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Topic: Innovations and Constructivist Perspective
Your school system received a large grant and your middle school is one of the chosen grant recipients. The grant requires the school to restructure its educational program, use technology, and meet the needs of all students. Your middle school population is quite diverse. Most students with disabilities are in regular education classes; you have one self-contained class for students who have emotional disabilities. You know that it will be necessary to differentiate instruction.
Your colleagues have discussed various philosophies of education, including behaviorist perspectives, cognitive perspectives, and constructivist perspectives. As a member of the planning team, discuss a rationale for using a constructivist perspective as you design your new curriculum. Will there be times when you might need to use other perspectives? In your post, include a reaction to the Meyer article. How does it relate to your position? In your posts, be sure to explain and defend your position.
Next, you will explore the instructional technology that will be needed to be integrated throughout the curriculum. Identify a rationale for using and integrating technology. What are some of the tools that you believe should be included? (Be specific.) Are there times when computers should not be used? Can technology use have a negative impact on student growth? Why, or why not?
Topic: Innovations and Constructivist Perspective Your school system received a large grant and your middle school is one of the chosen grant recipients. The grant requires the school to restructure i
Educational Philosophy and Theor y, Vol. 41, No. 3, 2009 doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00457.x © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA Blackwell Publishing Ltd Oxford, UK E PAT Educational Philosophy and Theory 0013-1857 0013-1857 © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia 457 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00457.x July 2008 0 0 332??? 341??? Original Ar ticles The Poverty of Constructivism Derek Louis Meyer The Poverty of Constructivism Derek Louis Meyer St Georges’, University of London Submitted: 03 July 2007; Revised: 17 March 2008; Accepted: 05 June 2008 Abstract Constr uctivism claims to be a postepistemology that replaces ‘traditional’ concepts of knowledge. Supporters of constr uctivism have argued that progress requires that pre-ser vice teachers be weaned off traditional approaches and that they should adopt constr uctivist views of knowledge. Constr uctivism appears to be gaining ground rapidly and should no longer be viewed as an exercise in radical thinking primarily aimed at generating innovative teaching. It has become an integral part of the pedagogic mainstream. Close examination of the theoretical foundations of constr uctivism, however, reveals that the basic assumptions of constr uctivism are flawed. Far from being a postepistemology, constr uctivism simply regresses to a pre-Renaissance mindset with theology replaced with a psychologism. Constr uctivists should be aware that the implications of constr uctivism for future generations may be both profound and non-benign. Keywords: constructivism, epistemology, knowledge, radical constructivism, theory of knowledge Introduction In this paper I examine the basic theoretical assumptions and explore the implications of constructivism. While there are several variants of constructivism, I concentrate on the radical constructivism of Ernst von Glasersfeld. Many social constructivists may follow Berger and Luckmann (1967) to argue that ‘We are only tangentially interested in how this reality may appear in various theoretical perspectives to intellectuals’ (Berger and Luckmann, 1967, p. 33, my italics). There is however a difference between being only tangentially interested and actual disagreement. I hold that it was largely von Glaserfeld’s work that explored and defined the theoretical groundwork of constructivism as a whole, and I will leave it to individual social and other constructivists to distance themselves from this. Over the past 25 years Ernst von Glasersfeld, Leslie Steffe and others drew heavily on the work in developmental psychology of Jean Piaget (1896–1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and began to question some of the basic philosophical assumptions that underlay the teaching methods they observed in the last quarter of the 20 th century (Pass, 2004). Their questioning prompted many educators to The Poverty of Constr uctivism333 © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia re-evaluate their approach to teaching, and spurred a burst of innovation and creativity. This was initially concentrated on Steffe’s field of mathematics but spread to educators teaching science and other disciplines (Fosnot, 2005). The aims of constructivism however, go far beyond being an agent provocateur to challenge current thinking and to promote classroom innovation. Von Glasersfeld views constructivism not as a pedagogic theory but as an epistemological statement. That is, he views constructivism as an ideology committed to a specific world view. In von Glasersfeld’s words: ‘What is radical constr uctivism? It is an unconventional