Wednesday, 20 February 2013

I - thou and educational technology

When we say "learners prefer x to y" there is always some kind of reduction of the person, the extent of which depends on the intentions of the individual making the statement. I've just done it... just now! But my intention is to be acutely aware of the kind of reductions that are performed, and the kind of reductions that I might perform in trying to talk about them.

First, let me say that reducing the person is a problem. If it becomes a reduction which gains official acceptance, then it will find its way into policy. Because the reduction is always the product of some kind of idealism, and that the real world and real individuals don't conform to any particular ideal, what we end up with inevitably are degrees of oppression. I've worried particularly about cybernetic reductions in this regard, but in fact most of the dominant learning theories (many of which are essentially cybernetic or mechanistic in nature) also fall into the category of reduction of the person. Essentially, every mechanicised description of learning amounts to a "mechanical metaphysics": the assertion of a mechanistic process to account for what we cannot possibly know. Indeed, the weakness of most of these theories is that, in the main, most of them stop short of trying to account for God (Bateson and Beer are notable exceptions).

I've been thinking about Martin Buber's I-thou-it distinction as a reminder of the dimensions of personhood which are distinct and irreducible to each other. The concept of the irreducible structuring of personhood is not something that has been widely represented in the educational discourse, and certainly not the educational technology discourse. The reason for this is the dominance of a mechanistic constructivism whose totalisations have washed over the rich complexity of the inner lives of learners, teachers and everyone else. And because the desire for learning technology has been tied to vested interests, personal agendas, economic forces, etc, the desire for a digestible explanatory totalisation has been great, as individuals working in the field of e-learning have sought to validate their activities and claims and their technologies. The extent to which they have been successful is an interesting phenomenon, possibly arising from the contested and confused nature of thinking both about education and technology in our post-industrialised world.

But what do I mean by the irreducible dimensions of the personhood? Buber describes 'I' as a focused aspect of being directed towards concrete experience of things ('it') which are distinct and separate from ourselves. "Thou" is an aspect of being which is a boundless awareness of relationships. In mapping this territory, Buber makes no claim for assimilating the "I-it" mode of being with the "I-Thou" mode, although he does claim that the human search for meaning ultimately leads to the spiritual awareness of "I-Thou" and God. But the essential point is in identifying the different kinds of experience.

Comparing this to cybernetic theories of learning, for 'perturbation-response' theories (like Piaget for example), "I-it" is the dominant experience (where 'it' is a perturbation - an experience of disequilibrium which causes adaptation, assimilation and accommodation). The locus of the cause of disequilibrium and its resolution is open to debate. But Piaget clearly is interested in the individual 'experience' of and focus on something that doesn't 'fit': this is "I-it". For radical constructivists like Von Glasersfeld, there is denial about a concrete external 'it', but his account is still "I-it" focused, emphasising the internal construction of external reality; indeed due to his scepticism about any external reality, Von Glasersfeld and other 2nd-order cyberneticians perform a profound "I-it" reduction of experience. Luhmann (and maybe Bateson), whilst coming from the same camp, I think provides a different focus. This is one with more emphasis on the construction of the ego through apprehending the relations of communications. Luhmann comes close to a characterisation of "I-thou" as the dominant mode of experience; 'it' is merely an epiphenomenon of the communication dynamics. With Piaget and Von Glasersfeld, scepticism about the existence of 'it' leads to "I-it" reductionism; with Luhman, scepticism about "I" lead to "I-thou" reductionism. Each loses the richness of the other.

Buber's point is that both are there and concrete. In social life, experience simultaneously hovers or oscillates between them. Spiritual awareness and thing-directedness coexist. (It's also interesting to reflect on this in the light of Freud's Ego-Id-Superego distinction, which are also co-existant and concrete). The scientific problem with this is that the explanatory tendency is to reject the experience of concrete distinctiveness between modes of experience in favour of explanatory totalising mechanisms which account for a reduced range of experience. There is a methodological aspect to this problem: where to begin? With concrete experience, or with an ideal abstraction? In learning technology, it tends to be the latter which the experience is then bent to fit. Then there is a practical explanatory problem which is to find a way of explaining rationally the existence of concrete and distinct aspects of experience.

I have some discomfort in suggesting the following because it is a mechanism, and as such it is ideal. But maybe mechanistic rationality is the best we can do... Terry Deacon has recently explained how concrete form arises through the interaction of presence and absence (see, between the internal mechanisms of an organic form and the substrate within which that form arises. Floridi has similarly described possible ways in which 'levels of abstraction' which are irreducible to each other might arise. Might it be like this with personhood? The absences between people are causal in the emergent distinctiveness of concrete aspects of experience which whilst emergent from a mechanism become irreducible to each other. Accepting this emergence of irreducibility and structuredness in reality may be an important step in thinking about how best to approach the study of those different levels of experience. Moreover, it suggests that the attempt to reduce the concrete layers to a totalising mechanism is futile. What happens is more subtle.

The major development in this approach for educational technology is the focus on absence as a category for investigation. The absences involved in the use of technology are always palpable - when it works, when it doesn't work, what is lost in the medium, what might be gained, etc. The comparison between the individual with a computer talking to others remotely can be compared to the convivial classroom situation. In each case, absences are distinct. There are simple things we can do to begin to get a handle on this. What happens when people are together? What happens when they are remote? There is concrete data (communications, activities, etc) that might be a starting point for differentiation. A mechanism involving absence may then be explored for its capacity to generate differences which relate to the differences that are demonstrable from the data. That would give us a way of getting a handle on the causal role of inferred absences through an analysis of data. This means using data of communication, etc as examples of distinct aspects on experience, and then asking about the emergent mechanisms which might give rise to that distinctness. We can then do a comparison between the differences in the emergent mechanisms and the social and material situation of learning.

Such an approach, in focusing on distinctions and differences between experiences, is distinct from idealised attempts to 'explain learning'. Instead, the focus is on 'explaining difference in experience'. The assertion is that by studying difference, we start to investigate the causes of difference, where absence is a fundamental category in a mechanism that leads to the emergence of irreducible differences both within individuals and between individuals. Determining and articulating the absences becomes the research objective.

In this way, concreteness not idealism is the starting point for investigation; mechanism is the starting point for explanation.

No comments: