Monday, 17 November 2014

Music and Science in Moscow

I'm preparing a presentation which I'm giving at a Philosophy of Science conference in Moscow tomorrow. I've never been to Moscow before - it's quite an extraordinary place, so rich in history and culture: there is a strong feeling of the 'alternative' story of the history of the world which might have been told had communism worked, had the Berlin wall not even been needed, let alone fallen. With this alternative ,story, there is also a very evident split in the consciousness of the place. The tyranny of Stalin has gone (the odd statue and the miraculous decoration in the Metro glorifying his achievements are ghostly reminders), but it seems to have been replaced with a new kind of tyranny imported in a peculiar way from the West: the tyranny of consumerism. In Red Square there is a huge department store called "Gum": how many handbags, diamond rings, phones, shoes and coats could anybody need? I guess to Russians this is a wonderland - after the communist years where there was nothing in the shops, suddenly there is more than they could possibly dream of. There it is, a glimmering monotony of sparkling things. People wander round pretty aimlessly, half looking at the stuff and half attending to their mobile phones.

The new tyranny has put everyone to sleep.

What's the connection between this and my paper? Well, my paper is about music and social structure. It's about the fact that the structure of the content of an act - an artistic act - has a bearing on the social structures that emerge around it. Put another way, the aesthetics of the environment bear upon social structures. Understanding the social efficacy of aesthetic acts might help to understand exactly how the "being-put-to-sleepness" relates to the monotony of jewels in the windows, and the click-click-click monotony of continual smartphone addiction.

The deep question is for the people and for government. Something has happened to the ecology of our environment when all cities look the same and fill themselves with the same sparkly things. Government regulation (or lack of it) creates this situation. In Moscow it is probably because vast swathes of land were snatched up by the powerful who over-developed it very quickly with little regard to the overall effect. It's interesting to think that although London has the same kind of thing, it's not quite on this inhuman scale: layers of history and the law prevent such a sweepingly industrial transformation overnight.

What if we could see the deep social ecological effects of government action or inaction? Could we ask ourselves "Is this what we want?". Could we demand of our leaders that they safeguard the balances of social life, and monitor more effectively whether they actually do this or not? In order to do this, we have to understand nature of the structures of things that are actually made (arcades, jewellery shops, etc) and their effects on social experience and transformation of social structures. Maybe this is the goal to aim for. I suspect education is at the heart of it all...

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Georges Bataille and Gregory Bateson: Two aspects of courageous thought

Bateson and Bataille might at first appear to be a strange combination. I bet there are few people who know of one of them who would know very much about the other. They are very different. And yet I think they share much between them. They were both outsiders: Bateson was a scientist largely ostracised by the scientific community, only to find friendship with Californian new-agers whose woolly earthmotherness he didn't have a lot of time for. Bateson's work carries powerful messages and has had widespread influence, but it doesn't quite nail the central problem he was dealing with, leaving it open to interpretation. Bataille really wanted to be seen as an economist - yet his economics work "The Accursed Share" is barely known by economists (and by few others), despite what I think are significant similarities between his work and the American institutionalism of people like Veblen. Where Veblen identifies the 'atavistic' qualities of institutional life, Bataille digs into the detail and lays its sexy dirty world out for us to gawp at. Of course, Bataille became famous not for economics but for his attention to sex and eroticism, and for all the misinterpretations of his work carried forward by lesser thinkers like Foucault and Baudrillard.

Both these thinkers displayed an intellectual courage that only total commitment to the truth brings. A wise friend of mine told me that there were basically two kinds of academic: those who relentlessly pursue the truth, and those who defend an intellectual position. There are sadly rather more of the latter than than the former in even our best universities! The former struggle to survive in the system - and increasingly so. I am continually astonished by the 'no-go' areas that so many academics exhibit. "That's not my field", is the typical response to the child-like question that asks "but what about...?" And there are so many "but.. but.. what about..?" questions to ask. So What about sex? Isn't that pretty important? How do you account for love? Your theory might say x or y chemicals in the brain, but your family's falling apart around you right now - how do x and y chemicals help in that situation? When you get excited about your theory, are you not just wanking? What is the experience of alienation? How do you make someone less alienated? What about fear? Your rational model is all fine but there are things which people think which they don't talk about, and yet it manifests in other (often destructive) ways... And, of course nobody can account for music.

