Tuesday 22 January 2013

Understanding Face-to-face, One-to-one Learning

Imagine a situation where a teacher is supporting a single learner. In my experience, this is most common with things like music lessons, although any kind of supervision could be considered. What are the characteristics of this situation? How can we explain the learning process? How is this distinct from the characteristics of group learning, or distance learning?

I've made some strong criticism of Conversation theory recently, and I think that the one-to-one situation highlights some of the explanatory deficiencies in the theory. I could be accused of overstating my case (!) but I want to defend this position because at the root of my criticism is a complaint about the way we tend to think about thinking and learning. I am not anti-technology!

The centrepiece of Pasks' theory is the concept of teach-back. In essence this is a mechanism whereby the teacher examines the utterances of the learner in response to their teaching and questioning, and determines the extent to which the learner has understood what they are being taught: Pask thought of it like a 'comparator'. Fine in principle; but what happens in reality??

Think what it actually feels like to be in that situation. We say something. The learner may say something, or shuffle around a bit, or look away, or blush, or go "errr....". What do we make of all that? What do we 'read' and what do we filter out? Is the shuffling insignificant? etc. The astonishing thing is really that with such complex information coming their way, teachers have the ability to decide what to do next at all!

Related to this, I had a conversation this morning (at least I've provoked people to argue with me!) where my complaint that text-based communication was deficient was challenged by considering 'the telephone' (in terms of reading richer signals) or "a super-high-definition-3d-with-smell-and-touch-a-phone" - what about that, eh?!  Surely these technologies mediate rich coordinations almost as good as face-to-face? I replied "can you enumerate all the particular sensory qualities that go to making a realistic impression?". I think the enumeration process never ends - we never quite get to reality. The super-high-definition-3d-with-smell-and-touch-a-phone is an attempt at such an enumeration. This is not to say that improvements and increasing detail in enumerating the sensory deficits cannot lead to improvements - but it's all a bit like Achilles and the Tortoise.

This is all about what's missing. It's also all about the fact that considering what's missing leads us to what is perhaps an important conclusion: educational experience is stratified into levels which are irreducible to one another. In information science, there is a lot of work going on around the irreducibility of social structures: Critical Realism strongly emphasises this; but more recently we find it in Terry Deacon's work; and Floridi also suggests the irreducibility of his 'levels of abstraction'. There is a tendency for communication theories like Pask's theory (Maturana suffers the same fate) to collapse levels into one another. It's like dissolving biology and chemistry into physics (why don't we go the whole hog and dissolve sociology?!! - Pask comes close to that!). What we end up with is a flat totalization.

How does what's missing (absence) lead to irreducible stratification of learning experience? Absences are all around us from the moment we are born. If they are causal on our development (which I think they are) then the shared absences between mother and child create the original spaces where thought develops. This is the grounding for language and action. Language and action create absences on a social level - between siblings, between friends, etc. Shocking events, rites of passage, etc all are powerful in their formative influence. But what emerges are distinct spaces where people grow and become attached to one another (which may mean they coordinate around the things that they lack). The social level of the family and friends is distinct from the level of the baby: one cannot be explained in terms of the other - it has it's own rules, it's own dynamic. And so we move up the social systems, each of them distinct, emerging from the other, but irreducible to it.

This makes me think of Luhmann. But Luhmann's dynamic - rather like Pasks - is based on a coordination of coordinations of communication: in the end, the perturbation is king at all levels. So Luhmann can create his distinct social structures, and show how they persist, but he always relies on the obscure processing of the 'psychic system' in order to make it work. If instead we consider that whatever we are looking at, there is something we are not looking at which shapes what we see and how we think about it, then there is a chance to move away from the global totalisations towards something that can be brought into focus a bit more clearly: the irreducible stratified levels of the internal and the external world.

So the question of what happens in face-to-face learning isn't a simple one. Who is it who's talking? Mother and child? Teacher and student? Brother and Sister? It matters because the absences are different in each case. Regarding mediated communication through technology, we can never escape the absences of the technology itself (it tries hard enough to remind us them, after all!) We both might share those absences and choose to ignore them (or discuss them - how much online communication is about the communication of technology, or where the technology is part of the drama of the conversation? - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_voix_humaine for a beautiful example of this!). But I'm never going to get my mum to Skype!!

And our learners are in so many different spaces, coordinating with their absences is almost impossible in formal education. Some learners who are awkward in social company may find an outlet online - but maybe they have really found a way of talking to themselves (I know a few people on online networks like this!). For those learners that really don't know their way, online learning is unlikely to reap any lasting reward: only the determined re-parenting of digging into someone's absences and making ourselves vulnerable enough that they can see ours. Those are the best music lessons and supervisions I remember.

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