Monday, 6 July 2020

Is Learning Unified?

A common criticism of education research is that there is no coherent theory of education. There are lots of specialised theories, mini-theories, practical rules, and a few macro-theories, but no coherent scheme within which they all hang together. Among the macro theories, constructivism serves the purpose of effectively explaining this unhappy situation away: because theory, like knowledge, is constructed there can be no single overarching process unifying learning.

The question of the unity of learning is related the much discussed question of the unity of consciousness (see Consciousness too suffers the same fate - there are obviously lots of processes going on in consciousness. Is it simply a happy accident that they all come together to produce my thoughts and actions, or is there some hidden mechanism that we will one day discover which ties the whole thing together. Because, it does seem that somehow the whole is tied together.

If we could take all the parameters of learning, alongside some guiding principle of how they might be connected, would we uncover a "unity of learning"?

This is something that has been lurking at the back of my "Important Things Group" which continues to meet online. This week's discussion ranged from the pathology of institutions to the nature of energy.

I wonder if the situation in education is a bit like the situation in chemistry before Mendeleev. There were obviously lots of differences between matter - different substances had different properties. But there was no way of unifying the way we spoke of those different substances - no way of relating things that looked completely different from one perspective, so that the deep connections not only between completely different things, but between those things and everything else could be made.

More importantly, because Mendeleev had an idea as to what the connecting principle might be, he could identify where those known substances fitted in his scheme, and (more importantly) where there might be substances that are not yet known that might fit in the gaps. The proof of what might be considered a "unity thesis" in chemistry came when he could fill the gaps.

So what are the parameters of learning? Communication, or conversation, seems to be an obvious one to start with. Of course, communication itself is not a single thing - it is a process. But it is a process with a pattern. It can generate order (in cybernetic terms, it reduces entropy) in understanding. It produces utterances, writings, videos, etc in the environment - it generates information. And it cannot do anything unless the living system which communicates has the energy to communicate.

Is the biological substrate of communication a parameter in learning? It must be, surely. So what is the pattern of the biological substrate? It turns out, this is homologous to the human conversation. Cells create order in their internal organisation and with each other. Cells create signals - proteins (information) - which they put into the environment of other cells.  And cells cannot do anything without energy, which they absorb through a process called chemiosmosis.

So we have two processes here which look very similar: one at a biological level, the other at a communicative/educational level. And they are connected.

Now the trick is to look for a pattern which unites the three basic parameters that have been described - negentropy, information and chemiosmosis. In Mendeleev's periodic table, atomic mass and reactivity were the fundamental variables he used to organise the varied phenomena of substances. The logic of reactivity was determined by a basic understanding of the need to balance chemical equations. If we look at the parameters of learning from the perspective of negentropy, signals and chemiosmosis, then is there a way of conceiving how these parameters might "balance", and how each item might "react" with others?

To do this, we need a more fundamental description of the parameters of learning than cells. We need to look at Quantum Mechanics. In Dirac's equation of quantum mechanics, there are 4 expressions which taken together detemine the behaviour of subatomic particles like electron, determining  (among other things) the Pauli exclusion principle which is the reason why electrons organise themselves into shells in the first place.

How does Dirac's equation work? It turns out that the sum total of all the parameters that it describes in the universe is zero. This is hardly a surprise, since Newton's 3rd law of motion also means that the total force in the universe must be zero. More surprisingly is the fact that Einstein's equation of mass energy and momentum can also be expressed as zero in the same way.

Zero may be the key.

So is zero the thing which provides the unity of learning? The attractiveness of thinking this is that if one analysed the parameters that we know about, and found that it didn't quite make zero, we would know that there must be some parameters which we had not properly considered. Effectively the parameters of learning form a kind of "group structure" which rotates according to the different degrees of elements of learning, and as they do, they leave gaps which reveal parameters that we hadn't thought about.

