Tag Archives: conservatism

Climate Change: Deconstructing Conservative Fatalism

Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change.  Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.

Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change.  This strategy has had some success.  Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”

In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction.  By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing.  The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints.  These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views.  The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.

Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.

Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.

However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated.  Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.  Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.

Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests.  But international relations is different.  In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak.  The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible.  Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.

For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is:  first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change.  It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit.  It is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

78806802Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change.   Defection means cheating.  Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.

Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies.  Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.

Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions.  No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price.  To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.

To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence.  Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change.  Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.


“Old School Makes a Comeback”? Round Two

dictideaThis is (finally!) my second post in this series.  My goal remains to advocate a dialogue between conservatives and reformers, and in my first post I noted the continuing relevance of ‘old school’ teaching methods and philosophies.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of other interventions along the same lines.  This study based on student preferences sparked a storm by suggesting that students preferred good lectures over the latest technology, and led to not a few qualifications on the part of the authors.  This rejoinder reminded us all of the body of literature showing the ineffectiveness of lecturing under any circumstances.  And This one in the Atlantic takes an eminently reasonable middle ground in its agnostic advocacy of ‘lecturing’ as one tool in the kit of varied methods, that is most successful when used purposefully and skillfully.

Some of this healthy debate arises from the ongoing backlash against MOOCs and the Silicon Valley startup philosophy that underwrote the idea of online mass education.  This backlash was facilitated by Sebastian Thrun’s about face and his public confessions of over-optimism for technology.  I want to reiterate that it’s important to separate out the question of technology from the question of teaching techniques.  Neither side of the debate should be reduced to ‘either-or’ options.

As an advocate of learner-centred teaching, I think it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.   In some ways, it’s unfortunate that ‘lecturing’ has become emblematic of conservatism, since I would argue that conservatism is actually much bigger than lecturing.  Conservatism is a whole approach to teaching and learning, and so it encompasses lecturing, but it also encompasses ‘tried and true’ methods like Socratic questioning, drills and memorization.  So, the focus should be on conservatism as a teaching philosophy and less on any particular teaching technique or strategy.

it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.

What is the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from 5 main premises.  In my previous post, I discussed two of those premises: 1) the focus on standards and 2) the need for mastery.  In this post, I’ll turn to the 3 remaining premises of conservatism:

3. Self-discipline is a necessary goal of education.  Joanne Lipman’s article notes the work of Anders Ericsson, whose work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  She quotes: “true expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback”‘.

4. Failure is instructive.  A strict teacher will enable students to fail, to try again, and to learn ‘grit’ and persistence pay off.  Studies show that students with more persistence are more likely to succeed.

5. Rote learning and drills can be a means to enhance creativity, improve performance in basic skills, and encourage independence.  Therefore learning must be somewhat stressful and even uncomfortable and boring, to be effective.99951157

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:

3. On self-discipline: I am still waiting for the evidence that externally-imposed punishment is a more effective way to learn.  Much depends on determining what students know, what they are able to know, and what they can know with supports.  This means knowing the learner well, and committing to their learning, not to the teachers’ idea of an acceptable standard. I suspect that the ‘toughest’ teachers also know their learners extremely well, and know how far they can push successfully.  Self-discipline is cultured by offering supports and timely corrections when needed.  It means paying attention to what learners need and not necessarily what they want.

IMG_04264. Failure is instructive.  A recent study by Viktor Venkatesh sparked a storm by suggesting that ‘productive failure’ leads to deeper and more meaningful learning.  I would venture that a distinction be made between ‘punishment’ and the ‘natural’ consequences of failure.   Punishment, or failure for failure’s sake, is not the way that we get the best performance.  Imagine if we coached our Olympic athletes only using strict punishments for failure.  Athletes know the stakes, and they therefore seek out coaches who encourage them and support them through those failures and trials. This usually does not mean blanket praise, but a judicious use of supports to get the most out of one’s failure.  Failure without supports is like throwing someone into a river and expecting them to learn how to swim.  Such an experience may indeed make one persistent in the moment, but will that help them learn better, and will that persistence carry over to other tasks?

4. On rote learning: Lipman states of reformers: “Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as “drill and kill”—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.”  Indeed, there is a certain hostility to lecturing and to ‘drilling’ among advocates of constructivist techniques.  However, this unease is well-founded in the scientific literature, which in comparative studies has found that lecturing is relatively ineffective on a variety of measures of learning, including recall as well as understanding.  On this question, I would argue that there is a place for rote learning and memorization in education, and this place will likely remain for some time to come. As the Atlantic points out, lecturing has the upper hand in institutions of higher learning around the world.  However, if the goals of learning are deeper, if they involve mastery, the development of thinking, and the ability to problem-solve, then lecturing and drilling are less likely to achieve their stated goals on their own, when compared with alternative strategies. Learning outcomes should be the measure of effectiveness, rather than whether the process is stressful or difficult.

