Monday, 30 April 2018

Marion Milner and Educational Technology Discourse (post #OER18 thoughts)

Marion Milner was a psychotherapist who did important work in education in the 1930s. Her book "The Human Problem in Schools" has just been republished (at a price!) by Routledge ( This seems to me to be one of the great missed opportunities in educational research and what Milner does is unique: she investigates the context of human experience in education. In fact, she did this not just in education, but in art ("On being unable to paint") and in more general inquiry about life ("A Life of One's own"). Her method is fascinating because it breaks down barriers between categories. She can do this because she is armed with a basic psychodynamic mechanism which she gained from Jung, but the beauty of her approach is that the mechanism can be applied recursively at all levels of education. It enables her to speak beautifully about the madness of education and its remedy:

"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."
I've been quite struck by changes in tone to the educational technology discourse after going to #oer18. Educational technology has always been a discourse of "exhortation", but the turning of "open education" into a subject (rather than a practice) is something which has gone hand-in-hand with a growth in critical discourse that orients itself around particular technological issues and solutions (e.g. reclaim hosting), identity politics (the controversy around David Wiley's presentation), open licensing, and a critical backlash against technology in education more generally (Audrey Watters). Suddenly we hear not only what we "ought" to do, but what we "ought not" to do. To be fair there was always something a bit mad about the educational technology discourse (learning design? learning objects? learning analytics?) and if there's an identifiable recent trend, it is the "critical turn" of many of the more exclusively technical issues. There's a tendency to applaud this critical turn as a sign of the discourse growing up. But it is not impossible that it is in fact regressing into smaller and smaller identity-bound communities who talk to themselves and ignore what they don't like.

The problem in all this is that the real experience of learning and education gets left out. Somehow by turning something into a "subject", we lose perspective on what the whole thing was about in the first place. This is a large part of the problem in education, and its requires explanation which is unlikely to be forthcoming from the current direction of the discourse.

Milner's focus on context provides a powerful corrective to this Balkanisation. Rather than preaching about what ought to happen, she catalogues what actually does happen and then seeks to explain it. As she says, the time given to understand what is happening would make it possible for things to be improved. And we must understand not just what is happening in education, but what is happening in our talk about education. It is context all the way.

Some may object that this is too complex or too ambitious. Indeed, our dreary research methodologies (they are all dreary!) are precisely designed to attenuate the complexities of education into a form which make them manageable for students trying to write their PhD theses within the institutionally-determined time frame of 3 years. But they only do this by ignoring ("bracketing-out") vast chunks of contextual stuff which is clearly relevant.

Milner, however, shows how it can be done.


Paul Hollins said...

Thanks Mark for the thought provoking post , Following the OER conference you refer to remotely I concur with much of your comment, in particular the identity politics and our ignorance of what we "don't like". I will certainly follow up on your suggested reading .

Frances Bell said...

It was good to meet up with you at OER18 Mark, and I have enjoyed reading this post about Openness and Identity. I welcomed the reference to context because a key focus in my many years as an Information Systems educator was to alert students to the significance of context in the application of technology, and the role of rich and critical case studies in increasing our understanding.
Another thing that caught my eye (as I have been thinking and writing about digital resistance/ trespass for a couple of years) was this in the Marion Milner quote "and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. " Of course, I lack context for this as I haven't read the book or attended a GPDST school but I did attend a girls' grammar school in the late 1960s. I bristled a bit even though I wouldn't have been considered a "difficult" girl. I look back on my time at school as including cooperative passive resistance, meaning that I would rarely publicly challenge what the school was trying to make us comply with but my education was partially achieved by discussing ideas about all of this with friends and occasionally family.
Identity politics is frequently thrown about as a label but it's worth looking back at its origin and source as Smith does here
A tendency to exhortation is always a risk for those working in edtech but I don't see the controversy around David Wiley's presentation as necessarily closing down discussion. What you see as Balkanisation, I would see as some different voices being heard, even if I don't agree with everything that was said.
I was lucky enough to hear Safiya Noble talk in Manchester last night, see, and she and I had a brief conversation that touched on intersectionality in its original meaning. I explained how I learned more about my own white privilege from following #blacklivesmatter once I realised that I needed active listening more than dialogic engagement in order to learn. It is not black people's responsibility to educate white people about racism but their voices are very valuable.

