Wednesday 30 May 2018

Synthetic and Analytic Approaches to Technology and the Future of Education

Most research in almost all domains today has the form of a synthesis. Attempts are made to establish coherence between current knowledge, manifest phenomena, available theories and prevailing methodologies. Whether one is trying to reconcile relativity theory with quantum mechanics, or the secrets of epigenesis, or one is trying to find out what the future of education holds, it's the same story. In the case of physics, the manifest phenomena are produced by experiments designed with the available models (the immensely complicated "standard model"). Experiments tend to confirm the model - which might mean it's right, but might not tell us how something more fundamental is going on, from where we might look at things differently.

Major scientific breakthroughs rarely follow the synthetic path. We call them "Copernican" because they don't. We call them that because somebody comes along and asks an analytical question, not a synthetic one. They ask "What simple origin could be producing this complexity of theory, phenomena and methods?" Copernicus realised we were looking down the wrong end of the telescope, as did Galileo, Newton, Einstein and quite a few others.

My colleague Peter Rowlands, has drawn the relationship between synthetic and analytic science like this (from the perspective of physics). I find it a powerful diagram:

So what of the future of education? The synthetic approach is to seek the manifest phenomena, use the available methodologies, assess the current knowledge and try to fit it with available theories. In education, of course, none of this is coherent: there is no coherent theory, there is no agreed methodology (although there are some which have become normatively established - largely through PhD programmes), and where reporting manifest phenomena, all education can seem to manage is responses to questionnaires and interviews, and test scores. Is a synthetic approach going to work? I doubt it. It will tell us what we already know.

So what of an analytical approach to education. Where would we start? The starting point is to speculate that there must be a simple originating principle behind the rapidly increasing complexity that we find ourselves in - something behind the babel of theories, interviews, methods. Freud saw it in terms of psychodynamics; John Bowlby saw it in terms of attachment; Gordon Pask saw it in terms of conversation; Maturana and Varela saw it in terms of what they call "structural coupling"; Beer saw it in terms of "variety"; Piaget saw it in terms of assimilation and accommodation. And these principles are not limited to explain social phenomena: they are connected to the explanation of physical phenomena too (particularly in the case of Beer, Maturana and Pask)

Analytic approaches are good at predicting the future. One of the most powerful analytic approaches to the future of technology is contained in Winograd and Flores's Understanding Computers and Cognition. There are no interviews, and their methods are a combination of critique of the status quo, and the seeking of a coherence between philosophy, speech act theory and cybernetics. But their predictions were right where so many others were pointing in the opposite direction. Edgar Morin's Seven Complex Lessons of Education for the Future (see is another example. He too is well ahead of his time - even if the book is less than practical.

It's interesting that the concentration of scientific effort on synthesis can in a large part be attributed to the current practices of scientific publication. In order to get past peer-review, in order to play the citation game, etc, one has to synthesise knowledge. The citation is the mark of synthesis. An important step in moving towards a more analytic frame is to break the hold that publishers have on academic activity.

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