approach to the problem of knowledge and knowing. It starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it is defined, is in the heads of persons, and that the thinking subject has no alter native but to constr uct what he or she knows on the basis of his or her own experience. What we make of experience constitutes the only world we consciously live in. It can be sorted into many kinds, such as things, self, others, and so on. But all kinds of experience are essentially subjective, and though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same’. (Von Glasersfeld, 1995a, p. 1, my italics) While von Glasersfeld sees constructivism as a new approach to epistemology, he also believes that constructivism breaks with the traditions epistemology and so can be called postepistemological. This view is not idiosyncratic in the con- structivist community. Gergen (1995) also feels the millennia-long dialog on epistemology is coming to a close because of the work of him and his fellow constructivists. It appears that constructivists view constructivism as a replacement for a whole field of philosophy. There is an implicit value judgement here. For example, Desautels (2000) implies that constructivism is a superior model to anything that preceded it, and that because it is superior attempts need to be made to wean new teachers off more traditional approaches. He considers constructivist proselytising desirable but a long struggle, claiming that ‘a review of teacher education literature does not give cause for much optimism about the transformation [to constr uctivism] of preser vice teachers’ ideas of knowledge, lear ning and teaching during their education course’ (Desautels, 2000, p. 196, my italics). Steffe (2000, p. 278) also sees a hard but necessary struggle, and feels that ‘the per petuation of the traditional model of teaching … ser ves as a major deterrent to progress in teacher education’. Their pessimism may be misleading. While constructivism may not yet frame most existing practising educator’s ideas of knowledge, learning and teaching, anecdotal evidence suggests it has made significant progress in teachers’ and lec- turers’ education programmes. Although the relativism that underpins constructivism has been attacked by contemporary philosophers (Reclaiming Tr uth, Norris, 1996 is a prominent example of this) the attack has not stopped constructivism’s growing popularity in education. While it is difficult to determine what percentage of pre-service educational programmes hope to produce constructive educators in preference to other types of teachers, constructivism is clearly gaining ground. The 334Derek Louis Meyer © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia British Education Index lists 22 articles on Constructivism in 2000, 30 in 2001, 36 in 2002, 57 in 2004 and 85 in 2005. Constructivism can no longer be viewed as an exercise in radical thinking primarily aimed at generating innovative teaching. It has become an integral part of the pedagogic mainstream. The next generation of teachers may view constructivism as uncritically as their predecessors viewed what von Glasersfeld calls traditional epis- temiology. Constructivism has moved far from its roots in developmental psychology and teaching children arithmetic and may well be a crucial element in moulding the world outlook of the coming generation. In view of constructivism’s capacity to influence the world outlook of future generations it is worthwhile to critically review the fundamental tenants of constructivism and to test the rigour of the theoretical framework on which constructivism is based, as well as to explore the implications of constructivism for humankind’s ability to mould its future. Consider the following thought experiment on delivering a 17 th century Astronomy module. The Astronomy Module—A Thought Experiment Constructivist frameworks require classroom innovation. In previous years I lectured on the various ideas of great astrological thinkers such as Ptolemy, Aristotle and Eratosthenes and the results were disastrous. Even when my students did manage to correctly recite passages in Greek they often ascribed them to the wrong philosopher. Many students had no grasp of the deeper meaning behind these great ideas and viewed the module as simply an exercise in memorising paragraphs and attributing them to the correct person. In order to encourage the students this year to think and explore I divided the class into groups. Students were allowed to select their own groups and in many cases this happened spontaneously. For example, some Catholics formed a Latin-speaking group. The Germans also tended to stay together, although this group included Protestants and Catholics. Those with a less pious outlook formed a group. Each group was not given a classical authority to study but were encouraged to play an active role in defining their learning. Groups were asked to consider what was studied in astronomy and what constituted the cosmos. All groups then reported their conclusions, and there was consensus that astronomy discussed the earth and heavenly bodies. There was some discussion on whether angels were heavenly bodies and whether we should discuss angels in astronomy, but we all reached a consensus that the earth, sun, moon and stars were definitely heavenly bodies and would be studied in astronomy, while angels were persons and not bodies. When we met the following week we re-iterated our consensus as to what we thought were heavenly bodies, and the groups were asked to consider how these bodies were positioned in relation to each other. The Catholic group conferred quickly before their spokesperson put up his hand. ‘We know this and there is a true answer. The Holy Communion has shown that Scriptures reveal that the earth is in the centre and all other heavenly bodies orbit round the earth.’ Since they were content with that they packed up and went to The Poverty of Constr uctivism335 © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia lunch. The spokesperson for the less pious group (which included student G) said that they were not that up on their theology, but if the first group knew the answer they must be right since they would never guess on a matter of theological fact. It was also obvious that the earth was stationary because being on a moving object causes vertigo. I listened to the discussion in the mainly Protestant group. Martin Luther recalled that sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth. Copernicus quietly suggested that the centre of the universe is near the sun, the rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars and the apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving round it, and wrote out some mathematics to reinforce his point. John Calvin asked who would venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit. At this point it looked like this might become acrimonious, so I asked if anyone else in the group had any ideas. Osiander said that Copericus’s calculations were just a simpler way to calculate the positions of the heavenly bodies, only dealt with the appearances of things and not with the truth, and didn’t prove anything. Copernicus smiled shyly and the group left amicably. At this point I reflected on the learning experience and congratulated myself on two successful lessons, but things soon began to go wrong. One of my students, Cardinal Newman, came to my office the next day looking upset. Student G had harangued him in the canteen and mocked his geocentric views and this had shaken him. He told me he had been brought up to believe in the immobility of the earth, and had associated it in his mind with the incommunic- able dignity of man among created beings, with the destinies of the human race, with the locality of purgatory and hell, and other Christian doctrines. We discussed the issue in some depth. I told Newman I was impressed at the deep insight he had into astronomy, and that I could understand his views on how the position of the earth in the cosmos was a harmonious reflection of the position of Humankind in Creation and of his personal relationship with God, and that this was fundamental to the meaning he had found in his life. In these circumstances it was not surprising that Student G had upset him so much. I hoped that was the end of the issue, and had planned my third lesson to be on corruption and incorruptibility in the cosmos. I worked through the icebreaker activities I had devised to restore a sense of mutual support and trust to the class to ensure a supportive learning environment prevailed. Unfortunately Student G arrived late and missed this. He made no attempt to acquaint himself with the matter under discussion in his group, but put a telescope on the table and started shouting that they were all wrong and that he knew the earth moved. I went over and commented on his telescope. Student G insisted it showed that he and Copernicus were right and everyone else was wrong. I stopped the lesson to allow several students to use the telescope and look at interesting features in the town, but none of us could fathom why Student G was so agitated. Despite the fact that the class had moved on to another topic Student G continued to disrupt the class, shouted at other members of his group and badgered members 336Derek Louis Meyer © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia of Copernicus’ group. (Copernicus had withdrawn from the course on health grounds.) I tolerated this for a while before having a quiet word with Student G, but this had no effect. It was clear that the whole class were having their learning experience compromised by Student G, and I needed to intervene. Student G had chosen to work with the less pious group at the start of the course. This group was the weakest academically and so easily led by a disruptive student. The Catholic group were by far the most hardworking and disciplined and I approached the group and asked them if I could rearrange the groups and have Student G join their group. They were extremely reluctant and pointed out that they were serious scholars, had a sound knowledge of theological certainty and found his harping on about the motion of the earth tedious. I eventually persuaded them on the grounds that they had a duty to help maintain a constructive learning atmosphere in the class, and they agreed on condition that Student G kept his opinions on heliocentrism to himself. I spoke to Student G and made him aware of the seriousness of the situation, and he said he was prepared to change groups and comply with these