About Me

My photo
I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

28 May 2009

Thread from Sandwalk (well..maybe)

If you were part of that discussion, or have something to add, feel free to continue it here.

I'll have to address responses here, because there's something screwy with the comment box, at least here at work.

@ Eugene> well... here's the thing, I don't actually have to disprove that someone who was dead for 3 days happened to rise again, walk around for a while longer, and then rose bodily into the sky, because the whole idea is preposterous. From the repeated experiences of mankind, it is obvious that this simply doesn't happen, so the burden of evidence for that is on you... one might think it would be recorded more accurately and closer to the time of occurrence that the canonical gospels (or those that are apocryphal for that matter). I can however, offer evidence that throws the whole scenario into doubt apart from "well, that just doesn't happen". There are several religions from that area, that predate Christianity, that have a deity who is the son a virgin, who also happens to be resurrected and preach salvation: Mithras, Adonis, and Osiris, to claim three that predate Christianity. The myth of Hercules also predates Christianity and shares some of the elements of the story of Jesus. The Norse legends of Odin don't predate Christianity, but hail from a time prior to the introduction of the Christian religion to that part of the world. Are all of those, particularly Osiris and Mithras (whose stories are nearly identical to those of Jesus, and in the same region hundreds of years prior) also true? Or is it more likely that early Christians latched onto existing myths of the time in order to add a certain panache to their forming religion. December 25th, incidentally, was the date of the Roman Feast of the Sun, and the supposed birthday of Mithras, recorded in Roman histories BCE... The theft of ideas is rather obvious if you can look at it unbiased. So what needs to be asked of you is simply this: why is your story more likely to be true than the ones that preceded it or mimicked it?
It can also be demonstrated that there are reasonable, natural, explanations for purported miracles... Lazarus was dead and resurrected? or had goatherds in Palestine 2000 years ago perhaps never heard of a coma, if the event happened at all?

And if a hypothetical claim of super-nature intervening in the workings of nature cannot be ruled out on the basis of the generally observed regularities of the natural sciences or abstract philosophy, the only possible evaluation left is direct examination of the phenomenon to see if it is entirely explicable with reference to purely naturalistic causes.

Correct, science lies fully in the realm of the natural and the observable. Don't neglect that observing the effect of an event is still empirical observation, and can lead to knowledge of the event itself. Science and reason, which is intertwined with science if your a scientist worthy of the name, demand that unnecessary explanations be stripped away. I don't need to hypothesize a creator if I know how, or approximately how, something came about without one. Theistic evolution is exactly that: adding an unnecesssary and logically untenable element to an explanation that stands on its own.
Smijer responded quite well to the god of the gaps argument, so I'll let that lie.

As for what can be empirically disproven, the creation story/stories in Genesis can be demonstrated to be false, Ussher's claim of the age of the Earth is clearly false, and modern day "miracles" are explainable by other means that the supernatural ones, many of which have also been shown to be flat-out hoaxes.

Smijer> When something is that far out of the realm of observation, one has to use reason rather than empiricism. However, defending an idea by saying "well you can't prove it didn't happen is making your stand on some rather shaky ground. He also can't prove it did, and I can easily call into question the validity of the Bible as a historical document, by the age of the writing and the evidence that it has numerous, unrelated authors.
So you define religion, in your sense, as the social aspect? Once you strip away rituals, you're left with a social club. A college fraternity would then be a religion, by your definition, even more so because they still include ritual of some form or other.. all they lack is a professed doctrine in the supernatural.

Eugene Curry
On what basis, then, can one say with any sort of confidence that "[r]eason tells us" that super-nature cannot (theoretically) impinge on the workings of nature?

Because by definition, once something has a measurable impact on the natural world, it can be empirically observed, and is now part of nature.

And given an unbiased historical examination, the resurrection of Jesus proves extraodinarily resistent to naturalistic explanations.

