Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Butler (1956 - ) Queer Theory, performativity and parody

 Judith Butler, is best known as the American writer and activist on Queer Theory, in area of sex, gender and sexuality, a theory that emerged from the postmodernist theories of Foucault and Derrida. It draws on Foucault’s interpretation of society as expressions of power through oppressive forces, in particular, the social construction of sexuality. She goes further in adopting the deconstructive techniques of Derrida to destabilise sex and gender categories. However, she denies even the term ‘postmodernist’ as yet another category that needs to be dismantled. In Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the question of Postmodernism (1995) she tries to take a position of extreme critical theory, where all is subject to critique, even the basis of the critical theory itself.

Queer Theory

Butler pushes to as position beyond the words and categories normally associated with male, female, man, woman, heterosexual and homosexual and so on. ‘To queer’ is the active process of disrupting traditional categories to free us from its oppressive language and meanings. ‘Queering’ is the activism associated with this activity, often taking subversive and disruptive forms, like drag-queens. Queer theory sees both gender and sex as socially constructed. Woman is a performance that constructs a form of gendered reality, what she calls gender ‘performativity’. 

Gender performativity

In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (1993), she argues. like many postmodernists, that ‘gender performativity’ brings into being, and reinforces through speech and reiteration, the fixed roles of sexuality. Gender is thus taught and learned by children and adults, from parents, in education and other social contexts. It is taught and reinforced by doing, through performative acts; behaviours, acts and speech. 

In her hugely influential book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), she asks us to believe that gender is the product of a mass delusion, an almost behaviourist plot, where people are carried along by what she calls ‘discursive construction’ to play out roles that perpetuate binary, gender roles; male-female, heterosexual-homosexual. Language represents oppression not reality.

Activist Queer Theory must escape these linguistic and performative constraints. This requires us to break free from fixed, normative, oppressive categories and behaviours.

Genders must multiply and proliferate to break loose from both heterosexual and, in particular, masculine norms or phallogocentrism (a term taken straight from Derrida) that refers to the privileged building of masculine meaning.

Performance of parody

This, for Butler, can only be done when we break up and disrupt the dominant performative norms and speech through the “subversive and parodic redeployment of power”. In acts like drag-queen performances, we introduce uncertainty and a degree of chaos into sexual matters, making people rethink their use of language and performativity. 

It is not just parody, as prescriptions on language use are also promoted, even to the level of legislative change, in an attempt to change what is allowed and not allowed. in language use. This has taken the form of changing the use of pronouns. You can see this in Butler’s Wikipedia page where Butler is referred to as ‘their’. The movement also uses a growing list of self-identification and activist terms such as LGTBQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and others). Even biological sex is questioned under this dissolution of language. 


It is hard to take a philosophical system that needs drag-queens at its vanguard, seriously but that really is what Butler, who has been called the Professor of Parody, suggests. Butler argues, absurdly in the view of almost all experts in medicine and biology, that gender and sex are distinct and uncorrelated, in the face of almost universal disvelief from science and medicine. In a pick ‘n mix set of moral choices, activists on climate change will rely on ‘what the science says’ for that cause then deny the status of science on sex and gender.

Butler’s often impenetrable and self-consciously, esoteric academic prose (she won a well-known Bad

Writing Competition) distances her from ordinary language and life. Attempts to change pronouns are linguistically naive and the language of ghender-fluidity gets lost in the endless extension of the LGBTQXYZ+... acronym.

She uses postmodern techniques of deconstruction and turns this on the concept of ‘postmodernism’ itself. But in positioning Queer Theory as a critical approch to categories, normal language use and interpreted social and cultural phenomena, she pushes Queer theory to the position of mere action and activism. There is no real defence of the theory as there is no fixity that can be defended. There is no certainty, boundaries or closure. This means that it clashes with defences of the feminist concept of ‘women’ as objects of oppression, also in the lesbian community, where female and lesbian are core concepts. Trans arguments that rely on that same binary language of transitioning from one fixed concept to another, are also devalued. Queerness trumps all other categorised groups and becomes a theory for all and therefore none.

A theory that deconstructs its own methods, de-anchoring itself from any form of stable reality, wholly performative, yet dogmatic in its ability to form the basis for what everyone else should regard as new norms, including demands on new rules, rights and laws. Queer theory is indeed a very queer thing. 