conditions. The situation however did not improve. Student G was boastful and abusive to the students in his new group. He openly mocked them in the Tavern and called them names like ‘Simplicio’. He amused the students in the Tavern by doing dialogues, ostensibly between himself and the other members in his group on the topic of heliocentrism. He spoke both sides of the argument, but he contrived the dialogue to ensure his character was eloquent while his opponent’s character was slow and his character won every exchange. The Catholic group formed a deputation and came and discussed the matter with me. I agreed that Student G had no right to disrespect their views and after considerable thought we came to the conclusion that the well-being of the class required that Student G be excluded from the course. I gave Student G a note to take downstairs to the Inquisition, and this sobered him up very quickly. Although he renounced the concept of heliocentrism and agreed never to teach or defend it, his views were declared disruptive and he was expelled. Once the disruption caused by Student G was addressed, the class progressed well. I was very pleased with the way they responded my new teaching approach, and decided to repeat the approach with the class of 16xx. I walked passed Student G later. He was waiting with his bags for a ride home, a pathetic figure and far removed from the cocky braggart I had first met. I thought he might apologise for his behaviour and I greeted him cordially. He looked at me and hissed ‘And yet it does move!’. Discussion on the Astronomy Module The above thought experiment tells the story of the Heliocentric Revolution and the Inquisition’s persecution of Galileo, 1 our disruptive Student G. The reason why the story works as a constructivist lesson is because the crucial constructivist ideas mirror the mindset that was prevalent in late medieval Europe. For the Catholic Church, truth was not on the end of a telescope. The same could be said about Protestants or Aristotelians of the period. The Catholics considered truth The Poverty of Constr uctivism337 © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia to be dogma and the teaching of the true Church. Protestants regarded truth to be Holy Scripture. The Aristotelian view of truth was less straightforward and involved logic and non-contradiction. The constructivist view of knowledge as ‘a kind of compendium of concepts and actions that one has found to be successful, given the purposes one has in mind’ (Von Glasersfeld, 1995b, p. 7, my italics) is in this sense closer to the pre-Renaissance mindset. It is certainly closer to the pre-Renaissance mindset than the pre-Renaissance mindset is to the so-called ‘traditionalist episte- miological view’ that there is an ontological reality, and that knowledge is an ever closer approximation to that reality. Many people, from the ancients onwards, had held heliocentric views and had not attracted the wrath of the Inquisition or of anyone else, and Galileo’s discoveries were much less important in establishing heliocentric astronomy than those of other astronomers. He was persecuted not primarily for his beliefs or his discoveries but for the intolerance he displayed for the Church’s meaning. Galileo’s point was that his telescope gave him closer access to ontological reality than divine revelation and all of the Church’s great thinkers. This gave him license to trump the Church’s views and to contradict and disrespect the meaning many people attached to the Church’s teaching. As Rowland (2001, p. 6, my italics) states, ‘the dispute was over two conflicting views of the nature of tr uth and reality and about the role religion and science ought to play…’. Von Glasersfeld’s claim (1989, p. 162, my italics) that ‘the function of cognition is adaptive and ser ves the organisation of the experiential world, not the discover y of ontological reality’ is a general statement on evolutionary biology and not a fun- damental constraint on every individual. People have some choice over how they use cognition, and since the Renaissance people have chosen to become pure scientists and to use cognition to discover at least a closer approximation to ontological reality. The statement that ‘for some 2500 years the wester n world has manifested an overwhelming tendency to think of knowledge as the representation of a world outside and independent of the knower … The “goodness” of a piece of knowledge was to be judged by how well it corresponded to the “real” thing’ (Von Glasersfeld, 1995a, p. 113, my italics) is not quite correct. Instead of ‘for 2500 years’, read ‘since the 1600s’. It was Galileo’s achievement to help establish that the ‘goodness’ of a piece of knowledge was to be judged by how well it corresponded to the ‘real’ thing and to be a martyr in this cause. This was one of the gems of the Renaissance and an important milestone in human history. Since the dawn of time humankind has developed narratives that give meaning to experience. Galileo’s contribution was to shed a brutal light on the distinction between meaning and knowledge. What is meaningful in the most profound sense may not be knowledge—that is, it can be meaningful and wrong. Knowledge can also destroy meaning. There is no deeper ‘meaning’ in the earth being the third rock orbiting the sun. It is not ‘a kind of compendium of concepts and actions that one has found to be successful, given the purposes one has in mind’. It is just a fact. It destroys an entire belief structure on what it means to be human, puts nothing in its place and mocks the human need for meaning. 