Sunday, 16 February 2014

E=MC hammer

I follow a fair few teachers on twitter and so I get to read a lot about education. One of the  faces most commonly peering out of tweets and retweets at me, is that of Albert Einstein; usually with some pithy quote attached to his name. More often than not these quotes are attributed to Einstein, but he didn't say them. As with the following examples.



he didn't say this
he didn't say this either

nor this


nope



he kinda said this, but not in these words

 
I recently got involved in a spat with a guy who posted one of these quotes. The klaxon of "someone on the Internet is wrong" began buzzing in my head. No. resist. I said to myself, but the urge was too great. Our conversation went like this: 
 


he does agree!
Leaving aside the argument as to whether facts matter or not (hint -they do) just why is Einstein such a popular figure for educators to (mis)quote? What is it about the German Jewish physicists that appeals to some modern educators? Einstein isn't popular among all teachers. Instead you tend to see his stuff quoted by teachers who have a strong disposition towards things like creativity, student emotional development and imagination. The kind of teacher who derides tests and wants students to 'think outside the box'. Now there's nothing necessarily wrong with these ideas .I'm just merely pointing out the  odd correlation I've noticed between Einstein and beliefs of this sort. I say 'odd' because a gifted mathematical genius, smart in the most traditional sense who excelled at school doesn't strike me as the poster boy for the values being espoused by these teachers. What's that you say? But Einstein didn't do well at school!  Ah, before we continue, there are a few myths that need debunking. Here's a quick recap.
 

Myth: Einstein did badly in school
No, he did really well in school. He aced almost everything except French. He tried to enter university when he was 16 but his French held him back (damn you, French!!)

Myth: Einstein failed maths
Nope, he could do differential and integral calculus by the age of 15 whereas I don't even know what those words mean.

Myth: Einstein had learning difficulties and was an average student
This one is tricky because Einstein didn't speak a lot until he was about 5. He did speak though. His biographer Pais (1982) claims that Einstein started speaking in whole sentences between the age of 2-3 and at age nine he was accepted into a prestigious school. It would seem quite odd for an 'average' student with learning difficulties to be accepted into such a school. The only 'learning difficulty' he seemed to have was in that he hated the way his teachers taught, -i.e. memorising large amounts of data. This to my mind, makes Einstein quite a 'normal' child.

Myth: Einstein was dyslexic/autistic  

There is little credible evidence to support this claim. Mostly these claims were made retroactively. Also Autism and dyslexic are both somewhat problematic terms. Autism is a spectrum disorder and dyslexia is not one condition with a clear definition. Thus to say Einstein was autistic or dyslexic is probably not true and even if it were true probably doesn't tell us very much.

So it seems there are in existence, two distinct Einsteins. There is 'physicist Einstein' who was a smart kid, good at school (with the exception of French) and brilliant at maths. This Einstein went on to publish hundreds of ground breaking articles concerning physics and won the Nobel Prize. Then there's 'educator Einstein'. A young boy with learning difficulties who was written of by foolish teachers unable to see his potential. He failed at maths and yet went on to become a world-renown genius. He spent much of his later life poised before a blackboard making pithy statements about education to his enrapt students. 

While it is true that Einstein trained to be a school teacher and lectured at various Universities, it's also true that for two years he failed to find a teaching job and his only teaching was at university level. It's also likely that none of the teachers quoting his thoughts on teaching have any idea how he fared as a lecturer. Was he any good? Did his students like him? Did he teach well? Among Einstein's hundreds of papers not one dealt with teaching or education. Despite this he's claimed by teachers as one of their own, there are even (flawed) academic papers speculating about Einstein's views on teaching
 
reverse halo -or 'Devil effect'. Retweet anyone?
So why exactly is Einstein popular among  some  teachers? It would seem that Einstein is a kind of short-hand for 'genius'. Stick his picture next to a quote and the quote gains 9000 Internet points more of credibility than just a normal quote. This is an example of the cognitive bias known as the Halo effect. This is where one attractive characteristic can lead people to assume more favourable things about a person in general. The halo effect is well known and well studied. It's what leads to attractive teachers getting better student ratings than less attractive teachers, and to attractive criminals getting shorter sentences than plainer ones. Einstein wasn't hot, he was smart, but the effect still holds. E = S = T or Einstein = smart = true. Smart guy A says B so B must be true because smart guy A is smart. Of course, this is a non-sequitur. If Einstein was talking about Physics you would do well to listen, but would you want his advice on marriage and dating?

 
What's strange about all of this is that fans of 'educator Einstein', those who quote him  regarding 'imagination' and stress his poor school record are often the same people who would normally bristle at 'outsiders telling teachers how to teach' especially 'ivory tower academics' and 'men in white coats'. How many times have we seen researchers or scientists dismissed because they're not at the 'chalk face' and don't understand the realities of the classroom, even when that researcher is/was an educator themselves?

