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Nonsense 101 – or – How to Build a House on Quicksand

As both educated and learned person (at least in the eyes of some others) I must say that this piece by McGowan is one of the most nonsensical - in the literal sense of the word - pieces of twaddle that I have read in a long time.

To begin at the beginning[1], both literally and figuratively, the first sentence sets the tone. The author begins, “[T]he notion of education implies that there’s a path towards a definitive, finished state wherein an individual has become “educated”. Implies? To whom? Why? Education can be achieved in formal or non-formal learning situations; it is nothing more than a situation where the learning experience is externally organised and where instruction for the learner is provided. Education can take place in a school, an arts-and-crafts club, etcetera (Van Merriënboer, Kirschner, Paas, Sloep, & Caniëls, 2009). As professional who has spent the past 33 years helping design and develop instruction for both lifelong learners and learning, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or get angry when I see such nonsense being espoused. In formal education, one achieves the basis for understanding and interpreting the information that comes to us in formal, non-formal, and informal ways. Without this basis we could not read, write, add, subtract, Google®, etcetera. And without it we could also not interpret, analyse, and evaluate any of the information that comes at us. And for those readers who will argue that basic arithmetic no longer is necessary because we have pocket computers (i.e., smart phones) that can do the work for us, then I can only assume that these same readers also espouse the notion that learning to write and read is also no longer necessary since those same pocket computers can also turn speech into text and vice versa.

In the second sentence, the writer states that there is an “end state of being educated…[and that it] is no longer meaningful”. No, the end-state of education is not “being educated”, but is rather a phase in our learning / ‘state of being’ that allows us to learn further in an effective, efficient, and enjoyable way. It is the same state that the author of the piece achieved at a private college / business school and that allows her to write what she writes and make money as a well-paid consultant to “small start-ups to publicly traded, Fortune 500 companies”. Without it, her blog would not exist and she would not be earning a fairly decent living. Furthermore, there are many states or phases of being educated (I am, by no means, being judgemental on the difference between those states). One person has been educated to repair a car and another has been educated to repair a human body. Both of them (must) continue learning far beyond their initial education, formally by taking state-mandated accredited further-education courses, non-formally through courses and seminars given by professional organisations and so forth, and informally by communicating with colleagues and by reading professional publications. I can only assume that the author brings her car to a mechanically educated person for diagnosis and repair and that when she is sick she goes to a doctor who is medically educated to diagnose and treat her. These people have been educated in an area and then continue to learn throughout their lifetime thanks to this prior initial education. [BTW: I never cease to be amazed how people who say and write about how bad and wrong education was/is, reached their positions in life and society in that same broken system that they so abhor and constantly make use of all types of human services by people who are products of that system. I am completely flabbergasted that they don’t realise that they are capable of informal and non-formal learning throughout their lifetime because they were initially educated. They all seem to think that they became so brilliant in spite of that system and not thanks to it.]

I am tempted to critique the whole piece in this way, but choose not to as I learned during my education and have often experienced during my “agile” lifelong learning, that if the basis premises of an argument are as flawed as these (i.e., are formal fallacies), then the rest of the argument (i.e., that which is deduced from those fallacies) cannot be anything but flawed and thus further dispute is not necessary or useful; q.e.d. The piece itself tries to prove its flawed premises with the aid of a number of prognoses for and extrapolations towards the future which have been brought into the world by think tanks. Not very scientific, but I assume that the author would say that science is also outdated.

And what does oracle Mitra say about this piece? His comment on Twitter®: “At last, some solid support”. Yes, solid as a house built on quicksand!


Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Kirschner, P. A., Paas, F., Sloep, P. B., & Caniëls, M. C. J. (2009). Towards an integrated approach for research on lifelong learning. Educational Technology Magazine, 49(3), 3-15.

[1] “Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. For learning, the “end” is when you die.

Desiderius Erasmus - On a liberal education for children

Sometimes, the Butterfly Defect (Gavriel Solomon) leads to something relevant and interesting. Here an excerpt from De pueris instituendis [On a liberal education for children], written by Desiderius Erasmus in Italy and published in 1529 which I accidentally came across. It is a clear statement of Erasmus’ enormous faith in the power of education, and in my opinion, and is both surprisingly current with respect to experience (learning by doing / inquiry learning) and instruction and still true.

First a piece of background information. Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1466-1536) was – among other things - a Dutch Renaissance humanist, social critic, and teacher. Amongst humanists, he enjoyed the nickname "Prince of the Humanists". and is surprisingly current with respect to experience (learning by doing / inquiry learning) and instruction.


§12 - The error of those who think that experience gives all the education that men need. 49 A-F

They err, therefore, who affirm that wisdom is won by handling affairs and by contact with life, without aid from the teaching of philosophy. Tell me, can a man run his best in the dark? Or, can a gladiator conquer if he be blindfold? The precepts of philosophy — which is knowledge applied to life — are, as it were, the eyes of the mind, and lighten us to the consciousness of what we may do and may not do. A long and manifold experience is, beyond doubt, of great profit, but only to such as by the wisdom of learning have acquired an intelligent and informed judgment. Besides, philosophy teaches us more in one year than our own individual experience can teach us in thirty, and its teaching carries none of the risks which the method of learning by experience of necessity brings with it. For example, you educate your son to the mystery of medicine. Do you allow him to rely on the method of "experience" in order that he may learn to distinguish between poisons and healing drugs? Or, do you send him to the treatises ? It is an unhappy education which teaches the master mariner the rudiments of navigation by shipwrecks: or the Prince the true way of kingship by revolutions, invasions or slaughter. Is it not the wise part to learn beforehand how to avoid mischiefs rather than with the pains of experience to remedy them? Thus Philip of Macedon put his son Alexander to school with Aristotle that he might learn philosophy of him, to the end that when a king he should be saved from doing things which must be repented of. Thus education shews us in brief what we should follow, what avoid ; she does not wait till we have suffered the evil results of our mistakes, but warns us in advance against courses which will lead to failure and misery. Let us, therefore, firmly knit up this threefold cord : let Nature be by Training guided to wise ends, let Nature and Training, thus united, be made perfect by right Practice.


Concerning the Aim and Method of Education - Desiderius Gerhard ErasmusWoodward, W. H. (Ed.) (1904). Desiderius Erasmus, Concerning the aim and method of education (pp. 191-192). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. https://archive.org/details/desideriuserasmu00woodiala

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