Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Now displaying: January, 2016
Jan 25, 2016

Last week's episode served as an introduction to behaviourism. This week, in the name of balance, we are looking at another theory of animal training, the so-called dominance approach.

Cesar Millan is a Mexican dog trainer who emigrated to the US in his youth. He now has a TV show called The Dog Whisperer. Unlike Karen Pryor, he taught himself his approach to dogs through experience and exposure from an early age. He is said to have "a magical way with dogs", which is something that comes across, at least to the layman, in his show.

Millan's approach to dogs concerns thinking about the dog's needs. Perhaps that should read the Dog's needs, as he believes that all dogs have the same psychology, "dog psychology", which is different to human psychology and necessary to understand in order to solve "dog problems". His famous motto, "I rehabilitate dogs, I train people", is a reflection of the philosophy that the reason that dogs have problems is that humans aren't meeting their needs.

If it seems presumptuous to you that Millan claims to have a theory of psychology for all dogs, bear in mind what we heard last week: that behaviourists claim to have a theory of psychology for all animals. Everything! Dogs, cats, moles, crabs, bears, whales, elephants, prawns, beetles, fish ... and humans. Millan's theories are infinitely more modest in breadth than those of behaviourists.

However, Millan is more ambitious in terms of depth. What I call "fundamentalist" behaviourists - those who adhere to the original philosophy of behaviourism, that internal states either don't exist or don't matter - score a 0 in terms of depth (unless you agree with their assumptions, in which case they score 100%). Cesar Millan making the kinds of claims about what a dog is, and what a dog is like, that fundamentalist behaviourists would never care - or dare - to talk about.

This gives us a new dimension for looking at theories of psychology and elsewhere: depth. A "deep" theory is one that relies strongly on internal structures and systems; a "shallow" theory focuses on only those things that can be directly observed or measured. For example, the explanation "the bus came late because the 1pm bus always comes late" is a relatively shallow theory, whereas "the bus came late because promptness isn't very highly valued in our culture" is a relatively deep theory.

A deep theory has the disadvantage that it is hard to test. How do you check whether your culture values promptness or not? And how do you check the connection between this and the tardiness of the bus? This is relatively hard to do. On the other hand, a shallow theory, although easier to test, may be missing something. Although it may be true that the 1pm bus is always late, and it is relatively easy to test this, it doesn't tell us very much about buses, and there may be more to the story than that.

So this most recent pair of books also serves as a case study in epistemology, prompting us to ask that most important of scientific questions, "how do we know if something is true?". I studied chemical engineering at university, took up linguistics as a hobby, and now spend my time on education, and I can tell you that this question gets only more important the more "fuzzy" the subject matter is. And boy oh boy, education can be real fuzzy.

From dogs to philosophy of science. Funny where The Dog Whisperer can take you.

Enjoy the episode.



Links to some articles that I refer to in the episode which criticise Millan are here and here.

You may also enjoy South Park episode 7 season 10 entitled Tsst, in which Cesar Millan "rehabilitates" Cartman. It's one of my favourite episodes. Apparently Millan himself thought that the episode was "fantastic".


Jan 18, 2016

Why should somebody who is interested in education be interested in behaviourism?

  1. Because it's had a huge impact on educational theory and practice over the past more than 100 years. When I started reading books on education, the I was astounded at the frequency with which behaviourist arguments were put forward to support ideas. I felt like I could hardly budge without bumping into another reference to it. And it's no surprise - behaviourist educationalists include figures such as Edward Thorndike, sometimes referred to as "the father of educational psychology". The first book I read about educational psychology said that there were three chief paradigms of teaching, one of which was "behavioural". Understanding behaviourism helped me to better understand what these books were talking about, and to know when they didn't know what they were talking about.
  2. Because it says some pretty crazy stuff, which is nonetheless hard to refute. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the behaviourist who made the greatest contribution to the field, had some pretty scary ideas. He denied the existence of choice, will, or freedom. He considered dignity to be an empty and worthless idea. (Hence the title of one of his books, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.) He thought that people could be perfectly controlled with the right external conditioning, and he even hoped that the future would be this way, as expounded in his apparently utopian novel Walden Two. The non-existence or at least unimportance of internal states (thoughts, emotions) is at the very core of the philosophy of behaviourism. Outraged yet? And yet the theory has a lot of evidence going for it.
  3. Because, a lot of the time, it works. Behaviourist principles have proven very effective in a range of situations and applications. Their greatest successes have been in animal training, but they've also been effective in various human domains, including making games and gambling machines more addictive. (Hooray?) There have also been some applications in sports coaching (more on this in another of Karen Pryor's books, Reaching the Animal Mind).

