TER #021 – 20 April 2014

Main Feature: Counsellor Louiza Hebhardt discusses teacher burnout, and strategies for teachers to maintain well-being and deal with the pressures of teaching. 

Regular Features: AITSL’s teacher feature, teachers discuss what it means to be ‘Asia literate’; Off Campus, Dan Haesler talks about the need to focus on teacher well being as part of education; Teachers’ Brains Trust, Pip Cleaves models a leadership narrative while discussing creativity in education; Education in the News, Cameron and Corinne talk about workplace bullying and other recent news headlines; Mystery Educator competition, third and final clue!

Listen to our first TER Live event: BYOD Policy Forum.

Subscribe to TERPodcast on iTunesAndroid Smartphones and on Stitcher Online Radio.

Show notes and time code: Continue reading

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Arguments in support of Homeoppathy

It has been some small while since I, your good Capitan, have taken you on a journey through the realms of logical fallacies and poorly constructed arguments. I’ve been off journeying in an absurd land populated by tramps and pompous industrialists, but even their repetitive & meaningless conversation could not drown out the call to adventure offered by the release of the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) draft Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions, whose findings that “that the assessment of the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered” coincided perfectly with World Homeopathy Awareness Week, and prompted the expected response in the form of a press release from the Australian Homeopathy Association.

The press release is a treasure trove of poor arguments to explore, but first, a quick summary of the document it was responding to.

The NHMRC report was a systematic review of evidence into efficacy of Homeopathy that evaluated the methodology and validity of each study so reviewed before considering the outcomes of said review, and the document outlines the criteria a study must meet to be considered reliable, as well as the standards that must be met for a treatment to be considered effective. It actually provides a very good summary of the principles that determine an effective blinded trial, and the benchmarks that a treatment must meet to be considered to have an effect. If you want to pause now before embarking on our journey in order to go and read the NHMRC report, go ahead… I’ll wait…

All done? Ready to go? Good.

So then now let us set sail into the blue deep of logical fallacies and poorly structured argument as we navigate our way through the response penned to this report by the Australian Homeopathic Association. One small reminder before we get our brains wet: a properly structured argument generally requires a premise (the point being made), evidence in support of the argument (whether empirical, anecdotal, etc) and a conclusion to reinforce the premise. In an extended argument like an essay, it has an overarching argument, known as a thesis, which is supported by a series of premises, each of which need to be proven in turn in order to validate the thesis. With that in mind, lets look at the offering given up by the AHA.

It begins with two brief paragraphs that refer to the number of people in Australia, Europe and India that have used Homeopathy. These introductory passages assume the reader has some knowledge of homeopathy, and offers no explanation of what the practice actually involves, and instead seems to be trying to establishing a positive image of homeopathy based on the number of people who engage in it. When coupled with an actual claim of efficacy (which this opening does not offer) such an approach would be an example of the “appeal to popularity” fallacy, hoping people will accept a things popularity as a substitute for the need of actual evidence. In this case, the introduction makes no specific claim other than the number of people using Homeopathy, and therefore does not actually add anything to the discussion. It is also unclear what is meant to be the argument, if any, offered up by this opening. Is the writer trying to prove that lots of people use homeopathy? Okay, if we accept that, then what? It doesn’t address the question of Homeopathy’s efficacy, does it?

It then gives a description of the NHMRC’s report which, in all fairness, is a fairly accurate description, but doesn’t make any further claims. It does, however, use the phrase “This review has focussed exclusively on recent systematic trials” – the use of the word ‘exclusively’ will become important later on.

The document then offers a definition of homeopathy as a ‘holistic system of medicine’ that is ‘not ideally suited to systematic reviews which focus on isolated disease conditions without considering the overall health of the individual’. Unless I’ve forgotten how to read, this seems to be saying that scientific methodologies that focus on the efficacy of homeopathy at curing diseases are not appropriate as a way of evaluating the practice because it looks at a person’s health from a broader, ‘holistic’ perspective. Now this is an interesting case to make, but one that would be easily undermined if, for example, the Australian Homeopathic Association had made any claims that Homeopathy could actually treat specific conditions that could therefore be measured. If you go over to the AHA webpage about homeopathy you will notice that it does in fact offer quite a list of conditions that homeopathy is alleged to be able to treat, including:

Acute complaints – coughs, colds, earache, food poisoning, hangover, travel sickness etc.

Chronic complaints – skin conditions, hormone imbalances, depression, headaches, behavioural problems, digestive disturbances, asthma, arthritis etc.

First aid situations – bites, stings, hives, injuries, trauma, shock etc.

