Our book, Urban Myths about Learning and Education, out now!

It has been a long wait (and lots of work) for Paul, Casper and myself, but now our book is on sale!

You can order the book here both in paper and as e-book, but you can buy also at

A review of our book:

“A marvelous compendium of plausible-sounding ideas about education that have seeped into popular culture, but have little or no scientific support. Carefully documented yet a pleasure to read, this book should be required reading in all teacher training programs.” -Daniel T. Willingham, Professor, University of Virginia


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Interesting: are innate teaching skills ‘part of human nature’?

Sometimes I think of a student that he or she is a natural born teacher, but maybe we all are? Anthropologist Barry Hewlett does think – based on his experiences with the Aka Pygmies – that we all may have innate teaching skills, but these skills and approaches are totally different to what e.g. parents do today. The researcher uses this study to attack the approach of helicopter parents. And while I do agree with the extreme controle freak nature of some parents today, I do think that the ‘natural pedagogy’ Barry Hewlett is – in part – defending based on the Aka is not a given solution for present life and education. While the description is interesting and important, it is hard to use as a defense of a Romantic Rousseau-like vision of education as we have noticed that in a ‘cultural’ world, this natural approach is not necessary the best or most effective way of learning.

From the press release:

Some 40 years ago, Washington State University anthropologist Barry Hewlett noticed that when the Aka pygmies stopped to rest between hunts, parents would give their infants small axes, digging sticks and knives.

To parents living in the developed world, this could be seen as irresponsible. But in all the intervening years, Hewlett has never seen an infant cut him- or herself. He has, however, seen the exercise as part of the Aka way of teaching, an activity that most researchers – from anthropologists to psychologists to biologists – consider rare or non-existent in such small-scale cultures.

He has completed a small but novel study of the Aka, concluding that, “teaching is part of the human genome.”

“It’s part of our human nature,” said Hewlett, a professor of anthropology at WSU Vancouver. “Obviously, teaching as it exists in formal education is way different than the way it exists in small-scale groups that I work with. The thing is, there does seem to be something going on there.”

The Aka are among the last of the world’s hunter-gatherers, but their way of life accounts for 99 percent of human history. That they teach, and how they teach, offers new insight into who we are as humans and how we might best learn.

Clearly, the Aka are not helicopter parents who would shudder at the thought of giving sharp objects to any children, let alone 1-year-olds. Rather, the Aka place a high value on individual autonomy, in addition to sharing and egalitarianism, so they’re unlikely to intervene with one another’s behavior.

“One does not coerce or tell others what to do, including children,” Hewlett and co-author Casey Roulette write in Royal Society Open Science, an open-access journal by the world’s oldest scientific publisher, The Royal Society of London.

After he saw the Aka teaching infants how to use various tools, he was told by social-cultural anthropologists that the activity was “just play.” To their credit, said Hewlett, social-cultural anthropologists have recognized that teaching can be done outside a formal setting.

“The downside to that is they hadn’t looked at teaching more broadly as part of human nature,” he said.

But cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists suggested teaching is universal. Hewlett was particularly intrigued by the thinking of cognitive psychologists like Gyorgy Gergely of Central European University.

Gergely described an innate form of teaching called “natural pedagogy” in which a teacher directly demonstrates skills by, say, pointing, gazing or talking to a child. The learners in turn use the cues to imitate and learn about novel objects.

“It’s important to remember that, cognitively, teaching occurs both in the teacher as well as in the child,” said Hewlett. “The child needs to know that these particular cues mean something and the teacher knows how to use these particular cues to draw attention to knowledge that may not be clear to the learner. It’s a co-evolution in the sense that it’s happening both with the child and the so-called teacher.”

Hewlett videotaped five male and five female 12- to 14-month-old infants for one hour each, usually in a naturalistic setting in or near their camp. He would have liked to videotape more but civil war in the Central African Republic made that impossible.

Later, Hewlett, Roulette and a person unfamiliar with the hypotheses coded the taped behavior of children and adults to identify moments when an adult modified his or her behavior to enhance learning, researchers’ minimalist definition of teaching.