Butler’s theories have influenced fields well beyond her core work on sex, gender and sexuality. Her approach has been taken into other areas of moral concern in disability studies, fat studies and decolonisation. Many see her work as deeply destructive, as the activism it produces has led to the policing of language and behaviour, an attack on free speech and a doctrinaire campus culture, where canceling can be the result of such strictures. Others use her theories to implement what they see as oppressive language and laws.


Butler, J., 2013. Contingent foundations: Feminism and the question of" postmodernism" (pp. 21-39). Routledge.

Butler, J., 2011. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex. routledge.

Butler, J., 2002. Gender trouble. routledge.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Lyotard (1924-98) Postmodernism

Jean-François Lyotard coined the term ‘postmodern’ in The Postmodern Condition (1979). As a far-left activist and academic in France, Algeria and the US (in the Critical Theory department of the University of California, then Emory University) he explored the impact of postmodernity on a wide range of subjects; philosophy, epistemology, science, art, literature, film, music and culture. 

Knowledge and science

He is critical of claims that knowledge is truth. Knowledge is no longer to be trusted, as it is a slave to 'metanarratives'. As he denies ‘metanarratives’ such Enlightenment theories, also religious, Marxist and Freudian theories, even science, knowledge claims are therefore suspect. Science, in particular, he sees as a metanarrative that puts knowledge in the hands of power and politics, thereby shedding its claim to objectivity. Faith in science, as he explains in Inhuman (1988) legitimises the digital capture of knowledge and therefore faith in technology. Following Wittgenstein, his programme is to see language as ‘language games’.


His alternatives to ‘metanarratives’ are personal ‘mini-narratives’ that reduce knowledge to personal experience. Objective, empirical evidence is trumped by lived experience, so that the mini-narratives of individuals and groups are placed above those of science, general ethics or society as a whole.

Knowledge, for Lyotard, changes with dominant narratives. The Enlightenment narratives of objectivity, truth are no longer applicable. This, he thinks, has caused a crisis in knowledge, as it has been commercialised, creating tensions between rich and poor,  private sector and state.  

We see in Lyotard an explicit epistemic relativism (belief in personal or culturally specific truths or facts) and the advocacy of privileging ‘lived experience’ over empirical evidence. We also see the promotion of a version of pluralism which privileges the views of minority groups over the general consensus of scientists or liberal, democratic ethics which are presented as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is consistent in postmodern thought.


His attack on science as a metanarrative doesn’t really explain why the scientific method, with falsification lacks legitimacy or what scientific knowledge has been delegitimised. It is a failure to recognise that many of the meta-narratives postmodernists criticise have methods that allow them to examine, even themselves, as they are themselves sceptical about claims claiming to be absolute truths and at least have processes of self-correction.

It is as if the progress we’ve made since the Enlightenment didn’t exist, that there was no Reformation, French Revolution, secular progress, no progression towards liberal democracies and values. Postmodernism doesn’t have a monopoly on emancipation, many of the advances made in the 60s and 70s were prior to Postmodernism, not caused by it. Indeed that was not just the well-spring but theoretical basis upon which such progress was made, the very progress that allows the current generation of critical theorists to think and act for themselves.

Worse still, it destroys all possible methods of discussion, debate and disagreement, the foundations of liberal democracy, there is no arguing with it. All common ground or methods of falsification have disappeared or are interpreted as powerplays. It has donned all the defensiveness of the metanarratives it purports to despise.


Lyotard, J.F., 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Vol. 10). U of Minnesota Press.

Pluckrose, H. and Lindsay, J.A., 2020. Cynical theories: How activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity—and why this harms everybody. Pitchstone Publishing (US&CA).

Derrida (1930 - 2004) deconstruction and difference

Jaques Derrida has an entire vocabulary of new terms, which he invents or qualifies in his philosophy. One should say ‘texts’ as he saw Western thought and culture as being dominated by speech, so chose the elevation of the written word, importantly and oddly, as seen separately from its author. Rejecting the phenomenology of Husserl and the focus on consciousness and sense-data, of which speech is a part, he sees traditional philosophy as being tied to the language of speech, as opposed to writing. It is to texts that he applies his famous method of deconstruction.