What did Bataille say? In a nutshell, rational explanations are underpinned by irrational primeval forces. Moreover, critical analysis of those deep forces is possible (see his book on eroticism). I would say it's urgent. Maybe another way of saying this is to say that not-information underpins information. That's pretty much what Bateson says. Like Bataille he starts to articulate the critical analysis of the deep ecologies which connect us to each other and to our planet. At one level, it's not easy stuff. At the more childlike level it rings truer than most things you find in universities!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Martin Bean's Leaving Message from the OU: "Universities risk digital irrelevance": Is he right?

There's something a bit reassuringly old-fashioned about Martin Bean's plea for more technological innovation in Universities. It's as if the old-JISC (OJISC) is still with us (of course now we have New-JISC (NJISC) which doesn't even have access to an academic library: a rather more self-serving beast!). Bean cites the example of businesses which have failed to keep pace with technology (Jessops and Borders): his warning is "we risk the sector becoming irrelevant and even irresponsible." Heaven forbid! An irresponsible education sector!

A few years ago, I would have applauded Bean in his plea for innovation. Frankly I am grateful that this kind of ed-tech scaremongering prompted OJISC to fund things like #CETIS which provided me and others with academic thinking space in education. Now, I am not so sure. We've got to look at what's actually happened in education, and particularly what actually happened with the technologies in which we invested so much hope for a better future. We have seen a Illichian pathology cycle (Illich describes this in "Tools for Conviviality"). First we have the new innovation (the micro, web, Skype, the VLE, etc). These excite and liberate teachers to do new things. It allows them to slip under the radar of staid institutional processes: "liberty!" teachers shout!.. but then... "Hang on a minute..." says the manager, "we need to find a way of controlling this! (and maybe we can profit from it!)". It spells trouble. Remember all those liberating technologies... suddenly they become tools for institutional control and manipulation - introducing new 'efficiencies', restructuring, replacing face-to-face interactions with "functionally-equivalent" online tools.

And that's only the beginning.

What about the analytics?! Wham! We suddenly have the kind of naive Taylorist scientific management techniques which until this point have eluded education. Vice Chancellors think this is great and award themselves huge salary increases. The technology gives them Faustian knowledge of their institutions: they know how much everyone works, how much everyone is rated in research assessment exercises (just wait until we get to that!), when everyone comes in, goes home, eats lunch and what they do at the weekend (thanks Facebook!).

The information isn't the problem. It's the hubris it encourages in people who are not scholars but accountants and lawyers. Suddenly all those chips on the shoulders of the non-academic managerialista express themselves through the silicon chips and algorithms of the university's information machine. "We can make the educational sausage machine run more efficiently! Look! We could 'process' these kids with cheaper/fewer staff!" Suddenly all sorts of personal issues and psychological flaws express themselves in the managerial adhocery. "Who's running our institutions?" we must ask... "And what the fuck are they doing to them?!"

Institutions are in trouble. Accountability is compromised, boards of governors stuffed with the filthy rich, lawyers, lords and the clergy (for God's sake!!!) and dissent suppressed. If recent academic departures from the University of Essex are anything to go by, knowledge, culture and science are at risk. These people are on-the-make - if not financially, then through the status enhancement that close association to atavistic institutions grants them. Dammit, it's a wide open goal for corruption: so many institutions have student bodies full of kids not really knowing why they are in university - they've simply become victims of education - so they're compliant; and the staff? The employment prospects of many teachers in new universities (watch these particularly) was never fantastic, so these people are scared to lose their jobs: they will never speak out against the management. So the management can do what it likes; it can charge top-dollar; the students will continue to put up with it; the QAA can be satisfied with committee minutes which have no effect on the ground, and meanwhile the managerial high priests award themselves more pay, whilst squeazing the pay of those who the institutions are meant to be about (scholars).