The researchers documented 169 discrete teaching events, like a caregiver demonstrating how to use a knife. Almost half lasted less than three seconds, with teachers giving positive and negative feedback, demonstrating activities, pointing, giving verbal instruction and “opportunity scaffolding”- providing an object like a digging stick and the chance to use it.

Hewlett said he was surprised to see how frequently the Aka teach their infants. More than 40 percent of the time, infants imitated skills to which they were exposed. On average, for less than four minutes average of teaching, they practiced skills for more than nine minutes.

The teaching interventions were brief and subtle, and Hewlett came to appreciate the value of letting the child learn as much as possible on his or her own.

“We know learning can be very rapid when it is self-motivated,” he said. “When you take away the autonomy of the child, that impacts the self-motivation of the child.”

The technique gives the child more choices and serves as an alternative to helicopter parents who hover over an infant and say, “go do this, go do that, you need to do this, you need to do that.”

“This way steps backward in the other direction,” he said, as in, “I need to provide advice here or there but I don’t have all the right answers for my child.”

Abstract of the study:

A debate exists as to whether teaching is part of human nature and central to understanding culture or whether it is a recent invention of Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic cultures. Some social–cultural anthropologists and cultural psychologists indicate teaching is rare in small-scale cultures while cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists indicate it is universal and key to understanding human culture. This study addresses the following questions: Does teaching of infants exist in hunter–gatherers? If teaching occurs in infancy, what skills or knowledge is transmitted by this process, how often does it occur and who is teaching? The study focuses on late infancy because cognitive psychologists indicate that one form of teaching, called natural pedagogy, emerges at this age. Videotapes of Aka hunter–gatherer infants were used to evaluate whether or not teaching exists among Aka hunter–gatherers of central Africa. The study finds evidence of multiple forms of teaching, including natural pedagogy, that are used to enhance learning of a variety of skills and knowledge.

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Great video (and research): unfolding the brain

Last week I heard on Dutch radio somebody explaining the research behind the story in this video and  thought it was fascinating.

If you want to know more, check this article or this study published in Nature:

The folded surface of the human brain, although striking, continues to evade understanding. Experiments with swelling gels now fuel the notion that brain folding is modulated by physical forces, and not by genetic, biological or chemical events alone.

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A case against iPad-babies: high-tech toys could stagnate babies’ communication skills

Young families were one of the first to adopt high-tech in their lives, and my wife and me too: the tablet has helped us a lot while traveling with our sons.

But this new study gives some warning lights. When babies and toddlers play with a tablet or other noisy device, they often play alone, which can be detrimental to their development, according to Sarah Hill and Bradford Wiles. Research has shown that children need meaningful interaction with adults to reach their full social potential. Do note: it’s not the tablet itself it’s causing the effect, but it has indirect effects. Do note too that the amount of participants is rather small.

From the press release:

When buying toys for children, choosing the flashiest toy with all of the bells and whistles might seem like the best option. But in fact, these high-tech toys could actually slow a baby’s development of verbal skills.

The reason behind this could be traced to less verbal interaction between parents and children. In a study by Northern Arizona University, researchers found that although these noisy toys captured the child’s attention, they didn’t produce quality interactions between the parent and child.

“Even as toddlers, you don’t want to isolate children from each other,” said Kansas State University assistant professor Bradford Wiles. “What you want are things that can be shared that involve a dialogue back and forth with peers and especially with adults.”

When children play with a tablet or other noisy device, they often play alone, and these effects can be detrimental to their development, Wiles, a K-State Research and Extension early child development specialist, said. Children need meaningful interaction with adults to reach their full social potential.

“Research results are starting to indicate that when children isolate themselves through the use of these tablets, they are not able to regulate their emotions as well, and they’re not able to get along as well with their peers,” Wiles said.

In addition, what tends to happen when children are given a fancy new tablet, or other form of flashy toy, is they don’t soak in the information presented to them. This can render these tablets as an expensive way to waste development time.