Frances Bell said...

I have enjoyed reading this post and the one about Openness and Identity

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Frances,

Thanks for this. Apologies for the Milner quote - the book is of its time, I'm afraid. But its method is still fascinating. I do recommend her "A life of one's own" as a touchstone for what inquiry-based learning should be.

On the question of identity, I think that the real issue is justice, not identity. Mark Knoppfler's proclamation at the Nelson Mandela tribute concert in 1988 says it all: "One humanity, one justice".

The assertion of identity is something that happens in the wake of injustice. It's a symptom - an itch that demands to be scratched, but scratching it doesn't in the end produce justice. Well-targeted and thought-through action does that.

I don't really buy the "critical performativity" arguments that writing about injustice will eventually lead to "one justice". I think Martin Parker is right in his recent plea to "bulldoze the business school" ( This paragraph sums up what I fear is happening in the educational technology discourse too:

"insiders’ dissent has become so thoroughly institutionalised within the well-carpeted corridors that it now passes unremarked, just an everyday counterpoint to business as usual. Careers are made by wailing loudly in books and papers about the problems with business schools. The business school has been described by two insiders as “a cancerous machine spewing out sick and irrelevant detritus”. Even titles such as Against Management, Fucking Management and The Greedy Bastard’s Guide to Business appear not to cause any particular difficulties for their authors. I know this, because I wrote the first two. Frankly, the idea that I was permitted to get away with this speaks volumes about the extent to which this sort of criticism means anything very much at all. In fact, it is rewarded, because the fact that I publish is more important than what I publish."

We need justice. But the system which is sustaining intellectual arguments demanding justice is corrupt, and indeed feeding off the complaints of insiders.

The question is, if we really want justice for all in education and in society, what interventions do we make and where? How do we plan and act together?

Best wishes,


Frances Bell said...

I ended my career in a Business School as the university reorganised around me, rather than by choice, and I have some sympathy with the views expressed in the article you quote but I still know people doing good work under difficult circumstances.
I can see that you are talking about what I am interested in too - justice and making change - but I feel as if we are somehow talking past each other. And that is a challenge, if we think we can learn from listening/discussion/dialogue with people who also think and hope that justice and change can be achieved. I think we may not always be able to plan and act together but listening to others' experiences can shift our own mindsets. I have always been alert to discrimination in tech but reading and listening to Safiya Noble (and others) is educational in a way that 'rational discourse' doesn't work as might be hoped. More listening to women by men, more listening to people of colour by those of us labelled white is needed before being able to plan and act together.
Best wishes to you too, Mark.

Mark Johnson said...

Yes we are talking about the same thing. The difference between us is one of strategy - how to get it.

For me it is "one humanity, one justice". The one-ness is important. That's Marx's egolessness - it's non-identity. It is the essence of open.

The identity path is a path of closure, scarcity and ultimately conflict. The whole world is there at the moment. Scary.

We have to choose. I think in the end, to choose non-identity is to choose science as the foundation for politics, and to accept the collective responsibility for reorganising humanity to flourish in a world of machines.

Frances Bell said...

I really appreciate our dialogue here. I am just wondering how "ome humanity, one justice" works out in the context of structural inequalities of race and gender. I am wondering if you believe that there are structural inequalities. And if not, how is lack of justice expressed?

Mark Johnson said...

There has to be a discussion about social ontology. Is there a lack of justice? Yes! What causes it? Faulty epistemology (or holding to a bad ontology - which is probably the same thing). How do we fix it? I'm not sure... But the 'golden rule' is a good start!

We should be relentlessly curious about the world and our explanations for it - this is what I mean by putting science ahead of politics. Even Critical Realism, which I've got a lot of time for (and which has the best answer to the question of "structural inequality") falls down here. If we have better maps of reality we would have a better chance of intervening to make the world fairer.