Don't Shoot the Dog! serves as an introduction to behaviourism. Karen Pryor takes us through both the basic theory and applications in behaviour modification. She uses a combination of examples from both animal and human subjects in everyday situations. Want your dog to stop barking all night? Need your roommate to start doing the laundry for once? Can't wait to teach your cat to give you a high-five? Karen Pryor tackles all these tricky situations and more.

Behaviourism claims to be a complete model of learning and behaviour - a very ambitious claim indeed. How does it do on this score? Without giving the game away too much, let's just say that the results are mixed. In some situations, behaviourist approaches and ideas work incredibly well. In certain cases, however, particularly to do with motivation, it is clear that it hasn't got all the answers. The fact that it's partially true and partially false makes it all the more intriguing - why does it sometimes work, but sometimes not? This is a question that will take a lot longer than one episode to answer, but it is worth thinking on.

Even if you're not behaviourism's biggest fan, or you don't think you'll be using it much, it is an important thing to have a grasp of to provide context for other theories and ideas. It's like Newtonian physics, which does a good job prior to the arrival of other theories (relativity theory and quantum mechanics), and we can then ask why Newtonian physics works so well in most situations even though it's "wrong" as it has been superseded by other theories.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 11, 2016

Common sense tells us that in order to get someone to do something, or to get them to do it better (faster, more thoroughly, more carefully), you might offer them a reward - or if the offer is already there, increase its size. All kinds of clever-sounding people hold this view - principally economists and management consultants, but more or less anyone else too, as it seems to be so basic and so widespread an idea as to not merit further inspection.

Daniel Pink's book Drive introduces us to the research that seems to turn much of this "common sense" on its head. It turns out the rewards such as financial incentives usually make people perform worse. It's not limited to financial incentives (although Pink focuses on these), and not even limited to people - the initial example given is of how giving contingent food rewards to monkeys makes them worse at learning how to open latches than literally just leaving the monkeys alone.

In place of the carrots-and-sticks theory, Pink introduces us to a new theory, which is about 40 years old and yet still isn't all that well known. According to MAP theory (not the only name), the most important components of motivation are mastery, autonomy, and purpose. The author explains to us in more detail quite what each of these mean, but in short, people are motivated to do things when they can apply their existing expertise and develop it further; choose what they get to do, when, how, and with whom; and do something that they think is important, and/or connects them to other people.

One of the reasons that it's taken so long for the ideas to catch on is the prevalence not only of the "rational agent model" of economics, but also of the psychological field of behaviourism. Behaviourism, along with psychoanalysis (a very different and mostly incompatible worldview), was the leading theory in psychology in the first half of the 20th century, and remains influential today. It turns out that behaviourists aren't completely wrong that rewards can motivate behaviour, but it also turns out that rats pushing buttons isn't the same as humans doing creative work. Separating out when using rewards is a good idea and when it isn't is an important question, and one that Daniel Pink also addresses.

Behaviourism is a huge topic in its own right, and we will have to tackle it in a separate episode (or three). For now, though, Daniel Pink's book gives us a fascinating and, to be honest, heartening new way of looking at human motivation and behaviour.

Enjoy the episode.


Jan 5, 2016

The ideas from Carol Dweck's research, explained in her book Mindset, seem to be very popular nowadays. They are even part of the curriculum of the Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) for new teachers being trained in the UK.

And, I believe, with good reason. The ideas here are very powerful. They almost read like self-help, but (thank goodness) they are grounded in many years of research by her, her colleagues, and other researchers. 