I want to pursue this a lot further, but it does resonate with me in some fundamental ways. Not least that the discovery of gaps, and the prediction of the parameters which might fill those gaps, seems to be a fundamental part of the process of teaching. Just as much as it was a fundamental part of the process Mendeleev went through as he probed his periodic table... 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Dialogue Jam in Vladivostok and the Connection to Global Online Research

I've long been an advocate of formative feedback through video (I was doing it over 10 years ago - 10 years ago, it took quite a lot of effort to do - but it was still worth it because students watched the videos and gained a lot more from this than they would have done if I'd just written it. Now this kind of practice has got a lot easier.

The global takeover of institutional groupware by Microsoft may be seen as an important moment for institutions. Microsoft Teams and Stream will shortly become institutionally ubiquitous in the same way that Word and Excel are today. The Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok invested in Teams a few months back, and my work with teachers there this week has fully exploited its potential. The Global Scientific Dialogue course which I was preparing them for involves lots of video communications - both synchronously and asychronously. Over the course of this last week, the asynchronous video communications were much more interesting that the synchronous stuff.

One teacher - a biologist - made a video of her comparing two documents about systems and organisation, revealing that she had been introduced years earlier to Wiener's book on cybernetics (this was an exercise that I'd asked them to do as part of the course). I didn't know about her familiarity with Wiener, but through a combination of auto-translated captions and video feedback I was able to make some contributions to her journey.  What's so important about this kind of feedback is that the listening that takes place is very careful - on both sides. We play-back and listen to each  other far more attentively than one would otherwise do.

I had a similar experience with another teacher/student, who initially said that they thought that online learning could be no good because there was no smell or touch. I initially thought this was a bit reactionary, but then I recalled conversations about epigenetics that I've been having with Prof. John Torday, and reminded myself that the epigenetic markers (some of which will produce smell) are indeed formative in biological (and by extension, cognitive) development. This is not to say that there can't be compensating factors - but perhaps these compensating factors lie in a deeper and more personal engagement which itself can produce other kinds of epigenetic marks.

This raises the whole issue of deeper connections and what else is happening online - particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Everyone is at their computer. So people can install all kinds of new tools - AI tools (in Russia, I used a few mobile AI apps), tools for video making, tools for analysis and visualisation (we used deep dream), programming, etc. And increasingly we see tool-driven education with things like Kaggle. Tools are more important than content now, and provide the focus for discussion and learning.

On Thursday, the physics/biology discussion group met and we discussed a provisional idea of a "periodic table of biology". This was one of the most animated and exciting discussions we have yet had in the group - ranging from cell signalling to quantum theory at one end, and yoga and meditation at the other.

All of these things are now online. They are not in closed rooms along dusty corridors in buildings. They are on YouTube and GitHub. And the kind of meta-discussion which I was having with my students in Vladivostok could equally be connected with the discussions that scientists and sociologists/psychologists are having in the discussion group. The technology is capturing conversation, and creating the opportunities for meta-conversation - and increasingly this is happening at the periphery of the traditional institution.

This is not to say that traditional institutions aren't important. But it is saying that the world of academia - and the practice of scholars - is changing very fast, and universities are slow-moving bureaucracies. It is not the first time in the history of Universities that this has happened. The Vladivostok experiment is a way of opening-out education to this new world of scientific dialogue and ubiquity of tools. The Russians can do it because they are not (quite) so beholden to the constraints of a market logic which is strangling universities in the West. The Chinese are also experimenting, and we should expect more radical experiments to come as they both hold on to more of their own students (so they don't go overseas - which will put Western Universities under financial stress), and they recruit teachers from the West. 

Conversation itself, in this form, can be "content". This is not content in the way we traditionally conceive it - it's not books and papers. It is a living system of human interactions between people who are thinking at the frontiers of science. Making the connections between students and these conversations is becoming increasingly feasible, just as making connections across the world and across languages is also becoming feasible (look how the translation tools in YouTube and Word provide enough information for communication to take place). Barriers are coming down.