‘Old School’ Makes a Comeback? Opening a Dialogue Between Conservatives and Reformers

Science Teacher Writing on Black BoardRecently I’ve come across a couple of posts in support of ‘old school’ teaching styles.  This one presents the ‘latest findings’ of recent studies that tend to support ‘tough’ teaching methods.  This one, written by a prominent political scientist, laments the ‘demise’ of traditional education.  It’s worth noting that these traditional voices are still relevant and in fact the arguments are becoming more prominent as educational technology upends the traditional teaching model in unexpected ways.  It is completely understandable that educators might long for a more comfortable past, where authority was intrinsically respected (at least in our minds’s memory) and the power of the educator could be more easily leveraged to convey a universally recognized canon. One could also point to the ‘generation gap’ between ‘digital natives’ and others.  However, I feel the heart of this debate is less technological than it is philosophical.

I’d like to use the next two posts to analyze this phenomenon. I’ll state from the outset that I remain an advocate of learner-centred teaching, which I understand to draw from constructivist and connectivist learning philosophies that contend: 1) that learners be held responsible for their learning process and goals; and 2) that teaching be attentive to the specific needs of learners.

I’ve noticed that considerable misunderstanding arises when learner-centred teaching is counterposed with ‘traditional’ teaching methods.

Do we need to choose between ‘the guide on the side’ instead of the ‘sage on the stage’?

Learner-centred teaching is not the ‘opposite of’ traditional teaching.  Learner-centred teaching does not mean upending the relationship of respect between the learner and the teacher. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how instruction could be at all effective in the absence of mutual regard.

The defenses of those advocating ‘old school’ methods are therefore founded on a mistaken impression of what the ‘reformist’ alternative philosophies and methods are fundamentally about.  It is, appropriately, the job of those who advocate changes to make their case.  With the goal of opening a dialogue, let’s examine the arguments of the conservatives and some of the possible responses.  What is precisely the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from several main premises, which I will extract from the two blogs posts described above.  In this post I will address 2 of these, and in the next post I will talk about the last few.

‘Old School’ Arguments

  1. Standards matter.  Grades represent a real measure of accomplishment and effort.  High levels of accomplishment deserve reward, and lower levels send an important signal to the student about their degree of learning, which can either motivate more effort or help the student realize they are unsuited. Standards are best determined by the experts in a field, who are best-placed to judge what skills and knowledge are necessary to succeed.  To fudge on or de-emphasize grades is to rob students of the opportunity to excel or fail, both are necessary in the process of learning, and both will help students to advance.
  2. A well-rounded education based on mastery should be the goal of learning. It is clear that a ‘well-rounded’ education for Barry Cooper (see his blog in the Calgary Herald) does not include things like anti-discrimination training or sustainability education, or explicit attention to soft goals like ‘well-being’. But what might a well-rounded education include?

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:stick_figure_book_pile_800_clr_9092

  1. With respect to standards, learner-centred teaching emphasizes that the expectations of teachers must be high.  There is no real disagreement on that. The disconnect arises I think when the emphasis is solely on meeting the standards set by teachers and other authorities.  The assumption is that students will always set their own standards too low, and require the teachers’ intervention to achieve.

Students will choose high standards for themselves very often if given the chance, and will benefit from a learning environment in which the material is advanced, sometimes very advanced.

When students do choose high standards, requiring a teachers’ intervention actually robs students of the ability to be more conscious, and yes, more self-disciplined and persistent. This is because these external standards give the message that teachers are their sole source of feedback.  Lipman mentions an interesting example: music students who chose teachers that would be tough on them.  The point is that the students chose those standards and were therefore more self-motivated to learn as a result.  Here I would cite work done by Ken Bain and other educators and psychologists who emphasize that an intrinsic interest in learning can be compromised when the focus is on extrinsic rewards and punishments.  The result of ‘learning for the grade’ is that learners will do just enough to earn the grade and no more.  If part of the goal of education is to learn self-reliance, why compromise that goal by removing any chance to be accountable to oneself.

2. With respect to ‘mastery’, there is again not really a disagreement here about the goal.  For Cooper, though, mastery means a specific thing: the ability to be conversant in a specific culture.   While one may argue about the content of that culture, I think we can agree that certain habits of mind underlie all forms of learning: the ability to be open-minded, critically-minded, curious, thorough, persistent, detailed, even-handed, thoughtful and reflective, a problem-solver, expressive, and/or skeptical.  How we acquire these habits is still a question in hot debate in educational circles.  It is far from resolved, but there is no reason yet to believe that mastery is any less likely to occur in a constructivist than in a traditional setting.  There is also really no reason to believe that tolerance, commitment to community, or even self-development are incompatible with mastery learning.  If we uncover the conservatives’ focus on a ‘well-rounded’ education, I think we will see something that very closely resembles ‘character-building’ or ‘service to the community’ as well as the acquisition of skills.  These values underlie a lot of the ‘old school’ philosophy and are implicit values of education.

In my next post, I’ll look ahead to other components of the ‘old school’ argument: discipline, stress, and failure.  Just what we look for in a well-educated individual.