Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Ignatius (1401-1556) - Jesuit zeal… Give me a boy (don't take this the wrong way)…

Ignatius Loyola was a Basque soldier turned priest who formed the Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, a missionary order driven by a military-type zeal to spread the Catholic faith. He famously said ‘give me a boy until he is ten, and I’ll give you the man’. Education was to be their primary and most successful weapon. Jesuit education is apostolic and the order demanded missionary and educational service in whatever part of the world they were sent. It was a reaction tom the Reformation and Prtestantism and drove Jesuit priests into many remote lands and ever remoter locations to defend the faith and, above all make converts. The Jesuits are still active with tens of thousands in the order and educational activities in many countries.

Ratio Studiorum

Jesuit education was founded across Europe as part of the Counter-Reformation, to prevent what the Catholic Church saw as heretical teaching in the Universities of the day. After the publication of the Jesuit educational manual, the Ratio Studiorum, by Acquaviva, known as the second founder of the Jesuits, in 1586, the Jesuits had added a practical method to their zeal. Acquaviva formalised Jesuit education making it easy to replicate and scale. The book is a detailed account of how to set up a school, classes, curriculum, schedules, and methods of teaching. It attempted to do then what is common now, standardize teaching methods and the curriculum
The primary function of education for the Jesuits was religion, specifically the teachings of the Catholic Church, so that moral character and religious devotion became habitual. This was not done through direct religious instruction but through a religious approach to all learning. Boarding was encouraged as it was in line with the indoctrination of the whole student. Strong and well-trained teachers were essential, with constant evaluation and feedback throughout the year. Good teachers who were talented, prepared and inspiring were sought, poor teachers rejected.
In the days when educational theory was a matter of life and death, the Ratio Studiorum was condemned by the Dominicans to the inquisition, as it contained some unpalatable theological doctrines. The Jesuits compromised by removing the implicated chapters.


It is a highly academic education with a focus on the humanities and the classics in literature, history and language, with the emphasis on reason, leading to philosophy and theology. Mathematics, for example, was seen as a secondary, worldly subject. The curriculum, however, aimed to ‘form’ and not just ‘inform’ character through analysis. Critical thinking was encouraged. This is not to say that the curriculum was wholly academic, as the arts, especially drama and physical education, were also encouraged. They were keen on plays where students would debate and show moral dilemmas and issues on the stage.


As the idiom of religion and the Church, Latin was compulsory even into the 20th Century. Not only was Latin taught but much of the teaching was done in Latin, with some schools not allowing vernacular to be spoken, even outside of the classroom. The Ratio makes it clear that Latin was not about helping learn other languages but about inculcating learners in the culture of the church and the classics. It was taught directly and through immersion, translation being frowned upon. The religious basis of Jesuit education is seen by many as an anachronism in our post-colonial and secular world. The promulgation of Latin can also be partly traced to its religious role in Universities, and not as is commonly assumed, for utilitarian purposes.


The Jesuits were a global educational enterprise, first India, then South America, Florida, Mexico, China and Japan. The used and wielded power but always saw ‘schooling’ as their modus operandi, raining money for schools, which are fixed, visible and useful entities within communities. Their buildings were often huge and ostentatious. Education means salvation, but also power. They were particularly good at adapting to local, indigenous cultures linguistically and culturally but also good at remaining elite and scholarly, infiltrating government and ruling entities.

Jesuit education has modernised and in its many universities and colleges, especially in the US, has become part of the mainstream educational landscape. They run 168 higher education establishments in 40 countries and 324 secondary schools in 55 countries, with around 20,000 in the order but it is estimated that their numbers are falling. 

 Subscribe to RSS

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Buddha (6th and 5th C BC) - Monasticism to mindfulness

The Buddha lived across the sixth and fifth centuries BC, although the exact dates are disputed. Buddhism plays a significant role in education directly and indirectly in China, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, India and Malaysia. Seven countries have Buddhist majorities: Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Laos and Mongolia, where Buddhism plays a significant role in education through the monastic tradition and monastery schools.

