The studied subtexts of academic insults

By Gordon Rugg

The academic insult at its best is a highly sophisticated art form with a long, rich history.

A classic example comes from one of my heroes, Thucydides the Athenian, in his History of the Peloponnesian War. That war between Sparta and Athens took place two and a half thousand years ago. He fought in it, and he wrote its history. He was brilliant by anyone’s standards, and the studied impartiality of his writing is remarkable even by the most rigorous modern standards. Here’s what he had to say about what people’s knowledge of contemporary history.

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

It looks like a rant from a grumpy old man just before he yells at some kids to get off his lawn. In fact, it’s an elegant, cutting, multi-level take-down that’s on a par with what the best modern academics can offer.

This article is about the serious, constructive subtexts beneath academic insults, and about what those subtexts say about the nature of research.

Long after the war: Scenes from Sparta and Athens today

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Images from Wikipedia

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Education and nature, part 1

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a debate going on in education theory about “natural” learning versus what happens in formal education. It’s not likely to end any time soon, because it’s framed in the wrong terms. This article is about how the framing relates to a more widespread set of intertangled issues involving beliefs about nature and the natural. It’s a broad overview; I’ll deal with some of the issues separately in later articles.

As is often the case, one key relevant phenomenon was first noticed a long time ago. The ancient Greeks were well aware of it; there’s a fair chance that earlier civilisations had also spotted it.

As is also often the case, the ancient Greeks proceeded to invent an explanation for the phenomenon which was very plausible, and which was also not just wrong, but actually worse than wrong, because it lured everyone off in the wrong direction for the next couple of thousand years.

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STROBE: STRuctured OBservation of the Environment

By Gordon Rugg

STROBE has been around for decades. The world has moved on since STROBE was first developed, but the underlying principles of the technique are still useful.

In this article, I’ll briefly describe the core concepts of STROBE, and then describe the modified version that I use, with some comments about what’s still useful from the original technique, and about how it can complement other approaches such as flight path analysis.

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Why don’t they…?

By Gordon Rugg

Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, once observed that the answer to any question beginning “Why don’t they—“ is almost always “money”.

It’s a great line, and rewriting it feels faintly like vandalism. However, as often happens with humour, it contains a lot of truth, but subtly misses a more important point. To avoid spoiling a great line for Heinlein fans, I’ve put my dissection of this line beneath the fold.

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How long is an education good for?

By Gordon Rugg

There has been a lot of debate over the centuries about the purpose of education. The fact that the debate is still active suggests that either the question is unanswerable, or that it needs to be rephrased.

One way of looking at the problem is graphically. If we represent a lifespan as a timeline, then what insights does that give us about the possible purpose, or purposes, of education?


That’s the topic of this article.

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From boilerplate to pixy dust: Useful writing tips for stressed students

By Gordon Rugg

There’s plenty of guidance and advice available if you’re a professional who is wrestling with writer’s block, or who wants to know which sections a psychology journal paper should contain, or who is idly wondering whether the colon they’ve just typed should be followed by uppercase or lowercase.

It’s harder to find guidance if you’re an ordinary mortal facing problems like:

  • I’m trying to finish this essay but it’s 4 am and my brain’s frazzled and I want to cry
  • Why do I keep getting low marks even though I write lots of relevant stuff?
  • Is this good enough to get a decent mark?
  • Is this good enough to even scrape a pass?
  • Will I manage to finish this wretched thing by the deadline?

This article provides some help for stressed-out human beings in those situations.

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Sociotechnical analysis, room layout, and education

By Gordon Rugg

The core ideas behind sociotechnical theory look very simple:

  • Technology influences society
  • Society influences technology

Although they look very simple, they have surprisingly far-reaching implications, usually in conjunction with the Law of Unintended Consequences and with systems theory. Often, a trivial-looking decision has consequences that are unwelcome and unexpected. Early sociotechnical work by researchers at the Tavistock Institute included a classic study showing why introducing a new and apparently more efficient technology into coal mining had serious negative effects on the social structures involved in how the miners worked. This had huge practical implications, which was why the Tavistock Institute became involved.

A more recent example, examined in this article, is that the form of technology being used in education has major sociotechnical implications. These implications are easily missed, because they are so familiar that they are usually taken for granted as being inevitable parts of the education process.

I’ll start with a classic example. The image below shows two technologies whose social consequences were far reaching and unexpected.

bike and typewriter

Images from wikimedia and wikipedia

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Friday funny warning signs

By Gordon Rugg

I’m interested in nonverbal signage. Sometimes I’m also interested in verbal signage. What’s the story behind the sign below? I have no idea, and I’m not sure I want to know.

octopus flash

This is from a feature about improbable signs, on Distractify:

I hope it brightens your weekend.

The “compass rose” model for requirements gathering

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re trying to find out the requirements for something, whether it’s a dishwasher or an education system, then a key question is how to make sure you’ve identified all the key issues.

One way is the method described in this article. It involves checking for some key points that establish the boundaries for the requirements, as follows

  • Best outcomes
  • Worst outcomes
  • The most common cases
  • The beginning
  • The end
  • Your official remit
  • Your unofficial big picture remit

The image below shows these concepts schematically.

requirements boundaries full

This article unpacks these concepts and identifies suitable methods for handling them.

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Friday Funny: Elk Hunting 101

By Julius Caesar (with Gordon Rugg)

XXVII.–There are also [animals] which are called elks. The shape of
these, and the varied colour of their skins, is much like roes, but in
size they surpass them a little and are destitute of horns, and have
legs without joints and ligatures; nor do they lie down for the purpose
of rest, nor, if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they
raise or lift themselves up. Trees serve as beds to them; they lean
themselves against them, and thus reclining only slightly, they take
their rest; when the huntsmen have discovered from the footsteps of
these animals whither they are accustomed to betake themselves, they
either undermine all the trees at the roots, or cut into them so far
that the upper part of the trees may appear to be left standing. When
they have leant upon them, according to their habit, they knock down by
their weight the unsupported trees, and fall down themselves along with

[From Caesar, C.J. De Bello Gallico. Project Gutenberg; Everyman’s Library version, 1915 edition, translated by W.A. MacDevitt.]