Of course, the innovator's passion for statistics has had the most damaging effects with regard to government regulation of education and research. The masters of research assessment exercises like the REF are not scholars, but privately funded publishers and vested interests in leading academic departments (who tend to operate "research hegemonies"). Then of course, there are the online indexes like Scopus: the credit-rating agencies of research quality - all operating without having read a word of it, let alone understood any of it. Then we have the credit rating agencies of institutions themselves: the Time Higher Educational Supplement being the most dominant. They know their business and the value of their league tables, consultancy and other associated benefits of being the go-to place for assessing academic credit-worthiness.

And when defending all this indefensible managerial claptrap, what do Vice Chancellors say? "It's in the interests of increasing students' learning" Well, exactly what does that mean?  Where is this "student learning" you are increasing? How are you increasing it? What do you mean by "increasing"? Nobody can give an answer: its the essential obfuscating mystification at the heart of the corruption of institutions.

If by more innovation, Martin Bean means "more of the same" (and, with his support for MOOCs, he seems to), I think he's wrong. His message will only spell more power for the managerialists. It's a message which is designed to spell fear for those 'dusty' academics (particularly the sociologists, but also historians, ecologists, artists, philologists, philosophers) whose skills of thoughtful critique and challenge we need now more than ever. His innovative spirit has taken him to where he is. It's taken me and my colleagues to where we are. But now, the world's changed. The big story in education is not now technology; it's the hubris of managerialism and its relationship to knowledge and civil society. Technology is in the mix like a dusting of radioactive fallout. We need to understand what has happened to us, to academics, to knowledge and to our institutions. If innovation is required, it is innovation in technologies which help us to clear up the mess we've made and to hand institutional power back to teachers and students.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Big Data, Social Ecology and the Surveillance of Management by the people

One of the most distasteful things about big data is top-down-ness. We all submit information through our social media habit, and the powerful aggregate it all with sophisticated algorithms and work out new ways of controlling us. There’s a kind of TINA spirit to the whole thing (which no doubt is manufactured by elites) – big data is the ‘science’ of the future; data presents the future path for government; surveillance is inevitable.

Technology is a threat to civil liberties. But it may also be our only hope for emancipation. In order to conceive of alternatives and to realise hope, we need to critique the extent to which big data analysis is indeed scientific. My contention is that the ‘big data’ graphs and pictures are not at all scientific because there are no regularities which are explained by it; big data operates rather more in accord with the principle of sympathetic magic than science. The images hypnotise and everybody becomes imprisoned by it.

We should learn from the ecologists. Statistical ecology is an important and growing field which studies the dynamics between different organisms, food chains and habitats. Ecological analysis is used to explore the factors that contribute to the health of an ecosystem, to warn of threats to ecological diversity and to help identify interventions which might be beneficial to the management of overall ecology.

Ecological thinking in the social sciences is not new. The American sociologist Everett Hughes wrote about the “Ecology of institutions” in 1936 - just before Western Europe would unleash forces that would destroy its ecology for a generation (Hughes was particularly interested in studying Nazi Germany). Hughes points out that it is absurd to concentrate measurements on particular activities or even particular institutions. What needs to be done is to explore relations between activities and institutions and understand the constitution of their diversity. Of course, in the 1930s the tools for doing this didn’t exist. Attempts to grapple with entireties and relations were however attempted. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples is the Mass Observation project of the 1930s which focused on life in everyday Bolton (or Worktown as it was called).

If we see big data as mass observation of our social ecology we can start to ask powerful questions about the role of government. If governments destroy ecologies they are probably not doing a very good job and we should find other people who could do a better job.

But I want to start closer to home. Universities are ecologies. The different roles, responsibilities and personalities appear to constitute different ‘species’! How do they work together? In what ways do they not work together? What are the effects of managerial intervention?