“We’re teaching children how to use a tablet, but the information that’s on the tablet, the children aren’t really retaining,” Wiles said. “So we think we’re teaching them things like letters and numbers, but what we’re really teaching them well is how to use a touch screen.”

Opportunities to enhance verbal development

Wiles said research has shown that children who read books with their parents had far better dialogue skills than children who are constantly presented with noisy toys.

“Learning to read is a necessarily engaged activity, so you have to have somebody mentoring you through that process,” he explained.

Puzzles offer another great opportunity to interact with children.

“You can give a 12-piece puzzle to a 2-year-old and help that child learn how it works,” Wiles said. “It’s going to be difficult at first, but it can help children and adults learn about each other.”

He advises parents to consider that any activities involving positive interaction seem to help a child’s verbal development the most. Therefore, it’s the basic interaction between parents and children that allow children to blossom. Just because an expensive toy is marketed to make babies or toddlers “smarter” doesn’t necessarily mean that it will.

“Anything you’re doing as a parent that involves play — creative play, imaginative play — that’s going to do it anyway,” Wiles said. “Any other artificial means are just that, just artificial. It’s the simple things we know that work.”

However, Wiles said it is important to remember that as children get older, it’s okay for them to start going off on their own to do things.

“Once children master reading, certainly it is no problem for them to go read on their own,” Wiles said. “The progression goes, ‘You learn to read, and then you read to learn.'”

Abstract of the paper:

Importance  The early language environment of a child influences language outcome, which in turn affects reading and academic success. It is unknown which types of everyday activities promote the best language environment for children.

Objective  To investigate whether the type of toy used during play is associated with the parent-infant communicative interaction.

Design, Setting, and Participants  Controlled experiment in a natural environment of parent-infant communication during play with 3 different toy sets. Participant recruitment and data collection were conducted between February 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014. The volunteer sample included 26 parent-infant (aged 10-16 months) dyads.

Exposures  Fifteen-minute in-home parent-infant play sessions with electronic toys, traditional toys, and books.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Numbers of adult words, child vocalizations, conversational turns, parent verbal responses to child utterances, and words produced by parents in 3 different semantic categories (content-specific words) per minute during play sessions.

Results  Among the 26 parent-infant dyads, toy type was associated with all outcome measures. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words (mean, 39.62; 95% CI, 33.36-45.65), fewer conversational turns (mean, 1.64; 95% CI, 1.12-2.19), fewer parental responses (mean, 1.31; 95% CI, 0.87-1.77), and fewer productions of content-specific words (mean, 1.89; 95% CI, 1.49-2.35) than during play with traditional toys or books. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys (mean per minute, 2.9; 95% CI, 2.16-3.69) than during play with books (mean per minute, 3.91; 95% CI, 3.09-4.68). Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys (mean per minute, 55.56; 95% CI, 46.49-64.17) than during play with books (mean per minute, 66.89; 95% CI, 59.93-74.19) and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys (mean per minute, 4.09; 95% CI, 3.26-4.99) than during play with books (mean per minute, 6.96; 95% CI, 6.07-7.97).

Conclusions and Relevance  Play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys. To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.

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Funny on Sunday: this could well be my biggest fear

No comment…

(found via this tweet)

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Musings about Technology in Work and Life

Some important points being made in these “musings” + relevant sources throughout the text!

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

The history of technology has shown again and again that its primary purpose has been (and is) increasing productivity, that is, doing more with less (see here, here, and here). In doing so, technology has also increased choice and creativity in both work and life.

Examples of applying technology to work to increase productivity range from the invention of the stocking frame in mid-18th century England (thus, prompting the outburst from weaver Ned Ludd and his supporters) to the agricultural harvester in the late-19th century U.S. to the latest MRI that diagnoses patient ills . In each instance, increases in textile productivity, farm output, and diagnostic accuracy meant more efficiency in labor and, ultimately, more profits for those who owned the technology and used it. Also choices increased (see here, here, and here). The Internet (and especially social media) has broadened access to…

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New article by Maarten Simons & me: “Scarcity at school”

I most of the time post research by others or debunks of educational myths. But I still try to write scholarly work too. Today a new article has been published ahead of publication in the European Educational Research Journal. It’s written by Maarten Simons & me and we examine the theoretical consequences from the insights and results of the work by Mullanaithan and Shafir.

