Archive for October, 2017

I saw something a short while back that tweaked my BS meter into the red: the learning pyramid. According to research done by The NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science in the 1960s (… behaviorists, ugh) and reported here (among other places), there are widely disparate rates of knowledge retention across different passive and active teaching methods:


Let me state first something quite obvious: learning and retention (memory) aren’t the same things. If one seeks sheer retention of information as a proxy for learning, that’s a gross misunderstanding of both cognition and learning. For example, someone who has managed to memorize, let’s say, baseball statistics going back to the 1950s or Bible verses, may have accomplished an impressive mental task not at all aligned with normal cognitive function (the leaky bucket analogy is accurate), but neither example qualifies someone as learned the way most understand the term. Information (especially raw data) is neither knowledge, understanding, nor wisdom. They’re related, sure, but not the same (blogged about this before here). Increasing levels of organization and possession are required to reach each threshold.

The passive/active (participatory) labels are also misleading. To participate actively, one must have something to contribute, to be in possession of knowledge/skill already. To teach something effectively, one must have greater expertise than one’s students. Undoubtedly, teaching others solidifies one’s understanding and expertise, and further learning is often a byproduct, but one certainly can’t begin learning a new subject area by teaching it. Information (input) needs to come from elsewhere, which understandably has a lower retention rate until it’s been gone over repeatedly and formed the cognitive grooves that represent acquisition and learning. This is also the difference between reception and expression in communications. One’s expressive vocabulary (the words one can actually deploy in speech and writing) is a subset of one’s receptive vocabulary (the words one can understand readily upon hearing or reading). The expressive vocabulary is predicated on prior exposure that imbues less common words with power, specificity, and nuance. While it’s possible to learn new words quickly (in small quantities), it’s not generally possible to skip repetition that enables memorization and learning. Anyone studying vocabulary lists for the SAT/ACT (as opposed to a spelling bee) knows this intuitively.

Lastly, where exactly is most prospective knowledge and skill located, inside the self or outside? One doesn’t simply peel back layers of the self to reveal knowledge. Rather, one goes out into the world and seeks it (or doesn’t, sadly), disturbing it from its natural resting place. The great repositories of knowledge are books and other people (especially those who write books — whoda thunk?). So confronting knowledge, depending on the subject matter, occurs more efficiently one-on-one (an individual reading a book) or in groups (25 or so students in a classroom headed by 1 teacher). The inefficiency of a 1:1 ratio between student and teacher (a/k/a tutoring) is obviously available to those who place a high enough value on learning to hire a tutor. However, that’s not how education (primary through postgraduate) is undertaken in most cases. And just imagine the silliness of gathering a classroom of students to teach just for one person to learn with 90% retention, as the learning pyramid would suggest.


Another modest surprise (to me at least) offered by Anthony Giddens (from The Consequences of Modernity) follows a discussion of reflexivity (what I call recursion when discussing consciousness), which is the dynamic of information and/or knowledge feeding back to influence later behavior and information/knowledge. His handy example is the populace knowing divorce rates, which has an obvious influence on those about to get married (but may decide to defer or abjure entirely). The surprise is this:

The discourse of sociology and the concepts, theories, and findings of the other social sciences continually “circulate in and out” of what it is that they are about. In so doing they reflexively restructure their subject matter, which itself has learned to think sociologically … Much that is problematic in the position of the professional sociologist, as the purveyor of expert knowledge about social life, derives from the fact that she or he is at most one step ahead of enlightened lay practitioners of the discipline. [p. 43]

I suppose “enlightened lay practitioners” are not the same as the general public, which I hold in rather low esteem as knowing (much less understanding) anything of value. Just consider electoral politics. Still, the idea that an expert in an academic field admits he is barely ahead of wannabes (like me) seems awfully damning. Whereas curious types will wade in just about anywhere, and in some cases, amateurs will indulge themselves enthusiastically in endeavors also practiced by experts (sports and music are the two principal examples that spring to mind), the distance (in both knowledge and skill) between experts and laypersons is typically quite far. I suspect those with high intellect and/or genetic gifts often bridge that gap, but then they join the ranks of the experts, so the exception leads nowhere.

I’m a little gobsmacked that, in the aftermath of someone finally calling out the open secret of the Hollywood casting couch (don’t know, don’t care how this news cycle started) and netting Harvey Weinstein in the process, so many well-known actors have added their “Me, too!” to the growing scandal. Where were all these sheep before now? As with Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton, what good does it do to allow a serial abuser to continue unchallenged until years, decades later a critical mass finally boils over? I have no special knowledge or expertise in this area, so what follows is the equivalent of a thought experiment.

Though the outlines of the power imbalance between a Hollywood executive and an actor seeking a role (or other industry worker seeking employment) are pretty clear, creating a rich opportunity for the possessor of such power to act like a creep or a criminal, the specific details are still a little shrouded — at least in my limited consumption of the scandal press. How much of Weinstein’s behavior veers over the line from poor taste to criminality is a difficult question precisely because lots of pictorial evidence exists showing relatively powerless people playing along. It’s a very old dynamic, and its quasi-transactional nature should be obvious.