Here we see the key problem with big data. Because big data results in analyses which are available to the elite, it results in decisions based on a particular elite interpretation. Consequently, decisions based on big data are attenuative according to the particular interpretation in operation. As a result, despite the potential richness of the data, social ecologies are effectively squeazed to conform to a particular ideal.

Robert Ulanowicz calls this squeazing “mutual information”, borrowing the term from Shannon. Mutual information is the coordination of the stuff which we all know about: the mission statement is a classic example of 'mutual information'. Some degree of mutual information is necessary in any ecology, because otherwise it lacks coherence. However, mutual information does not have to be imposed from the top to the bottom. It exists in teams, departments, and so on. Ulanowicz argues that we should consider the overall health and richness of an ecology by considering mutual information along with what he calls ‘flexibility’. Flexibility is ‘not information’ – or certainly it is ‘not mutual information’. It is the ‘redundant’ stuff that people do and think about which isn’t accounted for, which isn’t directly useful, which serves no apparent purpose - which drives the accountants mad or leads senior managers to accuse staff of being 'lazy' or 'unproductive'. All ecological systems exhibit both mutual information and flexibility. Without flexibility they become brittle and die as they become unable to adapt to shocks and changes in the environment.

In most institutions since the economic crash, austerity has resulted in the ramping up of ‘mutual information’ and the elimination of flexibility. My own institution conducted what it called (horribly) a ‘delayering’ exercise, removing autonomy from departments and concentrating power at the top. The tests of health are simple. How many times do senior managers say “no” to the ideas of junior staff? How many times do they refuse resourcing or funding requests? How many times do they say “yes” to their own ideas? How many times do they say “no” to their own ideas? And my favourite: How many times do people throughout the institution utter (for whatever reason) “What the Fuck?!” to things that happen per week? The WTF count is very reliable: it seems to be quite high where I am!


If we use our data right, we can ask these questions. We can demand from our managers that they act as proper custodians of educational ecologies, and not as the self-important “CEO’s” that only hubris and covetousness delude them into believing themselves to be.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Learners as Objects

My recent posts about evolution, STEM and Learning Outcomes have all come from a book chapter I'm struggling with about 'objects' in education. I have argued for a long time now that we have become distracted away from looking at the 'stuff' of education - curricula, exams, textbooks, timetables, teachers, technologies, certificates and so on and instead focused on things we can't see like "learning". We will get (and have got) nowhere with "learning". Meanwhile managers of institutes basically screw up education by messing with its stuff, all the while rewarding themselves for it: publishers reap the rewards of textbooks, institutions parade certificates, gowns, and space-age laboratories like sweeties, teachers end up in the service of objects and objectives, not science, science itself becomes objectified, and technologies merely reinforce the power relations that maintain the stranglehold of managers. We are in trouble, and its partly because we have lost a critical grasp on real 'stuff' in education.

In pursuing this line of argument, and in thinking about the nature of objects, I have had to consider the extent to which learners are objects in education, or rather the extent to which learners have become objectified by the rigidity of the processes they are forced into. These processes, the learning outcomes, the assessment contracts, the timetables and subjects are all focused on maintaining the objectified learner as the essential value-bearing component of the educational apparatus. Suddenly, to say we are 'learner focused' becomes double-edged: we are "learner focused" because we don't see you as a human being, we see you as the essential component without which nobody gets paid. Therefore our processes must hook you, the object, into the institution in such a way that you find it difficult to escape, that you are confused enough not to ask too many difficult questions, that you are frightened enough of contravening the process rules that you stay compliant, and that you are maintained as an objectified unit to the point that you may be considered a 'success' and 'graduated' (processed to completion) by the system.

This is really shit, isn't it? Isn't this why education is usually terrible? Getting real about objects in education means taking this on and facing up to it. Having said this, objects are important; textbooks are useful things, and knowledge has a history compartmentalised in subjects which we at least have to acknowledge and negotiate. But objectifying learners is a bad thing. The "Learning objective" is learner objectification. It is the prescription of specific rules of engagement whereby learners are caught in the system and prevented from asking difficult questions which would break those rules.