Buddha as teacher

Teaching is one of the Buddha’s nine epithets as an ‘Awakened One’ but the texts show a man who is detached and hesitates to teach. There is no rush to action in his teaching of the road to enlightenment, as that would stimulate the very desires he wants to still. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Buddha was disinclined to teach, as throughout his life, his method was largely by example. This also explains why he said so little about education and teaching. Buddhism is a practice, an inward looking practice that attempts to still the brain, not fill the mind with knowledge of the earthly word, the world of illusion, nor stimulate critical thought. However, there are parables and stories the Buddha tells that show his willingness to explain, such as the ‘Fields’ parable and use of the ‘Lotus’ as an analogous device. Bearing this in mind, one can see why Buddhism has not been a major force in educational thought but had been a force in religious, and therefore educational, practice.

What is taught

The Buddha is seen as the route to understanding, living and ultimately enlightenment. The moral guidelines are clear with a focus on honesty, purity, truthfulness, kindness and sobriety.  Generosity and self-sacrifice are also strong traits. Above all, the sublimation of the self away from greed and selfishness characterizes Buddhist education. There is, therefore, a strong belief in cooperation not competition. This is in direct opposition to many western values of individualism and education as a preparation for an active life and for a competitive position in the job market.
In Buddhism, the mind is everything and peace and enlightenment come from within. This is not a filling of the mind with knowledge but a stilling of the mind. There is teaching of sacred texts but the Noble Eightfold Path requires one to live a life based on a right view, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right attention and right concentration. This is far from the liberal arts tradition in the west or more recent pragmatic use of education in the East. Its influence is more through cultural norms than its direct influence on education.

Monastic education

One significant cultural and methodological effect is the monastic tradition. The monastic tradition in Buddhism and submission to religious teachers and practices within monasteries is the mainstay of Buddhist education. To become a monk or nun is an alternative form of schooling in many in countries of South-East Asia. It was the mainstay in many countries before the modern era and still plays an important role as a supplement or alternative to state schooling.

Zen Buddhism

Interestingly, the monastic tradition wasn’t taken up with relish in China, as it clashed with the Confucian idea of staying within the family, so Zen Buddhism, a more personalized form of enlightenment, linked to Daoism, emerged. Zen teacher-master exchanges are a pedagogic product of this particular tradition. ‘Koans’ are stories or dialogues that are used to illustrate or a method to practice Zen teaching. The teacher guides the student, through dialogue, to Zen enlightenment.


With approaching half a billion Buddhists one would expect the Buddha and Buddhism to have had a significant effect on education but, apart from the Buddhist monastic tradition, there is little to suggest that it has had a significant effect on educational thought outside of religious teaching. Its effect is primarily cultural, through moral norms.
The one concrete influence has been the recent rise of Mindfulness in education is one example of Buddhist ideas influencing western workplaces and education, as the world becomes globalized, so ideas flow from one culture to another. This mix of Buddhist meditation, has taken root schools and training throughout the West.

 Subscribe to RSS

St Augustine (354 – 430) – Bad-boy turned good… a tale of teaching and lust...

Augustine was a towering figure in Christian thought throughout the Dark Ages, as he helped transform the world of absolute forms and the world of representation into earthy and heavenly realms, Platonism into Christian theology. He was born in North Africa, then via Rome and a conversion to Christianity in Milan, went back to North Africa as a Bishop. Writing towards the end of the Roman Empire, on the cusp of the move from paganism to Christianity, he wrote Confessions a wonderfully reflective and human autobiography where he reveals his own failings, as well as many works of philosophical and theological weight. 


Confessions, Augustine’s psychological autobiography, brings to life his distaste for the education he received. He loathed Greek, the language of teaching, which led to him disliking even the works of Homer and was bored by rote learning, artificial exercises and brutal punishment. It is this self-awareness and the fact that he himself was a classic bad-boy turned good, who redeemed himself later in life, showing that people can change through education, that makes him such a fascinating learning theorist. The book is a lesson in itself, where he teaches by example, explains his own conversion. It’s rather saucy and frank about his relationship with an unmarried woman with whom he has a child, his lust, even stealing. We see in this book an entertaining and readable book, someone who is interested in sex, who teaches by telling his own story. What makes St Augustine so interesting is that this is a man whose theological beliefs were shaped by Platonism, a wold of absolute good, and educational beliefs tempered by his negative experiences as a pupil.

