Tag: philosophy (page 1 of 2)

Why I still believe in badges [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Why I still believe in badges, it’s a response to a comment by a Philosophy professor (who will remain anonymous) that Open Badges are merely a way that for-profit companies can get a slice of the action in Higher Education.

A quotation from the article:

While badges could, potentially, be used for nefarious purposes, it’s my belief that the open, distributed architecture of the code and community means that we can seek to improve our education both inside and outside the walls of institutions. This is not about ‘disrupting’ education for the sake of it or for private profit. This is about providing another way of doing things to promote human flourishing.

You can read the whole thing at DMLcentral. Please do comment over there (I’ve closed comments here).

Revolutionary tools do not a revolution make.


A lot has been made of about the role of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa recently. Whilst I don’t know enough about Egypt, Libya and Bahrain to comment on their internal political situation, what I do know is that it takes more than the mere ‘potential’ of something to make a difference in practice.

And so it is with education. Mark Allen’s contribution to the #purposed debate reminded me of the important difference between something’s being available and an individual or group having the requisite skills and critical faculties to use it in a new, interesting, or even revolutionary way. As I mentioned in my comment on Mark’s blog, one of the reasons I think everyone should study a little Philosophy and History is because it prepares one to consider the ways things might, could or should be rather than being limited to tinkering within existing parameters.

So next time you read or hear of a technology or service that is going to, is, or has ‘revolutionised’ something, think of the context and milieu into which that tool or idea has been launched. As with Purpos/ed, it’s very likely you’ll find more than a hint of latent demand and the ‘adjacent possible’ in there. It’s never just about the tool or service.

Image CC BY Rev. Strangelove !!!!

Why everyone should learn a little History and Philosophy.

Inductive EmpiricismI’m all for breaking down the arbitrary and artificial barriers between ‘subjects’. I can remember having no idea what to specialise in at age 16 (and so hedging my bets with Maths and Physics on the one hand, and English Literature and History on the other). Despite this wish to see more osmosis between subject areas, the knowledge, skills and understanding that come under the headings ‘History’ and ‘Philosophy’ I believe to be especially important.

OK, so I’ve got degrees in both of them but their erosion, I believe, cuts us off from the past and alternative ways of thinking about the world around us. And that’s not a good thing.

I’ve just finished reading Tom Holland’s excellent, eloquent Millennium: the end of the world and the forging of Christendom and have just embarked upon Jared Diamond’s ambitious Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive.* Diamond writes:

Past people were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or dispossessed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmentalists who solved problems we can’t solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those we now face. They were prone either to succeed or to fail, depending on circumstances similar to those making us prone to succeed or fail today. Yes, there are differences between the situation we face today and that faced by past peoples, but there are enough similarities for us to be able to learn from the past.

It’s surprising, and encouraging, that many of those interested in educational technology have a background in the Humanities; the latter lends, I believe, a critical element that underpins a wider digital literacy.

I’ll be speaking several times this year on ‘The Essential Elements of Digital Literacy’. You can be sure that I’ll be stressing the importance of the criticality developed in the Humanities subjects over some of the shortsighted technological determinism that sometimes rears it’s ugly head online. I can say with some confidence that any time you wonder how Device X ‘will change education’ you’ve got it backwards.

So, long live History and Philosophy! (although not necessarily as discrete subject areas)**

Image CC BY-NC-SA mr lynch

*A good deal of my reading comes from serendipitous finds in secondhand bookshops. 🙂

**If you’re wondering, the choice of image for this post comes from it being one of the best tests I’ve found so far for the reading/understanding element of ‘digital literacy’. Why? Well, because you would have to understand:

  • The concept of a meme
  • That this is a derivation of a meme calledlolcats
  • How to search to find out what it’s referring to
  • Which websites to visit for reliable information on this (which to trust)

Educational philosophy, the zeitgeist, and #purposed

I had a brief exchange about the difference between the purpose and the philosophy of education with @amichetti on Twitter earlier. Sometimes diagrams are better than 140 characters:


More on this to come: http://purposed.org.uk

Doug on Productivity – Episode 2

Continuing the series I started last week, this episode looks at the importance of defining your own philosophy of productivity.

Methodology for Pragmatists

I had an extremely productive Bank Holiday Monday, writing c.5,000 words of the Methodology section for my Ed.D. thesis. The following is an extract that explains where the philosophy of Pragmatism originated.

The essence of Pragmatism is that there exists no standpoint from which to judge the objective truth or falsity of a statement or belief:

There is no absolute standpoint, and there is no exemption from standpoints; there are only and always relative standpoints… I can in reality think of no absolute whatever; I always tacitly place myself upon the scene as the observer who is beholding things in their relation to himself. (Lovejoy, 1930:81, quoted in Mounce, 1997:159)

Instead of being able to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities in the world, therefore, we are left with only secondary qualities of which we can speak. The grass is not objectively green, it is only green to me. Pragmatism is a philosophy concerned with action and the practical application of meaning. It is concerned with the development of capacities and habits that allow for human beings to be successful and productive in the world. As we shall see, Pragmatist philosophers have little patience with definitions for their own sake.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represented have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

And later in the same essay:

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder; the steps are actions, the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

Peirce and James did formalised this way of thinking in such a way that it provided a philosophical approach to problem-solving. Peirce’s project was anti-Cartesian in approach and focus, whereas James was concerned with the concept of ‘truth’ – especially as it related to religious belief. In addition, they both discussed the skepticism to which Emerson alludes, rejecting it as debilitating. James in particular thought that cultivating a habit of doubt in relation to truth statements was indicative of an attitude rather than an intellectual position (Mounce, 1997:88). Skepticism is the result of confining one simply to the intellectual and theoretical sphere, as dangerous as confining one solely to the non-rational.

Instead, James argued that we should allow our ‘passional nature’ to help us decide upon the truth or falsity of statements and propositions:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question’ is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes and no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.(James, 1918:108)

Like the historian, we gain certainty through commitment, by leaving certain areas unquestioned. Certainty both in history and science comes through being ‘imperfectly theoretical’ – i.e. Being theoretical up to a point. As Mounce (1997:99) puts it, “It is only in philosophy, where commitment is at a minimum, that scepticism flourishes without limit.”

As a result, endless definitions do not serve to advance our understanding of the world and move closer towards truth. ‘Bachelor’ is a oft-cited example of a definition that means something precise. However, an alien to our planet would have to understand the institution of marriage, which cannot be easily explained in a sentence, before grasping the meaning of ‘bachelor’. Instead of definitions, then, it is the commitment to a statement, proposition or belief that helps us make our ideas clear. To use another example from Mounce, there is no sharp demarcation between day and night but we still find it useful to use these terms (Mounce, 1997:104).

It is precisely the fact that Pragmatism allows for error and chance that makes it a practical philosophy. Instead of committing ourselves to omniscience when using the words ‘know’ and ‘certainty’ we use them as practical instruments to go about our business in the world. I, for example, know that I am to attend a conference in a foreign country soon. I can express this certainty despite my attendance depending upon my continued health, an absence of airline strikes, and various geological phenomena not taking place.

For Pragmatists, and James in particular, truth becomes close to utility – what is ‘good in the way of belief’. James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is a defence of this position. We cannot base beliefs on a theoretical conception of the world because this would, in effect, be a ‘view from nowhere’. Pragmatism, it will be remembered, is a philosophy that rejects the existence of an objective standpoint from which to ascertain the truth or falsity of a statement or belief. Reasoning is allied to experience rather than replacing it.

James was the original populariser of Pragmatism, the one who explained it to the intelligentsia of the early 20th century. However, it is important to briefly sketch the origins of Pragmatism in Peirce to understand the true aim of the overall project. Peirce rejected Cartesian dualism along with the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. To Peirce and later Pragmatists, what Kant termed the noumenal world – the unknowable world ‘as it exists in itself’ – is a fiction. Likewise, Peirce rejected Descartes’ recommendation to start from a position of scepticism:

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you should begin by doubting everything, and says that there is no one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were as ‘easy as lying’… But, in truth, there is but one state from which you find yourself at the time you do ‘set out’ – a state of mind in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you can not divert yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubting has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all reality out of you, recognise, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt in the least. (Peirce, 1935(V) para 416:278, quoted in Mounce, 1997:21)

Meaning can only be grasped through practice, not through armchair philosophising, for Peirce and other Pragmatists. The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ as formulated by Peirce states that a conception does not differ from another conception (either in logical effects or importance) other than in the way it could conceivably modify our practical conduct (Mounce, 1997:33).