Yes, I agree... however, given unbiased historical examination, the evidence that Jesus even lived, much less did or said anything attributed to him, is debatable. If one chooses, for sake of this discussion, to accept that he was indeed a real person, then we're left with second and third-hand accounts of his deeds, at best. Do you happen to recall the supposed miracles at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917? We had live eyewitnesses for those, and know them to be false, or naturally explainable. Honestly, how reliable would you consider a first century source, which has been transcribed and translated multiple times before reaching you, to be on a topic that was not a matter of your faith? How about if the oldest extant copy was, most definitely, a copy, with items clearly added afterward, and dated from several hundred years after the supposed date of the original manuscript?


Smijer> The comment box is only wonky on my blog, it works on other people's... bizzare, and something I need to resolve. (Although I rarely have commenters to reply to, so it doesn't usually matter).
I understand, and can respect, the idea of using church for a social gathering if that is your only source. That is indeed the reason why many people don't completely leave religion, per se, and the UU churches I've seen are the most tolerable for me by far. I attend a couple of meet-up groups in this area that fill that role, and have previously used my rugby team for that sort of outlet (not a whole lot of thought going on there, to be sure). I'm not one to claim that every aspect of every religion is bad... I do claim that a number of heinous things are done in the name of some deity or other, and the the spurious supernatural claims of religion are exactly that. I'd love a place to sit down with people, play some chess (or air-hockey, or another game of your preference), have a nice intellectual discussion, and possibly drink a few Guiness's... Providing a setting that matches the similar needs of others apart from church involvement is something that will have to come with the growing numbers of non-believers in the country.


Eugene> At the risk of making this incredibly long...

1) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 'nuff said. You presume that I wouldn't accept such evidence if it were presented because of my wording, I can assure you (who's opinion on the matter I frankly don't value) that I would. I know my own mind best... Flew's opinion isn't worth a whole lot to me because he's an addlepated, waffling twit; Ehrman's is generally sound and he accepts that there was a historical Jesus (yes, I did more research).
Also, something of which you are likely aware and not considering: just because it's written down doesn't mean it's true.

2) Paul was most certainly evangelising for Christianity, which, incidentally, he stood to gain a great deal from spreading. That doesn't mean that he's outright lying, but it does shed reasonable doubt on his motives. Six of the 13 Epistles aren't accepted as being authored by Paul in the first place, although Corinthians, which you quoted, isn't one of these.

3) Your analogy is off here... It is reasonable to assume that at some point a black man could be president of the US. It is an element of mythology to assume parthenogenesis in primates, because it doesn't happen in nature, but it is a common thread in a number of myths/religions throughout human culture both before and after Jesus. If we're going to discuss ideological biases, is it possible for you, as a Baptist preacher, to view Christianity objectively? Can you really evaluate its claims as if it were, say, Hinduism?

4) Can you prove the resurrection using unbiased sources? Moreover, I'd say the base of your religion is the existence of a deity at all. Thusly, please demonstrate the following:

a)The Universe was created

b)The creation was performed by a deity

c)The deity is interventionist and keeps interfering in the universe

d)The deity happens to be that of an iron-age Semitic people from one region of a small planet circling a star in a galaxy of some 100 billion others, the galaxy being one of some 150 billion others

e)All of this is documented in the "holy book" of that particular set of people

It might also be helpful to your case to demonstrate these auxiliaries:

f)The deity is omni-maximal, i.e. omniscient, omnipotent and omni-benevolent

g)All other creation myths, gods, demi-urges and supernatural beings are false

You agreed that the burden of proof lies with you, I eagerly await your explanations.

5). You're conflating evolution with abiogenesis, and further conflating it with the Big Bang and cosmic development. If I can demonstrate that abiogenesis is possible, which some current experiments are rather close to doing, is your god then reduced to starting the universe and stepping back? Otherwise, it has been conclusively demonstrated that no outside interference is necessary for evolution to occur, so positing a designer is indeed superfluous.

6). I think I mistakenly dealt with this in 1. I don't have serious doubts the man existed, I do have serious doubts that most of what is attributed to him isn't fabricated to make him sound better. My personal view of the historical Jesus is along the lines of Gandhi, or Siddhartha Gautama (without all the nirvana hooey). Rational skepticism of anything, especially something written from an oral history, re-written, and translated as many times as much of the Bible has been would expect numerous errors; The fact that it's also prone to exaggerations and outright mendacity only compounds this problem. You accuse me of not applying skepticism to my own ideology; On what basis should I give more credibility to your particular brand of religion/mythology than someone else's?

to simply say that the traditional super-natural explanation of the early belief in Jesus' resurrection is incorrect is not to provide a naturalistic explanation. One has to actually offer an alternative positive theory. And it is here that the difficulty lies because no positive and comprehensive naturalistic theory withstands scrutiny.