Abstract of the paper:

In this review essay we examine the consequences for education of the insights shared in the book Scarcity by Mullainathan and Shafir (2013). After a brief summary of the book, we describe three possible links between scarcity and 1) the creation of slack at school, 2) the student’s personal environment and 3) and the turning of learning into a production process. Based on these three possible consequences further avenues for research are presented.

Do contact me for more info if needed.

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How being a helicopter parent can hurt your kids academic results

Helping your kids with their homework could seem like a good idea, but earlier research already showed that isn’t the case. This new study links the parental style to academic results and the findings aren’t that surprising when you know the earlier research: Parents who take the overparenting approach, known as helicopter parenting, are possibly hindering their child’s development by becoming too heavily involved in homework, although is at bit more complicated than that. Do note that this is based on an online survey.

From the press release:

A QUT study involving 866 parents from three Brisbane Catholic/independent schools found those who endorse overparenting beliefs tend to take more responsibility for their child doing their homework and also expect their child’s teachers to take more responsibility for it.

“There is concern this greater parental involvement in ensuring homework is completed, particularly in high school, is actually impacting the child’s ability to take responsibility for their homework or understand the consequences of their actions,” said QUT Clinical Psychologist Dr Judith Locke.

“The irony is a helicopter parenting style with the goal of fostering academic achievement could be undermining the development of independent and resilient performance in their children.

“Parental involvement is a child’s school experience is considered an important factor in their academic success and homework is a key aspect of that. However it seems some parents may take the notion too far and continue to assist children at an age the child should be taking most of the responsibility for their academic work, such as the senior school years.

“Parental assistance with homework should slowly reduce as a child gets older and daily parental involvement in an adolescent’s homework would be developmentally inappropriate.”

“These parents appear to not only help their child more, they also expect their child’s teachers to help them more, particularly in the middle school and senior school years.

“We know from recent research, that there may be a point where parental assistance ceases to be beneficial, especially as children reach adolescence and young adulthood, and can result in poor resilience, entitlement and reduced sense of responsibility.”

Dr Locke said studies in America which reported on parental over-involvement in a student’s university life found it to be extremely detrimental.

“Some parents choose their adult child’s subjects, edit or complete their assignments and badger lecturers to improve their child’s grades,” Dr Locke said.

“When these parents are making these decisions or providing academic pressure it has been found the adult student disengages from their education and often has increased depression and decreased satisfaction with life.

“The results of this study may go some way to explain why some parents are continuing to be highly involved in their adult child’s academic life.”

The ‘Overparenting and Homework: The Student’s Task, But Everyone’s Responsibility’ study, which used the new Locke Parenting Scale (LPS) overparenting measure, will be published by the Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools.

Participating parents completed online questionnaires about their parenting beliefs and intentions, and their attitudes associated with their child’s homework.

“Parental help can be constructive by showing interest and coaching them to complete their work, but unconstructive assistance includes telling a child the right answer or taking over from them when they are completing school tasks,” Dr Locke said.

“Those who scored highly on the LPS measure in our study may have been reacting to greater academic difficulties of their child and without an objective measure of the child’s academic skills we cannot rule that out.

“However, this study is one of the first to indicate that overparenting may result in parenting actions and expectations of their child’s school which may not enable children to fully develop academic responsibility and self-regulation skills.”

Dr Locke added that further research should examine whether extreme parental attitudes and reported behaviours were having a negative effect on students or resulting in children taking more responsibility for their homework.

