Wednesday 12 January 2011

Individuation and the 'caress' of learning experience

I was struck by Coleridge's idea of 'individuation' as a life force which he articulates in his "Hints towards the formation of a more comprehensive theory of life". Coleridge equates individuation and life:

"I define life as 'the principle of individuation', or the power which unites a given 'all' into a 'whole' that is presupposed by all its parts. The link that combines the two, and acts throughout both, will, of course, be defined by the 'tendency to individuation'"

This is not dissimilar from Jung's view:
"I use the term 'individuation' to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological 'in-dividual,' that is, a separate, indivisible unity or 'whole.'"

The emphasis on 'wholeness' suggests to me something about realising a symmetry: the symmetry of time (diachronic) and the symmetry of structure (synchronic). The symmetry of time relates to the patterns of agency in the world. The symmetry of structure relates to the topological patterns in the world. At some point, diachronic symmetry and synchronic symmetry come together. It is these processes which I am pursuing with
a. game theory for diachronic symmetry
b. topology for synchronic symmetry.
There are particular moments of experience where this interplay between diachronic symmetry and synchronic symmetry are revealed to us. I think music can do this particularly well (I've been very struck by all the Mozart that radio 3 have been playing in the last two weeks. I've never been a great Mozart fan - I've always found it a bit too 'smooth', but there is something exquisite in the perfection of his lines). But then there are very sensual things: the symmetry of a caress, for example.

Caresses (in my experience, at least!) always seem to have an 'envelope': effectively attack, sustain, release.  A musical phrase has the same. Essentially,  a beginning, middle and end. Our knowing of an envelope may be our recognising it's symmetry. Our diachronic experience of it is shaped by our synchronic awareness of its form. And particularly in the case of caresses, the tiny envelopes make up bigger ones, and so on. That we might lose ourselves and revel in the sensation of it all is simply to say that the tuning between our own symmetry and what is done to us is so perfect that conscious control is suspended; time can stand still. 

Music is possibly the only thing we have as a 'respectable' form of it. Maybe most other things in life, including learning, aspire to this condition. But so much learning can seem disproportionate; the symmetry is out-of-kilter, corrupted by asymmetrical structures within institutions. Occasionally, it isn't. I think Salman Khan's videos are very delicate and subtle.. it can be done.

This raises the question about how we might go about thinking about envelopes in teaching and learning. Those subtle gestures, jokes, tone of voice, expression of vulnerability, openness, all can contribute to something which people can tune into. But the envelope exists between individuals and 'performers'... To really understand it, you have to model both.

Which brings me back to game theory and topology. Each communicative act between two modelled participants in a game is performed in some context. It may be that each act has it's own envelope, its own symmetry. If we take one of Salmon Khan's videos, model his performance, and play the model in the context of a modelled learner... that might be do-able. What would it tell us? 

A lot about deciding what to do in institutions is about understanding their nature, and the nature of the people within them. Understanding individuation and the symmetries that surround people is part of this. Everything in institutions is political. Most important strategic decisions depend on guesswork, if not (at worst) on the whims of whoever is in charge. How do we judge the impact of a redundancy programme, for example? We guess. We hope the 'good ones' don't leave, and the 'bad ones' do. But we don't do this any more with the weather, for example; we have better forecasting. Forecasting is about knowing the nature of something to the extent that your judgements and decisions are more informed. Modelling the subtleties of individuation and interaction between learners and teachers, learners and resources, etc might mean that our strategic decisions might become a bit more informed and efficacious.

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