To say, as he did in Of Grammatology (1967) that there is nothing outside of the text, on first appearance, seems ridiculous. The Holocaust is not a text. What he meant was not the text itself but something beyond but what that beyond is, remains problematic, as Derrida refuses to engage in much interrogation of his terms.

Derrida takes critical theory down, away from larger narratives, groups or individuals to language itself. His ‘deconstruction’ looks at the ambiguity of texts, de-anchored from reality, even their authors. Meaning is down to differences. When it comes to meaning, as determined by ‘difference’, he often sees opposition as too universal a definition. 

Derrida turns Structuralism in on itself by de-anchoring structures and denying the objectivity of science and reality. Like many in the Critical Theory tradition, he ‘deconstructs’ the large metaphysical and secular narratives but through the deconstruction of texts. Derrida uses the term diffĂ©rance in two senses both ‘to defer’ and ‘to differ.’ This was to indicate that not only is meaning never final but it is constructed by differences, specifically by oppositions.


He refuses to define or even defend concepts but it is not clear that concepts such as ‘difference’, which he defines rather confusingly as both deference and difference, are of any relevance in education and learning. As his writing moved further into wordplay, playing around with prefixes and salacious references to death and sex, it drove him further away from being in any way relevant to education, teaching and learning theory, apart from literary theory. 

Deconstruction of texts is his method of instruction but his only method of instruction. Ultimately it is an inward looking technique that cannot escape its own gravity. No amount of debate can produce enough escape velocity to deny the results of deconstruction.

Avoiding the reality of even speech, restricts debate to texts. Yet it is not clear that education is what he calls speech or ‘phonocentric’ and his evidence for this is vague and unconvincing. His denial of oppositional thought, which he tries to deconstruct through reversal, denies biological distinction like gender and the persistence of a subject in relation to objective reality. It becomes an excuse for avoiding debate by reducing the other person’s views as a vague text. It matters not what your intention was, only what was said.


With Derrida we are at the tail-end of critical theory, where the object of criticism is reduced to texts and methods at the level of the ironic. His impact on education has been almost nil, as there is little that had enough force or meaning to have impact. Having rejected all Enlightenment values, large narratives, even speech, Derrida’s postmodernism is its own end in itself. His reputation merley lives on in the self-referential pomposity that postmodernism created, mostly limited to academia and even there only in a subset of the humanities, where spoof papers that mimic its vagueness and verbosity have been regularly accepted for publication.


Derrida, J., 2001. Writing and difference. Routledge.
Derrida, J., 1998. Of grammatology (p. 456). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, J., 1982. Margins of philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

Foucault (1926 - 84) - Structuralism

Michel Foucault had an enormous impact on critical theory and because of this, education as taught in Universities. From the 1980s onwards his ideas infused everything, apart from actual practice. As one of the structuralist Gang of Four, with Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Lacan, he is difficult to pigeon-hole, as his writing is often obtuse, abstruse and conceptually difficult. Despite this and recent revelations of paedophilia, he remains a towering figure in critical theory as expressed in the structuralist movement.


Foucault’s archaeology of culture uncovers power structures, ‘epistemes’ that dominate, define and control all knowledge. The individual, their movements, behaviours, interests, desires and even bodies are merely the subject of imposed, oppressive, power relationships. Cultural relativism emerges as individuals are subsumed and emerge as oppressors and the oppressed. Foucault sees philosophy as in need of the decolonisation of even time, space and subjectivity, through the wholescale rejection of Eurocentric norms and language. This postmodern destruction of boundaries led to cultural relativism, certain forms of language as epistemically constructive and power plays between groups, not individuals or universal principles. It places gender, race and other distinctions into cultural contexts where the application of power socially constructs and uses language to oppress certain groups. 

Discipline and Punish

His early interest in mental illness and psychiatry led to the book Madness and Civilisation (19XX). This fits into the Critical Theory tradition of seeing society as pathological. But it is in Discipline and Punish (19XX) that the idea of ‘training’, in the wider sociological sense of the word, is exposed as stages of domination in society, moving into schools and systems of education. Learning becomes institutionalised through a shadow form of monastic enclosure, where the architecture of the school follows that of the Panopticon prison. Supervision and the serial delivery of classes in separate rooms, marching from one room to another room, with teachers policing the formal restrictions of movement and behaviour, result in strictly timetabled control. Designed for prescriptive supervision, the building is a ’pedagogical machine’ that reduces the individual to a documented object. Examinations bring this form of supervision to a head, with the labeling of subjects before release.