I certainly think technology is at the root of many of the current crises facing us. The temptation is to reject it - but we've got to understand it better because it gives us our only hope of salvation too.

Frances Bell said...

I am still not sure where you stand on structural inequalities (that you put in quotes) or intersectionality. I am also intrigued by the use of the term faulty epistemology. Does that mean that some epistemologies are faulty or that there is one correct epistemology? (Not without its problems for me) I was interested in this paper which proposes"that service-learning might be thought of rhizomatically so as to affirm what is excluded in western thought, creating new knowledge spaces in which indigenous knowledge and western knowledge can be transformed and integrated."
I found this story from Rwanda (highest % of women in parliament) fascinating . I want to resist how these women debaters won their competition but then I am not a Rwandan.
Regarding identity politics, I think we should remember its origins "The original intent of identity politics was articulating black women’s struggle at the nexus of race, gender, sexual, and class oppressions, and then forming strategies for dismantling each of these, both in black feminist spaces and in coalition with other groups."(from New Republic article shared above. I regret the term identity politics being used as a label to dismiss oppressed groups approaches to making change. When you say "We have to choose. I think in the end, to choose non-identity is to choose science as the foundation for politics, and to accept the collective responsibility for reorganising humanity to flourish in a world of machines."that sounds to me like saying there is one right approach.
I don't reject technology - I want to see it shaped socially, technically and culturally by a more diverse set of people than the predominantly white male set that currently do the shaping. It still won't be perfect but maybe we'll have developed some processes that can help shift injustice along the way.

Mark Johnson said...

No, I don't think there is one right approach. Actually, this question worried me a lot when I first encountered critical realism (which I am now sceptical about!): there was a tendency in CR to say that there was a 'correct' ontology - not so much in Bhaskar and Archer, but among the disciples (the disciples are always the problem ;-))

What I now think is there are viable ecologies of diverse ideas which characterise a just society. It's as much about what those ideas are as it is about how the conversations about them are coordinated. This is why the university (or at least its function of "higher learning") is really important. So 'ecology' is the key thing ('political ecology' has become quite a thing recently, and worth exploring - see Robbins )

Structural inequality is an explanation for manifest injustices. I would suggest "busted ecology" as a better explanation. One reason is that we don't really understand equality (even in maths it's a problem - it's tied to the problem of induction). It's much more problematic in society. The world presents functionally-differentiated components working together in ecologies. We see this from physics, chemistry, biology to society. Components are not equal as such, but each component is viable and essential to the viability of the whole.

Ecology also challenges us to understand what we mean by "structure". Our human structures of government and institutions are largely hierarchical organisations of components. They're all in crisis now! (Why? - I think they can't cope with uncertainty). Your body is not a hierarchy: the functionally-differentiated components of brain, heart, liver, etc operate heterarchically ('many leaders'). And heterarchy seems to be the organising principle of ecologies and your brain. In a heterarchy, structure is not easily distinguishable from process: what the system is at a time point contributes to what it becomes later. It's very much like music, and I've found that a better distinction is between "synchronic" structure and "diachronic" process/pattern. Incidentally, the word "heterarchy" was invented by Warren McCulloch who also invented neural nets in 1943. Heterarchy was the organising principle of the internet - although the extraordinary thing is that we've turned it into a hierarchy!

I absolutely agree with what you say in your last paragraph. There is however, no point in putting diverse voices in a hierarchy. It will still be pathological (your Rwanda story bears this out). We will arrive at diversity by changing our structures of coordination. This is from Andrew Feenberg:

"In the future, those who today are subordinated to technology's rhythms and demands may be able to control it and determine its evolution. I call the process of creating such a society 'democratic rationalisation' because it requires technological advances imposed by wide public participation in technical decision making" (in "Between Reason and Experience" (2010))

Illich says the same thing:

"Ecology, during the last ten years, has acquired a new meaning. It is still the name for a branch of professional biology, but the term now increasingly serves as the label under which a broad, politically organized general public analyzes and influences technical decisions. I want to focus on the new electronic management devices as a technical change of the human environment which, to be benign, must remain under political (and not exclusively expert) control." ("Silence as a Commons" -

Best wishes,