Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Government, Public Education and Computer Assisted Instruction

Of late, people seem to think of government as something to enact and enforce laws, oversee the military, and try to regulate currency and national economy. Other government services they want to minimize, to save money. But it seems to me that government’s other services can make things more efficient and viable, and that the purpose of government should not be to enact laws, but rather to make as few of them as possible necessary.
The basic purpose of government, as has been said, may be the maintenance of basic security and public order, but safety and security are only part of it. Government started as a means to limit crime, disease, poverty, waste and unnecessary violence. Like money, it’s intended to aid commerce and societal interactions. Necessities like water supply, drainage, transportation organization and civil defense led to need for bureaucracy and education; soon standards in weights and measures, time reckoning and safety regulations also became involved.
Early on, religion and the state were inextricably intertwined; what little education there was primarily facilitated efficient control. As social ranks increased, it became considered that gentry should spend some time on the tedious business of governing, which they should be sufficiently disinterested and well informed to manage successfully - but the idea was overly idealistic, as it failed to take into account the addictive allures of power. The larger early empires (China, Babylon, Egypt, Rome) had large bureaucracies; by 1500, most kings presided over them, often staffed by clerics. Then government and church began to separate more and more; government began to underwrite education for its staff, much as religions had. For clerks to do their work, and for coinage to be effective, education could no longer be subsidized only by families. As monarchs lost absolute power, the establishment of clearly delineated laws became government’s primary responsibility; all else was farmed out to bureaucratic departments (military and civilian). Service economies grew, and it became said (however ludicrously), “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” People could not be allowed to remain as ignorant as they had been.
Elementary education for the middle classes only developed in the 17th and 18th centuries: governments began to undertake responsibility for the task of establishing and maintaining schools. Education began to be deemed important to keeping life orderly and subordinate to leadership. The first elementary school in the Americas opened in Mexico in 1523. In 1525 a similar school opened: both were for Indian children; still, most of the poor were generally ignored until less than two centuries ago. In 1802 the English Health and Morals of Apprentices Act required employers to educate apprentices in reading, writing and arithmetic, but employers responded minimally, if at all. In the United States, Boston started the first public high school in 1821; only at the close of the 19th century did public secondary schools outnumber private ones.
For a while government financed education produced good results, but of recent the cost/value relationship has become increasingly questionable. Perhaps this is because of the nature of a bureaucratic tendency to burgeon inefficiently, and insufficient motivation for government to perform effectively. As government has receded from ideals and become more and more about maintenance of power, important goals for the betterment of society have slipped from sight. Part of the problem, though, may be placed squarely upon academia itself, for its failure to come to terms with new ideas.
The prototypical teaching machine, a box with a lever, delivers a food pellet to a rat that pushes the lever. Soon, as long as the rat is hungry, it will push on the bar repeatedly, without reward (reinforcement) each time. Alternately, a chicken (again in a box) can be presented with colored geometrical shapes, rotated on a wheel to be shown in a window; when the chicken pecks at the chosen one, it gets chicken feed. The chicken can be taught to turn around in response to the appearance of a green circle, instead of a red square. Repetition of stimuli, and the learning response, is a major condition for most learning – which will occur when the behavior is “reinforced”.
Programmed instruction, an extension of all that, breaks instructional content into small units, and rewards correct responses early and often. Pointing out correct answers can be enough, but additional reinforces help (responses that are rewarded are likely to be repeated). Small steps must be utilized so that there’s little chance of "wrong" responses, but test answers can’t be too easy. A typical format involves a paragraph of information presented, then a series of statements with blanks to fill, using that information. These presentations need to be in a logical order, with easy access to knowledge of correctness in response (a correct answer would equal positive reinforcement). Then, after reading and fill-in-the-blanks practice, attention must be paid to the transfer of the new skill to a variety of contexts for application.
This “operant conditioning” emphasizes the role of reinforcement in the presence of certain antecedents (i.e. training - be it with animals or humans). The behavioral principles applied to programmed instruction mandate arranging for the learning (gaining familiarity, getting positive feedback for correct responses, finding out how to do what is desired) to progress in small steps (called frames). As the learner responds, graduating from step to step, the material presented - or expectations of more rapid progress - gradually gets more complex (or increases). Simple text-based instructional materials produced when computers were still unwieldy and cumbersome; as the modern computer developed, so did Computer Assisted Instruction. It was anticipated that visual materials would help students acquire, retain, and transfer responses because visuals have the capacity to cue and reinforce specified responses.
However, over-prompting (giving too many, and too direct, hints towards “correct” answers) often caused students to pay insufficient attention. Students quickly figured out that the materials would compensate for their indolence. They became bored and uninspired. Many instruction manuals had all the allure and excitement of operating instructions, legal small-print or a random number list. While some students reported actually enjoying some programmed materials, most records indicate that students quickly tired of, and eventually developed an aversion to, programmed instruction. Students with the most immediate information concerning accuracy of their test responses got higher scores than others (those who couldn’t readily access results), as immediate feedback significantly enhances learning, but a failure to sufficiently apply skills learned to other contexts for application meant low long-term retention rates.
Programmed instruction failed to deliver; not only did it have implementation problems, it was quickly oversold and had insufficient technical support, lack of quality software, and overly high cost. As corporations built and sold without sufficient attention given to how materials would be used, the idea became neglected. It’s said that programmed instruction fell out of favor because it was too rigid and inflexible, and couldn’t be widely applied to a variety of instructional settings, but changes in theories of learning and knowledge also had impact. A joke went, “Those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teaching.”
Various forms of learning involve different processes; reinforcement can be contingent on learner response, or not. Some learning is imitation (a child will imitate a loving parental figure more than a despotic one!), some involves cognition. Sometimes trial and error is utilized, sometimes language. In coping with painful stimuli (e.g., electric shocks) animals learn in at least two successive, distinguishable phases. They first learn to fear the situation; then they learn to avoid it. The carrot and the stick operate quite differently, although utilizing rewards also involves a two-stage process: in the first stage the subject learns that a neutral stimulus (for instance a whistle) is presented before another stimulus (food). A farmer whistles and his salivating dog comes running. But this will only happen after the sensory conditions have become recognized. Still, positive reinforcement (food or other reward) works better than punishment (the stick) - after pain (trauma, shock, distress), learning can still occur, but training is hardly likely to be as successful. Punishment can work efficiently as a motivator, but only to encourage compliance with what has already been learned.
Various theories interpret verbal learning as a process that develops in stages. We’re well familiar with call and response rote learning; but not that response selection, and also stimulus discrimination, precede associative stages. And we still don’t really know how one learns to quickly estimate the speed and trajectory of two different objects approaching differently - although we know that we do (once it was accepted that air-flight controllers had to be of intellectually higher caliber than proved to be the case after President Reagan had many of them fired).
Learning, remembering and forgetting have generally been considered separate processes, but might not be. To absorb one understanding might even require completely relinquishing another; sometimes absorption is incomplete due to incomplete relinquishment of an emotionally attached idea. Empirical data suggests that several alterations in memory function occur even during a single trial; the process that commits information to memory also has several stages. At least some stages are contiguous, and include, at a minimum, immediate, short-term and long-term retention. Repetition and practice in utilizing something facilitate long-term memory; but when specific parts of the brain are injured or removed, what was attained can disappear. And direct electrical stimulation to the brain can revive memories that seemed forgotten. The process of retrieval apparently first locates stored data, then selects some of it, perhaps only vaguely in accordance with specific characteristics. Something familiar and well-related-to will be learned about, and then recalled more easily, than will something strange and mysterious.
Many young animals automatically follow the first large, moving and noisy object they encounter, as if it were their mother; this “imprinting” is a combination of both instinct and learning. There’s instinctive tendency to be imprinted (biological heritage), while the object imprinted on is a matter of experience. Internal and external environmental contexts are both important; it’s similar with emotional and social environment. Development is actively influenced by interactivity. One way of putting this is that we pay better attention when we feel like doing so.
One key to intellectual development is mediated learning. A bond develops between the learner and the learning medium - be it books, radio or a teacher. An element of trust, and familiarity, is essential: a rat or chicken will not as readily learn to elicit a food-response when in the presence of strange sounds, smells or other distractions. One reason language instruction manuals tend to be timid regarding emotions is that they’re dealt with quite differently by different cultures, compounding unfamiliarity.