It is this Pragmatic Maxim that I shall be using to test concepts surrounding ‘digital literacy’ in my Ed.D. thesis! 🙂


On Minimalism.

One in, one out.



However you do it, getting by with less is remarkably liberating. It doesn’t mean that every room in your house needs to be sparse. It doesn’t mean that you need to write shorter blog posts. It means that you approach every situation with the design philosophy of ‘enough and no more’.
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Freire, Conscientization & Digital Literacy

Before I begin, I confess not to have read Freire in the original Portuguese so I may have missed a nuance or two. What I’m trying to do is link some of his thinking around Conscientization to the concept of Digital Literacy (and other ‘new literacies’) through the lens of Pragmatism.

Paulo Friere (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator and philosopher best known for his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His ideas were heavily influenced by his Catholicism and his (somewhat ambiguous relationship with) Marxism. One of the key themes of his work is that of Conscientization or ‘critical consciousness’, explained by Taylor in The Texts of Paolo Freire (1993) as the type of consciousness that can transform reality. Taylor claims that Freire does not mean by this that objectivity is created by consciousness – for example, to believe you are free does not make it so – but education is nevertheless a means of transforming reality.

The part of Conscientization I believe applies to conceptions of digital literacy is encapsulated, although not teased out fully, in the following statement by Freire:

Conscientization occurs simultaneously with the literacy or post-literacy process. It must be so. In our educational method the word is not something static or disconnected from people’s existential experience, but a dimension of their thought-language about the world. (1970:222)

That is to say that ‘literacy’ as a concept does not really exist as such – it is a construct that we abstract from experience and communication. There would be, therefore, for Freire, no such entity as ‘digital literacy’ but only individuals who are ‘digitally literate’. Whereas Freire couched this in terms of those who are critically literate and therefore able to engage in a literate way with their own emancipation, we can apply this to those who may be considered digitally literate and therefore able to engage in a ‘literate’ way with their digital world.

Education transforms reality, believed Freire, because it can never be neutral. It always includes elements of both ‘domestication’ and ‘liberation’, the two seemingly opposite ideas being held in tension through what I would term a ‘creative ambiguity’. As Taylor explains, Freire, whilst championing (a certain type of) literacy, was wary of it because of his Marxist tendencies:

Society requires literacy because in the power-knowledge relationship of the modern world, literacy defines who controls the means of production, that is the means to produce wealth (industry) and the mans to reproduce knowledge (education). (1993:139)

The difficulty is with the English language itself, which does not disambiguate ‘non-literacy’ and ‘sub-literacy’ in the term illiteracy. The difficulty with this is that the ambiguity from such definitions of ‘classic’ literacy become built-in to new literacies and other concepts that use the seemingly-innocent and obvious term ‘literacy’ as their bedrock.

I’m going to leave it to Taylor to sum-up, given that he puts so succinctly my own view of what we’re talking about when we talk about literacy:

[T]here seems to be no ontological imperative that necessarily correlates literacy with transforming knowledge… What is significant is not the actual learning to read and write but rather that relationship between the word, reality and the ways in which the latter is transformed by the former. (1993:61)

I’m still thinking about this and mulling it over. What are your thoughts? Do you agree that literacy is a construct that cannot really be considered independently of the people to whom the word ‘literate’ applies? What about ‘digital literacy’? 🙂


Berkeley LOL

I had some free time. So after stumbling across extralogical.net whilst hunting for WordPress themes I thought I’d look for some blogs on philosophy (it’s what I did my first degree in). Oh the joy…

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The 3 quotations I live by

 Quotations in study

Over my long and varied 26 years on this earth I’ve come across many quotations and sayings which allow one to gain a firmer handle grip on the ephemeral thing we call ‘life’. So you’d expect the three quotations by which I live to be perhaps from such luminaries as Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, Dostoevsky, Wittgenstein, and the like. Well, you’d be wrong…

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