How could it be different? The basic issue at stake in education is not learning but science. Scientific inquiry is a critical enterprise: not just critical of explanations emerging from empirical conditions, but critical of the empirical conditions themselves. Only through critique does knowledge advance. Students have the fresh ears, eyes, feelings and energy to see things as they are. Learner objectification knocks this out of them. Each learner, like each human being, is an ecology of sensations, perceptions, ideas, feelings and abilities, and each person's ecology is connected to everyone else's. Teachers engage in ecological projects, working within ridiculous institutional constraints that prevent them from doing sensible things. They should be free to act in ways with their learners which help the learner's inner ecology to thrive. That means not being bound by subjects; it means not being driven by assessment;  it means always remaining authentic and not suppressing any question however critical; it means challenging those in power. Could this work? Or is it simply educational anarchism?

My hope for a progressive education lies with the ecologists. There are ecologies of mind: some are monocultural and brittle; others are rich, diverse and flexible. There are probably parallels between mental ecology and personal virtue. The question is "Is there a way of measuring it?" This is not about IQ, or EQ or any other such nonsense. But it is about the different ways that minds operate, the extent to which they look on the world and perceive meaning, the way that ideas are picked apart and reassembled in dreams. It is about identifying that which makes us human and nurturing it. It is about seeing everybody as different, and yet part of a wider ecology. It is not about that specialism of education - creating failure. So my hope for a measurable ecology of mind is really for an education system which doesn't need to create failure to be viable.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Mind and Evolution

There are parallels between talking about learning and talking about evolution. Like learning, we can't actually 'see' evolution. Evolution was Darwin's "explanatory principle" for the diversity of species and fossil evidence he observed on his travels. What was 'seen' was diversity. We see a little bit more of learning than we do evolution, although we don't actually 'see' learning in the sense that we ever see anything happening in someone's head. With learning we see differences and relations between abilities, and we see transformations of those relations. But the evolution question and the learning question is the same: what could produce this diversity?; what agency produces the transformations of relations? I think the answers to these questions as they relate to evolution, and the answer to the questions as they relate to learning are tied together.

Richard Lewontin has argued that whilst sociologists talk of the outgrowth of Darwinism in 'social Darwinism', it was actually the other way round. Social Darwinism - or rather the varieties of thinking that saw atomised entities selecting particular favoured sets of properties in order to maximise chances of survival - was in fact endemic in social life from the early 19th century. This is an important point because it pulls the rug from those who criticise social Darwinism (for example, Hodgson's work on Darwinism in economics) as some sort of misrepresentation of Darwinian thinking: Darwinian thinking grew (evolved?!) from the social conditions of the time. It was these ideas which effectively drove the social, industrial, and political transformations of the period within which Darwin grew up. Here is the link to learning: the early 19th century was a time of remarkable transformation. Innovators, engineers, scientists were making discoveries which transformed the relations between themselves and the rest of the world in ways which hadn't been conceived before; industrial transformations disrupted social and political structures; the move from what Veblen calls 'handicraft' industries towards to the world of the 'captain of industry' (and eventually 'absentee ownership') was something that powerful families could see in their own personal histories. The question about agency, technology, development as transformations of relations was starkly present for the 19th century entrepreneur.

Darwinism as a contribution to natural history laid a scientific veneer over a pre-existing narrative. The issue was that through study and cataloguing of biological diversity, geography and natural history, the 19th century ethos was stretched in a procrustean way over scientific objectivity. Darwinism gave this old idea new content and scientific status which made it more powerful. Yet unlike any scientific theory before, evolution was never seen to act. The only process that could be seen to act were those social transformations of the period.

The Darwinian scientisation of the process had a number of effects, and one of them was in the direction of thinking about human development. The folk-theories which surrounded the transformation of social position could now become scientised. Piagetian theories of adaptation-assimilation, genetic co-adaptation and so on owe much to Darwin, not only in their application of systemic processual mechanisms that lead to transformations in relations between things, but also in the fundamental methodological move which starts with observed diversity and then seeks to explain it.

