Friday 18 December 2020

Bio-drama and new ways of teaching

For a few years now I've been exploring with John Torday how the many profound aporia we live with (what we seem to accept as "wicked problems" - climate change, inequality, homelessness, educational problems, health, geopolitics, etc) result from some gap in our understanding of how human consciousness came to be: to put it simply, it is Bateson's "gap between the way people think and the way nature works". In excluding the possibility of a deeper and more coherent narrative, we have grown to believe that our profound problems cannot not exist. But I am now asking a question that was once asked by Jiddhu Krishnamurti to David Bohm - is it possible for humans to have no "problems" at all?

The root of most of our human problems lies in the way that our egos separate themselves from their natural origins - their origins in cellular, biological, evolutionary processes. From mechanisms of cellular self-organisation and cooperation (without which there would be no advanced biological forms at all), we establish an idea of self which is more often competitive, defensive or combative. Our social structures are designed on the model established by the nature-divorced ego, and encourage this divorce from nature. Only when natural disasters occur - not just things like Covid, but earthquakes, floods, etc - that we are reminded of our origins in nature, and cooperation comes more to the fore (we are often surprised when it does, and praise the "heroics" of individuals doing what they were biologically programmed to do). We intellectually know that the split between ego and environment will kill us - but we seem powerless to intervene. 

Artists have always understood this split. Shakespearean tragedies show how the ego is torn apart by exposing the fundamental rift between culture and nature, but how Shakespeare does this is the thing. The play is a form in time, conceived in the mind of the playwright to unfold its moments of tension and tragedy in the lived experience of all the audience and players. This time of unfolding has a structure which is tied up with the structure of the drama, and this is the playwright's art - in concieving of the unity of the diachronic and synchronic aspects of drama as a whole.  

This uniting of the diachronic structure of life and its synchronic structure is something that also can be seen in cellular evolution. The principal mechanism by which it occurs is endosymbiosis - the absorption by the cell of aspects of its environment. As the endosymbiosis process unfolds, then obviously the structure of the cell reveals its history - rather like the rings in the trunks of trees, or ice cores represent a history book. Diachronic and synchronic are united. 

If this is the stuff that we are made of - if each of us, even at birth, are all "history stuff" - then the power of Shakespeare makes sense. In its unfolding temporal structure it recapitulates a much deeper temporal unfolding which unites each of us to each other through our cells. It's not that King Lear's tragedy awakens specific agonies in us with regard to our encounters with politics or power; it is that in the lived experience of seeing this unfolding dramatic structure, we see "through" each other - in Alfred Schutz's words, we "tune-in" to the inner life of each other. The power of the play is the power of deep connection and mutual recognition - all the more potent for it being so old and yet so fresh.

What we lack in our educational structures is the ability to make a similar kind of connection between teachers and learners. But such a connection can be made, I think. But like a Shakespeare play, it must be constructed so that this can happen. If there is any utility in the concept of "learning design", then it is this intended purpose - that something is designed or constructed such that learners and teachers can can perceive their shared biology and connection. 

How can you teach maths like that? or biology or physics? or medicine or brain surgery? Perhaps a better question to ask is "What stops us teaching maths, etc, like that?". And the answer to that is the nature-divorced ego implicit in our social structures of education. And yet, division and multiplication, cell boundaries, or the symmetries of quantum mechanics are all tied up in the processes which unify the diachronic and synchronic. We just lack a clear way of showing how - we lack a narrative and structure which reveals it. I think it's right, for example - as Louis Kauffman has argued (and more recently Steve Watson) that the symbolic notation that we use as the basis of teaching maths takes us in the wrong direction if we wish to identify wholeness. There may well be better "iconic" ways of approaching mathematical thought - as Lewis Carroll or Charles Sanders Peirce knew.

I'm increasingly interested in exploring what novel iconic and dramatic approaches to learning might reveal, and how they might be organised with technology. For example, knots are a powerful metaphor which extend from mathematics to psychology and organisation theory. And there's wonderful software to explore them (see The KnotPlot Site

It's something which I think does unite some of the better critical pedagogic thinking (Freire, Boal, Shor, etc) with deeper understanding of the relationship between mind and nature. 

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