Abstract of the study:

A high level of parental involvement is widely considered to be essential for optimal child and adolescent development and wellbeing, including academic success. However, recent consideration has been given to the idea that extremely high levels of parental involvement (often called ‘overparenting’ or ‘helicopter parenting’) might not be beneficial. This study used a newly created overparenting measure, the Locke Parenting Scale (LPS), to investigate the association of overparenting and children’s homework. Eight hundred and sixty-six parents completed online questionnaires about their parenting beliefs and intentions, and their attitudes associated with their child’s homework. Parents with higher LPS scores tended to take more personal responsibility for the completion of their child’s homework than did other parents, and ascribed greater responsibility for homework completion to their child’s teacher. However, increased perceived responsibility by parents and teachers was not accompanied by a commensurate reduction in what they perceived was the child’s responsibility. Future research should examine whether extreme parental attitudes and reported behaviours translate to validated changes in actual homework support.


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Study says: Parental depression negatively affects children’s school performance

A new study has found that when parents are diagnosed with depression, it can have a significant negative impact on their children’s performance at school. The results of this study is not really surprising if you have been following this topic for a while. We have known the possible negative effects e.g. of a divorce on a child’s performance. Still it’s important to bare in mind when one of your pupils is in this situation.

Disclaimer: this time I wasn’t able to read the actual study as I didn’t have access (grmbl…). While there is written in the abstract that linear regression models were used adjusted for various child and parent characteristics, I don’t know which characteristics.

From the press release:

Researchers at Drexel University led a team including faculty from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and the University of Bristol in England in a cohort study of more than a million children born from 1984 until 1994 in Sweden. Using computerized data registers, the scientists linked parents’ depression diagnoses with their children’s final grades at age 16, when compulsory schooling ends in Sweden.

The research indicated that children whose mothers had been diagnosed with depression are likely to achieve grades that are 4.5 percentage points lower than peers whose mothers had not been diagnosed with depression. For children whose fathers were diagnosed with depression, the difference is a negative four percentage points.

Put into other terms, when compared with a student who achieved a 90 percent, a student whose mother or father had been diagnosed with depression would be more likely to achieve a score in the 85-86 percent range.

The magnitude of this effect was similar to the difference in school performance between children in low versus high-income families, but was smaller than the difference for low versus high maternal education (low family income: -3.6 percentage points; low maternal education -16.2 percentage points).

How well a student does in school has a large bearing on future job and income opportunities, which has heavy public health implications, explained Félice Lê-Scherban, PhD, assistant professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health. On average in the United States, she said, an adult without a high school degree earns half as much as one of their peers with a college degree and also has a life expectancy that is about 10 years lower.

“Anything that creates an uneven playing field for children in terms of their education can potentially have strong implications for health inequities down the road,” Lê-Scherban said.

Some differences along gender lines were observed in the study. Although results were largely similar for maternal and paternal depression, analysis found that episodes of depression in mothers when their children were 11-16 years old appeared to have a larger effect on girls than boys. Girls scored 5.1 percentage points lower than their peers on final grades at 16 years old when that factor was taken into account. Boys, meanwhile, only scored 3.4 percentage points lower.

Brian Lee, PhD, associate professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health, said there were gender differences in the study’s numbers, but didn’t want to lose focus of the problem parental depression presents as a whole.

“Our study — as well as many others — supports that both maternal and paternal depression may independently and negatively influence child development,” Lee said. “There are many notable sex differences in depression, but, rather than comparing maternal versus paternal depression, we should recognize that parental depression can have adverse consequences not just for the parents but also for their children.”

Depression diagnoses in a parent at any time during the child’s first 16 years were determined to have some effect on the child’s school performance. Even diagnoses of depression that came before the child’s birth were linked to poorer school performance. The study posited that it could be attributed to parents and children sharing the same genes and the possibility of passing on a disposition for depression.

Abstract of the study:

Importance  Depression is a common cause of morbidity and disability worldwide. Parental depression is associated with early-life child neurodevelopmental, behavioral, emotional, mental, and social problems. More studies are needed to explore the link between parental depression and long-term child outcomes.

Objective  To examine the associations of parental depression with child school performance at the end of compulsory education (approximately age 16 years).