What are these explanations of diversity? Fundamentally, within an evolutionary scheme, they are - as Elster notes - explanations of homology and analogy. The bird's wing is analogous to the bat's wing, whilst the bird's wing is homologous to the shark's fin. In education, patterns of homology and analogy are perhaps less obvious - partly because the lens through which homology and analogies might be identified are so contaminated with the paraphernalia of the education system. The curriculum displays both: the music exam is homologous to the maths exam, for example, whilst the art show (whilst being examined) is also analogous to the artist's career (which involves putting on shows), in a way that the maths exam is not analogous to the work of the professional mathematician. When we talk about the diversity in performances of individual learners, and the ways in which their performances might be improved, we tend to talk in terms of 'levels'. Our learners are naturally ordered, and "get the basics right" is a typical mantra. Levels exist in relation to one another, and a level in one subject may be either (or both) homologous and analogous to a level in another subject.

Analogies between levels in different subjects are as problematic as the analogies across the curriculum. Yet we convince ourselves that this isn't a problem and education succumbs to a kind of abstract Darwinism. The failure to think critically about analogies is also a failure to think properly about homologies. The relations between the basic and the "advanced concepts" are extremely complex and varied across different fields, yet our analogies wash over the subtleties. Depending on how you look at it, there is little that's "basic" in music - a single note can be as complex as Boulez's 1st piano sonata. Yet maths - certainly as we now regard it - is difficult without knowing your tables. And it is not unusual for some subjects to effectively have to 'unlearn' their basic concepts in order to master the more sophisticated ones.

The deep problem here, however, is that the patterns of relations between things - the patterning that Darwin saw from the Beagle - or the patterning that we see in the relations of ability between learners is in some way bounded by pre-existing criteria. Darwin, for example, examined homologies and analogies between form, habitat and so on, but paid little attention to the mind (notwithstanding his book on emotions in animals - which was perhaps a recognition that something was missing). Lamarck, however, cast his homologous and analogous net much wider: form and habitat are there, but so too is creativity and the imagination. In education we too often only look for homologies and analogies in the differences between learners, yet do not look at ourselves and our relation to our learners, or the relation between our culture and the situation we all find ourselves in. As we cast the net wider in determining diversity and relations, our explanations have to change.

The biggest problem Darwin has bequeathed us in education is the atomisation of learners and teachers. Ulanowicz complains of the 'Platonic' idealised interpretation of Darwinism as having won the day. By this he means that organisms are seen as ideal types, each individual and connected in specifiable ways. This seems plain wrong. Ideal types suited the Victorian biologist's butterfly cabinet, but our learners are not butterflies. Each presents us with an ecological situation which is unique. Each demands of a teacher a journey of discovery and of self-discovery: the teacher must ask "what is going on in your head?", "how did it come to be like this?", "how might I change it?". In front of the teacher is a set of relations of abilities, communications, skills and so on. If we cast the net wide enough, then these relations cannot be separated from the situation in which the learner exists, or the situation within which the teacher operates. Each teacher with each learner has to engage in their own Beagle voyage.

If we were to characterise what the education system does to us in frustrating this process of inquiry, it would be as if the diversity of relations between species was pre-created before sending Darwin out to look for it. It would then ensure that the methodologies for observation would be rigidly applied, resulting in the diversity being observed as expected, and that its explanation would uphold the rationale for the status quo of the system! This is basically what our so-called "quality" systems do.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Ed-Tech and Naive Realism