Common-sense understanding of an event also includes sense of its purpose, meaning and function; all of these depend on context - past experience and resultant expectations. Validity is judged in terms of purpose, function and utility. To avoid the fate of early programmed instruction, teaching-machine, computer and online instruction developers must try to plan flexible solutions, and consider carefully how appropriate methods used are in the context intended. For example, some recent explorations investigate how, through self-organized learning systems, incorporating multiple instructional strategies and methods into learning environments, boredom can be alleviated. It’s vital not to remove responsibility from students; they must appropriately challenged. Content is easily over-standardized; instead, it should reflect a wide variety of methodologies, depending on the characteristics of the students and the subjects being taught. Some choice needs to be given. Methodologies in instructional technology must reflect varieties of emotional needs, and utilize broadminded techniques, as flexible as possible, to allow for a variety of solutions to problems that tend to arise.
Potential advantages to Computer Assisted Instruction include sense of personal choice and ability to proceed at one’s own pace, one-to-one interactivity, and instantaneous response to answers elicited. Computers can be particularly useful in subjects that require drill, freeing teachers from some classroom tasks (enabling them to devote more time to individual students). A computer program can be used diagnostically; with identification of one or more of a student’s problems, focus on problem-resolution becomes more productive. And, because of the privacy and individual attention afforded by a computer, potential embarrassment from giving an incorrect answer, or of proceeding more slowly through lessons than others, is avoided.
There remain many drawbacks to instruction via computers, including purchase and updating costs, maintenance problems, and software program availability, but the magnitude of these problems is dwindling. Still, fully developed packages are often unsuitable to the particular needs of an individual class or curriculum, and templates which provide a general format for tests and drill instruction, with individual particulars inserted by the individual school systems or teachers, remain boring and repetitive. Learning, as a change in a behavioral potentiality, is related to the learner's level of motivation; with sufficient incentives, levels of motivation can be raised.
Most programmed instruction, though, provides insufficient incentives. Also, as in other formats, a student may be so tautly driven to do well, that tension, fear of failure, and resultant visceral and muscular discomfort interfere with performance. Here again, mediated learning can help. With a level of trust sufficient to feel reliant on something, or someone, acceptance of new information becomes easier. It can also help reduce fears that computer use limits human interaction. Learner confidence that the learning episode won’t end in frustration, humiliation or some other form of misadventure is imperative; perhaps re-routing of neural pathways involves temporarily increased vulnerability. At any rate, no-one wants to be worked to exhaustion or worse, for insufficient reward. Even animals avoid being robbed of their energy!
Tying Computer Assisted Instructional Design to a particular theory leads into the old book-learning vs. real world dichotomy. What we learn in school only rarely matches what’s important to know in applied situations. Not only doesn’t theory always work in practice, but no system (like mapping or even counting) will always adequately apply in all circumstances. An instructional designer may desire to assist in the pursuit of business interests, and find that that involves very different parameters than does providing material that fosters either academic acceptance, or finding divergent approaches to problem solving. Behaviorism works rather well in many Instructional Design situations, as task analysis, behavioral objectives and criterion-reference evaluation can all be managed on behaviorist conceptions of learning. But experience teaches us of some other things:
• Interpretation of reality is personal – there is no absolute shared reality;
• Learning is an active, on-going process; little gets firmly established and set;
• Learning is collaborative, with meaning negotiated from multiple perspectives;
• Testing should be integrated with the task, and not a separate activity
• And, most importantly, learning needs to feel interactive – a smile as a reward can be at least as effective as food! Operant conditioning, utilized with sufficient (merited) confidence, painstaking care and patience, can produce – and has produced – results where nothing else has (i.e. with autism), and so might even be able to reach politicians.
As for applying “skills learned to other contexts for application” (as mentioned above), at a minimum, learners can utilize small discussion groups with two to four others, or work with community action projects, or even train farm or zoo animals, or work with autism sufferers.
If these understandings are applied to preparations mandated for government service, we might soon achieve a more enlightened level of governmental service to the public-at-large, with more efficiency, less divisiveness, and a general increase in social harmony. Are there really any viable alternatives?



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