers to difficult questions. Ultimately, and this was almost always Socrates main aim, was to get the learner to realise that they didn’t know as much as they thought they knew, the realisation of our own ignorance.
Socrates concerns himself largely with high-end, critical thought. His legacy in not so much in his method as being used by a model, by Plato, of the free and open thinker, unafraid to question the most basic suppositions. It is this spirit of inquiry, seen in Greek thought, most intensely by Socrates, that fueled education for the next two Millenia.


The Socratic method has transformed itself into the idea of discovery learning, but there have been severe doubts expressed about taking this method too far. We wouldn’t want our children to discover how to cross the road by pushing them out between parked cars! In practice, it is most often no more than a teacher using open or inductive questions. In fact, when used crudely it can frustrate learners, especially when not combined with genuine dialogue and feedback. To ask open questions about facts can be pointless and result in those awful classroom sessions where the teacher asks a question, hands shoot up and the few who already know the answers, answer the question, while the rest feel foolish. When used well, however, especially in subjects such deal with abstract thought and for uncovering conceptual clarity, it has lots to offer.
There is still a great deal of discussion and controversy around whether learning should be a process of exploration and discovery, as opposed to direct instruction. There are extremes on both sides. Discovery learning was taken up with enthusiasm in the modern age, while Universities in particular have stuck rigidly to direct instruction through lectures as their primary pedagogy. In practice, depending upon the age of the learners, type of learning and context both have their place.

Online learning

Interestingly, the Socratic approach is also often to be found in online learning. Roger Schank has taken the method forward into online designs based on questions which access indexed content, especially videos. One could also argue that search based inquiry through Google and other online resources allows the learner to apply this questioning approach to their own learning, Socratic learning without a Socratic teacher. Chatbots, which now support and deliver learning are now being used to emulate the Socratic model and deliver personalized support, tutoring and even mentoring to learners. Adaptive learning systems, truly account for where the learner has come from, where they are going and what they need to get there. Sophisticated online learning allows us to realise the potential of a scalable Socratic approach without the need for face-to-face teaching. Interestingly, it is only in the last few decades, through the use of technology-based tools that allow search, questioning and now chatbots and adaptive learning, that Socratic learning can be truly realised on scale.
As someone who abhorred didactic, talk and chalk teaching and learning, Socrates would be appalled at current education and training. He was not an institutional figure, practiced his teaching in the public space of the Agora and thought that experts were normally fooling themselves by believing they had immutable knowledge to impart to their students. The unexamined life may not be worth living but neither is a life of absolute certainty. 
Of course, if we were to behave like Socrates in the modern school, college, university or training room, we’d be in front of several tribunals for bullying, not sticking to the curriculum and failing to prepare students for their exams. Not to mention his pederasty. We can perhaps put this to one side as a feature of the age! 


Hamilton, E., Cairns, H. and Cooper, L., 1961. The collected dialogues of Plato. Princeton University Press.
Tarrant, H. ed., 2003. The last days of Socrates. Penguin.
Mackendrick, P., 1974. Aristophanes. Lysistrata. The Acharnians. The Clouds. Trans. AH Sommerstein.(Penguin Classics.) Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1973. Pp. 255. 40P. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 94, pp.185-186.
Ferguson, J., 1970. Socrates: a source book.
Woodbridge, F.J.E., 1934. The Son of Apollo (Boston and New York, 1929)

 Subscribe to RSS

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Talk To Me by James Vlahos; great read for those working in or interested in bots...

We have Alexa in three rooms in our house – living room, kitchen and bedroom and they’re all used every day. I use it for work (calculations for VAT, invoices, scheduling), cooking (timers), shopping (lists), lights (off at night), robot vacuum cleaner and lots of queries. Google Assistant on my Pixel phone is now my PA. Voice, through use and habit, has become part of my life – my frictionless interface – easy and convenient. 
As one of the great triumphs of AI voice is on our phones, in our cars and in our homes. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple all see it as a strategic technological advance. We take years learning how to read and write, yet we listen and speak almost effortlessly, grammatical geniuses aged three.
So it was great to come across a readable book that dealt with the territory to date. The history of voice and chatbots is well covered as it did not spring out of nowhere but from centuries of maths, statistics and probability theory, then pioneers who applied the maths, and AI, to the recognition, understanding and generation of language and voice.
Vlahos explains why all the moral hysteria around the gender of voice assistants is misplaced. Far from being a patriarchal plot; Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant were all extensively researched and all but one give users the choice of gender. Turns out that even in the womb, a woman’s voice is liked and trusted. We are not only wired for speech but for female speech. The research showed that female voices win hands down. There are also fascinating insights into the personas chosen, all very different. 
The chapter on AI, machine learning, deep learning, backpropagation, supervised and unsupervised learning is told well, not too technical. The technology behind speech recognition, language understanding and speech generation is also readable. Good also to see the issue of information retrieval from both structured and unstructured data dealt with - search, knowledge graphs, the Stanford Question Answering Dataset. 
He then moves on to the next level with a chapter on ‘conversation’ describing progress through competitions to win the Alexa Prize, Loebner Prize and Winograd Scheme Challenge, These show how difficult it is to sustain conversation in chatbots, with the need for human scripting as well as an ensemble of programming and AI techniques. Above all you learn that the data gathering makes these systems better and better. As Vlahos says, “Voice AIs blur boundaries” of intimacy, privacy, mind and machine, fact and fiction, life and death.
The implications when voice becomes a dominant force may be the weakening of ad revenue as a business model. How do you get your voice heard? Mobile is accelerating voice as are home devices and the demand for voice search and smart assistants. Voice is here to stay and although people think that AI has a heart of stone, chatbots and voice bring humanity to technology. It is an illusory humanity, of course, but it can represent and reflect us, making technology at least more humane, certainly more usable.
Not much has been written on ‘voice’ despite its dramatic rise in consumer technology so for anyone who is involved in AI, chatbots, IOT and wants a feel for this particular strand of technology, this book mines the voice vein rather nicely.