This shift to seeing education in terms of power relations has been influential. Yet in a democracy, where citizens vote on the major issues of the economy, health and education, the idea that everyone is deluded into playing the role of imprisoned lackeys, seems far-fetched. Critical thinking when expressed at this level seems to tip over into abstruse political theory disassociated from the reality, wishes and needs of most people. Additionally, it sets up a form of intellectual snobbery, where academics see themselves as the true arbiters of what is important and what is emancipatory.

Few solutions are offered in his critiques. This is a general problem in Critical Theory. Foucault’s idea of power is problematic in being relentlessly negative, the exercise of oppression, not liberation. It is all very well drawing parallels between prisons and schools, and there is some wisdom in being sceptical about the formalities of supervision and Victorian architecture, however, most want to see sensible behaviour management and the applications of restrictions necessary for attention and education. To caricature school supervision as ideologically driven punishment, is just that,  a caricature. 

Foucault’s idea of power, a core concept in critical theory and structuralism, is that it is always assumed to be a deficit or negative, a flow of oppression. Yet power, in both politics and education, can be used positively, to free and liberate. The problem with de-anchoring everything is that you also de-anchor yourself and your own theories, setting everything adrift.


His influence on modern thought, philosophy and critical theory in academia is undoubtedly enormous. His influence on educational and learning theory is, however,  oft quoted but minimal and seldom applied. After his death in 1984 his reputation was strengthened as critical theory became a dominant force in the humanities, especially in degrees which critics jokingly call ‘Grievance Studies’. While recent theorists on feminism, gender studies, queer theory (Butler), race, post-colonialism (Said, Spivak) and, even Fat studies (Bacon), all draw on Foucault’s epistemic relativism, theorists in Critical Race Theory and Feminim, such as Angela Harris and Kimberle Crenshaw, have at least been consistent in rejecting Foucault and Derrida, which would have shocked them, as prime examples of oppressive white men and Eurocentric theory.


Foucault M. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1961.Abridged; translated by R. Howard. London: Tavistock (1965)

Foucault M. Archaeology of Knowledge 1961. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge (2002)

Foucault M. Discipline and Punish  The Birth of the Prison 1971

Foucault M. The History of Sexuality 1976 - 84 Vol I: The Will to Knowledge, Vol II: The Use of Pleasure, Vol III: The Care of the Self, Vol IV: The Confessions of the Flesh

Giraux (1943 - ) put Critical Pedagogy on the map

Henry Giroux, who moved from being a high-school social studies teacher to Professor at Penn State University, then to McMasters University in Canada, takes Critical Theory and applies it to Critical Pedagogy, drawing on the Frankfurt School, Habermas and Freire. Some attribute the very concept of ‘Critical Pedagogy’ to him. For Giroux, this is a force for political good and emancipation that will defend liberal democracy against undemocratic forces of power and dominance.

Education shadows powerful ideologies and is therefore repressive, protected by structures that make it impervious to criticism and an unwitting vehicle of oppression. He is therefore in favour of critical democracy that includes critiques of ideologies such as authoritarianism, capitalism and neoliberalism. Universities he also sees as being under the chains of these forces.

Critical/Radical Pedagogy

Schools, or rather schooling, is a vehicle for cultural reproduction rather than cultural production. As part of an active democracy they should, in response, adopt a critical role in their pedagogy, to reach out beyond the perpetuation of injustices and inequalities. Education’s role is to critique the ideologies of oppression. 

Giraux sees learning as a critical process in the public area of education and beyond, not with a destructive but constructive and forward-looking intent. It must respond to increasing diversity and strive to reduce inequalities. The overall goal is to encourage emancipatory citizenship. His is a denial of Enlightenment and other ideologies in favour of the voices of the oppressed, accompanied by personal and political citizenship in a radical democracy. Pedagogy, for Giroux, is political. Schooling, its purposes, methods and malign cultural influences, must be subject to critical thought, even the curricula. This pedagogy is not just critical but radical in moving things to what ought to be in a democratic society.