Also odd is that teachers often use Einstein to back up things like creativity, imagination and alternative conceptions of intelligence, focusing on the idea that 'standard' definitions of intelligence  are not the be-all and end-all of education. Yet Einstein was as 'traditionally smart' as they come. He was not smart in a 'fish climbing trees' sense, or a 'bodily-kinaesthetic' sense but smart in a 'discover how space and time works through complex maths' smart. So why do teachers promoting the notion that 'everyone is clever in different ways' use the guy who is smart in the most vanilla way to push that point home?



Sure Einstein hated the way he was taught, he hated memorising facts and thought that imagination was important, -but so what? If an idea is good, it doesn't matter who says it, be it Einstein or Hitler. That is why when vested interested attack, for example, Charles Darwin they are missing the point. Darwin doesn't matter. The theory of evolution matters. Good ideas are good whether Einstein said them or not, -and bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of who said them. We need to focus on the text, not the image.
 
So we have teachers misquoting a famous physicist, and academic, who may or may not have been a good teacher, but was certainly very good at maths and science to support the view that education isn't just about being good at things like maths and science.
 
Am I missing something here?

 





 







Sunday, 2 February 2014

Linguistic myth #2 Swearing shows a lack of intelligence, morals and a limited vocabulary


Warning: if you object to swearing and 'foul' language you should probably stop reading now. On second thoughts, -read it. It might do you some good.





According to the website "cuss control" Swearing is bad for the following reasons:

Swearing Imposes a Personal Penalty 
It gives a bad impression
It makes you unpleasant to be with
It endangers your relationships
It's a tool for whiners and complainers
It reduces respect people have for you
It shows you don't have control
It's a sign of a bad attitude
It discloses a lack of character
It's immature
It reflects ignorance
It sets a bad example

Swearing is Bad for Society
It contributes to the decline of civility
It represents the dumbing down of America
It offends more people than you think
It makes others uncomfortable
It is disrespectful of others
It turns discussions into arguments
It can be a sign of hostility
It can lead to violence


Swearing corrupts the English language
It's abrasive, lazy language
It doesn't communicate clearly
It neglects more meaningful words
It lacks imagination
It has lost its effectiveness



Now I can't be entirely sure that this website isn't a Poe, (can swearing really have 'lost it's effectiveness' while also possibly leading to violence?) but there are certainly people with a strong dislike of what is often called "bad language". It's a real shame in a way that some bad language has such a 'bad rap' since as Melissa Mohr's  new book "Holy Sh*t" illustrates swearing is one of the most fascinating parts of language. The book details the rich history of swearwords, and the title is a clever nod to the (up to now) two most popular topics for taboo language, namely the sacred (holy) and the profane (shit).



Mohr's book begins with Roman swearing and she shows, through the types of insults people used, what a profoundly different view of sexuality the Romans had to us. She notes that sexually 'passive' people (female or male) were considered worthy of ridicule and adds that accusing some of performing (but not receiving) fellatio or cunnilingus would have been "the worst of the worst, the most obscene most offensive things you could say in Latin"(2013:37) Yet these words have somehow become our most polite words for the act. This is perhaps a testament to the prestige that Latin has among English speakers. 

She goes on to detail how, the notion of 'worst' has historically swung between the religious and the physical. It is interesting to see how bad language can act as a barometer of morality. In the religious middle ages, swearing an oath on some part of God's body, such as God's bones was the most taboo thing you could say since it was believed that god actually suffered an injury when His name was taken in vain. Ironically (from our perspective) at the same time words like piss, shit and cunt were perfectly acceptable, -and in fact where we get street names like Sherborne Lane (Shite-burn-lane) and Gropecunt lane, a name which was at one time as apt, for it's purpose presumably, as 'church street'.



Swear words are in fact one of the most fascinating parts of language, a point testified by so many people's desire to learn the 'bad words' of a foreign language first. profanity has power, as Mohr notes  "swearwords are the closest thing we have to violence without actual physical contact" (2013:225). But their power doesn't stop there. Scientists have recently shown that swearing can actually reduce pain (except among those who swear frequently). Swear words are also stored on a different side of the brain to the rest of language and subsequently people with aphasia despite not being to speak can still swear. As Mohr notes, those with dementia will often lose the ability to speak, but retain the ability to swear.


As to the idea that swearing shows a lack of intelligence and a limited vocabulary well, as Mohr notes "It is probably true in some cases that people who swear frequently are uneducated and with impoverished vocabularies and imaginations...but it is important to remember that these attitudes were brought to us by the same people who declared that it was a sin to boldly split an English infinitive"(1013:209) what we're probably seeing is a correlation, not a causation:
But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words' sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals (Pinker -'What the fuck, why we curse)

One interesting point that Mohr brings up is that the most taboo language in society is not longer the religious or even the physical. The F-word and even the C-word have been superseded by the N-word. I found it rather reassuring that the society I live in considers racial insults to be the worst expletives. 

So swearing relieves pain, is among our most descriptive language, builds social bonds, creates humour and expresses emotion. It's also incredibly versatile and can perform most grammatical functions.  Dismissing swearing, or even worse trying to get rid of it is to ignore the vast depth of cultural significance hidden by the grawlix (@#$%&!).


You can listen to an interview with the author on the excellent lexicon valley podcast.