If I was 18, this is what I would want to be involved in. I wouldn't want a load of assessments to gain points to get a certificate which won't deliver the job that it promised when I enrolled. I would want connection to the best minds around and find out how they talk, and to learn how I can join in the discussion. That is the new academic apprenticeship - the technology might have just cut out a whole load of irrelevant barriers.  

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Meta-Dialogue at the Far Eastern Federal University

On Monday at 6am I'm leading a small group of Russian teachers at the Far Eastern Federal University in a preparatory course for the next iteration of the Global Scientific Dialogue course which is now in its 3rd year. I've said many times how much I have appreciated the openness and creativity of my Russian friends, which has often been in stark contrast to the rigid market-oriented constraints of the Anglo-Saxon HE system. We need difference - and I don't believe difference is going to come from the ideology of Anglo-Saxon HE.

Global Scientific Dialogue was always envisaged as a vehicle for driving conversation between students and teachers. It was really inspired by the work of physicist David Bohm, who realised that the fundamental problems of science were not in the content matter of science - they were in the way scientists talk to each other. It was bad in Bohm's time. With the naked marketisation of the knowledge economy and the gamification of academic publishing, things are much worse now. The course also drew on work on conversation from cybernetics (Gordon Pask), phenomenology (Alfred Schutz, Edmund Husserl), sociology (Niklas Luhmann, Loet Leydesdorff), mathematics (George Spencer-Brown, Lou Kauffman), philosophy of technology (Gilbert Simondon), biology (John Torday), and physics (Peter Rowlands). I've also been happy that the approach is aligned to other developments in dialogic education such as Rupert Wegerif's work in Cambridge (see The starting point of Global Scientific Dialogue was the point of realisation that all these people were basically saying the same thing - and we needed to talk about it.

The pandemic has accelerated things.  For some considerable time, it's been obvious that the professoriate of the academy (or at least those who were the real professors, even if they weren't formally recognised as such!) has been reorganising itself online. ListServs have been very important for nearly 20 years. The Foundations of Information Science ( has numbered some illustrious names in fields ranging from mathematics, physics, biology, semiotics, sociology and philosophy.

More recently, these scholarly discussions have shifted to videoed meeting through Zoom and other similar platforms. It took the pandemic to make this happen, but having got everyone on there (even the most tech-phobic professors), there will now be no going back. Physicist John Williamson's "quicycle" ( has been growing for a few years, but has really taken off in the pandemic. Last week mathematician Louis Kauffman gave a talk (which was a collaboration between him and Peter Rowlands in Liverpool) about the mysterious Majorana Fermion, and its topological significance. This was the discussion at the end:

I have accidentally ended up doing a similar thing, because of two friends whose work I introduced to each other, and because of the pandemic which made the Zoom connection possible. John Torday has a radical theory of evolutionary biology which relates cellular communication to quantum mechanics, and is backed up with an impressive array of empirical data relating to studies of the lung and asthma, while Peter Rowlands has spent his career rewriting the laws of physics in a way which provides a foundation for Torday's thinking, and which also is commensurable with fundamental work in mathematics developed by Kauffman. So we all met on Zoom, and have continued to meet each week, each time developing the dialogue and the connections between biology, physics and everything else. I have half-expected it to run out of steam, but it doesn't seem to have done yet. It started like this with four of us:

And gradually, I invited more people. They came from architecture, management, education, cybernetics, psychology, philosophy, art history, and technology (so far).

But the real trick is to get students involved. Joining the conversation now is a process of observation of the dynamics of people who are working at the frontiers of their fields talk with one another and attempt to find connections between one another. I've been wondering if that is too off-putting for students - there's no gentle way-in. Now, there's not even any time to make introductions. I try to keep the sessions to an hour (no more than 90 minutes).

I've been doing a similar dialogic thing with a group of students in Liverpool who have been doing projects related to educational technology. Because these students have come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the key has been to make connections between disciplines and technology, which inevitably means digging into the nature of technology, and its connection to biology, physics, sociology, history, art, etc. A couple of students ended up in academic area quite close to the discussion that I was hosting online. So I sent the student snippets of the online discussion saying "this is what people working at the frontier are doing, and this is how they are talking with one another". That seemed to fire their imagination, and many of the results have been very good.

