Saturday, 7 May 2016

Edgar Morin's "Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future": A powerful guide to educational progress

Edgar Morin's "Seven complex Lessons" is a short and powerful book, commissioned by UNESCO with a remit that gave him free reign to express his ideas. You can download it here:
and hear him talk here:

The result is a kind of combination of polemic and analytical systems thinking which is similar in spirit (although a bit more technical) to the work of Illich or Freire.

In some ways Morin is less radical than Illich: there are no calls for 'deschooling' here: Morin appears to see education as a real thing in society which has a misconceived function. Morin's question concerns what education does and how it thinks about itself. Morin attacks disciplinary reductionism, arguing that education should concern itself with creating a context for exploring the human condition. He doesn't say very much about technology or institutions, which is perhaps an indication of where he draws boundaries around education.

Information theory and its cybernetic underpinning is at the heart of Morin's thinking. When he says that "Education's function is to transmit knowledge" there is perhaps an unfortunate connotation that might be drawn with naive didactic theories of education. This might stop people engaging more deeply with the book. It shouldn't.

Information theory is not about 'transmission' in the sense that is popularly understood (as a kind of 'contagion'). Information theory is about relations, and fundamentally Morin articulates a powerful relational account of education. Most importantly, Morin puts emphasis on the importance of uncertainty: "all our knowledge is fallible". The word 'uncertainty' has both a popular connotation and a technical meaning. In Shannon's information theory, uncertainty is the index of information: a reduction in uncertainty is both an indicator of information transmission, and coordination of action. To talk of transmission of knowledge is to talk about increasing the capacity of society to coordinate it's diversity and viability.

Uncertainty, from a cybernetic perspective, also has methodological implications. Morin doesn't say it explicitly, but the reductionism of knowledge which afflicts education results from the embrace of causation as the principal explanatory category of science. (If we'd listened a bit more carefully to David Hume in the 18th century, perhaps we wouldn't have made this mistake) When Morin says that knowledge is 'fallible' he means that our explanations of causal connections are constrained by what we don't know. The coordination of human action depends on understanding the constraints of knowledge and action - and these are indicated by our uncertainties, not our certainties. Yet education works by reinforcing certainties because this is seen by institutions as the best way they can maintain their viability.

Morin's educational vision is ecological: the human being is at once an individual, a member of society, and a member of the species. He doesn't however, specify is a pedagogy. What he has done is to very clearly state some fundamental principles which could be knocked into the ground like airport runway landing lights. I think it's as if we've been flying around aimlessly in education for years, and now we're running out of fuel. Morin has lit up the landing strip. Now we have to work out how to get back down to earth safely.

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