So the AHA seems to be at cross-purposes with itself at this point. On it’s website it claims that homeopathy can treat specific, measurable conditions, while in the press release it claims that it’s not appropriate to assess homeopathy by systematically reviewing it’s efficacy at treating specific conditions. The claim that homeopathy is a ‘holistic’ practice and that systematic reviews are not appropriate is an example of the logical fallacy of ‘special pleading’  - basically begging for the regular rules not to be applied to s specific situation. In this case, the AHA is pleading with the reader to excuse homeopathy from the regular rules applied to a scientific evaluation.

The press release then goes on to say…

The Australian Homoeopathic Association is disappointed that the NHMRC review focussed on only this one type of evidence and excluded other evidence types, which are more suited to the way homoeopathy is used in clinical practice. It should be noted here that the NHMRC working group did not include even one trained homoeopath even though the AHA suggested a number of qualified individuals who not only are homoeopathic practitioners but also have the relevant academic background.

They’re disappointed the NHMRC only used a scientific review process, as opposed to ‘more suited’ methods? Note that it does not suggest what other review methods it recommends, only that it rejects the scientific method as a process for reviewing the efficacy of Homeopathy. So what exactly are they trying to say? Not a whole lot. This is more ‘special pleading’, wishing to be allowed to exist outside the rules, as it were.

The comment about the working group not including a Homeopath is also a somewhat pointless statement. They’re not actually making a claim  that the lack of a Homeopath skewed results, simply identifying that there wasn’t a current practitioner involved. Like the paragraph above, it doesn’t seem to be actually stating anything of significance as it is not actually making a claim that requires substantiating. However, what I believe they are trying to do is build a Straw Man argument. Rather than actually address the reviews findings or its methodology in any way, they build up a false argument regarding the conduct of the review in the hope that the true-believers out there will latch onto that false argument instead, and use it in substitution for any actual evidence or argument against the review’s findings. More on that later…

The press release then goes on to refer to three occasions where studies of homeopathy has been proven effective: a review by the Swiss government, a 2005 German study, and a 6 year study at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. They further state that Homeopathy is on the UK’s NHS (publicly funded health service) and that GP’s in France and German offer Homeopathy as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.

Here we have a combination of the Argument from Authority and the Appeal to Popularity once again. The reference to countries that offer homeopathy as part of mainstream clinical practice do not actually support and specific argument and are clearly intended to make it seem as though the practice is accepted elsewhere, and so by extrapolation, why shouldn’t it be accepted in Australia?

The references to the study are Argument’s from Authority, hoping that the reader will accept the official sounding (or simply foreign) origins of the study as proof of their accuracy without questioning the accuracy of those studies themselves.

All of this, however, is offered without any actual argument being put forward. The press release HAS NOT REJECTED THE FINDINGS OF THE REVIEW! It has not put forward a counter argument and has instead attempted to attack peripheral issues such as the make up of the work-group or the methodology used in the review process, in the attempt to cloud the issue and distract from the primary finding of the review, which is that Homeopathy has no measurable effect as a health treatment.

The final paragraph is perhaps the most telling indicator that the AHA actually have no counter argument to offer, as it says that:

The Australian Homoeopathic Association recommend to the NHMRC that it take a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of homoeopathy’s efficacy and consider a large-scale economic evaluation of the benefits of a more integrated system and one which respects and advocates “patient choice” in healthcare provision – as is common across Europe where over 30 Million people use homoeopathic medicine.

It suggests a “More comprehensive” approach without identifying what that would actually mean or how it would be better than the systematic review already undertaken, and then they try to redirect the argument again by focusing on ‘economic benefits’ and the respect for ‘parent choice’, both of which are separate issues away from the question of ‘Does Homeopathy actually have a beneficial effect for patients suffering from health complaints?” (to which the answer is no, by the way). More misdirection, and a final failure to actually rebut the findings of the review itself.

So by the end of this process, what do we find? Appeals to Popularity, Arguments from Authority, Straw Man and disingenuous misdirection, all of which suggest, very strongly, that the AHA don’t actually have a strong argument to put forward about the efficacy of homeopathy. It is also worth noting that, at no point in this document has the AHA included a description of what Homeopathy actually is, or how it is supposed to work.

Now, I could go into an argument about homeopathy itself, and bring together a series of references that show how it is not even physically possible for homeopathy to work according to the principles that homeopaths themselves claim as the basis of the practice, but that would be to go outside of the frame of the presented argument and bring in third party information (of which there is an abundance!) and would be unfair to the homeopaths who, in this instance, are already licking their wounds and fighting back with weak cries the equivalent of yelling “Oh, Yeah!”.

So far, on the weight of evidence presented here, Homeopathy does not have a strong argument to stand on, and anyone who reads this press release and chooses to believe it represents a strong argument in favour of homeopathy is doing so sans evidence, and probably motivated by their own desire to continue believing in the powers of ‘magic water’.