Cognitivist perspectives on education have excelled in contributing woolly thinking about the causal relationships between human development and educational resources. The models presented by the instructional designers demonstrate almost universally a functionalist reduction of human experience, producing in the name of 'science' what Christian Smith calls 'variables-based sociology' (see his "What is a person?"): that supposedly empirical process of identifying the dependent and independent variables of learning processes. With little critique or reflection, almost without exception, independent variables are identified with material educational interventions: books, webpages, online services, learning designs, etc. In psychology's desire to be treated like physics, this unquestioning physicalism is perhaps understandable: the objects of education are 'there' - we can all see them, and we can't see learning. Yet objects also constitute dependent variables: the work that students do, for example. But the possibility that this kind of 'variable-ism' might be deeply mistaken (as wiser heads in phenomenology like Merleau-Ponty would have told us) and that nothing is independent, remains invisible: the causal relationship between matter and the 'mattering' of education is unthinkable to many psychologists. Even if the appetite for instructionalist thinking with regard to learning resources and 'instructional design' has dissipated slightly (in the wake of emerging socio-material insights like Actor Network Theory or Orlikowski's work), attention shifts to new kinds of objects in education such as those produced through 'learning analytics'. Once again, it's the same problem: identifying the independent variables in the material analysis and then inspecting causal relationships.

So Instructionalism isn't dead. Why should it be? There is little doubt that some resources appear to be more successful in engaging learners than others, or that some pedagogical approaches are more successful than others, or even that data analytics are useful in speculating on what might be going on in learners' heads. However, it remains impossible to separate the 'powerful objects' of the learning process from the people involved in using those objects to teach. However wonderful a resource might appear to be, in the hands of a poor teacher, the educational results will be always be dreadful.

The issue gets confused with other cognitivist nonsense which has found its way into educational technology. 'Usability’, for example, has dominated thinking about the most effective configurations of tools. Like learning resources (which can be shown to demonstrate "usability"), some things appear more successful or 'usable' than others. For example, the use of a ‘Model a/Model b” approach to testing different user interfaces produces significant data (particularly if you are Google) as to which configuration of tools within the user interface might be most effectively deployed. Similarly the ‘best way’ to construct a web page can emerge out of usage data (like Google analytics), and when more than one model is available for testing, this can appear to reveal which model is preferable. However, there is a tendency to see educational technology like pharmacology: an intervention within education will ‘treat’ patients in ways that can be measured, and the most effective interventions can then be identified, and their distribution can be expanded. This is a different level of functionalism where the objective is not to identify those independent variables that bear upon learning processes, but those independent variables which bear upon the social conditioning of a population. The mistake is to confuse social conditioning for social advancement. The fact that we can condition people by constraints is not a surprise (if you attach electrodes to people's genitals, they will do what you want!). Conditioning is not a "successful outcome"; it is a question.

What's the question? Fundamentally, it's a question about 'mattter'. It's a question about the nature of objects and their causal powers. But more than that, it is a question about the two meanings of 'matter': as Karen Barad has pointed out (see her excellent "Meeting the Universe Halfway"), it is not just a semantic trick that 'matter' and 'mattering' appear to be related: what "matters" to us has a bearing on the way we think about "matter". When we see calls for educational technology to be ‘evidence-driven’ (by Ben Goldacre particularly - one the new champions of naive realism), the question we are faced with is the relationship between the causal efficacy of "matter" (our interventions) and "what matters". Like Google, Goldacre doesn't really want to think about what matters - indeed, what matters to him is that his methodological blindness about "matter" is applied by everyone - but the mattering of "what matters" is inescapable to anyone involved in education. Google think that what matters is that everyone uses their tools: but this isn't what matters to society. Learning analytics people think that "what matters" is that methods of analysis allow us to streamline 'support' for the production of 'successful' education outcomes. But what matters about a successful educational outcome? (see my previous post about learning outcomes).

Barad is right to focus on the relationship between matter and mattering (although I'm not convinced about her 'agential realism'). Goldacre should be thanked for his request for a more scientific approach to education, but his idea of science is shallow: he should read Barad! Education demands a deeper critical science. Just as the gender issues that Barad identifies in the physical sciences are inseparable from scientific knowledge, so education, which matters so much to all of us, turns scientific inquiry on its head: science must help us understand the nature of matter, but education is the science that leads us towards discovering the relationship between what matters to us as a society and the nature of world we share.