It is a pity that this is not being adopted more widely in online learning, beyond language learning. We have ‘voice recognition’ working in WildFire, an AI content generation tool that creates online learning in minutes not months.

 Subscribe to RSS

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Re-engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Seliger - slippery slope argument...

Mildly dystopian critique of technology and AI that suggests that we are on a slippery slope as technology steals into our lives, resulting, not in enlightenment but ‘cheap bliss’ and a loss of control and judgement. It is not that we are creating robots but that we are becoming more robotic through what they call techno-engineering.
Like Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and McLuhan, the authors claim that we are being lulled into outsourcing to technology allowing its allure to trap us into its patterns, not ones we freely choose, but patterns of surveillance and obedience. This gradual creep of technology destroys our humanity as contemporary technology invades our minds at three levels; micro- fitness trackers, meso- smart transport and macro- Facebook.
Nicholas Carr in the Foreward, describes the book as a ‘balanced examination…’ but I'm not convinced. It is singular in intent and displays the anti-corporate line that is common in academia. The tech companies are the ‘Frightful Five’ and Taylorism is critiqued to death but, in the end, a bit of a straw man. True, we fetishize technology, or at least the devices, but the idea that Taylorism and Fordism (those old canards) make us impotent puppets is a stretch. Learning faster, saving time and productivity seem like admirable aims to me. There are plenty of administrative and repetitive tasks, student support and marking in education for example, that could do with a dose of efficiency.
Surveillance creep is weakly argued through examples like Fitbits and tracking kids at school, where the benefits seem to be ignored in favour of a position on privacy that few would get worked up about. That aside, it perks up on the dangers of passivity, decreased agency, decreased responsibility, increased ignorance and detachment. Drone parents and brain sensors test moral boundaries, although the usual argument that GPS weakens cognitive control is now a bit tired. 
The Chapter on extended mind theory; extended body, extended cognition, distributed cognition and cognitive technology is informative. Boden, Chalmers, Clark are all explained in detail – how the mind or consciousness can be redefined and widened by technology. This cleverly opens the door for the slippery slope arguments as they rough up mass media and, inevitably ‘surveillance capitalism’ is invoked, before beating up Facebook, the IoT and the quantified self.
They see themselves as policing determinism and fighting harmful influence through two principles:
1.     Freedom to be off
2.     Freedom from engineered determinism
Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ is constantly hauled in and although a fine thought experiment, it is doubtful that it has more than instrumental use to bolster the dystopian future they fear. 
Their suggested new framework cleverly proposes a reverse Turing test, where we test to see if we humans are becoming machines. This drifts off into a discussion of free will and engineered determinism but I fear that good philosophy has been sacrificed on the altar of their slippery slope hypothesis.
It does have some innovative ideas, such as a BBC style social network and more mainstream ideas like net neutrality and legal reforms strengthening the rights of individuals and regulation. They end, for example, with GDPR’s principle of consent as a good example of how things should evolve. But all too often it slips down its own slippery slope towards giving good old capitalism, markets, Taylorism and Fordism a kicking. 
To be fair, their case is detailed and well argued. I found the book thought provoking and although it clearly has some truths, the slippery slope is, in reality, perhaps more of a dialectic between minds and machines. By presenting a rather one-sided analysis, largely ignoring the benefits of new technology, they weaken their objectivity. That said, it is a good exposition of what could be called a weak dystopian position, stopping short of the full dystopian visions of an existential AI apocalypse.

This book will also introduce you to some interesting thinkers such as Searle, Weizenbaum, Chalmers, Clark, Nozick and many others but Dennett seems like a bizarre omission. 

 Subscribe to RSS