Thursday, 9 November 2017

Education is simple. Why have we made it so complex?

I've been taking stock of the range of things that I've been doing as part of my role as an educational technologist. Much of it involves struggles with software to do things which the institution believes are necessary in modern education. So there are technologies for assessment, technologies for analysis, technologies for content delivery and so on. Each of them can (and does) go wrong, and each of them demands considerable labour in keeping the system going. From an educational perspective, none of them are particularly effective.

Learning itself is an inter-human activity which involves conversation. Without conversation, there is little learning - a fact which I have to keep reminding those who believe somehow that "content" will "deliver" learning. The only real value of content (Powerpoints, videos, etc) is that it illuminates the understanding in another human being, and that might be the precursor to a conversation. However, if we believe content to be some kind of magical "learning producer", it creates all sorts of chaos and complexity in its production: huge amounts of time are invested in creating sexy animations, vast resources put into audio and video post-production, and whilst what results looks pretty, it inevitably represents the understanding of a committee - not the easiest thing to have a conversation with!

Content, then, is a path to complexification. But it is not the only one.

What inevitably makes content complexify is that it is inherently hierarchical. It is the joint product of expertise and quality audit: the first a result of the academic status machine which manufactures "professors" (who are not always representative of intellectual authority), and the other, a function of the university's bureaucracy. These two functions are related.

The university hierarchy is both a mechanism for apportioning blame for things that might go wrong (like all hierarchies), and a mechanism for dividing knowledge. One of the principal barriers to inter-disciplinary working is the negotiation as to who is responsible (i.e. who can be blamed) for which bit. The quality processes of the university, which are another arm of the hierarchy, uphold these structures. With technology, the university has reinforced its mechanism.

Now there is a curious thing about communication in hierarchies. Hierarchies have "lines of command" - even in their loosest form. These are channels for communicating simple messages from top to bottom: "assessments must be marked by....", "the timetable is published...", etc. These are not conversations, although they might be the cause of conversations further down the system. Sometimes education exploits this for learning: the command "your assignment is to..." is the cause of conversation among students. In these conversations students will often learn about each other. They won't necessarily learn about the teacher, whose utterance might only be "your assignment is to..."

By virtue of the hierarchical structures the teacher find herself in, the conversational utterarances are sometimes restricted to particular forms of delivery: lectures, seminars, assessments, etc. The teacher's position is upheld by compliance with the institution's rules, not the learner needs (although the institution pretends that it represents the learners' needs, it does nothing of the sort - it represents its own needs!).

This all gets incredibly complex. How could it be simpler?

The alternative to hierarchy is either heterarchy (many leaders) or anarchy (no leaders). Both I believe are preferable. In order to achieve them, we have to deal with the twin structural problem: on the one hand, expertise and the status mechanism which gives rise to it; and on the other hand, the institutionalised apportionment of blame and the carving up of knowledge to fit institutional structures.

This is not to say that we ignore intellectual authority. If anything, it is to say that intellectual authority is privileged over the baubles of job title. Intellectual authorities are the elders in the community. They are the source of the best questions; the best guides towards a conversation. But they offer an articulation of uncertainty, not answers: "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," as Yeats put it.

Technology today gives us new lines of communication. We haven't yet learnt how to reorganise our social structures to exploit them; we have instead reinforced our social structures with stupid uses of technology. I'm increasingly convinced that hierarchies persist because of impoverishment in communication, and hierarchies exacerbate this impoverishment. Technology gives human beings new ways of coordinating themselves with richer channels of communication. This is what we should be doing. At its heart are the communicative principles of redundancy which characterise the inner workings of the brain: what Warren McCulloch called "the redundancy of potential command". He also coined the term heterarchy.

Education would simple in a heterarchy.

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