By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries with keyword: science of education
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Monday, September 14, 2015

New instruments in education

We read ancient Greek ideas of philosophy and take it seriously. But when we read ancient Greek ideas of science we dismiss it as being hopelessly outdated and just plain wrong. Why the difference?

The first big difference is, thanks to the scientific revolution, we test scientific theories and compare them to the world they describe. The tests, called experiments, are considered the truth. If a theory and experiment are in disagreement, the theory must be wrong.

Philosophical theories are generally untestable. (If they were testable, they would be science, not philosophy.) If they can't be tested, they can't be disproved. If they can't be disproved, we can't say with certainty that one philosophical theory is better than another. So there is no progress in philosophy like there is in science.

A second difference is the kind of ideas that philosophy considers. Beauty, justice, love, honor... Unlike ideas about the physical world, there is no absolute reference for truth as there is with the experiment. It's all thoughts and thoughts about thoughts. This is where science and religion clash. Much of religious thinking is about philosophical ideas. But most religions also include ideas about the physical world such as creation stories and divine intervention in everyday life.

The third big difference between science and philosophy is instrumentation. We would know little about the planets and stars without telescopes and spectrometers and eventually spacecraft laden with all types of instruments. And we would know nothing of cells and nuclei and DNA without microscopes and all the instruments that followed for peering into the world of the very small. Telescopes and microscopes allowed us to see much more and understand much more about the world than was possible without these instruments.

Is education more like philosophy or science? Our instruments for measuring knowledge and understanding are pretty limited. Tests, and that's about it.

There is a big change afoot brought about through online education. A lot more data can now be easily collected about what a student has been exposed to and how she subsequently performed on her test questions. The volume of data now easily available is similar to a microscope for learning. Much more detail is revealed which may lead to great discoveries.

New discoveries won't be automatic, though. A necessary critical transition is a change in mindset from the view of education as being a lot like philosophy, ruled by fashion and unprovable theories. As the new data leads to new provable discoveries in education, the field will change. And education will get demonstrably more effective in the same way that steam engines did and flying machines did and electronic devices did.

This new "microscope for learning" won't answer all the questions about education. It will be useful in determining if a student has acquired a body of knowledge and skills and knows how to apply them. It will be less effective for questions like, has the student's education been effective in developing good character? Or, can the educated student think clearly? Or does she have good judgement? These questions are more in the philosophical realm and seem to still be beyond the reach of our instruments.

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Keywords: science of education

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