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Radical Constructivism, Naturalistic Scientism and Math Education — ideas have consequences

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In the thread on Jonathan Bartlett and priorities for Math education, I raised two comments that I think it would be profitable to further reflect on. First, from 33 on how the US National Academy of Sciences tried to classify Mathematics as a “science”:

https://services.math.duke.edu/undergraduate/Handbook96_97/node5.html
The Nature of Mathematics


(These paragraphs are reprinted with permission from Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education. ©1989 by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.)


Mathematics reveals hidden patterns that help us understand the world around us. Now much more than arithmetic and geometry, mathematics today is a diverse discipline that deals with data, measurements, and observations from science; with inference, deduction, and proof; and with mathematical models of natural phenomena, of human behavior, and of social systems.


As a practical matter, mathematics is a science of pattern and order. Its domain is not molecules or cells, but numbers, chance, form, algorithms, and change. As a science of abstract objects, mathematics relies on logic rather than on observation as its standard of truth, yet employs observation, simulation, and even experimentation as means of discovering truth.


The special role of mathematics in education is a consequence of its universal applicability [–> hint, hint!]. The results of mathematics–theorems and theories–are both significant and useful; the best results are also elegant and deep. Through its theorems, mathematics offers science both a foundation of truth and a standard of certainty.


In addition to theorems and theories, mathematics offers distinctive modes of thought which are both versatile and powerful, including modeling, abstraction, optimization, logical analysis, inference from data, and use of symbols. Experience with mathematical modes of thought builds mathematical power–a capacity of mind of increasing value in this technological age that enables one to read critically, to identify fallacies, to detect bias, to assess risk, and to suggest alternatives. Mathematics empowers us to understand better the information-laden world in which we live. [–> bursting with implications]

Notice, the implicit scientism, which tries to shoe-horn Mathematics into the sciences even though it is patently different? That’s a reflection of the notion that the sciences effectively monopolise credible approaches to and the content of knowledge.

Mathematics is the case that blows up that notion, and as a bonus, the sciences cannot get along without it. If you needed smoking gun evidence that something is very wrong with evolutionary materialistic scientism [= naturalism] this is it. That’s why I commented: “[t]ake particular note on how the US NAS speaks of Mathematics as a “Science” even as it is forced to admit that it does not work in the way that Natural Sciences work, and as it is forced to admit the pivotal role of logic in Mathematics. “

Clip No. 2 in 86, is about radical constructivism (not the Richard Skemp type):


http://www.pat-thompson.net/PD…..MathEd.pdf
Thompson Patrick W. (2013).: Constructivism in Mathematics Education. In Lerman, S. (Ed.)
Encyclopedia of Mathematics Education: Springer
[. . . ]
There are two principle schools of thought within constructivism: radical constructivism (some people say individual or psychological), and social constructivism. Within each there is also a range of positions. While radical and social constructivism will be discussed in a later section, it should be noted that both schools are grounded in a strong
Skeptical stance regarding reality and truth: Knowledge cannot be thought of as a copy of an external reality, and claims of truth cannot be grounded in claims about reality.

The justification of this stance toward knowledge, truth, and reality, first voiced by the Skeptics of ancient Greece, is that to verify that one’s knowledge is correct, or that what one knows is true, one would need access to reality by means other than one’s knowledge
of it
. . . .
Constructivism did not begin within mathematics education. Its allure to mathematics educators is rooted in their long evolving rejection of Thorndike’s associationism (Thorndike, 1922; Thorndike, Cobb, Orleans, Symonds, Wald, & Woodyard, 1923) and Skinner’s behaviorism (Skinner, 1972). Thorndike’s stance was that learning happens by forming associations between stimuli and appropriate responses. To design instruction from Thorndike’s perspective meant to arrange proper stimuli in a proper order and have students respond appropriately to those stimuli repeatedly. The behaviorist stance that mathematics educators found most objectionable evolved from Skinner’s claim that all
human behavior is due to environmental forces. From a behaviorist perspective, to say that children participate in their own learning, aside from being the recipient of instructional actions, is nonsense . . . .

The gradual release of mathematics education from the clutches of behaviorism, and infusions of insights from Polya’s writings on problem solving (Polya, 1945, 1954, 1962), opened mathematics education to new ways of thinking about student learning and the importance of student thinking

Notice, the self-referential incoherence implicit in the skepticism advocated? That’s why I commented:

>>Fail spectacular, self-referential fail.

Notice, how the hyperskeptical stance implies what it denies, knowledge of the truth about reality?

Similarly, take Josiah Royce’s proposition E, error exists. This is undeniably, self evidently true not just a figment of the individual or socially constructed model of “reality.” Try to deny it, ~E. Immediately, this means — and ability to understand is key to self-evidence — E is an . . . ah, um, err, . . . ERROR. So, the attempt to deny E itself implies E and refutes itself. E is and must undeniably be so on pain of instant, patent absurdity. (Never mind that over the years we have seen cases of those willing to cling to absurdity on this.)

So, truth exists and in some cases it is warranted to utter certainty. Thus too, knowledge up to and including undeniably certain knowledge, exists. Any scheme of thought or praxis that tends to undermine such, fails and is unworthy of acceptance. It is error, and our plain duty is to move beyond error to truth and knowledge wherever we can.

Now, too, F H Bradley long since decisively addressed the underlying kantian claim of an unbridgeable ugly gulch between our world of appearances and the realities of things in themselves:

We may agree, perhaps, to understand by metaphysics an attempt to know reality as against mere appearance, or the study of first principles or ultimate truths, or again the effort to comprehend the universe, not simply piecemeal or by fragments, but somehow as a whole [–> i.e. the focus of Metaphysics is critical studies of worldviews] . . . .

