Sunday 2 October 2022

Sleeping and Learning

If learning is about making new distinctions, there is a question about how we know a distinction. Since all distinctions have two sides (an inside and an outside) our knowledge of a new distinction must be able to apprehend both sides of it. So we must be able to cross the thresholds of our distinctions. At the same time, if we are not inside our distinctions - if we are not able to use them as a lens to view the world - they are useless in a practical way. Yet the distinctions which make up our lens are dependent on our being able to cross their threshold and see no distinctions. Is this sleep and dreaming?

We don't understand why we sleep. Except that we know that if we don't sleep, we die. That suggests that it is not just our conscious distinctions that require stepping outside of themselves, but the  physiological distinctions between cells, organs, etc. If they break down, we're dead. 

At the same time, we know - at least anecdotally - that we learn in our sleep. We wake up in the morning having not been able to do something the day before, and find ourselves improved in our performance. Possibly because we've got "more energy" - but what's that? Thinking about distinctions necessitating boundary crossing helps here.

The Freudian "primary process" is the dream world of no distinctions. The world of the new baby. The "secondary process" is the regulating filter which channels the energy from the primary process into useful distinctions which (for adults at least) are conditioned by the social conventions of the "superego". (Talcott Parsons correctly recognised that Freud's superego was sociological). More to the point, this psychodynamic process between ego, id and superego was continual: a kind of pulse between the "oceanic" primary process and the secondary process. 

In education, the superego rules, and technology has ensured that its grip on the imagination of staff and students has become every more brutal. But technology outside education stimulates and suppresses the id: from cat videos to shopping to porn, we can inhabit a simulated oceanic state. Only in sleep itself is there some contact with the reality of the id.  

What have we missed in the way that we think about learning? When we examine our metrics for competency, our "constructive alignments", assessment schemes, etc, we seem to have assumed that the distinctions of learning are fixed: once we learning something it stays there. In conscious experience this looks like a sensible proposition. But to assume this misses the possibility that our distinctions appear persistent precisely because they result from a dynamic process of distinction and undistinction. 

To be clearer about this, the deepest encounter with the oceanic experience comes through an intersubjective acknowledgement of uncertainty. That can be the best teaching - not the delivery of content, or the forcing of distinctions written in textbooks, but the revealing of understanding by a teacher to the point of revealing of uncertainty. "I'm not sure what this means - what do you think?"

I've written about this kind of thing here: Digitalization and Uncertainty in the University: Coherence and Collegiality Through a Metacurriculum (, and this last week I got a further reminder of the importance of this approach in an EU project which Danielle Hagood and I led around digitalization. In both cases, technology was the stimulus for uncertainty and dialogue. It is the technology which takes us to the oceanic state, from where (and this was quite obvious in my EU project) new distinctions and new thinking emerges. 

The dialogical is the closest thing we have to the primary process in education - it is rather like music because it connects us to more fundamental mechanisms. John Torday suggested in conversation last week that in sleep our cells realign themselves with their evolutionary origins, effectively connecting our waking thoughts (what Bohm calls the "explicate order") with fundamental nature ("implicate order"). That's a wild idea - but I quite like it!

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