Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Eternal Sunshine of the Thoughtless Mind

November 8th 2016 will be a critical day in the history of our times. This is the day the United States will elect its next President. Barack Obama finishes his second four year term on January 20th 2017. Will it be Trump or Clinton?

As of today - the second day of August 2016 – Hilary Clinton has a marginal lead in the opinion polls. But it is still too soon to tell. Michael Moore, the filmmaker, is pretty sure Trump will win and he presents a solid case for his thinking. Clinton is part of the old school – the establishment – and this election is, in part at least, about rejecting the establishment. Clinton will not win by rational argument when Trump is appealing to emotions – fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, despair. Clinton, to win, must also respond to the anxieties and fear by an appeal to emotions – hope, courage, ambition, audacity. I am not sure she has any emotions left to share.

Some think that Trump, given his behavior, doesn't want to win. That coming second is all he needs, assuming that his basic purpose is to strengthen the Trump brand. The real agenda being legacy and building the family business. Don't buy into this. Trump wants to win and doesn't like to loose. While he hasn't a clue about what the work of President is, what the issues are and what actions he will need to engage in – or of how hard he is going to have to work – he really does want the job.

He would be a disaster for three reasons. First, he has the attention span of a gnat. Most of the challenges faced by the US require deep and sustained analysis and persistence. Second, he has the hide of a mosquito – easily squashed. Clinton was right – 140 character tweets are enough to raise his blood pressure to dangerous levels. Finally, he is basically both ignorant and stupid. Just look at how quickly he confused the DNC Vice Presidential choice with a former Governor of New Jersey - when he was the Governor of Vermont. He is ignorant about science, NATO, the law, Mexico, Islam and the nature of the law of contract. He insults everyone, often for no reason. He has no idea about foreign policy - wasn't even sure if Putin had walked into the Crimea. 

But he might win. Clinton is the establishment candidate; Trump is the entertainment tonight candidate. Right now, Trump could win, despite connecting his mouth with his foot on a daily basis. While the current "spat" with the Khan family is an obvious sign of his inability to shut up when all around him tell him to, his own voter base doesn't seem to mind. Hence the best joke of the week: the new Trump sandwich - all white bread filled with loads of baloney then smothered with Russian dressing.

As a Canadian, all I can do is draw attention to my American friends to the dangers they face. But they already know. Many of them greatly distrust Clinton, and with good reason. She and Bill have played the game for so long and made millions doing so that people no longer have confidence in her, despite the fact that she is one smart lady. They see her as duplicitous, dangerous and devious. She is. It is called being a politician for a long time.

Clinton has to win. A Trump win will be disastrous for the US and the world. The time to call a Trump a Trump is now – he is a liar, cheat,incredibly  ignorant, vicious and dangerous man. A total narcissist, vain and deceitful man. Trump is just too dangerous to be President of the United States.

So, friends, think. Look eight years from now and ask what will happen is either Clinton or Trump wins – not just for the US but for the world. Now worry.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Manufacture of the Math Crisis in Alberta

Let’s be clear from the start: Alberta does not have a crisis in the teaching of mathematics or in the ability of students to achieve success in mathematics. Full stop.

What we do have is a clever politically motivated trick. Using standardized test data – PISA and Provincial Achievement Tests – we can see changes in results in mathematics when one period of time is compared to another. Math PISA scores for Alberta are down slightly between the last two test periods. If this is a crisis, then the forest fires in Northern Alberta are Armageddon.

Let us understand two things:

  • First, the key thing that standardized test scores measures is poverty and social class. Teachers have almost no significant impact on the test scores of students on such tests. Anyone who claims that they do is being disingenuous – we have known what they measure for over thirty years.
  • Second, Alberta’s student population is changing very quickly. Indeed, according to the OECD data, Alberta has classrooms which are among the most complex in the developed world – a range of cultures, skill levels, literacy skills and social backgrounds that require differentiated instruction. Between one set of measures and another, this demography gets more complex.

So we are measuring poverty with different cohorts. Makes little sense.

What the manufacturers of this crisis have done is looked at changes in outcome measures over time and “guessed” at why this has occurred, without taking account of these two statements of fact. It's rather like saying that there is a correlation between the films in which Nicolas Cage appears in and deaths by drowning or the age of Miss America and the number of murders by steam or vapours (these are actual correlations). They suggest that the “cause” of the crisis is “modern maths” and “constructivist teaching”. This is said in the complete absence of evidence – one of the things we might teach through modern mathematics is that evidence is the starting point for exploring understanding.

The idea of current teaching is not to be able to remember and recite tables, formulae, and solutions but to understand mathematics as a language and means for problem-solving. What the purpose of this work can be said to be is to enable students to look at a problem and use a mathematical understanding and language to solve that problem.

