Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Varieties of Transdisciplinarity in Educational Theory

A coherent theory of education has to be transdisciplinary. Yet to say this is, firstly, to invite questioning about the nature of disciplines. Secondly, if a “coherent theory” was possible, it would search for a common foundation upon which the edifices of psychology, philosophy, biology, economics, anthropology, chemistry, politics, mathematics and every other subject have created different ways of explaining phenomena, including education. Thirdly, a transdisciplinary theory would itself amount to a new discipline and in turn must not only account for itself, but also for the nature of theorising itself! We might conclude that a theory of education has to be a “theory of theory”. Finally, we have to ask, even in possession of a coherent and defensible transdisciplinary theory, it would be absurd to suppose that we wouldn't have educational problems. In what way would a coherent theory of education be an adequate guide to address educational problems? In the face of such intractable questions, tortuous arguments, and a body of educational theory which is largely incoherent, it’s surprising that any teaching and learning gets done at all!

The relationship between theory and practice in education is one of entanglements. Bodies, ideas, ethics, politics, institutions, histories, technologies and matter collide in every aspect of social life. In the entanglements are a variety of grandiose “theories of everything”: imagined foundations concealing their imperfections and inviting the imaginations of teachers to experiment with their practices – sometimes with wonderful, if not universal, results. Transdisciplinary foundations are not new - in history, they reflect the zeitgeist and scientific practice of the age. The 18th century “theory of everything” was German Naturphilosophie which drew on the recent scientific discoveries as Beiser points out with regard to Hegel:
“the organic concept of nature of Naturphilosophie seemed to be the best scientific worldview, the only theory to explain the facts. It seemed confirmed by all the latest empirical research into living matter, electricity, magnetism and chemistry.” (Beiser, F (2005) Hegel)  

For all its deficiencies Naturphilosophie served the function which all transdisciplinary foundations serve: as a source of inspiration for new ideas. For the followers of Hegel and Schelling, this was the expression of scientific metaphysics. Beethoven, who was not generally given to theoretical statements, caught the ‘energetic’ and ‘electrical’ spirit of his time:
The grain of seed, tightly sealed as it is, needs the damp, electric warm soil in order to sprout, to think, to express itself. Music is the electric soil in which the spirit thinks, lives and invents […] All that is electrical stimulates the mind to flowing, surging, musical creation. I am electrical by nature.”

The shift from Naturphilosophie to more the recent "systemic" transdisciplinary ideas within which new thinking about education and learning emerged was a gradual process involving the intersection of two separate intellectual developments: General Systems Theory and Cybernetics. Developments in biology placed increasing emphasis on circular relationships, feedback and the concept of ‘system’ in the natural world. Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory, first expressed in the 1920s, was
“the scientific exploration of “wholes” and “wholeness” which, not so long ago, were considered metaphysical notions transcending the boundaries of science. Hierarchic structure, stability, teleology, differentiation, approach to and maintenance of steady states, goal-directedness – these are a few of such general system properties; and novel conceptions and mathematical fields have been developed to deal with them: dynamic system theory, automata theory, system analysis by set, net, graph theory and others. This interdisciplinary endeavour, of elaborating principles and models applying to “systems” in general, at the same time produces a possible approach toward unification of science.” (in Lazslo, “Introduction to System Philosophy”, p xviii)

This new ‘systems’ foundation, served to stimulate new ideas, new scientific practices, new ways of looking at the world. Among those new ideas were new approaches to ‘learning’. (Piaget’s educational thought owed a great debt to Bertalanffy).

By the time of the Second World War, systems theory was well-established - a point Bertalanffy was keen to emphasise because Norbert Wiener's post-war "cybernetics" was often mistakenly seen as the beginnings of transdisciplinary systems thinking. Cybernetics itself resulted from the huge technological investment in that war, and in particular the creation of machines with feedback. Wiener explained that he had been “working on the many ramifications of the theory of messages.” Cybernetics saw the study of “communication and control” as its transdisciplinary foundation. Wiener goes on to say
“Besides the electrical engineering theory of the transmission messages, there is a larger field which includes not only the study of language but the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society, the development of computing machines and other such automata, certain reflections upon psychology and the nervous system, and a tentative new theory of scientific method.”

Bertalanffy argued that whilst many of the concepts are shared, Wiener's cybernetics formed a subset of what he saw as the broader ambitions of General Systems Theory. Among the areas of concern which overlapped was interest in learning – particular the relationship between the "learning" behaviours of humans and machines. Wiener discusses the contribution of the psychiatrist Ross Ashby whose work on learning
“is probably the greatest modern contribution to this subject [learning] insofar as it concerns the analogies between living organisms and machines. Learning, like more primitive forms of feedback, is a process which reads differently forward and backward in time. The whole conception of the apparently purposive organism, whether it is mechanical, biological, or social, is that of an arrow with a particular direction in the stream of time rather than that of a line segment facing both ways which we may regard as going in either direction. The creature that learns is not the mythical amphisbaena of the ancients, with a head at each end and no concern with where it is going. It moves ahead from a known past into an unknown future and this future is not interchangeable with that past.”