I've often thought that "the way forwards is always meta". I don't know who said that first (it's a Bateson-ish thing perhaps), but I think it's right. So Global Scientific Dialogue will be a meta-dialogue. We've got to get the professoriate talking (the real professoriate). And we've got to video their discussion. These videos will become the resources to lead a meta-dialogue in which students can be introduced to the ways people talk, the content of what they talk about, their biographies, and in the process conduct their own dialogues based on this.

The students dialogues will then also create a resource-base at a different level - a commentary. Some students will gradually find that they are perfectly comfortable within the base-level dialogue group, participating with the scientists. Others will continue at a commentary level, producing dialogic resources which then feed another level of engagement by other students.

So in September, we will have 200 Russian students doing this, creating meta-dialogues. YouTube translation tools are going to be invaluable  (technology is so important to this process). This week I will concentrate on teachers doing it (which can be a resource for the students in September).

At the root of all this is a fundamental principle of education. To teach is to reveal one's understanding of something. It is not to hide oneself behind a Powerpoint presentation, but to reveal oneself - both when one is leading the argument, and when one is learning from others.   It actually can only work online - it would be impossible to do without technology. But more importantly, higher education can be much better for it. 

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Pribram's Biology of Learning

The psychologist Karl Pribram contributed a fascinating essay on "The 4 R's of Remembering" in a volume of essays on the biology of learning (see and the essay here ( This volume also contains a fascinating paper from Konrad Lorenz, but Pribram's paper is the most striking because it cuts to the fundamentals of education in a way that nothing does today.

The poverty of our present scientific inquiry into education is a scandal. We have allowed a marketised education system to stymie inquiry in ways that have been shaped by journal publishers, with unconstructive critique which endlessly swings from one fad to the next, making random academic "celebrities" in the process, and a discourse on education which has become entirely beholden to the social sciences which are in a similar mess. The possibility for educational experiment has been dissolved by ambitious vice-chancellors alongside dull bureaucrats who defend mediocrity in the name of "quality". It's all ridiculous.

So Pribram's essay is a breath of fresh air - from 1969. His 4 R's are: "Representation, reconstruction, registration and rearrangement". But the biggest R is "redundancy" - through repetition and multiple descriptions of the same thing. Pribram doesn't explicitly mention this, but redundancy can be both synchronic and diachronic, and he sees "representation and reconstruction" as a form of synchronic structuring, while he sees "registration and rearrangement" as diachronic.

He begins by making the case for taking information theory seriously in education, and particularly redundancy over information (redundancy is the negative image of "information"). Gregory Bateson was making a similar point in his work at the same time. Redundancy is context, and without context, there is no meaning (tell that to the machine learning people!)

Pribram is interesting because his work drew on the quantum mechanics of David Bohm. He saw in the patterns of electrical activity in the brain a fractal which referenced the origins of the universe. This seems fanciful, but Pribram amassed a lot of evidence that something weird was going on. He was interested in how these fractal patterns encode memories in the brain. Within the brain, Pribram argued that there was a holographic process that related neurons to each other, and that this holograpphic process was related to the deeper "holomovement" that Bohm postulated within his physical theories. Something like this must be going on, intuited Pribram, in order to explain intuition, deep thought, insight and empathy - all those processes where the power of the intellect is so manifest and apparently magical.

This raises questions as to the mechanisms by which these holograms are established in the brain. Pribram speculates about the role of proteins encoding interference patterns, which implicates cellular processes of protein expression in DNA. But it also raises a question as to how an encoded interference pattern is then decoded to produce a "memory". The key in this process is the redundancy of the holographic encoding, and the way that this redundancy is paired with the presentation of input signals which trigger memories. Effectively, redundancies interfere with one another producing patterns which relate to the encoded mental structures ("Event dimly remembered become more vivid when we return to the scene of the experience"). Memory is carried "out there" as much as "in here": its in the DNA as much as it is in what we might now call the epigenetic marks in the environment.

