Thursday, 2 August 2018

The Synchronic and Diachronic Structure of Expertise and What it Means for the Future of Learning

Educational technology seems to have hit a brick wall, with emphasis on the generation of educational content in support of rigid curricula, adaptive "personal" learning systems, analytics of student engagement with content, alongside a plethora of management systems which are used as tools to measure teacher "performance" in coordinating often unmanageable workloads. What's been lost is emphasis on relationships, conversation, thoughtfulness, inquiry, exploration, experiment. Technology has supported an increasing authoritarianism in education, which itself (just as authoritarianism is in government today) is a reaction to increasing uncertainty in the world.

There are structural reasons why education has become more authoritarian, and one of them concerns the way we think about expertise. Education sees expertise within the purview of the individual. The expert is an individual who makes reliable and consistent judgements in whatever field they operate, which are consistent with the judgements of other experts in the same field. Expertise is a performance of trusted distinction-making.  The organisational hierarchy of education stems from the privileging of experts as teachers and assessors in making judgements about students. The university sets up structures to regulate the performance of expertise: external examiners, exam boards, quality improvement panels, education committees and so on.

At each level, there is the performance of expertise. But the performance of expertise has a structure which is at once synchronic and diachronic. Synchronically, the expert has acquired knowledge about the 'order of things'. Diachronically, the expert reveals their synchronic structure through conversation, or justification for the judgements they make. If they make this justification in conversation with a student, we call this a "learning conversation", and the learner, through this conversation, acquires an understanding of the synchronic structure of expertise, and hopefully some of the skills of justification which reveal their own understanding.

One of the fascinating question in educational technology is whether it is possible to convey synchronic understanding alongside the means of diachronic expression without the direct conversational contact with an expert. Is it possible to "bottle" expertise, and to reorganise learning conversations (without which there is no learning) in such a way that peer-based conversation can be organised around engagement with such a "bottled" expertise?

This has been something of a "wet dream" for the proponents of AI for many years, but these efforts do not appear to work. They usually revolve around trying to coordinate a diachronic unfolding of expertise guided by an algorithm, which articulates some codified domain of knowledge. Neither the conversation nor the synchronic structuring of the knowledge is particularly convincing. This is because of certain category mistakes which are made in design: the conversation with the computer is presented as being "functionally equivalent" to a conversation with a teacher. Yet this is to misunderstand the nature of conversation. Also the activities the student is asked to engage with are seen to be analogous to the activities that a real teacher would ask a student to do. But the computer is not a real teacher, so there seems little justification for assuming that the activities have the same purpose.

If we really want to explore whether the synchronic and diachronic performance of expertise can be conveyed in new ways, we have to rethink the distinction between conversation and activity in learning, and what it is one hopes to achieve through the learning process.

A clue as to how this might be done is to consider that the synchronic aspect of expertise is an ordering of relations. If an expert has a particular ordering of relations (between categories for distinguishing mistakes in a program, or features in a diagnosis), then what are the activities which might lead a learner to acquire a similar ordering of relations? In asking this question, there are more profound questions to ask of experts, rather than learners: what do you see as the most important thing? What is least important? How does a compare to b?

The diachronic revealing of synchronic structure often takes the form of an emotion. If a learner says b is better than a when the teacher knows that a is hugely better than b, they will exclaim "No!" and wave their arms about! But a more subtle distinction or mistake might elicit a more nuanced reaction. Learners learn much from these reactions.

What is striking about this is that the learning conversation itself takes a form which relates to the synchronic structure of expertise. This is much like the way the form of a piece of music derives from the structure of its originating moments. Therefore, if we were to bottle experts, then we should work towards a form of learning conversation which acquires the form of the structure of knowledge. I'm working on a project which is trying to do this at the moment. I'm not sure whether it can be done. But I'm not convinced it can't be done. The educational technology route that we are on at the moment, however, is futile. 

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