Saturday, 18 July 2020

Important Things and Education

The discussion in the online "encounter group" between physics, biology, management, art and systems which I've been running for the last few weeks (we've been going for 10 weeks now), is something which I've longed for in education for years. It's no good talking about education just with educationalists - their discourse, like all discourses, play the games of disciplinary politics where some things are easily discussed, and other things are impossible to discuss. Only when we actually have people representing different disciplines having a conversation about important things that something special happens. But as Whitehead once said, if you want to know where the next scientific advance is coming from, look at what people are not talking about.

One of the group members remarked to me later that they were surprised that a leading biologist, physicist and social scientists were actually having a conversation which kept on going, and people keep on coming back. This week the conversation started talking about poetry and music, and quickly moved on to biology and Peter Rowlands's nilpotent quantum mechanics.

I think it is the nilpotent which is the glue, and the fact that John Torday has a theory of epigenetics which directly relates to the nilpotent has meant that a new conversation has opened. And that's exciting. 

Monday, 6 July 2020

Is Learning Unified?

A common criticism of education research is that there is no coherent theory of education. There are lots of specialised theories, mini-theories, practical rules, and a few macro-theories, but no coherent scheme within which they all hang together. Among the macro theories, constructivism serves the purpose of effectively explaining this unhappy situation away: because theory, like knowledge, is constructed there can be no single overarching process unifying learning.

The question of the unity of learning is related the much discussed question of the unity of consciousness (see Consciousness too suffers the same fate - there are obviously lots of processes going on in consciousness. Is it simply a happy accident that they all come together to produce my thoughts and actions, or is there some hidden mechanism that we will one day discover which ties the whole thing together. Because, it does seem that somehow the whole is tied together.

If we could take all the parameters of learning, alongside some guiding principle of how they might be connected, would we uncover a "unity of learning"?

This is something that has been lurking at the back of my "Important Things Group" which continues to meet online. This week's discussion ranged from the pathology of institutions to the nature of energy.

I wonder if the situation in education is a bit like the situation in chemistry before Mendeleev. There were obviously lots of differences between matter - different substances had different properties. But there was no way of unifying the way we spoke of those different substances - no way of relating things that looked completely different from one perspective, so that the deep connections not only between completely different things, but between those things and everything else could be made.

More importantly, because Mendeleev had an idea as to what the connecting principle might be, he could identify where those known substances fitted in his scheme, and (more importantly) where there might be substances that are not yet known that might fit in the gaps. The proof of what might be considered a "unity thesis" in chemistry came when he could fill the gaps.

So what are the parameters of learning? Communication, or conversation, seems to be an obvious one to start with. Of course, communication itself is not a single thing - it is a process. But it is a process with a pattern. It can generate order (in cybernetic terms, it reduces entropy) in understanding. It produces utterances, writings, videos, etc in the environment - it generates information. And it cannot do anything unless the living system which communicates has the energy to communicate.

Is the biological substrate of communication a parameter in learning? It must be, surely. So what is the pattern of the biological substrate? It turns out, this is homologous to the human conversation. Cells create order in their internal organisation and with each other. Cells create signals - proteins (information) - which they put into the environment of other cells.  And cells cannot do anything without energy, which they absorb through a process called chemiosmosis.

So we have two processes here which look very similar: one at a biological level, the other at a communicative/educational level. And they are connected.

Now the trick is to look for a pattern which unites the three basic parameters that have been described - negentropy, information and chemiosmosis. In Mendeleev's periodic table, atomic mass and reactivity were the fundamental variables he used to organise the varied phenomena of substances. The logic of reactivity was determined by a basic understanding of the need to balance chemical equations. If we look at the parameters of learning from the perspective of negentropy, signals and chemiosmosis, then is there a way of conceiving how these parameters might "balance", and how each item might "react" with others?

To do this, we need a more fundamental description of the parameters of learning than cells. We need to look at Quantum Mechanics. In Dirac's equation of quantum mechanics, there are 4 expressions which taken together detemine the behaviour of subatomic particles like electron, determining  (among other things) the Pauli exclusion principle which is the reason why electrons organise themselves into shells in the first place.

How does Dirac's equation work? It turns out that the sum total of all the parameters that it describes in the universe is zero. This is hardly a surprise, since Newton's 3rd law of motion also means that the total force in the universe must be zero. More surprisingly is the fact that Einstein's equation of mass energy and momentum can also be expressed as zero in the same way.

Zero may be the key.

So is zero the thing which provides the unity of learning? The attractiveness of thinking this is that if one analysed the parameters that we know about, and found that it didn't quite make zero, we would know that there must be some parameters which we had not properly considered. Effectively the parameters of learning form a kind of "group structure" which rotates according to the different degrees of elements of learning, and as they do, they leave gaps which reveal parameters that we hadn't thought about.

I want to pursue this a lot further, but it does resonate with me in some fundamental ways. Not least that the discovery of gaps, and the prediction of the parameters which might fill those gaps, seems to be a fundamental part of the process of teaching. Just as much as it was a fundamental part of the process Mendeleev went through as he probed his periodic table...