That’s all for now, but in the spirit of people being motivated to hold on to irrational beliefs in the absence of appropriate evidence, I’ll wish you all a happy easter and look forward to our next adventure in critical thinking.

 

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TER #019 – 23 March 2014

Come to our first TER Live event: BYOD Policy Forum on March 25

Subscribe to TERPodcast on iTunesAndroid Smartphones and on Stitcher Online Radio.

Main Feature: Interview with David Price, OBE, about his book “Open: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future.”

Regular Features: AITSL’s Teacher Feature, Erin and Angela discuss the things they love about teaching as a profession; Education in the News; Teachers’ Brains Trust, John Drake talks about ways to enhance creativity in the classroom; Mystery Educator competition. Don’t forget the first TER Live event at the Harold Park Hotel in Glebe on March 25th. 

Timecode and links coming soon(ish)!

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TER Live Event: BYOD Policy Forum – 25 March, 5:00pm

Originally posted on Teachers' Education Review:

The first ever TER Live event is now confirmed and open for registration! The details are outlined in the graphic below, and you can click here for registration. The event is open to all teachers, school leader or those interested in technology in schools. The forum will revolve largely around Q & A, so the more people, and the more questions, the better!

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TER #017 – 23 February 2014

Originally posted on Teachers' Education Review:

Teachers’ Education Review is now on  Stitcher Online Radio!

Subscribe to TERPodcast on iTunes & Android Smartphones

Main Feature: EdSpark Edutech Startup Competition Finals. Regular Features: AITSL’s Teacher Feature, Cameron Paterson and Matt Estermann give advice to beginning teachers; Education in the News, another education review + why do conservative governments favour more expensive, less effective teacher training programs; Off Campus with Dan Haesler, positive psychology; Teachers’ Brains Trust, Sam Schroder introduces a ‘campaign of kindness’ to senior English classes.

Links and show notes coming soon!

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Weasel Words and School Autonomy

Recently, Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne announced that $70 million dollars would be made available to support public schools in becoming Independent Public Schools.

The plan was immediately and resoundingly rejected by many secors of society, with NSW Education Minister outright refusing to agree to the policy, claiming that there was not enough research of evidence to suggest that it wa sa good model for education.

What I intend to focus on in this post, however, is not the lacking evidence base in support of Pyne’s proposition, nor the fact that Independent Public Schools are widely recognised as being primarily an attack on public education and an move in the conservative’s ongoing battle to destroy unionism in education, nor highlight that the currnt government’s anti-unionism ideology is so overbearing, that Prime Minister Abbott blatantly lied about the effect of Unionised workers when justifying why his government wouldn’t support long-standing Australian company SPC, who were asking for only around 1/3 of he money being put into this move to shake up public education in Australia.

No, what I’ll be looking at is the government’s own language used to explain and justify the policy, and demonstrate how the use of language results in very little actually being communicated or committed to (admitted?) to by the government. They offer a single page of explanation for the policy on their studentsfirst.org.au website, which can be found here.

It begins:

Both internationally and in Australia, evidence emphasises the advantages of school autonomy as part of a comprehensive strategy for school improvement

Right off the bat, familiar weasel words appear in the use of the phrase “As part of a”. Remember all those childhood cereal commercials that tried to tell you that several hundred calories of sugar-coated flakes were “part of a complete breakfast”? It’s a phrase that means “The thing we’re selling may or may not be a positive part of the complete whole, and we’re trying to mask it’s deleterious effects behind a more holistic image in the hope of appearing to take a comprehensive view of the subject while ultimately just trying to sell you large amount of unhealthy processed sugar”.

The page continues:

In Australia, schools in all states and territories have been moving towards more autonomous and independent models to improve education outcomes.

While this sentence seems innocuous enough, the use of the simple conjunction ‘to’ between the two clauses make for a minefield of potential meaning. The first clause, that school sin Australia have become increasingly autonomous, is a factual claim that is easily verifiable, however to use ‘to’ to connect that fact to the motivation of improving school outcomes is to make a claim that requires significant further evidence before it can be taken as true. In fact, the primary counter-claim against Independent Public Schools is that it is not a policy aimed at improving educational standards, but a cost-cutting measure masked by educational concerns. That counter claim is backed up by the general failure of any nation’s implementation of models like IPS to yield significant improvements in academic results that can be directly attributed to the model. Therefore, for that statement form the government to be taken as true, further evidence is required.  In terms of argument, it falls under the heading of “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”, and therefore offers no value to the discussion.

This is followed by:

The Australian Government also recognises that giving schools and school leaders greater autonomy can help improve student results.

