On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

Featured Photo Credit (edited): Jonathan Pendleton on Unsplash

Click here to read On Bias: I. Disparate Bias

On Bias: II. Wrong Bias?

The school must conduct its affairs in some way or other; the curriculum must include some areas of human experience and omit others. In doing so the school thereby commits itself on these issues, often without proper, or any, consideration of alternative possibilities.

Mackenzie, 1997 (p. 499)

The first half of Mackenzie’s remark, a priori, I accept: school must conduct its affairs in some way or other, and the curriculum must include some areas of human experience and omit others.

As to the second half… hey, we all have opinions, and as we take each other to be informed to greater and lesser degrees, we agree and disagree. So, where I can imagine the dearth of “any” consideration of alternative possibilities, I’m still uncertain what Mackenzie means by “proper.”

So long as an attempt is made, wouldn’t literally any consideration leave us free to judge school’s conduct of its affairs… unless, of course, somebody’s gone and figured it all out on behalf of the rest of us. Did some school back in ’97 really manage to offer it all in one go? Who were the teachers and administrators demonstrating that kind of wisdom? Who sat for that District Board, staffed that government ministry? By all of which I’m really asking, who gets to say what’s proper and, thereby, what’s improper? You? Me? Mackenzie? Further still, who even gets to say who gets to say? Don’t say “Mackenzie’s parents.”

To be fair, “proper” in this case could be interpreted more procedurally than substantively, as some generic curriculum development protocol – a proper approach to considering alternatives versus proper alternatives per se. Yet similar questions remain about who sits as part of that process, and who chooses who sits, and who chooses who chooses, and on it goes, the politics of education.

If you ask me (i.e. thanks for reading), a conscientious teacher faces questions analogous to these every single day while enacting curriculum many times a day, balancing their own perspective with how they interpret each student’s needs and interests. I say “each” student, but we all know its sometimes less individuated than the world of idealism. Teaching anyone, much less young people, much less 2–3 dozen at once, is no singular thing, which the gerund “teaching” hardly conveys.

By the same turn, though, teaching’s no crap-shoot either, or maybe better to say it can’t afford to be. Isn’t the real trick of teaching learning to live with uncertainty? And isn’t that last sentence funny for juxtaposing teaching so cavalierly with learning? Teachers learning? as in, don’t they have it all already figured out – aren’t teachers already supposed to know things?

Don’t be misled as to what you imagine teaching to be, despite any time you may already have spent in a classroom.

Teachers owe a duty of care to meet people (if not each person) where they’re at, then help them along. So… how does a teacher balance their own knowledge and awareness with what matters to themselves? That’s a real distinction, by the way. And if they can balance this, how next do they balance this with their duty to help students learn what students feel matters to students? Trust me, that last sentence is even harder to do than it is to read because, sometimes, students just don’t know yet what matters to themselves – the same can be said of some teachers I’ve met, too, since we’re on the subject.

Convolutedly, the reverse is also true – for some other teachers, their politics is inherently part of their classroom curriculum, something I’ve heard insisted to be not only good teaching but moral teaching. This opens an always nuanced and often contentious discussion – he said from experience – such as precluding an opportunity for students to reach moral ground on their own terms in their own time. Rather than discuss it further here, though, I’ll suggest another way to ask my question about teachers balancing self with students: how might education be made “simultaneously both responsible and free” – it’s something Dr. Shulman wondered as far back as 1983. I gather he was leaning more towards teachers acting on behalf of students whereas I’m definitely asking on behalf of everybody in the classroom. For me, this ultimately seems a question of autonomy, the heart of which is bias.

Oh boy, I know this is a series on bias, but really… always bias? It may be safe to say, or totally ironic, that the principal curricular consideration we face is What is most worth teaching? That’s a collective ‘we’, by the way, not the royal one, and fair play if you disagree. In any case, this infamous question inevitably leads to an even bigger one, What is school for? What’s the purpose of this thing we call K12 education? Lately, though, as we’ve particularly hitched our wagons to constructivism, I wonder if these are the wrong questions.

Lately, I’ve been trying out something different, and just to be clear, I’m not referring to subject-specific curricular anything. To be clearer still, I’m considering what teachers bring with them through the classroom door each day because they’ll be bringing it, whatever question we ask. And what are we asking?

Up til now, where someone may have been asking, What is school for? I’m asking Who participates? and further, What are some suitable attitudes or expectations for participants? How best to proceed in K12 with this thing called ‘constructivism’… I mean, if we’re genuinely committed to living it out, because I don’t yet see that we are – not even when we think we are. Yes, still collective, not royal, only now I wonder if anyone’s upset with me lumping them into the collective. In responding to these questions about school and curriculum, I’ve obviously been considering neither content nor skill but people. So, as we’ve hitched our wagons to constructivism, I wonder whether people might be the purpose of school, making the principle curricular consideration not ‘what’ we teach but ‘who’ we teach, alongside which both ‘how’ and ‘why’ we teach find appropriate kinship.