In my idealized, principled view, if one has been transgressed, the proper response is not to slink away or hold one’s tongue until enough others are similarly transgressed to spring into action. The powerless are duty bound to assert their own power — the truth — much like a whistleblower feels compelled to disclose corruptions of government and corporate sectors. Admittedly, that’s likely to compound the initial transgression and come at some personal cost, great or small. But for some of us (a small percentage, I reckon), living with ourselves in silent assent presents an even worse option. By way of analogy, if one were molested by a sketchy uncle and said nothing, I can understand just wanting to move on. But if one said nothing yet knew the sketchy uncle had more kids lined up in the extended family to transgress, then stepping up to protect the younger and weaker would be an absolute must.

In the past few decades, clergy of the Catholic Church sexually abused many young people and deployed an institutional conspiracy to hide the behaviors and protect the transgressors. Exposure should have broken trust bonds between the church and the faithful and invalidated the institution as an abject failure. Didn’t quite work out that way. Similar scandals and corruption across a huge swath of institutions (e.g., corporate, governmental, military, educational, entertainment, and sports entities) have been appearing in public view regularly, yet as a culture, we tolerate more creeps and criminals than we shame or prosecute. ( is one of the sites that regularly reports these corruptions with respect to American empire; I can scarcely bear to read it sometimes.) I suspect part of that is a legitimate desire for continuity, to avoid burning down the house with everyone in it. That places just about everyone squarely within the “Me, too!” collective. Maybe I shouldn’t be so gobsmacked after all.

Caveat: This thought experiment definitely comes from a male perspective. I recognize that females view these issues quite differently, typically in consideration of far greater vulnerability than males experience (excepting the young boys in the Catholic Church example).

Reading further into Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, I got a fuller (though still incomplete) sense of what is meant by his terms disembedding mechanisms, expert systems, and symbolic tokens, all of which disrupt time and space as formerly understood in traditional societies that enjoyed the benefit of centuries of continuity. I’ve been aware of analyses regarding, for instance, the sociology of money and the widespread effects of the introduction and adoption of mechanical clocks and timepieces. While most understand these developments superficially as unallayed progress, Giddens argues that they do in fact reorder our experience in the world away from an organic, immediate orientation toward an intellectualized adherence to distant, abstract, self-reinforcing (reflexive) mechanisms.

But those matters are not really what this blog post is about. Rather, this passage sparked my interest:

… when the claims of reason replaced those of tradition, they appeared to offer a sense of certitude greater than that provided by preexisting dogma. But this idea only appears persuasive so long as we do not see that the reflexivity of modernity actually subverts reason, at any rate where reason is understood as the gaining of certain knowledge … We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised. [p. 39]

Put another way, science and reason are axiomatically open to examination, challenge, and revision and often undergo disruptive change. That’s what is meant by Karl Popper’s phrase “all science rests upon shifting sand” and informs the central thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not the narrow details that shift so much (hard sciences lead pretty reliably to applied engineering) as the overarching narrative, e.g., the story of the Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves as revealed through scientific inquiry and close examination. Historically, the absolute certainty of the medieval church, while not especially accurate in either details or narrative, yielded considerable authority to post-Enlightenment science and reason, which themselves continue to shift periodically.

Some of those paradigm shifts are so boggling and beyond the ken of the average thinker (including many college-educated folks) that our epistemology is now in crisis. Even the hard facts — like the age and shape of the Earth or its orbital relationship to other solar bodies — are hotly contested by some and blithely misunderstood by others. One doesn’t have to get bogged down in the vagaries of relativity, nuclear power and weapons, or quantum theory to lose the thread of what it means to live in the 21st century. Softer sciences such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history now deliver new discoveries and (re-)interpretations of facts so rapidly, like the dizzying pace of technological change, that philosophical systems are unmoored and struggling for legitimacy. For instance, earlier this year, a human fossil was found in Morocco that upended our previous knowledge of human evolution (redating the first appearance of biologically modern humans about 100,000 years earlier). More popularly, dieticians still disagree on what sorts of foods are healthy for most of us (though we can probably all agree that excess sugar is bad). Other recent developments include the misguided insistence among some neurobiologists and theorists that consciousness, free will, and the self do not exist (I’ll have a new post regarding that topic as time allows) and outright attacks on religion not just for being in error but for being the source of evil.

I have a hard time imagining other developments in 21st-century intellectual thought that would shake the foundations of our cosmology any more furiously than what we’re now experiencing. Even the dawning realization that we’ve essentially killed ourselves (with delayed effect) by gradually though consistently laying waste to our own habitat is more of an “oops” than the mind-blowing moment of waking up from The Matrix to discover the unreality of everything once believed. Of course, for fervent believers especially, the true facts (best as we can know them, since knowledge is forever provisional) are largely irrelevant in light of desire (what one wants to believe), and that’s true for people on both sides of the schism between church and science/reason.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it’s probably wrong to introduce a false dualism, though it has plenty of historical precedent. I’ll suggest instead that there are more facets and worldviews at play in the world that the two that have been warring in the West for the last 600 years.