Saturday, 20 June 2020

Meta-Dialogue at the Far Eastern Federal University

On Monday at 6am I'm leading a small group of Russian teachers at the Far Eastern Federal University in a preparatory course for the next iteration of the Global Scientific Dialogue course which is now in its 3rd year. I've said many times how much I have appreciated the openness and creativity of my Russian friends, which has often been in stark contrast to the rigid market-oriented constraints of the Anglo-Saxon HE system. We need difference - and I don't believe difference is going to come from the ideology of Anglo-Saxon HE.

Global Scientific Dialogue was always envisaged as a vehicle for driving conversation between students and teachers. It was really inspired by the work of physicist David Bohm, who realised that the fundamental problems of science were not in the content matter of science - they were in the way scientists talk to each other. It was bad in Bohm's time. With the naked marketisation of the knowledge economy and the gamification of academic publishing, things are much worse now. The course also drew on work on conversation from cybernetics (Gordon Pask), phenomenology (Alfred Schutz, Edmund Husserl), sociology (Niklas Luhmann, Loet Leydesdorff), mathematics (George Spencer-Brown, Lou Kauffman), philosophy of technology (Gilbert Simondon), biology (John Torday), and physics (Peter Rowlands). I've also been happy that the approach is aligned to other developments in dialogic education such as Rupert Wegerif's work in Cambridge (see The starting point of Global Scientific Dialogue was the point of realisation that all these people were basically saying the same thing - and we needed to talk about it.

The pandemic has accelerated things.  For some considerable time, it's been obvious that the professoriate of the academy (or at least those who were the real professors, even if they weren't formally recognised as such!) has been reorganising itself online. ListServs have been very important for nearly 20 years. The Foundations of Information Science ( has numbered some illustrious names in fields ranging from mathematics, physics, biology, semiotics, sociology and philosophy.

More recently, these scholarly discussions have shifted to videoed meeting through Zoom and other similar platforms. It took the pandemic to make this happen, but having got everyone on there (even the most tech-phobic professors), there will now be no going back. Physicist John Williamson's "quicycle" ( has been growing for a few years, but has really taken off in the pandemic. Last week mathematician Louis Kauffman gave a talk (which was a collaboration between him and Peter Rowlands in Liverpool) about the mysterious Majorana Fermion, and its topological significance. This was the discussion at the end:

I have accidentally ended up doing a similar thing, because of two friends whose work I introduced to each other, and because of the pandemic which made the Zoom connection possible. John Torday has a radical theory of evolutionary biology which relates cellular communication to quantum mechanics, and is backed up with an impressive array of empirical data relating to studies of the lung and asthma, while Peter Rowlands has spent his career rewriting the laws of physics in a way which provides a foundation for Torday's thinking, and which also is commensurable with fundamental work in mathematics developed by Kauffman. So we all met on Zoom, and have continued to meet each week, each time developing the dialogue and the connections between biology, physics and everything else. I have half-expected it to run out of steam, but it doesn't seem to have done yet. It started like this with four of us:

And gradually, I invited more people. They came from architecture, management, education, cybernetics, psychology, philosophy, art history, and technology (so far).

But the real trick is to get students involved. Joining the conversation now is a process of observation of the dynamics of people who are working at the frontiers of their fields talk with one another and attempt to find connections between one another. I've been wondering if that is too off-putting for students - there's no gentle way-in. Now, there's not even any time to make introductions. I try to keep the sessions to an hour (no more than 90 minutes).

I've been doing a similar dialogic thing with a group of students in Liverpool who have been doing projects related to educational technology. Because these students have come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the key has been to make connections between disciplines and technology, which inevitably means digging into the nature of technology, and its connection to biology, physics, sociology, history, art, etc. A couple of students ended up in academic area quite close to the discussion that I was hosting online. So I sent the student snippets of the online discussion saying "this is what people working at the frontier are doing, and this is how they are talking with one another". That seemed to fire their imagination, and many of the results have been very good.

I've often thought that "the way forwards is always meta". I don't know who said that first (it's a Bateson-ish thing perhaps), but I think it's right. So Global Scientific Dialogue will be a meta-dialogue. We've got to get the professoriate talking (the real professoriate). And we've got to video their discussion. These videos will become the resources to lead a meta-dialogue in which students can be introduced to the ways people talk, the content of what they talk about, their biographies, and in the process conduct their own dialogues based on this.

The students dialogues will then also create a resource-base at a different level - a commentary. Some students will gradually find that they are perfectly comfortable within the base-level dialogue group, participating with the scientists. Others will continue at a commentary level, producing dialogic resources which then feed another level of engagement by other students.

So in September, we will have 200 Russian students doing this, creating meta-dialogues. YouTube translation tools are going to be invaluable  (technology is so important to this process). This week I will concentrate on teachers doing it (which can be a resource for the students in September).

At the root of all this is a fundamental principle of education. To teach is to reveal one's understanding of something. It is not to hide oneself behind a Powerpoint presentation, but to reveal oneself - both when one is leading the argument, and when one is learning from others.   It actually can only work online - it would be impossible to do without technology. But more importantly, higher education can be much better for it. 

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