If you disagree thus far, please don’t let your bias run away with you while, if you agree, please don’t go clicking ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ just yet – he said with smug presumption – because this is still far more nuanced than I’ve offered just yet.

I think it’s fair to say this idea is something I’ve wondered more broadly throughout this blog, primarily as a facet of curriculum since teaching and coaching and mentoring are some things I’ve come to know fairly well, so write what you know.

There’s a common distinction between curriculum, mandated documentation about what to teach and learn in K12 schooling, and pedagogy, the manner in which curriculum’s taught to this or that class of students. Both lack nuance for being oversimplified. From all my pondering, I’m lately gathering that an ill-advised separation of this dialectical pairing may be an ongoing source of trouble faced by teachers, students, and education in general. I think curriculum and pedagogy may be better considered one concept, and I think so because of bias, and I wish I had something more substantive to offer – as I say, it’s threaded throughout this blog, but that’s a lot to synthesise.

I’m no longer certain that school’s the place for any superseding authority, either the kind we commonly associate with curriculum or the kind we commonly associate with pedagogy.

I think how or why we’ve made this separation is an issue of a higher order; for now, suffice to say I suspect Illich was on to something. The bottom line is that I’m no longer certain that school’s the place for any superseding authority, either the kind we commonly associate with curriculum or the kind we commonly associate with pedagogy… what I mean by school is the sort of experience I had, where the superseding authority was largely into ‘telling’ and ‘explaining’ things – maybe that resonates for you, too. On the other hand, what I mean by “no longer certain” may not be what you think, so bear with me.

“… are we doing this right?”

We all come away from ‘school’ with an idea about what it is and how it works because we all went through those years, ourselves. Honestly, though, in this era of constructivist halos, I still see plenty of telling ‘how it is’ and explaining ‘how it’s done’, and ‘this is what’ and ‘here’s how’ and just all sorts of expectation and behaviour from teachers and instructors and professors that suggest, to me, how little has actually changed.

We find all sorts of ‘student-centred’ this and ‘self-regulated’ that in today’s educational circles, and we call it constructivism, but I’ve felt far less certain about the constructivist perspective since it came to, er… rule the day dominate the landscape become so popular since we adopted it. Apparently, we tend to repeat what ‘school’ is and how it works, even when we say we’re changing… I guess because we all went through those years, ourselves.

But hey, changes take time and patience, and people who spend their time waiting to arrive miss the time they spend. And I can only judge from my own perspective, but in the classrooms I know, what I take Mackenzie to mean by “proper” for schools may even be finally gradually changing.

I say so with some non-final gradual assurance because what I’ve been seeing is only four or five years old while institutional changes seem to be generational – did you notice I chose a quote that’s twenty-five years old? Someone might have embellished for effect – “more than two decades” or “a quarter-century ago” – but I didn’t want any rhetorical ‘why’ to diminish all the teachers and students whose efforts at change arose and are having effects all their own.

So fair play to all the teachers and students in schools I know. Also noteworthy… the roots of their change seem to reach well beyond any teen angst, or that world-conquering spirit of twenty-somethings. Their changes also seem to be found in more than one institution, even one as ubiquitous as school. It’s the cultural shift we’ve all been experiencing for a few years now, a stand-out willingness to confront assumption and habit and bias, and behaviour, and prejudice and bigotry and hatred. And it’s the determination against all these to assert an alternative superseding authority – although whether as a challenge or as an equal seems dependent on circumstance. I won’t label this change since most people probably call it something for themselves, but the overwhelming sentiment has seemed to be that this time is different.

As for me – and of this I’ve had far longer to be convinced… the greatest obstacle to change is the force of habit, which can manifest any number of ways and which is maybe just another way of saying bias. If I have one analysis to offer, it’s to be conscious of bias as its perceived by an audience, something along these lines: “… to the creatures outside looking in from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, it was already impossible to say which was which.” So for me, anyway, not sure for you, I’d say we have a ways to go before we’re okay characterising any “changes” as thorough or convincingly different just yet.

Still, things sure seem different this time around.

Click here to read On Bias: III. Fun With Dialectics

From Doomberg – “On the Cusp of an Economic Singularity”

From Doomberg – “On the Cusp of an Economic Singularity”

One blog-type source I’ve found worthy of my time is Doomberg, the “anonymous publishing arm of a bespoke consulting firm providing advisory services to family offices and c-suite executives.” Somewhat aside, I suppose even an apparent commendation of wealth on my part sets me in somebody’s crosshairs, as much about them as about me, and hey, such is the culture we’ve evidently decided ourselves into. From my perspective as a doctoral student, indebted and broke, I’m able to note how ably I remain aware of my privilege, even when it’s not being pointed out for me. Indeed, from any number of perspectives, our culture today seems doggedly fixed on this point, and just who am I to misstep?

