Open Thinkering


Tag: critique

Maslow and the minimalist movement

I’ve been reading Paul Stamatiou’s blog since he was an undergraduate. After a couple of startups he’s now working for Twitter. Yesterday, he posted this about his new-found minimalism:

I sold or tossed a ton of stuff I didn’t need, use or wear. I stopped wearing all those free startup shirts I gathered over the years and moved on to button-ups. I use Laundry Locker to deal with ironing them so I don’t spend my Sundays doing this. I buy toothpaste, shampoo and the like in bulk on Amazon so I don’t have to remember to make monthly errands. I moved to a slimmer wallet and carry less stuff with me everywhere. I cancelled unnecessary monthly billed services so there’s less to think about when I see my statements.

This is great. This is something I’ve tried to do. This is something to which I aspire. But the trouble is that it requires money to do this. And I’m guessing Stammy’s new found outlook on life is helped by the fact he’s probably not earning peanuts at Twitter.

Here’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s not perfect, but let’s use it as a convenient hypocrisy:

People don’t need money to be happy, certainly not. But there’s a level of financial security that allows you to say “screw you” to the world. It’s easy to forget just how soul-crushing money worries can be. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest causes of strife in relationships.

The trouble with minimalism, as others have pointed out, isn’t the message but the messenger. It’s rich, successful (mainly white) males saying “I don’t need all of this stuff to be happy!”. That’s great, but we should be mindful that people not so well-off sometimes need stuff as a just-in-case. They haven’t got the financial resources to just go and buy whatever they need there and then.

I completely accept Leo Babauta’s point about minimalism being a constant critique/mindset rather than a lifestyle. It’s just that two seem to be rather conflated at this point in time. For rich people a spartan aesthetic means iPhones and white furniture. For less well-off people minimalism looks very much like poverty.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

New literacies (or the lack of them) in Singapore

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis. The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at

Education in Singapore is often cited as ‘world-class’, largely due to their students’ consistent high performance in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). These tests have been carried out every three years since the year 2000 and are administered to several thousand students per country near the end of compulsory education. PISA assesses reading, as well as mathematical and scientific ‘literacy’ and problem-solving. The OECD claims that the skills tested in PISA are those required in adult life.

Dissenting voices point out that those countries at the top of the PISA league table are only fractionally ‘ahead’ of other countries, but also tend to be largely homogenous countries. Hong Kong, having a different political system that China, is effectively a country in its own right and, along with Finland and Singapore, is relatively small geographically.

Other important considerations about Singapore by way of context are that it became an independent country as late as the 1960s, English is used as the primary language of instruction in schools, and corruption is low (Transparency International, 2009) whilst censorship is relatively high (Press Freedom Index, 2010). A picture of a conformist culture placing a large emphasis on high-stakes testing emerges, as is evidenced by one Singaporean in her twenties reflecting on her experiences:

Success in Singapore revolves around exams, good grades, and certificates. In other words, getting the right paper qualification… Singaporeans are obsessed with exams because they want good grades. They want good grades because those are essential if you want to go to a famous university. (Tan, 1998)

In this standards-based, heavily-pressured educational culture – a society where, anecdotally, painkillers are stocked alongside exam-preparation books (Bracey, 2008) – it is unsurprising to find the dominant ‘new literacy’ to be Media Literacy. In addition, much of the available research literature into new literacies comes from, or through the lens of, Singapore’s National Institute of Education. One such example comes in Tan, Bopry & Guo (2010) who ostensibly focus on ‘new literacies’ but focus almost entirely on the decoding of visual media.

Another driving force in a country as economically-competitive as Singapore is productivity. The launch of the International Computer Driving License (ICDL) in Singapore in 2010 mentioned explicitly the aim to encourage foreign investment and “a growth in the national economy through higher productivity and a higher standard of living across Singapore” (ECDL, 2010). Such economic goals are evident in the top-down ‘Masterplans for ICT in Education’, the third of which runs 2009-2014. One of the four stated ‘broad aims’ of this Third Masterplan includes the desire to ‘develop competencies for the 21st century’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008a). These, however, are closely tied to mention of the ability of Singapore to ‘position [themselves] better as a global trading hub,’ to ‘train [their] soldiers in combat,’ and investment in high-speed communications to create ‘new opportunities for [their] economy, government and society’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b).

An interesting tension is evident in Singaporean educational policy between the desire to conform with the more liberal west and the drive for efficiency and productivity. On the one hand, therefore, the need to use ICT ‘critically’ and develop skills of analysis are mentioned, swiftly followed by mention that school ‘autonomy can lead to less efficiency’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). The procedural elements of new literacies are to the fore with mention of the use of ICT to help develop ‘competencies to be able to discriminate information require technology literacy, higher-order thinking skills and even life and collaboration skills’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). These are to be developed in staff as well as students, but to save ‘re-inventing the wheel’ grassroots approaches are discouraged in favour of ‘educational labs, where innovations can be prototyped and tested’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b). The aim of this is to ‘equip the next generation with skills and competencies to succeed’ in the never-actually-defined ‘knowledge economy’ (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2008b).