De catechizandis rudibus

In The Teacher and De catechizandis rudibus Augustine shows a detailed interest in teaching methods. As one must be guided by a natural love of God, one must as a teacher give of yourself as a guide and mentor, encourage curiosity, motivate and not rely on punishment. Teachers should plan their work, learn as they teach, look for ways to stimulate learners and show patience. There is a real sense of teaching as a process that is enhanced by understanding learners. 
More than this he recognises that teachers themselves may be the problem, obsessed by their own work, too critical of slow learners or sometimes let personal concerns influence their work. As one of the first philosophers of language he warned us that the mind moves faster than the teacher’s words and the teacher may be communicating in the wrong way, so he recommends that learners interrupt to clarify issues. He talks about the ‘restrained style’ in teaching, in simple, direct language, then the ‘mixed style’ where one elaborates using more motivational language, then the ‘grand style’ for changing hearts and attitudes. First understand your learners as there are those who have a good grounded education, those who are trained in rhetoric who think they know but do not and then the uneducated. He recommends different approaches for all three.
He bring the Christian ethos of love and humility to the act of teaching, seeing pupils as people who must be treated with respect and encouraged towards finding their own inner truths. Remember that he is writing this in the 5th century, showing a rare humility, in an age of religious absolutism. 


Augustine may have been a Platonist but he is not in terms of education. Within the confines of scriptural certainty, he is remarkably sensitive to the needs of the learner and the subtlety of good teaching methods. His two influences, his early bad experience at school and his conversion to Christianity, combine to form a rounded analysis of learning that reflects the humanity of the man. He remained a towering figure in theological thought for centuries, softened by the realism of his early years and as a practising teacher.


Augustine, St. 1952. The First Catechetical Instruction (400), trans. Joseph P. Christopher. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.
Augustine, St. 1968. The Teacher (389), trans. Robert P. Russell. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
Augustine, St. 1997a. On Christian Teaching (426), trans. R. P. H. Green. New York: Oxford University Press.
Augustine, St. 1997b. The Confessions (400), trans. Maria Boulding. New York: Vintage Books.
Brown, P. 1969. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chadwick, H. 1996. Augustine. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rist, J. M. 1999. Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Stock, B. 1996. Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Rorty, A.O. (Ed) (1998)  Philosophers on Education: Historical perspectives. London and New York, Routledge.
Howie, G (ed and trans) 1969. St Augustine: On Education, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

 Subscribe to RSS

Monday, January 20, 2020

Superintelligence by Nicholas Bostrum - abstract, at times esoteric but worth the effort

The author makes it clear that what he is about to discuss is unlikely to happen any time soon, perhaps within this century, perhaps not. He does, however, think it will happen – the creation of an intelligence greater than ourselves – a superintelligence.
He starts, reasonably, with a potted history of AI and the state of the art predictions on progress. Multiple routes to superintelligence are then laid out, biological, technical and organisational. They all have trade-offs – brain emulation, brain-computer interfaces, networks and organisational collective intelligence and so on, some are more incremental, others offering a faster route to real ‘super’ intelligence.
So how will this superintelligence manifest itself, how quickly will it explode into disruption and is it a winner takes all endgame? This is where the book comes into its own. His thought experiments, in terms of paths and possible outcomes is outstanding, along with a detailed treatment of the problems of control. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 are the meat in the sandwich, as they tackle the issues of where this could take us and what we can do to control it.
It is less confident in turning to economic issues like employment, welfare and social consequences but comes back to the boil on values. I like his phrase ‘Philosophy with a deadline’. This debate is full of clichés and exponential thinking about technology that doesn’t yet exist. I found it a little wanting on the limits of AI itself, but has breadth when it comes to considering all the arguments. Whatever you think about the concept of superintelligence, its timeframe or even whether it will happen at all, this book pushes the boundaries in terms of the sheer detail he amasses on each topic.
Reading the book is like going off on a series of long walks, many of which result in dead ends but wander you will, as there is no one path but many paths to many outcomes. Unlike most reviewers, I tip my hat to the sheer effort he makes in covering all of the possible paths on each topic, not settling on the obvious or easy. I also enjoyed his clear respect for Eliezer Yudkowsky, another AI theorist. 
For me the book is too speculative, as AI is not as good as we think it is and not nearly as bad as we fear. It is so theoretical that it feels like an exercise in theory rather than real practice. You really do have to have a high tolerance for abstract thinking to get the most from this book. 
I did like hi afterword. Although dismissive of an impending AI winter, he does fear an ‘AI safety winter’, where ethical theatre, much of it amateurish, simply prevents good beneficial work from being done in AI. That, I fear, is more likely than AI doing much harm.
First published in 2014, which is an eon ago in AI years, it was updated in 2016 but remains topical, as good ideas are good ideas. Bostrum’s an academic at the Oxford Martin School and the book has an academic style making it a read that needs ‘effort’, as technical and philosophical issues do if they are to be credible… but it is well worth the effort. 