Border Pedagogy

His Critical/Radical Pedagogy goes further into practices that explore, even cross, borders and boundaries in education. This blurring and crossing of boundaries allows education to evolve towards fairness and equality. Everything should be examined; the nature of knowledge itself, power within institutions, diversity, curricula. In Postmodern, Feminism and Cultural Politics (1991) he questions Eurocentric theory, the language we use and adopts a Lyotardian view of knowledge, as being corrigible. 


Giroux has been criticised from both the left and right. His Critical Pedagogy seems like a convenient way of pulling in Marxist influenced, political beliefs into the sphere of education, as it is more critically ‘cultural’ than ‘educational’. It is not at all clear that education plays this role in a democracy, where the population vote for educational policies, not for those policies and structures to be critiqued but implemented. 

Critical theorists and feminists such as Ellsworth, race theorists like Ford and Marxists such as Malott, criticise him for being too soft on and therefore compatible with capitalism. A general criticism of both Critical Theory and Critical/Radical Pedagogy, is that they are simply the esoteric concerns of the academic class, rather than any form of relevant, practical or applicable teaching and learning theory or practice.


Giroux put Critical Pedagogy on the map. Whether it has ever come off the map onto the rocky roads of real life education is debatable. Much debated, his influence is largely on the activist and not mainstream side of teaching. His turn towards Postmodernism may have made him even more distant from the realities of actual education. nevertheless, with the rise of critical theory on campuses and in schools, his work is receiving new attention by a new audience.

Giroux, H.A., 2020. On critical pedagogy. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H.A., 2018. Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling: A critical reader. Routledge.

Giroux, H.A., 1991. Postmodernism, feminism, and cultural politics: Redrawing educational boundaries. Suny Press

Giroux, H.A., Freire, P. and McLaren, P., 1988. Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Heidegger (1889 - 1976) on teaching and learning

Heidegger is not a learning theorist, he is a philosopher and his thoughts on teaching and learning are largely found in his philosophical work, although within this he does have more precise thoughts on teaching and learning. Despite his membership of the Nazi Party, announced in his inaugral address in 1929, when he succeeded his teacher Husserl, he then went on to exclude Jewish faculty members, including Husserl, he remains a hugely influential thinker. Another idiosyncrasy was his secret affair with Hannah Ardent, a Jewish student 17 years his junior, who went on to be one of the most important political theorists of the 20th C. 

Despite this, his break with the Western tradition of metaphysics is what attracted him to the critical theory movement, through to post-structuralism, with his recentering or grounding of human experience in being, not the metaphysical systems of Western thought.


In his great work Being and Time (1927), Dasein is a being-in-the-world, not like the Cartesian ego, self or subject but within a process of being. Thinking and learning are just ways of being or engaging with the world. One must also react to and engage with the world. It follows that learning is a form of caring about (besorgen) the world, so not just thinking but interest in what is being learned. It is only if one cares that one learns, going forward to inquire and get involved with learning about the world. In this sense, he puts more emphasis on what is often called the affective side of learning.

One is thrown forward in life, with what one wants to be, one’s future potentialities and abilities to be, drive one forward. Learners and teachers must be seen as being in the world, not subjects that have to learn about the world. One must interpret learners as first attuning through being attracted, vaguely interested or bored; then see language or discourse as the shared form of being; these lead towards goals in life that come through learning.

Teaching and learning

In What is thinking? (1954) teaching, learners and learning are seen within the context of deeper more authentic thinking. To teach or learn is to avoid the superficialities of ordinary thinking. He takes the case of a cabinet-maker apprentice, who more than just learns how to use the tools. One must find the essence of the process in the activities and the essence of the wood itself. 

He takes this insight to reflect on the relationship between the teacher, learner and learning. In a wonderfully intense passage he explains why teaching is harder than learning, as the teacher must not be the presenter of knowledge, a didact or pedagogue, but let the learner learn. Teaching is an exalted matter and not to be confused with titles, such as Professor.

Learning is far more than basic accumulation of knowledge and practice, more than even doing. The learner must respond and relate to the deeper effects of the craft. Using a hammer ‘ready-to-hand’ does not involve consciousness in any rational sense, which may even hamper its use. It is a deeper engagement with the project.