Media Literacy is the dominant ‘new literacy’ in Singapore and this is evident through ongoing research. It is an umbrella term through which other literacies (such as ‘technology literacy’ and ‘information literacy’) are understood. Digital literacy, meanwhile is understood as ‘Digital Curricular Literacies’ (DCL), used as shorthand for the contextualisation of ICT in school-based learning. In practice (NIE, 2003-6) this tends to be on the level of what Puentadura’s (2010) SAMR model identifies as ‘Substitution’ or ‘Augmentation’ rather than the higher-order ‘Modification’ or ‘Revolutionary’ use of educational technology. Indeed, even current research (NIE, 2009-12) aims to ‘contribute to the new media literacy research by developing and validating a survey instrument to measure students’ new media literacy’. This focus on quantitative measures is indicative of Singapore’s approach to technology as well as associated competencies and literacies.

Given the focus on Media Literacy and the tight integration of government departments and policies, it is appropriate to look at the Singapore Media Development Authority’s definition of the term:

Media literacy refers to the ability to critically assess information that is received daily via different media platforms. When a person is media literate, he would be able to read, analyse and interpret messages, regardless of whether he is using media to gain information, for entertainment or for educational purposes. (Singapore MDA)

This is equated with a ‘media-savvy population’ that has the ACE attribution of Awareness, Competency and Engagement. This approach to new literacies is rather passive and based upon a consumption model of literacy. Other definitions of digital literacies mention explicitly the importance of being able to create media rather than simply access and critically reflect upon it. Although lip service is paid to new literacies by the Singapore Ministry of Education the focus is, in effect, on accessing and critically reflecting upon information.

ECDL (2010) ‘National e-Productivity Campaign Launch: Driving Singapore’s Productivity Growth’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

National Institute of Education, Singapore [NIE] (2003-6) ‘Digital Curricular Literacies and Project Work’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

National Institute of Education, Singapore [NIE] (2009-12) ‘Establishing a Blueprint for Singapore Youth’s Participation in New Media Ecologies’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Press Freedom Index (2010) (accessed 17 April 2011)

Singapore Media Development Authority [MDA] ‘Media Literacy’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Singapore Ministry of Education (2008a) ‘MOE Launches Third Masterplan for ICT in Education’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Singapore Ministry of Education (2008b) ‘Opening Address by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (iCTLT) at the Suntec Convention Hall, on Tuesday, 5 August 2008’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Tan, H.H. (1998) ‘Singapore Slog’ (accessed 17 April 2011)

Tan, L., Bopry, J. & Guo, L. (2010) ‘Portraits of New Literacies in Two Singapore Classrooms’ (RELC Journal, 41, pp.5-17)

Transparency International (2009) (accessed 17 April 2011)

You don’t ‘build’ better teachers.

Teachers are not robots. You can’t add new modules, reprogram them, or expect them to work regardless of context. These seem to be facts completely alien to Elizabeth Green, writing in an article for the New York Times which appeared in March 2010. It genuinely surprised me that she’d actually set foot in a classroom, never mind being a ‘fellow of education’ at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Whatever that means.

It’s far from a logically-structured article. But an article doesn’t have to be logical to be dangerous – the Daily Mail is proof of that. To summarise, Green seems to be advocating, through a clumsy juxtaposition of quotations and roundabout argumentation that:

  1. Teaching is a science that can be taught.
  2. We need ‘better’ teachers (and the only way to measure this is through student test scores)
  3. Doug Lemov is awesome because he published a book highlighting basic teaching techniques.
  4. Money is probably the most important factor in recruiting better teachers.
  5. Classroom management and specialist knowledge are key to teaching.

Number five is obvious and the other four are obviously wrong: teaching is more art than science, teaching and learning are about much more than examinations, Lemov is just another author, and no-one goes into (nor would go into) teaching for the money.

Simply writing a misguided article isn’t dangerous. It’s dangerous when the author confuses and conflates several different issues to create an ambiguity in the sixth way defined by William Empson:

An ambiguity of the sixth type occurs when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another. (Seven Types of Ambiguity, p.176)

By neglecting to state explicitly what makes a ‘good’ teacher, Green fosters an ambiguity that, by the end of the article, she seemingly wants you to resolve by believing in the following howlers:

  • She criticises “proponents of No Child Left Behind” for seeing “standardised testing as the solution” but later quotes with approval findings that show “the top 5 percent of teachers” being able to “impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one year, as judged by standardised tests.” (my emphasis)
  • By constructing a narrative (through the juxtaposition of third-party quotations) the article seems to show that paying teachers more leads to an improved ‘calibre’ of teacher. Measured by? “Standardised test scores”. These quotations, it becomes evident by the end of the article, merely mask the author’s opinion.
  • Green snipes at constructivism, “a theory of learning that emphasises the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else”. No it doesn’t. Do your homework.
  • She assumes that there is one way to be a ‘good’ teacher, that this is unchanging, and that it is independent of context. Quoting with approval Lemov’s assertion that classroom management is as “learnable as playing a guitar”, Green turns on the hyperbole (in what quickly turns into a puff-piece for Lemov and his book) with phrases such as “he pointed to the screen, their eyes raced after his finger.”

Usually I would ignore this as just another article written by another just another American in just another country. However, it would seem that the even-more-dangerous Michael Gove, a man against whom I tactically voted, is determined to bring the education system in the UK to its knees by a slavish aping of the worst parts of the American education system.

I despair.