Pribram concludes:
"for education, the moral is clear. Instruction (shared discovery of structure) should supplement teaching (showing). The tools for structuring and restructuring must be developed by the pupil; the machinery of reconstruction must be put together. The techniques of analysis and of synthesis are to be empasized. The simple repetition of loosely connected facts ought to give way to the search far structure in the material to which the student is exposed. The short-answer test, which explores the number of items retained (ever so briefly and meaninglessly), ought to be recognized for what it is-a labor saving. featherbedding procedure to process the students through the school system with the least possible effort on anyone's part."
For the diachronic aspects of cognition, Pribram makes more explicit reference to redundancy. He is particularly interested in the process of reinforcement, which obviously is an aspect of redundancy. He considers the role of redundancy in the encoding of time:
"The process can be conceived to encode and distribute redundancy in a temporal mechanism much as the neural hologram achieves the distribution of redundancy spatially. When this active organizing process is engag~d, events are promptly registered in memory. Without the operation of this mechanism, items must be repetitiously presented to the organism before they bccome "memorized.""
In the  accompanying "rearrangement" process, Pribram asks how a temporal encoded structure is decoded and reassembled through experience. He makes the case for a kind of selection mechanism which distinguishes the segments of memories and rearranges them appropriately. He relates this to the experience of education:

"These experimental results suggest that a great part of the educational process, except for the acquisition of skills, lies in arranging and rearranging one's experiences. When I was in college, as today, there were individuals who "cribbed" during exams. One of the most effective methods was to condense the most important material onto small cards or even onto the inside of the shirt cuff. I was impressed and envious-identification and imitation quickly suggested itself. But as I began to work studiously through the course material in order to compress the relevant facts and ideas adequately, I found that I could go the "cribbers" one better. The arranging and rearranging of notes constituted a superb review. And the aim toward parsimony in expression left me with a few key cards, which could now easily be committed' to memory, since a context had been provided by the review. With one stroke, rearrangement had given me superiority: not only did I remember the material for the examination; I gained knowledge of enduring value and didn't have to risk disruption of my social fabric or of my conscience."

I think this work is very admirable, even if I have some reservations about some aspects of the theory and methodology. We need more of this - particularly now. 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Modelling Government Failure

I've just been watching Andrew Marr's interview with Michael Gove. It's easy to criticise the obvious, but it is much harder to ask scientific questions as to the underlying reasons for what is patently a collapse in the effective functioning of the institution of government. Government has spent so long modelling the dynamics of a virus that nobody fully understands, and making policy decisions on the back of the fairy-stories which emerged from red and green dots on a screen, that they failed to ask questions about themselves.  But in the final analysis, and in the light of international comparison, the story will be that the horrifying death toll was caused by government failure. It's little consolation that Johnson, Gove, Vallance, Cummings and co will be seen as tragically lethal lunatics to future historians.

Systems collapse when they are overwhelmed by complexity. Another way of thinking about complexity is to consider that it is the aggregate of the variety of different problems that must be managed: "variety" is sometimes used as a unit of complexity.

In asking about government failure, we should consider the mechanisms which produce the variety that the system cannot absorb. What COVID-19 actually did was increase the variety in the natural environment of society in a way which meant that existing structures of social organisation are no longer viable. Therefore, the thing that has to change is the organisation of society to something which is viable under the new conditions. Understanding and acknowledging the potential of the threat to the social environment so that there is readiness to drastically restructure society will obviously be the best way to absorb this kind of shock. It is not surprising that those countries who had recent experience with epidemics like SARS were well-equipped to change their social structures. But the first question to ask of the UK is, despite the "world-leading" research in public health, and ample work on the risks of a pandemic, nothing existed in the mechanism of government to enact a radical social reorganisation in a timely fashion.