It isn't necessary to provide a plausible alternate hypothesis for something that didn't happen, or can't be demonstrated to have happened. The reason this applies to evolution and not to resurrection is that one is a naturally observed phenomena (the diversityof life on Earth), and one is claimed to have occurred once and only once, and it beyond attempts at empirical observation.

My base position is this, for the resurrection, the existence of any deity, and anything else that lacks evidence: If an entity X is postulated to exist, and no substantive evidence capable of withstanding intense critical scrutiny is present to support the postulated existence of entity X, then the default position is to regard entity X as not existing until said supporting evidence materialises.

Contrary to popular opinion, this is de facto atheism, not agnosticism, and is the stance that many/most atheists with whom I've spoken take.

Yes, please?


The graduation rate for NC high school students is 60%. That number would be less depressing if they mentioned that it means that 60% graduate with their original cohort, rather than at all. Unfortunately, the state means graduated, period, when it cites that statistic. The good news? NC doesn't bother to count all the students who graduate from a non-traditional high school setting. The thousands of students who earn a GED each year count against a school's dropout rate. What impact does that have? Well, in the case of my particular school and district, it means that we fight to keep students who are 2 and 3 years behind their original graduating class in school, and that we have 19 and 20 year old students taking the freshman classes they still need to graduate. Yes, that's right, 19 and 20, sitting in class in the fall next to 13 and 14 year old freshmen... hm... does that sound like a wise idea to you?
So what is NC going to do about it? Well, the state legislature is considering not counting students who leave a traditional high school for a GED programme as dropouts. This needs to happen, and soon, for the sake of the students who are leaving (or should), if nothing else. If you happen to live in NC and read this, email/call/write/harass your local rep.

14 May 2009

Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads?


The SC legislature has voted to create a programme in grades 6-12 that would be aimed at curbing dating violence... this is certainly a good idea. However, they've specifically removed language that would include LGBT partnerships in the training. Their reasoning?

"I do not want the Department of Education or school districts teaching our children in grades six through 12 about same-sex relationships," said Rep. Greg Delleney, a Chester Republican who pushed to make the violence prevention program apply only to heterosexual relationships. "I'm sure it would develop into that."

Yeah, that's an ethical decision that doesn't reflect archaic Biblical bullshit. Well done SC.

In a better attempt at defending their decision, this is offered:
Bill sponsor Rep. Joan Brady said excluding gay relationships is fine and declared that, "Traditional domestic violence occurs in a man-woman, boy-girl situation."
"The fact is, this is a gender-specific, abusive behavior. The overwhelming predominance of dating abuse occurs in a traditional or heterosexual relationship," said Brady, R-Columbia.

Hmm.. maybe she's right.. wait, wait, there's this:
a 2004 Journal of Adolescent Health study found that youths involved in same-sex dating are just as likely to experience dating violence as those in relationships with members of the opposite sex.

So yes, fewer LGBT's are subjected to dating violence than heterosexuals. This I can completely understand, as there are fewer LGBT's than heterosexuals. Either these people are seriously misunderstanding the statistics involved (which wouldn't be surprising in the least), or their homophobia is getting the better of their decisions. Either way, SC citizens are losing out.


The News and Observer posted an article related to my last post... WCPSS is bringing in the author of the book I discussed as a 6K a day consultant for next school year. That's great and all, but they're also laying off a number of teachers, citing economic reasons. hmm... 6K times 8 days of consulting = $48K... oh wait, that's more than I make a year! Someone's position has been sacrificed to pay for training in the latest fad in education, that's lovely.


08 May 2009

WCPSS's "Next Big Thing"

O’Connor, Ken (2008).A Repair Kit for Grading.

My Comments in italics.

1. Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation,
adherence to class rules, etc) in grades; include only

A legitimate way to prevent teachers from grading for something other than achievement (behaviour, for example) is to allow a separate grade or rating scale for those behaviours we consider important. There’s no need to grade for behaviour in an academic grade if we have somewhere else to do it, but without that outlet (and 2 comments on a report card are not sufficient) people will still combine the two.

2. Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late;
provide support for the learner.

Claiming that penalties for late work distort the actual achievement level of the student represented by that mark is plausible and fair. The anecdotal evidence regarding the effects of penalties on motivation is nothing more than that, and cannot be reasonably treated as evidence of anything. The plural of anecdote is not data. Allowing students to renegotiate deadlines for turning in work is both excellent for teaching responsibility and problematic if poorly handled. Creating a separate record for these behaviours solves some of the problems, and requiring that all standards be met prior to moving to the next course solves the other (that students attempt to extend deadlines indefinitely).

3. Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points;
seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a
higher level of achievement.

Extra credit does indeed distort grades. This can be demonstrated by simple mathematics.

4. Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades;
apply other consequences and reassess to determine
actual level of achievement.

Punishment should be something other than a grade of 0, but also needs to be both a deterrent and something severe enough to convey the seriousness of the offense. A simple talking-to does not accomplish this for most of our students. The assessment also needs to be completed, without dishonesty, afterward in order for the student to demonstrate their actual achievement level on that standard. The sanctions imposed/recommended by MacDonald high are viable if and only if they apply to the given student (loss of extra-curricular for a student who doesn’t participate isn’t effective.). MacDonald is a private Catholic school, so loss of privilege and expulsion are much more realistic penalties to the students and parents than they might be to ours. (We have a limited 365-suspension/expulsion policy because we have a mandate to provide and education to all, not just to all that can pay the fee).

5. Don’t consider attendance in grade determination;
report absences separately.

O'Connor prescribes that attendance should not be considered in grades, yet WCPSS attendance policy is to fail students who miss more than a certain number of days without excuse. Excused absences do not imply that the student has actually made up the missed material; any more than unexcused absences imply that the student hasn’t mastered the material for which they were present or achieved missed objectives after their return. If we want to be honest with ourselves about our grading conversations, FF’s need to become INC’s until the objectives are met or not met. In addition, Gathercoal (2002) has a valid point: absent is absent, and we do no favours by excusing one form and not another.

6. Don’t include group scores in grades; use only
individual achievement evidence.

The argument against group assessment is valid. Cooperative learning products need to be used as formative assessment, if at all.

7. Don’t organize information in grading records by
assessment methods or simply summarize into a single
grade; organize and report evidence by standards/
learning goals.

Requires revision of our entire grading system, report cards and GPA included, to be worth implementing.

8. Don’t assign grades using inappropriate or unclear
performance standards; provide clear descriptions of
achievement expectations.

Marzano’s suggestions of criterion-referenced grades are no less arbitrary than using a simple % proficient, which is also more immediately communicable to parents and others. Criterion referenced grades need to be based, appropriately, on numeric marks with set levels of achievement needed to reach each one. In our case, these levels need to be predictive of performance on objective, outside examinations (CAT, EOC, Stanford 9’s, etc). Indicating both achievement and growth could be useful for everyone involved in using the grade in the future.

9. Don’t assign grades based on student’s achievement
compared to other students; compare each student’s
performance to preset standards.

Do we actually have people doing this? I’ve seen college profs grade on a Bell curve, but I’m unaware of anyone here who is… if so it certainly needs to be addressed. Achievement marks should, realistically, statistically distribute along something resembling a Bell curve in an on-level course simply because of the normal distribution of abilities. Skews towards high or low achievement are also natural if the students in the course are of skewed ability as well (i.e. a class load of true honors students being marked on the same scale as an on-level course. Or ICR graded in the same manner.)

10. Don’t rely on evidence from assessments that fail to
meet standards of quality; rely only on quality

Right. This is not profound. The difficulty arises in determining what is actually a valid assessment prior to its use. This fix is fairly straight forward for anyone employing a semi-reflective practice. The footnoted Gardner text on time limits is apt yet we also need to convey, in some form or other, a student’s ability to read. Assessments may not need to rely solely on reading skill, nor should they ideally, but this then needs to open the door to oral or performance assessments that are still predictive of the student’s performance on an outside exam, at least until we allow for orally given EOC’s or do away with them altogether.