Wiener’s transdisciplinary foundation of cybernetics carried with it a mathematical armoury which supported new ways of thinking about electronic communications through the ‘mathematical information theory’ of Claude Shannon, new ways of thinking about computers in the work of Von Neumann, and (as a consequence of computers) new ways of thinking about human cognitive processes and artificial intelligence. Each of these new ideas made its claim for transdisciplinary explanatory power: information theory became the foundation for the internet and today’s approaches to “big data”; cognitivism absorbed information theory and the nascent computer science in its claim to unmask metaphysics and produce computational accounts for consciousness and reliable testing for human intelligence. As with all transdisciplinary approaches, the acolytes of each became adept in masking their deficiencies.

In what ways were the new totalising philosophies different from earlier incarnations? Beethoven, in commenting about the relation between philosophy and music commented that philosophy's "indigence, which desires to found everything upon a single principle, is relieved by music". So too might we say that the poverty of educational theory is relieved by teaching and learning itself. In other words, it's not enough to have a theory; one must be continually engaged in exploring its possibilities and actualities practically. And the most practically-engaged were the cyberneticians. 

The cyberneticians were doing science in a new way, making machines to address practical and theoretical problems, examining their results and adjusting their approaches. Ashby argued that the reflexive processes of the imagination in “generating all possible systems” were tightly coupled (or entangled) with practical engagement with the world. Where other transdisciplinary approaches reflexively generated unifying theories and sought empirical evidence in support of them, cybernetics – at least for Ashby – sought to discover the boundaries between what the human imagination was capable of inventing and what nature would produce. Wiener’s cybernetics was an acknowledgement that a new transdisciplinary theory wasn’t enough; what was needed was a new approach to science. Cybernetics appeared to promise a new era of scientific investigation of educational interaction in which technologies and humans would interact in new ways, where ultimately, progress would be made in the elimination of social pathologies. However, in the light of these hopes and their historical context, contemporary use of technologies in education appears to have fallen short of the promise.

The 21st Century Perspective

In a passage in Diana Laurillard’s book on “Learning as a Design Science”, she states:

“The promise of learning technologies is that they appear to provide what the theorists are calling for. Because they are interactive, communicative, user-controlled technologies, they fit well with the requirement for social-constructisit, active learning. They have had little critique from educational design theorists. On the other hand, the empirical work on what is actually happening in education now that technology is widespread has shown that the reality falls far short of the promise."

She then goes on to cite various studies which indicate causes for this 'falling short'. These include Larry Cuban's study which pointed to:
  1. Teachers have too little time to find and evaluate software
  2. They do not have appropriate training and development opportunities
  3. It is too soon – we need decades to learn how to use new technology
  4. Educational institutions are organized around traditional practices
She goes on to echo these findings by stating:
"While we cannot expect that a revolution in the quality and effectiveness of education will necessarily result from the wider use of technology, we should expect the education system to be able to discover how to exploit its potential more effectively. It has to be teachers and lecturers who lead the way on this. No-one else can do it. But they need much more support than they are getting."
Laurillard established her reputation in educational technology by adopting a cybernetic model of learning from Gordon Pask which in turn was a development of the logic of Ashby's work in the field of human interaction. Pask called it his "interaction of actors" theory, and like Ashby, created a variety of machines and experiments to explore the the possibilities generated by his theory and discover what could and couldn't be found in the world around him. Laurillard argued that her 'conversational model' of learning could subsume existing learning theories, including those of Piaget, Kolb, Vygotsky, and others. It could, in other words, be a transdisciplinary foundation for educational processes.
Here emerges a central question which has not only plagued the use of cybernetic and systems thinking in education, but elsewhere, and created what is generally called 'functionalism' or 'regulative sociology'. There are two fundamental dimensions to this problem. On the one hand, cybernetic theories are seen to encompass earlier 'systems theories' where the provenance of constituent theories is obscured, and what emerges is a new variety of 'naturphilosophie'. On the other, cybernetic theories become divorced from cybernetic empirical practice. Allusions to 'cybernetics', 'complexity', 'systems' and so forth carry with them a scientistic 'aura' but betray the essentially practical and entangled nature of cybernetic experiment. Instead they become transcendental metaphysical props, poorly inspected and poorly understood. More seriously, they are easily hijacked by those in society whose intentions are to exercise control, subvert justice, and increase inequality to their own advantage.
The problem is what to do with one's theory in the light of disappointing results. The complexities of the education system include the complexities of individual egos, status and power let alone the economics of personal job security, research funding and student fees within the university system. All theories are incomplete, and some are deeply deficient. However, in a educational system where academic careers are made or broken on the success of theories rather than authenticity of practice, the disincentives for discarding a talked-about theory are significant - particularly if the its continued presence in discourse is instrumental in continued research funding. Yet these conditions are themselves the result of deficient theories and technologies which ought to have been refined or discarded.

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