It seems that many of the mechanisms that might have permitted this were dismantled for short-term economic reasons in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

But this only explains the delays in acting. It doesn't explain the further chaos that has ensued, and which still appears to be apparent in government actions. Understanding that can shed more light on the lack of foresight in the beginning.

One of the most interesting phenomena from both the UK and the US has been the "daily government briefings". It's been more obvious in the US than the UK, but these have effectively been vehicles for government propaganda, reinforced by many media outlets with close ties to government. This info-war is at the root of government failure. It's basically the equivalent of the ENRON shareholder meetings where everyone is told "We're doing great!" when the opposite is happening. The financial crash of 2008 resulted from similar mechanisms of misplaced trust and political expediency.

The fundamental role of government is to maintain the viability of society. In order to maintain viability one has to understand the nature of the complexity that has to be managed, where it comes from, and what one must do to adapt so that it can be effectively absorbed by the inter-relationships of the government machine. But one has to study complexity to understand it, and particularly to take care that one is monitoring the right signals. All complex systems produce a vast array of different signals - think about how a heart condition might lead one to think that one has indigestion. If we track the wrong signals, we will reach the wrong conclusion.  If we act on the conclusions we reach from tracking the wrong signals, we are likely to make things worse. This is what's happened to the UK government.

So the question is "How has the government tracked the wrong signals, and how has its capacity to recognise its errors been compromised?"

I suspect there's an uncomfortable narrative that joins up a lot of the pathologies of the current UK government and its predecessors. It was the Blair government that discovered the power of managing the information flows from government to the people. By exploiting technology, governments realised they could use sophisticated techniques for making themselves look good, and remain electable. It is noteworthy that the Labour government was brought down by another environmental disaster in the financial crisis which arose because the same approaches had been used in the relationship between banks, investors and governments.

The Brexit campaign and the last two elections were the high watermark in the info-war, where not only UK actors like Dominic Cummings, Cambridge Analytica, etc were monitoring the infostreams, but mischievous foreign actors were in the mix too. The message was clear: manipulate the message and you'll stay in power (and you may get very rich). The underlying message to that was that it was the infostream which was the signal from which to monitor the health of the nation. It is the wrong signal.

So what happens when you monitor the wrong signal? You believe you have indigestion when you are about to have a heart attack. So you act to control the signal, and you make the problem worse.

The outward manifestion of this is the "announcement of progress". Every day, the government briefing has been full of initiatives: locking down, producing ventilators, financial support, ordering PPE, rates of testing, vaccines, bleach, international comparisons ("ooh we're better than x" - until we're not), opening schools, the app, the Isle of Wight, sunbathing, and so on. Whilst not wanting to draw attention away from the substance of some of these (like the lockdown or the financial support), each is an attempt to control the information stream. But it's chaos because the PPE doesn't arrive, the testing falls below target, the international comparisons don't work any more, and the app almost certainly won't work. But they knew these were likely risks before they made the announcement - so the announcement could only have been made in a desperate attempt to control the information stream, and maintain a sense that "We're doing great!" in the face of obviously contradictory evidence. The result is that the thing they wish to control - the information stream - actually becomes more complex to manage. It's positive feedback - the root of all system failure.

What this points to is a fundamental lack of variety and intellectual capacity at the heart of the government operation. It's pretty much what was said in a powerful article in BMJ last week (, criticising the constitution of the SAGE committee and the government's chief scientific advisers. There was nobody to say "You're monitoring the wrong signals" because "monitoring the wrong signals" is not a thinkable thought in a government whose main objective is to stay in power by manipulating the information flows between itself and the public. Government has effectively become a toxic monoculture.

What is actually needed right now is a restructuring of government. But it is very hard to see how this might happen. The monoculture is feeding itself, and many more thousands of people are going to die. The long term damage to the UK is going to be disastrous. In particular, the loss of so-called "soft power" (a deeper facet of information management) will have a huge cost on all our institutions - particularly universities.

So what is going to happen? A government machine hell-bent on its own survival at all costs, for which it sees the management of information as the principal guide to its success, will tie itself into increasingly complex knots. Its attempts to manage information will drive it to hide inconvenient figures, in the same way that we see in other countries. It will invent legalistic ruses to force people back to work in dangerous situations, and it may begin to prosecute those who oppose it. But at some point it will all snap.

Coronavirus has drastically changed our environment. But it is not the crisis. The real crisis is the systemic collapse of government.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

In the Disruptive Light of COVID-19

There was a bit of an unkind fuss when Clayton Christensen died, with a number of people criticising/blaming him for some of the unfortunate pathologies of recent educational technology. "Disruption" was a dangerous idea, it was claimed (although many of us got lots of funding for claiming our kind of disruption would be good!) Christensen's work certainly wasn't very deep (although nobody complains about that!), but if we had looked deeper, we would have seen a whole education system which sought Christensen's kind of "disruption" as a way of maintaining its existing structures and practices. It was a convenient foil for essentially conservative institutions to appear to be radical, whilst at the same time cutting-back on personnel and resources in the name of innovation. What they claimed to be "disruptive" was basically conservative neoliberalism - and it was bullshit.

Now, however, we have real disruption. Not Christensen's fairy stories, but a real monster turning everything, including our institutions, upside down. I'm not sure Christensen had a pandemic in mind, but what could be more disruptive? And in the light of this disruption, all those "disruptive innovations" are revealed in their true conservative light!

The point about these conservative disruptions is that they are not disruptive - they essentially reinforce an old order. They exist to serve a market of existing institutions, structured in a traditional way. Basically, they are parasites, and at the heart of their parasitic attachment are uninspected assumptions about education, certification, educational markets, institutional status, and learning.

What everyone is realising very rapidly is that you can't teach effectively online using the same practices that you might use face-to-face. But it is not just a matter of exploiting particular tools, or changing the structure of activities. The ethos of the whole educational enterprise is transformed when we move online. While it might have been enough to run through a few Powerpoints, exercises, or even do a little groupwork, where the intellectual depth of the engagement was often a little bit shallow, going online means the intellectual depth really matters.

We rarely talk about the intellectual depth of our engagements with students. The curriculum effectively sidelined intellectual depth in the name of measurable learning outcomes and the uniformity of educational "products": this was the end of thinking in our universities. But thinking really matters because it is only through depth of thought that real connections are made between people - between learners and each other, and between learners and teachers. It is only through depth of thought that we "tune in" to the inner worlds of each other, as Alfred Schutz put it.

Intellectual depth is not an epiphenomenon of doing assignments and getting a degree. It is an essential parameter in the establishment of relationships with each other and with the world. While the distractions and comforts of the campus might provide alternative ways in which relationships might form - in the coffee bar or the pub - compensating for the dull bureaucracy of the assessment machine, online the compensations are absent. The intellectual connection must happen between teachers and learners, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart. It was the real weakness of the MOOCs that this didn't happen.

The organisational problem for universities is that the space for teachers to establish meaningful connections has been removed and replaced with a one-size-fits-all curriculum jam-packed with textbook nonsense, assessments with rigid criteria that encourage shallow strategic learning, and vast over-recruitment which leaves everyone gasping for air. These are the real problems that universities will face in September. It's really got nothing to do with technology.

As for technology, really the simplest stuff will do. Intellectual depth doesn't require rich media, although the powerful digital artifacts that we can now make can be a spur to intellectually deep conversations.  However, because we think of artifacts like Powerpoint slides or videos as conveyors of information, we miss their essential relational effect: their power lies as objects in a shared lifeworld between the teacher and the learners. The learning is not in the object. It is in the depth of the intellectual conversation that we can have about the object.

COVID-19 is the most powerful and all-encompassing "object" to have invaded all our lifeworlds for as long as any of us can remember. This is what we should be talking about now. But I fear that come September, universities will try to ignore it. Of course they will do their social distancing, and online meetings, etc, but they will try to talk about curriculum objects which they always talked about (and many lecturers will hide behind their Powerpoints in Zoom, like they did in the classroom).

