Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Conversation and Contingency: Some important questions for E-learning theory

The Pask/Laurillard conversation model, like the closely-related social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann, are both models of communication which have 'contingency reduction' as their principal operating feature. They present a sophisticated version of a type of educational theory whose less well-elaborated incarnations can be found in the 'connectivism' of Siemens and Downes.

For Pask and for Luhmann, conversation is the emerging reduction of possible misinterpretations of utterances, towards an agreement of particular meanings. In Pask (and Laurillard), this is achieved by processes of "Teach-back": basically the learner teaches back the concepts taught to them by the teacher: using a comparator, the teacher is then able to determine if they mean the same thing or not, and if not, the teacher can proceed with new speech acts, activities, etc, to gradually reduce the contingency of meaning between them. [In this diagram of Pask's Eucrates teaching machine, note the big comparator - a big X in the bottom right hand side]

If there is a difference between Pask and Luhmann, it is that Luhmann does not see 'agency' - the agency of the teacher or the learner - as the critical part of the mechanism. In Luhmann, psychological matters become sociological in a mechanism of communicative 'autopoiesis': basically, the continual reproduction and transformation of a discourse. The discourse is represented by the teacher, whose own communicative acts reflect the professional domains within which they are connected - both the subject domains (maths, physics, etc) and the domain of education. The teachers utterances are reproductions and transformations of their discourse. The learners' utterances are at the boundary of the discourse, although reflect their own concerns and discursive context. The teacher's judgements will not be necessarily a pure "comparator" as in Pask. They will reflect the continuance of the discourse. Mechanisms of pathological social reproduction, class barriers and so forth (so Bourdieu) can be accounted for in this process. Critically, Pask discounted the role of emotion. In Luhmann, it is an essential part of the autopoietic reproduction of the discourse.

However, both these models consider the interpretation of conversational utterances as essentially a binary choice: both ask "does this mean x or not?" - yes or no; both ask "do these utterances fit with my understanding?"

As such, the approaches of both theories suffer the same problem of turning conversation into a kind of 'accounting problem'. However, this is not the only perspective available: an alternative is an 'ecological' approach to conversation, which orients itself towards the utterance in a fundamentally different way.

The difference rests on what an utterance is as an object. Are my utterances here on this blog the result of some computer program, whose operation in producing such utterances is the essential arbiter of my meaning? (Pask thought this). The problem with all this is that it is difficult to define what we mean by meaning.

I think teacher-learner interactions are rather like the situation described by Ross Ashby:

Suppose a fleet, equipped with all modern signalling devices, finds just before it sails for war that a component used throughout the apparatus has proved defective, so that the fleet has to put to sea with only fifty old-fashioned hand-lamps for signalling from ship to ship. Clearly, the admiral may dispose of his fifty signallers  in various ways over the ships, and there may be no manoevre of the whole fleet that is completely impossible; yet this lack must impose some characteristic on the fleet’s manoevrings. After studying its manoevres for some time the enemy admiral might well say: This fleet’s ways of manoevring strongly suggest to me that it is seriously short of internal communications.
This is what a teacher might observe in a student. More typically, they would ask themselves "where's the blockage?" The blockage is unlikely to be simply a key concept, the grasp of which the student may or may not be able to "teach back". The statement "it is seriously short of internal communications" is a statement of recognition and comparison of constraint.

Teachers produce the utterances they do because they are constrained by a set of factors including the discourse within which they operate, their professional standards, institutional procedures, etc. The learner's constraints are relatively unknown at the beginning. In conversation, the student's utterance give clues as to what their constraints might be. Some teachers will overlook the fact that one of the constraints on the learner is the teacher and the institution. In adjusting their utterances with the learner, the teacher effectively adjusts the kind of constraint which bears upon themselves. In knowing how their  own constraints have changed, any changes to the learners utterances will reveal aspects of the dynamics of constraint in the learner. The teacher's job is to conduct this 'constraint dance' and gradually work out what the learner's constraints are.

Utterances in this model are not objects or tokens to be compared and agreed. They serve to reveal different aspects of constraint in both teacher and learner. In this way, there is far less distinction to be drawn between environment and activity and utterance. A new kind of learning activity can produce new utterances, and new revealings of constraint. A teacher might say "forget about maths, let's play table tennis" (if only!). What follows is a different set of activities which reveal more about the constraints of the learner. Alternatively, the teacher might say "do you think numbers are real?" to reveal a different aspect of constraint.

Pask and Luhmann were both aware of the constraint orientation of cybernetic, and Ashby was a huge influence on both of them. Yet something seems to have escaped them. It seems that a computational logic of communication caused them to miss what was missing. This is a shame, because there are well established techniques for studying what is missing, not least the measurement of Shannon redundancy. More deeply, the field of "study of the "not there"" has acquired increasing importance in the statistical study of ecology. It has attracted a name derived from theology: the Apophatic.

My reckoning is that the "apophatic" holds more promise not only for the future of education than any fashionable educational theory today, but for the future of science.

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