Everything said about the previous sentence applies here. No evidence, no reason, just words. Meaningless words.

Then:

Great schools have leaders and teachers who have the independence to make the decisions and develop the courses that best meets the needs of their students.

Here we see what is effectively a non-sequitur, in that it does not logically follow from the previous statements. This statement actually has nothing to do with the previous or following statements. Even if we accept this statement to be entirely true (and this webpage offers no evidence in order for us to do so) you will notice that the statement itself contains the implied assumptions that schools currently don’t have the capacity to develop great courses (they do!). This is the informal logical fallacy of begging the question. If the argument is to be made that schools currently do not have that capacity and that becoming independent with grant it, then make that argument! Unless of course, that argument is easily identifiable as false. Ultimately, again, this sentence adds no actual valid information, and appears to be a deliberate misdirection.

The page then goes on to say that the government is committed to supporting development of school leaders, and as a statement of intent, followed by two qualified “we know” statements, it again does not actually add information that can be verified.

So after the introduction, we actually have no reliable information about School Autonomy or its effects on education, nor references to sources we might evaluate for ourselves.

Then, after the heading “Independent Public Schools” we find…

The evidence shows, and overseas experience highlights, that increasing school autonomy can help lift student outcomes and better meet the needs of local communities.

More familiar weasel words appear. First of all, this statement makes a claim to evidence, yet offers none. But then it uses the word ‘help’. Any grade 10 English student should be able to identify how the word ‘help’ is used in advertisements for products that have no proven effect, just like vitamin supplements “help” your bodies natural defences, or ‘miracle diet foods’ “help” your natural metabolic processes. Like with the complete breakfast example, the use of the word ‘help’ here immediately undermines any suggestion that Independent Public Schools actually contribute toward improved student outcomes, and anyway, if the evidence exists, as this statement claims it does, then where is it?

The following statement uses almost exactly the same strategy, but uses the term ‘better placed to’ , which again does not guarantee a specific outcome but does sound suggestive of positive action and outcomes.

Then there’s this statement:

The Australian Government is responding to the growing demand for greater school autonomy and flexibility with its new $70 million Independent Public Schools initiative, that builds on current developments across the states to help schools become more autonomous and independent if they so choose.

“Responding to the growing demand?” What growing demand? Where is the growing demand? A simple poll result or parent survey would give some indication, but we aren’t even offered that. Lets consider the things in Australian society that there is a clear growing demand for: Same Sex marriage, Effective Action on Climate Change, an End to the Music Career of Justin Bieber. You know how we can tell there’s growing demand for these things? Public action, news stories, debates in parliament, polls and surveys showing clear preferences in public opinion.

You know what I haven’t seen? A single story – not one – of a community rallying to have their public school made independent against the will of the teachers or school administration.

Without evidence, this is another phrase that can be dismissed as entirely meaningless, and attempting to use positive language to imply justification.

The following statement is again another statement of intent, and therefore unassailable, though no justification is given for why “increased parent and community involvement” is a good thing, or what it will even look like in practice.

Then there are four short paragraphs that link to other government documents with information about Independent Public Schools for parents and carers. I will particularly tackle the ‘fact sheet’ in greater detail in a future post.

So in it’s official page outlining the plan for Independent Public Schools the government cannot offer us even one single verifiable piece of evidence to support their claims of the policies efficacy, and use several deceptive phrases and at least two logical fallacies that suggest either they don’t have anyone on staff who knows how to write a coherent piece of text, OR they are selecting words carefully to avoid addressing the issue of evidence while still seeming positive and official.

As a piece of written communication it does not offer any reliable information except for two vague statements about the governments intent regarding the program which let us know, at least, what they intend to do. We are no more enlightened about the efficacy of Independent Public Schools at the end than we were at the beginning, though potentially a bit more confused.

The site does, however, promise that there will be more information coming. I eagerly await it’s arrival upon my dissecting table.

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TER #016 – 09 Feb 2014 – Engagement, Curriculum and Pedagogy with David Zyngier

Capitan Typo:

This is one of the best episodes we’ve produced to date. New format, new segments, consistent production values (I think!). Definitely feeling proud of this one.

Originally posted on Teachers' Education Review:

Teachers’ Education Review is now on Stitcher Online Radio!

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A new show format for 2014 with new features! Our main feature is an insightful interview with Dr. David Zyngier about pedagogy to encourage student engagement, factors that influence learning, PISA and more.  We introduce the first AITSL Teacher Feature, a new regular segment on the show. “Off Campus” with Dan Haesler on School Contentedness, Education in the News, and introducing “Teachers’ Brains Trust”! with Betty Chau about Positive Psychology.

Links:

More links and show notes coming soon!

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