It's a weird situation really. Imagine War of the Worlds, where the Martians have landed, zapping people at regular intervals. In society, everyone is talking about it. Except in the universities - where they have Core Study Skills and Employability 101, and worry about whether there'll be enough humans left to fill their courses.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Beyond Homeostasis: Some thoughts on biology, physics and cybernetics

John Torday, Peter Rowlands, Andrew Crompton and myself had a Zoom meeting today in which we talked about some fundamental issues in physics and biology. These have a bearing on thinking about education and development, and a particularly strong association to cybernetics.

Both Peter and John have theories about nature which reference a kind of recursive recapitulating symmetry in nature, from a fundamental original order, through to complex manifest biological and physical reality. There are differences between them in terms of defining what this original order might be: for John, it is a historical event, the Big Bang, and its associated singularity (although I gather from Peter that the singularness of the Big Bang is now contested). For Peter, original order means a totality of nothing in the universe (from Newton's 3rd Law), with the recursive and recapitulating mechanism driving a process of complexification in nature through successive levels of expressing the original nothingness at different orders of organisation.

Of particular interest in the discussion was John's view of epigenetics as a fundamental mechanism of evolutionary development through continual interaction and absorption of the environment by cells which exhibit levels of homeostasis at different orders of complexity. As cells seek to maintain homeostasis, they absorb epigenetic marks from the environment which steers the evolution of the species. The epigenetic marks themselves found their way into the environment from biological reproductive processes, fundamentally involving the sex organs. In other words, the old generation's expressions of epigenetic marks will lie in the environment to be picked up by the next generation, and in so doing, the ontogeny of the individual organism recapitulates the phylogeny of the species.

With regard to certain hormones this is very interesting. The balance between the androgens and oxytocin - the former causing "fight or flight" behaviour, the latter fundamentally related to generosity and love - shifts from youth to old age. The dominance of oxytocin in later years may help explain the growing warmth of the elderly - particularly in their attitude to the young. This, John argues, is not simply a behavioural shift - it is an evolutionary balance that serves to nurture the future of the species. I can think of many examples of particularly aggressive men who, in old age, find a new warmth of tone in dealing with the world (and people forget what complete bastards they were when they were younger!)

If this recapitulation of phylogeny is a kind of regulatory mechanism, then it raises questions as to how we are to think about things like homeostasis at all. Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable state in a system in its environment - but it is a local phenomenon: homeostasis in maintained in local biological systems. But with epigenetics we are not talking about a local situation, but a broad historical situation where biological processes are spanning generations.

Piaget preferred Waddington's term homeorhesis - which is the tendency to maintain a stable flow, rather than a stable state. But that doesn't quite do either, because it lacks any explanation as to what might be driving a processes of homeorhesis.

This is where Peter's theory is so powerful. If totality is zero (or nilpotent in Peter's terminology), and local phenomena recapitulate this zero-ness by seeking to cancel themselves out, then it is possible to imagine that both the expression of epigenetic marks like oxytocin or the androgens driven by a principle of nilpotency at one stage in one context, and where their absorption at a later stage by a different generation is similarly part of a local process of trying to "cancel oneself out". And that process can then reproduce what appears to be a regulating mechanism connecting ontogeny and phylogeny. The key mechanism in this process is the creation of a selection mechanism for the organism that determines its behaviour according to how it believes its survival will be most likely: in other words, an anticipatory system.

More deeply, this means that our concept of homeostasis is too flat to describe these inter-generational historical processes.  As Conant and Ashby noted, every good regulator of a system is a model of that system. The third dimension of homeostasis, or indeed homeorhesis is anticipation. In their normal cybernetic conception, neither concepts have it, and because of this, neither can explain the underlying force for regulation. Moreover, anticipation itself can be driven by a nilpotent principle.

So we have to get beyond homeostasis. In the three dimensions that Peter's work takes us towards, our systems concepts look very different.