Asides aside, I offer this post with no small trepidation: for Doomberg’s being hosted on Substack, which has come to face a wave of criticism all its own – make that waves of criticism – I similarly risk my head beneath the punctiliously sharpened guillotine of on-line blood-letting. Somewhat aside, I suppose any cancel cult reference has me residing in somebody’s ideological oubliette, which is a fancy word for gaol. From my perspective as an on-line blogger, I wonder how aware anybody is of my other posts, by which I mean each of them as well as all of them – then again, no one can say it all / know it all / do it all in one go in one go. If I’m being honest, in wondering whether our cultural discipline will task itself to read anything beyond 140 characters, what I really wonder is how ably we’re able to reflect upon nuance: remember, before fear took over, this post started two paragraphs ago as something shared.

[Aside: one thing I noted about five of those articles critiquing Substack was their being published inside three days of each other, plus two others inside three weeks of that, all of which any good conspiracist would tell you smells like a campaign, and which I imagine any run-of-the-mill marketer would tell you is trendy, but which I could see Substack simply writing off as ‘good press’. But as all this only amounts to five (plus two to make seven) out of eight, here’s one more from the seemingly disconnected dog days of summer, just for good measure. As for me, I suppose I might consider all this, more clinically, as free speech, for which in all likelihood somebody’s conniving to doom my blog privilege – which reminds me…]

One thing about Doomberg that’s held my attention thus far is an intensive approach throughout their catalogue to detail with accuracy, as well as a wider cross-disciplinary scope on the path to holism – I suppose that’s really two things but I can already hear l’épouvante du Grand Sanson over the din of ravenous mindshare and thought it prudent not to gush. Naturally, what I mean by “accuracy” is open to “interpretation,” and what recourse for this but to stand amidst the entirety of context: I’ve tried my darnedest thus far to craft an intensively thorough catalogue of my own. As for my regular audience… if such a thing exists, for one thing, thanks! For another, I must trust that they’re gradually reaching some understanding of what I value and who I am. Lately, I will say if anyone’s been detecting a tone of frustration or fatigue – you know who you are – then maybe you and I are interpreting some things the same way – the beauty of which doesn’t need to mean we agree on details.

I also like Doomberg’s irreverence, which is probably the only comparison I’d dare make to the sort of thing I try to post here on The Rhetorical WHY.

Sadly, though, the tone of this article (March 05, 2022), “On the Cusp of an Economic Singularity,” falls decidedly away from irreverence toward a more eponymous sense of… well, eponymy.

I will draw attention to two other small comparisons: the first is an early-life fascination with astronomy that led me, like Doomberg, to admiring Stephen Hawking’s accessible book; the second is a precise image of falling dominos, something I found equally à propos, if not nearly as doomish, around this time last year. Well, okay, about the same doomish.

You’ll only have a few more weeks to check out Doomberg for free before they institute their paywall, which is sort of the blogger’s impossible, as the kids would say these days. As for me, I’ll remain on this lowly free platform, at least a little while longer… still a little too chicken to spread those wings and fly.

Time Well Spent

… by studying why we’ve been wrong, we can be more right.

Russell Napier

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I’ve been called a cynic, which I’ve long held rather as healthy scepticism. And I’ve railed over uncertainty now and then, mostly in academics although, in fairness, never absolutely. But, all irony aside, I now defer with appreciative respect to Russell Napier, whose typically gripping understatement offers a typically brilliant case not simply for uncertainty but for its necessity.

In this video interview with the Parish Church of St. Cuthbert, Edinburgh City Centre, Napier paints a humble image of The Library of Mistakes, a repository of “the recorded uncertainty of how things work in the real world” (to quote his Keeper’s Blog on the Library website).

Napier initially co-founded the Library to register mistakes from business and finance although he mentions that the Library’s embrace has since widened to reflect more equitable representation… true enough: if there was ever a sector of sustainable growth…

On the other hand, if the Library may ever truly succeed, you expect it will need to put itself out of business – gladly, I suppose. But, as I say, all irony aside.

He devotes a good portion of his commentary here to sound money, fraudulent banking, and the consequences of ruinous ill discipline. He’s droll, simple, clear, and engrossing.

It’s not all negative, either: whether or not the flipside to every mistake is great success or mere intention – either way, hey… there’s a flipside.

And that, I suppose, is the take-away just now, for me anyway… with modest whimsy, Napier and the Library sound a call of respect for uncertainty and the untidiness that efficiency and statistics and computation are not only unwilling to consider but unable to predict or control. If the reason to embrace uncertainty is because outcomes can’t be guaranteed, what is that if not attributable to people… to our deficiency, our equivocation, our inexactitude? In a culture where metrics are religion and science invincible, truth is what can be measured, and qualitative uncertainty has been a nobly humoured side of fries.

Napier speaks here for about half an hour, ahead of a short and equally informative Q&A, and caps his remarks with a reminder that any opinion one has will utterly depend on the perspective one takes in order to have it.

As ever with Russell Napier, at least for me, the time spent feels most definitely worthwhile and insufficiently brief.

Seriously, watch this interview.

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