338Derek Louis Meyer © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia This distinction between meaning, understanding and knowledge is what con- structivism obscures. Constructivism is not merely unable to distinguish knowledge from superstition. For a constructivist there is no difference between knowledge and superstition. This is not a postepistemology. Constructivists have just undone Galileo and returned to the world view of the Middle Ages with theology replaced by a psychologism. A Theoritical Critique Constructivism starts from a basic assumption. ‘It [radical constr uctivism] starts from the assumption that knowledge, no matter how it is defined, is in the heads of persons’ (Von Glasersfeld, 1995a, p. 1, my italics). Is everything in the heads of persons then knowledge? If this is von Glasersfeld’s intention, then fallacy, error, hallucination and frank psychotic ideation are all knowledge because these are also in the heads of persons. To adopt this interpretation would be to use the word ‘knowledge’ in a highly technical sense. It is too removed from the common usage of the word for constructivism to be a ‘Theory of Knowledge’ or even a ‘Theory of Knowing’ in the common sense. Constructivism is simply a theory of the creation of mental objects, or a theory of how ideas come into being. If there are things in the heads of persons that are not knowledge, how are they to be distinguished from the things that are knowledge? A person has the following in their head and believes them all: 1. The dog at No. 57 is dangerous but won’t bite people who stay calm, 2. The woman at No. 66 is a witch but won’t hex people who carry garlic, and 3. The young lad at No. 101 is an alien but won’t crystallize the blood of people who wear purple underpants. If some of these things are knowledge and some are not, an external property must exist which can be used to distinguish which is which. Since this property is external it follows that at least one property of knowledge is not in the heads of persons. Since knowledge is not therefore entirely in the heads of persons, von Glasersfeld’s initial assumption is false and constructivist conclusions are invalid. Von Glasersfeld himself talks of ‘viability’. ‘Actions, concepts and conceptual operations are viable if they fit the pur pose or describe contexts in which we use them. Thus, in the constr uctivist way of thinking, the concept of viability … takes the place of the traditional philosophers’ concept of Tr uth’ (Von Glasersfeld, 1995a, p. 14, my italics). Two or all three of the examples above may appear equally viable to the person involved and to others, so the concept of viability does not appear to be helpful in distinguishing them. Viability is a term drawn from biology. Non-viable variants die out and viable ones survive. This is essentially the survival of the fittest, or in other words, the survival of the survivors, which is a tautology. The term also seems to imply that a thought becomes knowledge if it persists. Von Glasersfeld does not specify how long a patient with an acute drug-induced psychosis needs to binge before the mental pathology becomes knowledge. The Poverty of Constr uctivism339 © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia The question of how to distinguish knowledge from superstition has been a key philosophical question since the Renaissance. While the certainties of rationalism, empiricism and positivism have been superseded in contemporary philosophy by postpostivism (Phillips & Burbules, 2000) and critical realism (Bhaskar, 1979), the question of how to determine the truth value of a particular viewpoint is still seen by many as crucial. To conclude, as constructivism does, that it is philosophically impossible to distinguish between knowledge and superstition because they are a positive or pergorative name for the same thing, is to condemn society to a deeply pessimistic scepticism. Further Implications Highlighting the inherent contradictions within constructivism is however beside the point. Constructivism is taught in pre-service training and an increasing number of new teachers may consider themselves constructivists and accept con- structivist assumptions. What are the implications of this? From a Constructivist perspective, knowledge of the Holocaust, like all knowledge, is in the heads of persons and only in the heads of persons. Once the Holocaust passes from living memory all knowledge of the Holocaust will be lost. Of course artefacts pertaining to the Holocaust will remain, so there will still be books on the events of 1939–1945, archive film footage, original documents, taped interviews and so on, but none of this represents knowledge. Individuals may construct meaning based on these artefacts but the concept of truth has no meaning for a constructivist. If a history teacher tells his class that ‘they have created a myth in the name of the Holocaust and consider it above God, religion and the prophets’, 2 all construc- tivists