Think for a moment. If I were to say that I spoke six languages but didn't understand any of them, what would you think? You wouldn't ask me to do anything like translate a document or guide you through Puglia or the Ardeche. Equally, if I said I knew my times table but I had no idea why these multiplications were useful or what I could do with this knowledge, you would think me equally inept. But this is what the “back to basics” movement is all about. They want our students to test better, not to know how to think like a mathematician.

So the “math crisis” (sic) is an invention based on a half truth (a very nonmathematical way of thinking). But there is more.

When we ask who benefits from this manufactured crisis the answer soon becomes clear. The first group are government bureaucrats who can extend their control by focusing on testing, curriculum management and harassing teachers with new reporting mechanisms. They love a crisis. It makes them feel important. It also gives them something to do.

The second are commercial vendors of tests, textbooks, curriculum materials, technology and “apps”. They like stirring this crisis up since it helps sell product. With all of these kind of issues – follow the money. Who will win the money prize here? You can bet it will not be teachers.

A side benefit of the manufactured crisis is that it provides some – notably those infected by the neo-liberal GERM – with an opportunity to demoralize and belittle teachers. One might think that this would be wholly inappropriate kind of behaviour, but it is actually relished by some, especially neo-liberals with investments in the commercial entities who stand to benefit from the “crisis”. The maths crisis, they claim, is the fault of teachers who do not know enough mathematics using progressive methods to confuse students. Not only is this insulting (which is a part of their intention), it is not based on substantial evidence.

So let us stop seeing the performance of students on tests as anything more than what they are: a snapshot of the implications of inequality.

Trump and Ignorance

Why do we treat Donald J Trump, now the guaranteed nominee of the GOP for US President, as if he is a rational, sane and intelligent human?

All the evidence points to the fact that he is a narcissistic, ego-centric, extroverted bully who has a reprehensible level of knowledge about the world, about his own country and about Government. He seems unaware of simple things, like respect, courtesy, and compassion and is seemingly incapable of understanding complex things like energy markets, science, foreign policy or economics.

He looks to be a successful business man, but in this claim he is also delusional. He makes claims about his business acumen which are nonsensical – like his net worth (much less than publicly stated), his Art of the Deal being the “best-selling business book of all time” (nowhere near close), his ability to enter and conquer new markets (string of business failures), his avoidance of tax, his use of foreign workers and his profiting from companies he publicly derides. He is successful in some things, of this there is no doubt, but not everything he touches turns to gold.

He is a dangerous man. So far he has promised to break international treaties (NAFTA, WTO and the Paris Climate Change Agreement), actively intervene in markets (restore coal jobs), build a “beautiful” wall which Mexico will pay for (not going to happen), deport 11.5 million Mexicans, ban Muslims from entering the country (with a few exceptions for Muslims he likes), criminalize abortion, raise the minimum wage while at the same time lowering taxes on the rich, charge countries the full costs of American troops defending American interests on their land, pay for his supporters legal fees if they are charged with assaulting those who oppose him. This week he denied that California has a drought problem – preferring instead to buy into conspiracy theories that the Government of California is denying the flow of water (where does he think they are hiding it?) to much-needed areas. Trump is, let's say this out loud, an ignorant and dangerous person.

But the press treats all of his statements as if he were a serious thinker. They place him against Noam Chomsky and treat their statements as if they were on the same level. They are not.

Trump is ignorant, not just about social sensibility (just follow his twitter feed), but of how government works, the role and limits of the Presidency of the United States, how energy markets work, how treaties work, the law, science ..one could go on. It is if he was a petulant teenager who had missed a lot of schooling while partying and having a good time who we are now expected to treat with the seriousness of a great philosopher.

And then we get to the nub of the issue. He is a Mussolini figure – doing for the US what Mussolini did for Italy before World War II. Giving hope, through ignorance, appeals to raw emotions and offers of action which could not possibly lead to good outcomes. He is feeding on and adding to anger, passions and a sense of lost identity which many Americans truly feel.

“Make America Great Again” is his slogan. He has offered a set of suggested actions which will make America poor again, a laughing stock and a place which many smart people feel not only uncomfortable staying in but unwelcome. Thinking will not be encouraged – more likely prosecuted. One thing for sure – Trump will do well for himself. It is actually all he cares about.

What is even more disturbing is that a growingly angry American electorate are more than likely to elect this bigot to the Presidency. It will not be the first time someone with a very high General Ignorance score has occupied the Oval Office, but it will be the first time someone has done so in an age where scrutiny is intense and every word uttered can be analyzed to death. He will be subject to global abuse and shaming, which will just make him angry.

Trump will not be a happy President – he will spend most of his time frustrated, angry and threatening legal action. I also suspect that impeachment will never be far from the lips of some members of Congress. It will be especially difficult for him if, as some suspect, the GOP loses control of congress.

Trump will not make American great again. Trump will make Trump rich again. That seems to me to be the prime agenda.