In brief, "mindset" here refers to what somebody believes about their own (and other people's) traits, skills, and abilities: are they an unchangeable part of who you are, written in to your genes, so to speak; or are they mutable, flexible things which change and develop with effort and experience? Those with the former belief have a "fixed mindset", while those with the latter have a "growth mindset". Dr Dweck spends most of the book explaining what effects each of these have, and makes it abundantly clear that it's better to have a growth mindset than a fixed mindset - and that it's possible to develop a growth mindset even if you don't have one at the moment.

Written for a general audience, Mindset has more examples of famous people with one or the other mindset and the resulting effect this had on their lives than references to research and experiments. On the one hand, I find this to be a bit of a shame, as her examples are mostly personal interpretations of life stories of people she hasn't met rather than anything more epistemologically sound; but it does have the advantage, if you believe what she is telling you (and I do - the research is sufficiently convincing), of getting you to more fully understand the workings of the mindsets, and to see the huge influence they have in many real-world situations. 

It's a somewhat repetitive book in the sense that after she introduces the central idea, she spends the remaining 200 or so pages mostly just going over example after example after example, but I don't mind that myself - in fact I find it useful as it helps me learn the concept more thoroughly. I don't believe that it's very controversial that repetition is good for learning. I remember how excited I was when I was learning Armenian (as you do - typical summer holiday for me) and discovered that the word for "education", կրթություն krt'ut'yun, was the same as the word for "repetition". (This turns out to be wrong - the word for repetition is կրկնությւն krknut'yun. Silly me.)

What's more, she actually covers a range of different fields with examples of cases where the idea of mindset applies. In the UK edition, there is a bullet point list on the front cover of the areas she focusses on: business, parenting, school, and relationships. She also spends a fair bit of space writing about sports. After reading this, you might come away with a feeling that there's nothing that the idea of mindset doesn't touch - that there's no field of human endeavour where it doesn't apply. I often get this feeling when I read a good, trendy non-fiction book. There should be a word for this feeling. Gladwell syndrome? I'm sure the Germans have a word for it, they have a word for everything.

Overall it's a good book to start from - accessible, fascinating, broadly applicable, and (to my mind) fundamental. It's one of those books which, after you read it, makes you start looking at things all around you differently. You might find yourself saying "That's what's wrong with X person!" or "That's why Y person is so amazing!".

I'd rate this book as "totally awesome, you should read it". But then that's why you're here, right? To listen to me talk about it so that you don't have to read it? ;)

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 4, 2016

This is the very first episode of Education Bookcast, in which I introduce myself and the podcast. I will leave a brief introduction here in the description also.


Brief introduction to the podcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which I talk about one book or article relating to education per episode. The intended audience is mainly teachers and parents who would like to know more about education, but do not have the time and energy to read stacks of books or chase up references. Topics covered are very broad, and include:

- various aspects of educational psychology (such as motivation, intelligence, exam anxiety, and self-esteem);

- cognitive science (including memory research, expertise research, flow and optimal experience);

- neurology;

- cognitive, social, and character development;

- history, philosophy, and economics of education;

- teaching techniques and approaches;

- studies of great teachers;

- types of educational institutions and experiences (such as Waldorf-Steiner schools, Montessori schools, Bell-Lancaster schools, homeschooling and unschooling);

- international comparisons between education systems and outcomes;

- fields of work related to education, however tangentially (e.g. sports coaching, life coaching, mentoring, management, therapy, animal training);

...and many more.

Some of the materials I will be covering are not available in English, as I speak seven languages and sometimes read books about education in a language other than English.


Questions I answer in this episode:

- Who is this podcast for?

- What topics will the podcast be covering?

- How is the podcast structured?

- Why did I decide to make this podcast?

- Who am I?

- What's my ideology? Who's side am I on? [hint: nobody's, hopefully - I'm trying to be as objective as possible]

- Who's paying me? What am I advertising? [hint: nobody]

- Where can I be found? How can you contact me?

I'm super excited about getting this podcast off the ground! I'm looking forward to our journey together.


Credits: Music by