Sunday, 29 May 2016

Ross Ashby's Constraints and Education

Ross Ashby was one of the pioneers of cybernetics. His Law of Requisite Variety (in a nutshell, a complex system which can exist in a number of possible states, n, can only be controlled by another system which can exist in at least the same number of states), has been the foundation of cybernetic practice. Ashby knew that his Law was basically the same as Shannon's Information theory, and from the 1950s onwards, much of Ashby's work explored the connection between his concept of Variety and Shannon's mathematics. He also knew that there wasn't much to it: "Information theory is basically counting; it is a branch of combinatorics" (Cybernetica, 1958, Vol 1, no. 2), but this kind of counting was exceptionally powerful.

However, what distinguishes Ashby more than anything else was that he reflected deeply on what he was doing when he was doing cybernetic work. This led him to a remarkable, and I think quite distinctive, theory of science. I am currently spending some time examining Ashby's remarkable personal journals housed in the British Library, and which have recently been digitised (see in search of a more formal appreciation of his method.

Fundamentally, Ashby is concerned with constraint. He says of cybernetic science that cyberneticians "observe what might have happened, but did not" ( His concept of science was that minds generate ideas through building models of the world. Knowledge arises as a result of the identification of error in the models as new constraints of nature bearing upon the speculated model are discovered. This idea of constraint is fundamentally different from the traditional causal paradigm of conventional science, which sees mechanistic descriptions of event regularities. The problem with mechanistic descriptions of causes is that it is easy for the science establishment to become complacent, because it believes its function is to identify and prove mechanisms (even if philosophers like Popper rightly point out that the job is to dispove things). This complacency has led to the kind of stultification of science that we have today where practically everything revolves around data processing, and critical inquiry has been pushed out in favour of commodified knowledge and capitalist-driven science ethic.

Under such circumstances, Popperian falsification is a much harder ask than it ever was before marketisation. We become attached to mechanistic explanations out of desire to maintain social status or personal gain. We consequently lose sight of the constraints within which it emerges. This is particularly true of the woeful attempts to explain education and learning (which Ashby had a particular interest in). Capitalism is incompatible with science. If he were still alive, I think Popper would be changing his mind about the conservatism with which he was associated.

To put the identification of constraint at the heart of a methodology is to negativise science. Most interestingly, it focuses not just on the constraints of nature in showing how a model is wrong, but it also considers the constraints which bear upon the creation of models in the first place. Cybernetic theory itself is subject to constraint - something which many cyberneticians (who wish their theories to be 'correct' because they appear sometimes in need of religion rather than science) forget. I've realised that categories I've explored before in identifying different tendencies in cybernetic theory - foundationalism, objectivism, universalism - all expose different kinds of constraint within cybernetic theory. Moreover these categories themselves are constrained - not least by each other.

Ashby's later work looked at the dynamics of constraints and their interactions in a concept he called 'cylindrance'. This aspect of his work is little known, but for education, I think its obvious that learning occurs within a myriad of constraints - some of which are applied by the teacher - and that the interactive dynamics of those constraints colour the progress of learning. I recently wrote a paper about how, with work-based learners, the interaction between the constraints of work and the constraints of a course can combine to produce learner reflections about their work. Ashby presents a framework wherein this kind of analysis can become more systematic. For education, as for many other domains, that would be a promising step. 

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