 Subscribe to RSS

Mohammed (570AD –632AD) - Recitation

It is claimed that Mohammed was illiterate and the Koran literally the word of God, transcribed by others from his revelations. Mohammed is therefore a prophet and teacher but in reality a mouthpiece for the absolute message of God.

Koran and education

In Islam, books, especially the Koran, are held in the highest regard and mosques functioned as repositories of books. One even had to wash before touching the Koran. This reverence for the ‘book’, especially the Koran, is paramount. Indeed it was almost immediately made into a ‘codex’ (book form), as they had acquired paper technology from captured Chinese sailors in 751AD.
The dominant role this one book, of similar length to the Christian Gospels, on education in the Muslim world cannot be underestimated. For five centuries after its emergence in the 7th century, the so called ‘Golden Age’ of Arabic culture, flourished in centres of learning in Damascus, Bagdad and Cairo. Their libraries collected and distributed Greek and Roman classical texts and made advances in mathematics, science, philosophy and law.

Recite and repeat

Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam, recommended five times a day, so the repetition of recitation, known to be effective for embedding knowledge in long term memory, becomes an ingrained habit, as does listening attentively, especially at Friday prayers and also through the attentive reading of the Koran. Koran means ‘to recite’ and the text was originally meant to be read aloud. It has been argued that this has led to a dependence on rote learning. Some argue that this focus on recitation and repetition tends to infect studies across all subjects and education in the Islamic world has been criticised for its dependence on simple recitation at the expense of critical analysis.


Islam literally means ‘submission’ and it has been argued that this also affects the way learners and teachers approach education. In Sura 75:15–18 attentive reading is specifically mentioned and, in particular, memorisation of the Koran, an act which has been admired for centuries in the Muslim world. Those who manage to learn the entire Koran are greatly respected. With traditional paternalism, authority of the state and dominance of religion, some argue, comes a lack of questioning, passive learners and didactic teaching. Obedience and compliance, not unusual in other educational systems, arguably can be much more embedded in Islamic countries. The time spent on religious studies also squeezes out time available for other subjects. This may be another reason for the low levels of original research and patents in countries where Islamic education is dominant.

Koran and writing

With a foucus on reading came writing. Writing, not only through the Koran, but in other expository texts, is a strong feature of Islamic education. Sura 96 urges believers to ‘recite’ but also explains that God taught man through the ‘pen’, namely writing. Writing, especially calligraphy is regarded as a high art form, as it is in the Far East, but never was in in the West.  The double-edged sword is that the power of the pen is seen as the power of God’s absolute religious knowledge, not the freedom to write critically. Indeed, writing, even drawing, has led to death threats ‘fatwas’, on novelists and cartoonists. Islam, like Christianity, has supported the extremes of rigorous scholarship and education but also bans on education, especially for women. Such are the advantages and disadvantages of religion in general, in education.

Places of education

The madrasa goes back to the time of Mohammed, who was a teacher and had followers and students. These provided education on a scale at all levels for centuries. Places of higher learning, with teaching, libraries, even observatories, appeared as early as the 9th century and some argue that these were the proto-Universities we saw emerge in Europe. They certainly provided a depth of learning and a reverence for books from the ancient world. Many that survived and helped create the Renaissance (rebirth) owe their existence in the modern world to these Islamic institutions.


For all its educational qualities, the focus on one book, its absolute truth and primitive recitation, repletion and memorization, often seem like primitive pedagogies, leaving little room for active and critical thought. Islam, like the extremes of Christianity and Judaism, can be seen as a return to an absolute form of belief, where young minds are locked down before they have had a chance to reflect or choose. This is an anathema to secularists who believe that education should open young minds not close them down. On the other hand, let us not forget that the Islamic world encouraged learning, scholarship and intellectual endeavour, gifting the world those texts of the Classical world we now so admire.


DawoodJ.  (Transl. 1956, revised 2000) The Koran Penguin Classics
Lyons M (2011) The Book Thames & Hudson
Hitti P.K. (1936) History of the Arabs MacMillan
Whitaker B (2009) What’s Wrong with the Middle East

 Subscribe to RSS

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