must view this as a viable comment that reflects something called knowledge that is inside the teacher’s head. Since however a constructivist teacher doesn’t transmit knowledge at all, there is no reason why such a statement should be made. One lesson could be scheduled where students construct their own knowledge on the role of religion in society, a second where students construct knowledge on myths and the art of forgery, and a third on the implications of the Holocaust for the peoples of the Middle East. While some parents may object to the meanings the children construct for themselves, the School Governors could argue that this has always been the case across generations and is not their responsibility. As constructivists reject the concept of Truth there is no vertical, and without a vertical an allegation of bias, or arguments on degrees of bias, are meaningless. The aggrieved parents are however likely to take the issue further and coerce the Governors into employing a teacher whose views are more to their liking. The logical conclusion of this is that formal or informal guidelines will be drawn up outlining what views are acceptable, which in effect amounts to the establishment of dogma on this particular point. The dismissed teacher would then move to a school that has a more sympathetic dogma. There is no reason to suggest that the constructivist’s rejection of ontological reality in favour of personally constructed meanings would lead to a multiplicity of mutually respected views. A more likely outcome is that views will coalesce into 340Derek Louis Meyer © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia dogmatic camps, and that differences between camps will either remain unresolved or will be resolved through coercion. While the constructivist’ rejection of ontological reality may have implications for history, the implications for ecology may be more devastating. The view that global warming is a social construct, and that the science that tracks global warming is just one social construct among many, may make it impossible to galvanise a global response to a preventable ecological disaster. Conclusion Since Constructivism is receiving a growing amount of attention and is having an impact on pre-service training, it can no longer be regarded as an exercise in lateral thinking designed to stimulate innovation. Its fundamental premises need to be examined and the implications of constructivism explored. This article has dem- onstrated that constructivism’s basic premise is not sound and the subsequent conclusions not valid. The implications of constructivism are far-reaching. Galileo’s contribution to Renaissance thinking was to dramatically highlight that closer access to ontological reality gives the individual the right to successfully challenge and destroy both formal dogma and the less formal constructions many people developed to give meaning to their lives. This led to the development of intellectual tools for empirical observation and rational debate to determine whose access to ontological reality is the closest, and these tools in turn allowed liberal democracy to flourish. Constructivism however claims that ontological reality is not accessible. It follows that it is not possible for constructivists to distinguish between knowledge, superstition, or indeed, frank psychosis. Since constructivism has no mechanism that allows the distinction between knowledge and superstition to be made, if any distinction is desirable it has to be made through the establishment of a dogma. This in effect undoes Galileo’s contribution and returns to a pre-Renaissance mindset. Since 1989 the consensus on liberal democracy has been strongly challenged in some parts of the world by theocratic dogma. While it is still possible to argue that local circumstances have induced certain countries to regress into theocratic dictatorship, claims that there is a global consensus on the legitimacy of liberal democracy are becoming harder to defend and there does appear to be a global trend away from a consensus on liberal democracy and towards the acceptance of theocracy as a valid basis for government. The challenge of global warming may be the greatest challenge facing the global community. There is a possibility that this challenge can be met by a combination of good science and political determination. The constructivist view that both global warming, and the science necessary to avert disaster, are simply constructs among many constructs, with none having a natural pre-eminence, may make achieving the necessary political determination impossible. Close examination has revealed that the theoretical foundations of constructivism are far from solid. Constructivists should also be aware that the implications of constructivism for future generations may be both profound and non-benign. The Poverty of Constr uctivism341 © 2008 The Author Journal compilation © 2008 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia Notes 1. For a less fanciful view of the Heliocentric Revolution and Galileo’s life and trail see: Hanson, 1961; Koestler, 1968; Johnston, 2006; Rowland, 2001; and Shea & Artigas, 2003. 2. Comment originally attributed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, . 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