11. Don’t rely only on the mean; consider
other measures of central tendency and
use professional judgment.

O’Connor’s difficulty with the mean stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of statistics, and an unwillingness to simply drop the outliers. The mean is a valid, probably the most valid, measure of central tendency provided that the component marks are in a normal distribution. http://simon.cs.vt.edu/SoSci/Site/MMM/mmm.html . There may exist students for whom their mean mark does not reflect their level of understanding of a given objective, in which case something else must be done. O’Connor’s evidence for this topic is once again anecdotal at best.

12. Don’t include zeros in grade
determination when evidence is missing or
as punishment; use alternatives, such as
reassessing to determine real achievement
or use “I” for Incomplete or Insufficient

Giving INC’s in place of zeroes is possibly the best alternative for missing assignments I have seen proposed, provided we require the student to eventually demonstrate proficiency on the standard for which the assignment was missed. This would have to extend all the way to receiving an INC for any course in which the student did not demonstrate proficiency on a given standard (not that not demonstrating proficiency is not equal to demonstrating a lack of proficiency). The fact that they assign a numeric value to a grade that lacks a basis in reality is the only valid argument against the assigning of zeroes for missing marks. The other arguments presented are highly emotional and invalid without corroborating evidence. Adjusting to a 5 or 50 point scale brings the mean back toward centre, and towards the probable level of student achievement, but fails to account for missed assessments. For formative this may work out, but it would be an ineffective way of evaluating a student’s summative assessments because it still involves missing data.

13. Don’t use information from formative
assessments and practice to determine grades;
use only summative evidence.

Good, agreed. That’s what formative assessments are for.

14. Don’t summarize evidence accumulated
over time when learning is developmental and
will grow with time and repeated opportunities;
in those instances, emphasize more recent

If the opportunity to use grade replacement (EOC score, or a section of a final summative assessment as applied to a topic which earned a lower mark earlier) were to be legitimately available, it would perhaps be the most accurate way of indicating exactly what a student achieved in a course. EOC data isn’t available rapidly enough for this to work (We’d need a goal by goal item analysis for each student to grade in this manner).

15. Don’t leave students out of the grading
process. Involve students; they can - and should
- play key roles in assessment and grading that
promote achievement.

Involving students in the grading process, at least as far as creating an understanding of that process so that they can monitor their own progress, could potentially provide motivation for those students (if they’re making progress). As with any other use of grades as an extrinsic motivator, it can work either way in the student’s mind. Students and parents, however, should not be left in the dark as to how their (child’s) grade has been determined.

O’Connor’s current work is a re-write of his two earlier works, none of which are based on empirical evidence obtained by O’Connor himself. A limited amount of his suggestions are based on someone else’s empirical evidence, and most are based on anecdotes at best. Some of them are still logically defensible if the initial premise is accepted as valid. The ideas presented are in many cases worth trying if the opportunity is to be fully and realistically given, rather than treated as a half-measure and abandoned after a brief trial period. This would require an overhaul of the grading system district-wide in order to be successful. However, this is once again likely to become something that is systematised to rest the burden solely on the teachers themselves, as our other policies seem to do.
Anonymous> I agree that it does help to establish bad habits if we don't somehow take into account attendance and timeliness of completing assignments. O'Connor proposes establishing a 2nd mark to convey this information, which I would accept at this level, perhaps not at post-secondary. From my personal experiences at university: I failed a course that I missed 6 times (5 absences were allowed). I averaged 98% on all my coursework and scored 100% on the final. Is it truly representative of my knowledge of my material that I received an F and had to retake that? (Yes, I know, I shouldn't have missed the 6th time... I do get that.) Students who miss that much coursework typically aren't going to pass in the first place. Firm deadlines for assignments are something I'm less likely to be lenient about; If an assignment is designed properly, it's intended as practice or assessment at a given point in time, and its usefullness has passed.