The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible . . . himself has, perhaps unknowingly, entered the arena . . . To say the reality is such that our knowledge cannot reach it, is a claim to know reality ; to urge that our knowledge is of a kind which must fail to transcend appearance, itself implies that transcendence. For, if we had no idea of a beyond, we should assuredly not know how to talk about failure or success. And the test, by which we distinguish them, must obviously be some acquaintance with the nature of the goal. Nay, the would-be sceptic, who presses on us the contradictions of our thoughts, himself asserts dogmatically. For these contradictions might be ultimate and absolute truth, if the nature of the reality were not known to be otherwise . . . [such] objections . . . are themselves, however unwillingly, metaphysical views, and . . . a little acquaintance with the subject commonly serves to dispel [them]. [Appearance and Reality, 2nd Edn, 1897 (1916 printing), pp. 1 – 2; INTRODUCTION. At Web Archive.]

Going further, knowledge is shot through with ethical import, as “warrant” implies. That is, our intellectual lives are morally governed through inescapable duties of care to truth, right reason, prudence, justice etc. This then applies with particular force to Mathematics and to education in Mathematics, as this is the field that studies, builds the habits and skills of and applies right reason to things that may be quantified and/or symbolised and analysed or modelled structurally. So, it is particularly important to get Math and Math Education ethically right.>>

That is our challenge, and as ever, it has an inescapable ethical component. One that is compounded by the need and duty to soundly educate our children. END

11 Replies to “Radical Constructivism, Naturalistic Scientism and Math Education — ideas have consequences

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Radical Constructivism, Naturalistic Scientism and Math Education — ideas have consequences

  2. 2
    PaoloV says:

    “Radical Constructivism, Naturalistic Scientism and Math Education — ideas have consequences”

    An excellent topic, though perhaps too deep to get to its bottom. Thanks.

    I’ll try to be back with more later.

  3. 3
    PaoloV says:

    KF,

    “ideas have consequences”

    We should know well -you have covered this extensively in previous OPs and commentaries- that ideas have consequences. This is not new, but worth repeating it.

    A German man
    named Karl M. had big ideas that had tremendous consequences. A Russian man named Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov had big ideas that had enormous consequences. An Austrian-German man named Adolf H. also had big ideas that ended up having horrible consequences. History hasn’t stopped at those examples, but they are more than sufficient to get the point that ideas have consequences, as you wrote in the title of this OP.

    Another German man named Max Planck said that “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”
    He also said that “all matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.”
    Max Planck also said: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

    Yes, ideas are first and have consequences.

  4. 4
    vmahuna says:

    I’m confused. Except for a few VERY narrow and exclusive fields, Math beyond Arithmetic has no particular value. So, for example, History is about discovering facts about past human conduct (e.g., Europeans had multiple contacts with the Americas prior to Columbus) and then hashing out what strings of facts MEAN. The meaning of the strings of facts (many of which are hotly debated amongst experts) depends on the viewer’s personal beliefs. For example, did a real place like Plato’s Atlantis ever exist? If it did, when Plato wrote “beyond the Pillars of Hercules” did he mean what we now call ‘the Straits of Gibraltar”? Or a spot on the west coast of Greece? Or somewhere else? Ya wanna tell me what Mathematics has to do with resolving THAT?

  5. 5
    PaoloV says:

    Vmahuna:

    I’m confused. Except for a few VERY narrow and exclusive fields, Math beyond Arithmetic has no particular value.

    What about Mathematical Logic and Mathematical Cybernetics? Aren’t they important?

  6. 6
    SmartAZ says:

    The fallacy is that math is valid only when it describes reality. There is nothing in math that signals when it does or does not describe reality, you have to inspect it and figure it out.

  7. 7
    PaoloV says:

    KF,

    Please, allow me to post this short “off topic” comment:
    Models of Consciousness Conference at Oxford

  8. 8
    Bob O'H says:

    Vmahuna @ 4 – I don’t think anyone would want to suggest that maths should be used for everything, but it’s certainly used in history to date finds in archaeology. I’m sure there is work on modelling population changes or economies as well, for example. If history wants to look at numbers in any non-trivial way, it will have to use maths.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    SAZ,

    I see:The fallacy is that math is valid only when it describes reality. There is nothing in math that signals when it does or does not describe reality, you have to inspect it and figure it out

    Some aspects of Math apply to any possible world. These are necessarily real things like numbers etc. That is a big part of why math models and expressions can be so powerful.

    There is value in exploring logic-model worlds, which can then help us draw out important relationships etc.

    KF

  10. 10
    kairosfocus says:

    VM, The power and utility of Math under, foundational to and beyond Arithmetic is also well established. KF

  11. 11
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: Yes, mathematics does not take over everything, but it is often a very powerful tool for our work and lives. But I think somehow a great many are deeply alienated, because of how we approach teaching Mathematics. How to find a way forward for that is a BIG challenge. Ironically, I find myself as a moderate, Richard Skemp constructivist. Insightful, relational understanding greatly exceeds the power and capability of instrumental, rote based learning. At worst that becomes a dreary grinding out of practice problems for poorly understood mechanical exercises, and then as we go on and insight becomes ever more important, the dreary grind of trying to pile up more and more rote memory and mechanical techniques without insight, begins to break down. KF

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