Design, Setting, and Participants  Parental depression diagnoses (based on the International Classification of Diseases, Eighth Revision [ICD-8], International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision [ICD-9], and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision [ICD-10]) in inpatient records from 1969 onward, outpatient records beginning in 2001, and school grades at the end of compulsory education were collected for all children born from 1984 to 1994 in Sweden. The final analytic sample size was 1 124 162 biological children. We examined the associations of parental depression during different periods (before birth, after birth, and during child ages 1-5, 6-10, and 11-16 years, as well as any time before the child’s final year of compulsory schooling) with the final school grades. Linear regression models adjusted for various child and parent characteristics. The dates of the analysis were January to November 2015.

Main Outcome and Measure  Decile of school grades at the end of compulsory education (range, 1-10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest).

Results  The study cohort comprised 1 124 162 children, of whom 48.9% were female. Maternal depression and paternal depression at any time before the final compulsory school year were associated with worse school performance. After covariate adjustment, these associations decreased to −0.45 (95% CI, −0.48 to −0.42) and −0.40 (−0.43 to −0.37) lower deciles, respectively. These effect sizes are similarly as large as the observed difference in school performance between the lowest and highest quintiles of family income but approximately one-third of the observed difference between maternal education of 9 or less vs more than 12 years. Both maternal depression and paternal depression at different periods (before birth, after birth, and during child ages 1-5, 6-10, and 11-16 years) generally were associated with worse school performance. Child sex modified the associations of maternal depression with school performance such that maternal depression had a larger negative influence on child school performance for girls compared with boys.

Conclusions and Relevance  Diagnoses of parental depression throughout a child’s life were associated with worse school performance at age 16 years. Our results suggest that diagnoses of parental depression may have a far-reaching effect on an important aspect of child development, with implications for future life course outcomes.

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6 strategies that work in teaching

There is a new – quite damning – report by the National Council on Teacher Quality on the handbooks used in teacher training in the US. You can read all about it in this article by Neurobonkers. The essence of the report: the textbooks aren’t teaching teachers what they should.

But more interesting is that the researchers focused on 6 proven strategies that work (which are often not mentioned or only briefly in the textbooks researched). What are those 6 strategies and do you know them?

The first two help students take in new information:

  1. Pairing graphics with words.

    Young or old, all of us receive information through two primary pathways — auditory (for the spoken word) and visual (for the written word and graphic or pictorial representation). Student learning increases when teachers convey new material through both.

  2. Linking abstract concepts with concrete representations.

    Teachers should present tangible examples that illuminate overarching ideas and also explain how the examples and big ideas connect.

The second two ensure that students connect information to deepen their understanding:

  1. Posing probing questions.

    Asking students “why,” “how,” “what if,” and “how do you know” requires them to clarify and link their knowledge of key ideas.

  2. Repeatedly alternating problems with their solutions provided and problems that students must solve.

    Explanations accompanying solved problems help students comprehend underlying principles, taking them beyond the mechanics of problem solving.

The nal two help students remember what they learned:

  1. Distributing practice.

    Students should practice material several times after learning it, with each practice or review separated by weeks and even months.

  2. Assessing to boost retention.

    Beyond the value of formative assessment (to help a teacher decide what to teach) and summative assessment (to determine what students have learned), assessments that require students to recall material help information “stick.”

Do read the full report here.

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The Usefulness of “Useless” Knowledge

“Without knowledge there can be no sure progress. Vice and barbarism are the inseparable companions of ignorance.”

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Back in 1939, Alexander Flexner wrote an article in Harper’s magazine entitled The usefulness of useless knowledge. Flexner is a famous education reformer and founder and first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Its faculty members include scholars such as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, John von Neumann, and George Kennan. It was striking that the content of the article was still so timely after more than 75 years!

This is the opening paragraph:

usefulness of useless knowledge

After reading the article, there were two things that crept up and kept gnawing. First, the current Dutch State Secretary for Education, Sander Dekker, has been expressing a strong urge for applied research. In this he is not much different than those in high political positions in other countries. This is quite a popular thing to say in general and in this specific case, the…

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