In a typically Hedeggerian analysis, there is far more to technology than any instrumental theory. Technology marks this era, as the last in metaphysical thinking, with technology replacing previous systems of belief. There is an ‘enframing’ with technology put into a ‘standing reserve’, in advance of consumption. In that respect it is similar to the Nietzschean analysis of the world having cleaved into the lived world and something metaphysically separate. He sees technology, as a system, like a metaphysical system, that distorts our thinking and actions. However, he avoids any trite dismissal or negativity around technology, as it is also a prelude to thinking more authentically.


Heidegger (along with Nietzsche) are two huge existentialist influences on post-structuralists such as Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard. Derrida, in particular, rejects but builds on Heidegger for his deconstructive approach to texts. That is not to say that the influence was entirely fruitful. Hedegger’s rejection of the language of Western philosophy - the subject, object, act and content - for the language of being (Sein) which is prior to the oppositional systems of appearance and reality, also led to the fragmentation, invention and playfulness with language that took these theorists,  not only further away from philosophy but also any semblance of relevance or usefulness for teachers and learners. The dissolution of human nature in favour of just being-in-the world or feelings has led to de-anchoring that leaves many stranded in personal resentment.


Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E., 1962. Being and time.

Blake, N., Smeyers, P., Smith, R.D. and Standish, P. eds., 2008. The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of education (Vol. 6). John Wiley & Sons.

Heidegger, M. and Krell, D.F., 1980. Basic writings–nine key essays, plus the introduction to being and time. Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie, 42(1).

Monday, September 13, 2021

Luis von Ahn (1978 - ) - free language learning

Luis von Ahn is the brains, driver and innovator behind Duolingo. From Guatemala, he’s a mathematician and computer scientist on a mission to keep language learning free. Duolingo went through some serious innovations and pivots. Luis invented CAPTCHA which was successful in digitising books and newspapers, was sold to Google in 2009. 

He was keen on similar free solutions to problems that, as a by-product, solved other problems. With Duolingo he tried selling translations but that market was commoditised. He then tried ads at the end of each module, so as not to interrupt the learning process. But his final pivot was subscriptions to avoid ads. This solved the problem. Duolingo is the largest online language product on the planet and remains, largely, free.

Learning wants to be free

Throughout this whole journey, from late 2012, Ahn’s primary aim was to keep the service fundamentally free. This was and still is their mission. They are all zealots for free education and hire top-end people at good salaries, who believe in this mission. Keep it free, well largely, as only 3% of users pay the subscription. Valued at $1.5 billion at the end of 2019, their revenues have risen through the pandemic from $400,000 per day to $600,000 per day, with only 20% of revenues in the US. They have many more users than their nearest competitor and  the revenues. So what's behind the success?

User experience

Simple, clean, plenty of white space, consistent palette, no teacher face or teacher avatar, simple progress bar at top of screen. Then there’s scoring, levels, daily goals, completions, green for success, red for failure. Duolingo also works superbly well on mobile and has keyboard input as an option. There is no clumsy drag and drop, open input for full phrases and sentences, allows people to type what they hear, remediation when you fail, sentences as audio when you get it right, not scared of repetition, single day streaks, spaced practice.


The primary problem in language learning is motivation. This is where Duolingo’s design comes in. The bite-size learning chunks and highly visual sense of progress and completion of levels is exactly what drives users forward. Duolingo employ high-end AI experts, who implement sophisticated personalisation and adaptivity. Itt knows, for example, what you’ve learnt and, importantly, if you’ve been absent, what you’ve forgotten. This is important, as if you don't learn for a few days, it knows that you've forgotten and pulls you back a little. This algorithmic personalisation lies at the heart of its delivery.

Habit and notifications

Doulingo is all about making learning personalised and habitual. The importance of habitual learning goes back to Locke, James and Dewey. The daily tasks and streaks are achievable and you get visual rewards as you progress. The behavioural science behind the formation of habit is also good. This is driven by good design but mostly by AI.

But the real application of AI is even more interesting in 'notifications'. They are extremely sophisticated as, algorithmically, they decide what to say and when to say it. This is the clever use of data to automate the learning process, to keep learners going. They notify you regularly, but not too much. The most effective notification is the ‘final warning’. If they feel you have dropped off, a timely message, making you feel slightly guilty, works wonders.


His critics claim that Duolingo doesn’t teach you languages, as it is too crude and simple. Yet most of these apps are about picking up the basics. Learning a second language is a mountainous task and Duolingo aims at the foothills. Their goal is to get that process kick-started and aim for intermediate level B2, and they’re getting there. B2 by the way is the level of English required to work at Google. He also claims, rightly, that the enormous sums spent in schools trying to teach languages is a disaster zone, with a tiny fraction ever getting any functional proficiency. Ahn always makes the point that it is free.


There are other apps. Memrise is perhaps better at dialogue with more video clips but clumsier interface and design. It also uses AI and has a Fremium model to add features such as a grammarbot, pro chats, difficult words, speed review, listening skills, learning stats and more. Babbel is a German alternative but a subscription service. The voice recognition software (uses AI) can be a bit annoying but it also now adopting AI as the driver. It a more traditional structured lesson approach. Bussuu is London based and another AI-driven app that operates a Fremium model. It is flashcard based but a more social app, allowing you to speak into the app. There’s debate about what is best but all are now using AI to drive pedagogy to go for personalised, bite-size, habitual learning.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

John Watson (1878 - 1958) - father of behaviourism


John Watson is seen as the father of behaviourism, as his address at Columbia University defined the start of the movement, defining the methodology behind this school of psychology. His research was on animal behaviour, specifically learning in rats. The behaviourist approach to learning also led him to study child rearing, where he took a strict, instructional line. He also took his behaviourism from academia over into a successful career in advertising.

Behaviourist manifesto

His Columbia Address was published as Psychology As The Behaviorist Views It (1913), where he defined the scope and limits of the behaviourist approach to the study of psychology. With his background in animal learning research he wanted to define psychology as an objective, natural science, like physics, biology and chemistry. The goal was to only study observable behaviour, seeing no distinction between humans and animals. Building on Pavlov’s idea of conditioned reflexes, he put aside any study of the mind’s internal, subjective experiences, for external, observable and measurable behaviours. Consciousness was seen as outside of the boundary of science as it was unobservable and the data gathered was subjective, therefore prone to error and interpretation.

Child rearing

In his Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), he recommended the use of behaviourist techniques on babies and children. As a strict behaviourist, he saw all learning as conditioned and put great faith in an interventional regime that shaped the child’s behaviour. This approach has had a profound and long-lasting reach on child rearing theory and practice. A dark side to Watson’s strict behaviourism emerged in his experiments on babies. One of the most controversial experiments in psychology was his Little Albert experiment. He took a nine month child, who turned out to have severe learning difficulties, and showed the child a rat. It showed no fear. On showing the child the same rat while clanging a metal bar, the child cried and, later, when shown the rat on its own, showed fear. Watson and his wife Rosalie Rayner failed to decondition the child, who died when only six. This has gone down as a prime example of unethical experimentation on children.


Unsurprisingly, the fledgling advertising industry took an interest in behaviourism. The US advertising agency Walter J Thompson hired him and he rose to become a Vice President. There he applied his work to a range of products, especially personal care products. One of his enduring successes was the invention of the ‘coffee break’ for a Maxwell House coffee campaign.


Watson set in train a school in psychology that dominated the first half of the 20th century. It had the effect of halting the late 19th century Darwinian movement, laid out by William James, where the mind was seen as an evolved entity with a legacy of features that defined how we learn. In one sense Watson introduced the rigour of measurable, observable data into psychology, on the other he straight-jacketed inquiry into a narrow blank slate view of the mind, that held back wider in inquiry. This a debate that still rages today with many seeing psychology as having veered off into non-evidence based theorising. The rise of social sciences and theories of social learning, for example, use strong behaviourist arguments to support ideas that all learning comes from the environmental, social context, some going further to deny that biological sex exists and that even gender, along with most other beliefs, are social constructs.

In child rearing, behaviourism had a long reach through books such as Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946) and the hot-housing culture that is as strong today as it has ever been. Advertising, of course, has always been keen to use measurable scientific psychology to influence purchasers and to this day huge sums are spent to that end.


Watson, J.B., 1913. Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological review, 20(2), p.158.

Watson, J.B., 1928. Psychological care of infant and child.

Spock, B., 1946. The common sense book of baby and child care (pp. 258-259). New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce.