Monday, 20 August 2018

Is Educational Technology Over? (No - but we need to talk about consciousness and the universe)

I'm finding myself a bit dismayed by the state of the education system. It seems I'm not alone. Even my 18 year old daughter who survived education with good A-levels is committed to not going to university: "why do I want to pay for more school?". Even 10 years ago there was a lot of hope about what might be possible with technology, and personal technologies in particular presented opportunities for gaining knowledge which were unprecedented and which appeared like a significant threat to rigid institutional provision.

What has actually happened is that institutions have largely maintained their practices unchallenged. Rigid curricula are everywhere (although "curriculum review" seems to be a constancy these days),  and learning outcomes have made the assessment process an explicit exercise in measuring compliance with expectation rather than a consideration of understanding (things were better in the early 90s when I graduated). As David Sherlock reminded me the other day, the real threat to institutions now is not the current generation of students. It is their children.

One would hope that in the educational technology community (and education in general) there would be some soul-searching as to how we got it wrong and what to do next. Unfortunately, because educational technologists are mostly employed by institutions, their focus has shifted to how to keep their jobs and pay their mortgages rather than think of how the institution won over technology, and how we might fix what has become rather authoritarian and technocratic. The injustice of what has happened in education finds voice in various critical approaches to educational technology, which - from the institution's perspective - are now easily sidelined as a kind "two minutes hate": you can say what you like, but keep the VLE/portfolio/content-production going and keep the students happy!

All of this is market-driven nonsense. The environment of education is not a market; it is society as a whole in its scientific, historical, cultural, spiritual and emotional dimensions. Anthony Seldon is right that we barely touch any of these dimensions, and so our education is deficient. The suppression of understanding in favour of metrics of compliance is the most serious problem. Suppressing understanding is a route to alienation and mental illness. But we don't know how to measure understanding. We don't understand understanding.

David Bohm made the remark that "In the end thought produces results. But thought says it didn't do it". That is the problem we face: all our theories, critiques, technologies, experiments are the product of thought, or consciousness. Our thoughts about the physical world give us physics and biology. But the thinkability of those thoughts is emergent from the very biology that we thought of. It's a circular process.

Bohm thought that the way the universe really worked was as an expression of an "implicate order", where its expression articulated symmetries which recur throughout nature. Pattern was the key to apprehending the implicate order: the "pattern which connects" as Bateson put it, and the search for pattern and coherence in the symmetry between thought and nature was the driving force for intellectual inquiry, emancipation and understanding. A few years ago I asked Ernst von Glasersfeld "Where does the desire to learn come from?" He didn't have an answer. Bohm may have it, though.

One of the crucial elements to pattern is redundancy: the saying of the same thing in many different ways. It's what we do as teachers. It's what music and art do. It's what we do on Facebook when we share photos, and it's what I do on this blog. Technology has massively increased the degree of redundancy that we are immersed in. However, in our approach to technology, we have not focused on redundancy; we have focused on its opposite, "information". I think this is at the root of where we have gone wrong with our institutions.

Institutions were indeed threatened by the explosion of possibilities unleashed by technology. But they responded not by adapting their structures and practices but by wishing to maintain their structure. And they did this through attenuating patterns, producing more video resources, assembling more curricula, fetishising the VLE and the MOOC, and using the rationale of the market (which is an attenuation mechanism in its own right) to justify the whole thing. They became "information" organisations. Many years ago, Karl Pribram identified the problem "Redundancy in a world of Information". He highlights "values, redundancy, memory, - the enduring aspects of the word we live in - have been given short shrift of late in our scientific thinking." Pribram's model of consciousness drew heavily on Bohm.

Bohm's concept of consciousness and the universe is that it is a hologram: patterns are present at all levels, from thoughts to atomic structures. It is because of this holographic structure that he argued that dialogue was the most important thing in science and society.

We can use technology very differently. We can use it to harness the redundancy it produces. We can use the redundancy of technology to support rich dialogue in education. We can examine the self-organising processes of understanding for how they connect patterns. We can explore redundancies implicit in the expertise of academics and find new ways of communicating the patterns of their thought. We can create new contexts for conversation free from curriculum but with opportunities for students to pursue deep interests in dialogue. We can have a holographic education to fit our holographic consciousness. 

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Dialectical Materialism Without Matter

Here is a basic statement:

Matter, as far as anyone knows in physics, is composed of basic things like mass, charge, space and time. 

Of course, the key word in that first sentence is "knows". Mass, charge, space and time are ideas, the products of consciousness. Bhaskar tries to simplify this: there are "intransitive" mechanisms. But it doesn't get rid of the "knows" problem. And it gets more complicated because consciousness, which gives us all these ideas, itself appears to be emergent from the matter of physiology and brains.

Once we have got past the problem of "knows", we then have to think about "is composed of". "Is composed of" is a way of thinking about origins: where a story begins. What is it in our consciousness which leads us towards defining a beginning of a story? What is it in the structure of a story which determines an origin?

Marx's story of dialectical materialism grew from 19th century science, when evolutionary stories were much in vogue: first there was x, then there was y, then there was us... But there's no evidence for "first there was..." In fact, there is no evidence for evolution: evolutionary processes cannot be observed - Darwinism is abduction in the same way as creationism.

In Marxism, the relation between material conditions and consciousness is a tension between natural rights, equity and abundance against exploitation and power. Marxism draws its power from a fundamental emphasis on material origins.

But if we say that consciousness begins with physics, we are committing an epistemological error (thanks to Lou Kauffman for reinforcing this to me the other day!). Yet the lure of materialist origins is itself a phenomenon which cannot be discounted. There is something like "truth" in it.

Modern quantum mechanics is telling us something different about the nature of the physical world and historical emergence. In place of a mechanistic, sequential set of knock-on effects, its grappling with non-locality, superposition, uncertainty etc is suggesting that broken symmetries at different orders of reality create patterns in nature. David Bohm's idea of a "hologram" is, I think, the most powerful idea here: that the patterns of symmetry breaking at the smallest unit of nature are reproduced at higher orders. John Torday is suggesting that the symmetry breaking of consciousness itself is tied to symmetry breaking at the material level - particularly to that contained in our cells. Karl Pribram also held to a holographic view of consciousness, also influenced by Bohm.

There is a musical analogue here. Music appears to be composed of redundancies which articulate broken symmetries related to music's originating material. The different aspects of music's holographic structure become aligned and unaligned at various moments. This raises a question: when we think of material origins, are we really setting our consciousness on a path to find alignment between the broken symmetries of thought and the broken symmetries of biology and physics in its historical emergence?

SO... Materialism is holographic alignment between thought and physiology?

That's an interesting idea. So where does that leave exploitation or dialectics? They are accidental misalignments of the hologram: surface broken symmetries which are detached from deep resonances. Capitalism is noise.

What do we do with noise? Redundancy is what is required. The pattern is already written - it just needs amplifying.


Saturday, 11 August 2018

Does cybernetics understand complexity?

I'm writing a paper about music at the moment and questioning my understanding of the word "complex". That's a bit embarrassing for someone who considers themselves a cybernetician - a subject which is fundamentally concerned with complexity. This is a moment where I have to ask myself if I really understand what "complex" means.

This is the definition of complexity that I have believed up until this point, in a beautifully argued explanation by Ross Ashby:
"The word ‘complex’, as it may be applied to systems, has many possible meanings, and I must first make my use of it clear. There is no obvious or preeminent meaning, for although all would agree that the brain is complex and a bicycle simple, one has also to remember that to a butcher the brain of a sheep is simple while a bicycle, if studied exhaustively (as the only clue to a crime) may present a very great quantity of significant detail. Without further justification, I shall follow, in this paper, an interpretation of ‘complexity’ that I have used and found suitable for about ten years. I shall measure the degree of ‘complexity’ by the quantity of information required to describe the vital system. To the neurophysiologist the brain, as a feltwork of fibers and a soup of enzymes, is certainly complex; and equally the transmission of a detailed description of it would require much time. To a butcher the brain is simple, for he has to distinguish it from only about thirty other ‘meats’, so not more than log2 30, i.e., about five bits, are involved. This method admittedly makes a system’s complexity purely relative to a given observer; it rejects the attempt to measure an absolute, or intrinsic, complexity; but this acceptance of complexity as something in the eye of the beholder is, in my opinion, the only workable way of measuring complexity." (Ashby, 1973 - "Some peculiarities of Complex Systems", Cybernetic Medicine, Vol 9, no. 1) 
On the face of it, this is perfectly sensible. But there are things in life which are not like bicycles or brains, butchers or detectives.

If I was to point to three problems with Ashby's view, they are:

  1. The problem of reference and meaning: Ashby sees information as being about something - the brain to the butcher is information about something, just as it is to the brain surgeon.
  2. The problem of ergodicity - Ashby's examples are inanimate and static in the information they present - but nothing in life is really like this, and neither are observers (or what a friend of mine calls "systems of reference"). Whatever information is conveyed and how we think about information is not ergodic. That means that the features of its "alphabet" are different from one moment to the next. 
  3. The problem of the non-arbitrariness of the diachronic emergence of understanding. This is the really tricky one, but basically the fact that human agree on distinctions, that we are capable of love, that somehow we resonate with each other in the face of phenomena is not the product of a kind of random search for coherence in the manner of Ashby's "homeostat". There seems to be some underlying principle which guides it. 


Music and education are where these problems become most apparent. Bach's music, for example, is often called "complex" because of its counterpoint. But if you examine it closely, all Bach's music is simply an elaboration of chords which are rather like a hymn. And what Bach does with the chords is not to add entropy (or disorder); instead, he adds and overlays new patterns, or redundancies! His complexity arises from the interaction of redundancy. If he added entropy, the music would never have any coherence. But there's something else. These emergent patterns are not random. Each of them appears to be a re-articulation of some fundamental symmetry which is expressed through the whole thing - even when they appear to be initially "surprising". The music is holographic in the way that Bohm describes. Its aesthetic closure appears to be arrived at when sufficient redundant descriptions are overlaid and coordinate rather like different colours of the spectrum combine to make white light.

Cybernetics has no understanding of how this might happen as far as I can see. We need something else. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Learning Analytics and the Ergodic Fallacy

Ergodicity is a statistical property of system whereby a measure of its behaviour over a particular time period is seen to be the same as a measure of its behaviour over a long period. It's often used in information theory as a way of describing the Shannon entropy of a system over one period of time to another. For example, Shannon measured the entropy of the English language as a distribution of letters. This measurement is ergodic to the extent that the shorter sample contains a representative sample of the grammar and syntax of the language, and that over a larger sample the value of the entropy of the language is no different.

The principles of ergodicity rely on some assumptions:
  1. the "alphabet" of what is counted is made explicit at the beginning and does not change. 
  2. the constraints which determine the distribution of symbols do not change
Shannon's reticence to apply information theory to the study of meaning, or the more profound features of living systems rested, I believe, on the fact that he knew that with living systems, neither of these assumptions about ergodicity are true. 

Living systems do not present a complete countable "alphabet" of things to count at the outset. Countable things are emergent: before you have fingers, you have cells.  Partly this is because the second assumption is wrong - the constraints within which living things grow and adapt are continually changing. Indeed, the very process of life is a process of auto-generating constraint - what the biologists call "autocatalysis".

Learning is part of a living process. Learning conversations are rather like dances where nobody quite knows the rules, and indeed, the rules change as it goes along. But somehow the whole thing has coherence. This is a mystery which I believe the analysis of music can help illuminate. Both music and learning conversations develop by creating new constraints and emerging new significant (countable) things. The dynamics and effectiveness of a learning conversation, as a piece of music, rests on how those constraints interact. It turns out that each new expression is a redundant expression - it says something that has already been said before but in a different way. 

So if learning is non-ergodic, why the hell do we think we can count it using Shannon formulae and other statistical devices? This point was missed by Kathy O'Neill's otherwise excellent "Weapons of Maths Destruction", where she instead focused on the latent (white male) agendas behind the analytic boom. She's right about the agendas, but the question is how they get there. 

Repressive agendas arise when a narrative is asserted about the way the world is which is wrong. Analytics is an excellent vehicle for this because the study of ergodicity and information theory is not widespread. But the agenda lies in the assertion of an alphabet being "fixed" which isn't fixed or universal, or that the "rules" of learning are universal and not emergent, or that learning conversations are indicated by clicks on a screen whose coherence is unimportant. 

The search for statistical techniques to examine non-ergodic phenomena is well underway - particularly in ecology (see for example https://www.amazon.co.uk/Third-Window-Natural-Beyond-Newton/dp/159947154X) or https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3030525

In education, there simply isn't enough knowledge about complex systems. And in fact, nobody - yet - has an adequate statistical arsenal to shed any light on it in any field. So why are we behaving as if we do? Who's setting the agenda?

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. 

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Physiology of Understanding and Teaching

Most people assume that "knowing", "learning", "remembering", etc happens in brains. By implication, they mean that consciousness is a property of the brain. There is considerable evidence to support this: damaged brains usually produce impairment in cognitive function. However, although  sometimes radical changes in behaviour are observed in those with damaged brains, the humanness of the individual remains. Anybody who has had a relative with Alzheimers, a child with learning difficulties, or cared for someone after a serious accident knows this. The more profound changes occur in individuals around a person with brain damage: their behaviours change too, as accommodation is made for cognitive impairment, extraordinary efforts are made to support an individual in the expression of their identity in new ways which fit their new condition. Being human, it seems, involves rather more than an individual brain. It is not even in the "whole" person. It is in the whole community.

Processes of empathy and emotional connection are not separate from individual high level cognitive function. That we have believed that it is is largely the fault of an education system which seeks to categorise individuals, rather than explore and express relationships. The neural basis of consciousness has been further reinforced by assumptions about the brain being a computer. Neurons, axons and synapses seem like wires and connections, and the logical firing of one neuron seems to trigger knock-on firings of connected neurons, much in the same way that an electric signal triggers knock-on effects in a circuit. And indeed electricity plays an important role in the brain. The problem with this view is that it is a long and hard journey to get from knock-on causal effects to empathy and emotion. More often than not, the emotional aspect of consciousness is ignored.

Some physicists and neuroscientists have, however, taken a different view. David Bohm was highly aware of the importance of emotion in communication. In fact, he believed that direct emotional engagements provided a deeper scientific insight into the nature of the world than rationalistic talk. His theory of Quantum Mechanics, which is increasingly in vogue (see Adam Becker's new "What is Real?" https://www.amazon.com/What-Real-Unfinished-Meaning-Quantum/dp/0465096050), not only united relativity with quantum mechanics (which had eluded Bohr), but made a connection between the structure and process of matter, and consciousness. We ought to know more about this in education.

The connection between matter and consciousness must work through physiology. Some like Terry Deacon have made the connection by examining how information works from the material world (see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Incomplete-Nature-Mind-Emerged-Matter/dp/0393343901/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533133609&sr=8-1&keywords=incomplete+nature), psychology and through evolution. By focusing on those aspects of biology about which our knowledge is rather vague - like epigenesis - Deacon has emerged a theory of mind based on the study of semiotic communication. If there is a weakness to this, as with all theories of mind, it lies in the theory's ability to account for the way in which it thinks about itself. But I think this is important work.

Deacon does not align himself to quantum mechanics, but instead prefers to talk in terms of Newtonian ideas like the "physical work" which has to be performed on any physical medium in the process of transmitting information (there have to be electrons moving down a wire, or vibrations in the air, etc)

John Torday goes much deeper than this in a theory which has hit me with some force as being obviously right (I have to be careful here!), and an important missing link in our understanding of information. Torday's idea draws on Bohm basic idea of what he called the "holographic universe" (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2895351/). Consciousness, Torday argues, arises from the evolution of the cell as the basic unit of physiology, and that cellular evolutionary process has been driven by the cell's adaptation to ambiguity in its environment. Moreover, the cellular adaptive processes reflects fundamental structural adaptations in pre-history. There is a pattern written throughout our flesh which connects us to one another and to a single point of origin. Torday is not the first to suggest that consciousness is holographic - Karl Pribram made this connection many years ago with his "holonomic brain theory" (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holonomic_brain_theory) but Pribram based his work on Fourier analysis of cerebral activity. Torday's emphasis on cellular evolution is quite a few steps beyond this - which makes it important.

I wonder if another word for Torday's "ambiguity" in the environment is "broken symmetry". Broken symmetry is the process whereby quantum mechanics believes the structure of matter - atoms, molecules, etc - emerges. Whatever originating broken symmetry there was is written in new molecular adaptations later on, which in turn are performed in environmental contexts which twist the path of evolution in one way or another. Torday's biology emphasises the importance of stress from the environment, which causes cellular mechanisms to stretch and acquire new functions (swim bladders change into lungs, for example). And consciousness could be part of the same process.

What this means is that the essence of consciousness lies not in neural pathways, but in cellular evolutionary history. Torday suggests that we see this in moments of deep human connection - empathy, love, art. I would add "great teaching" to this. Bohm suggested something similar - that in music, for example, we could glimpse the fundamental structure of nature.

Understanding something deeply means becoming aware of a fundamental pattern of broken symmetry which connects us to a common point of origin. At its root, "understanding" and what we consider to be "spirituality" are the same thing. Because of this, it is critically important that we build an education system for understanding, not for the delivery of qualifications. To concentrate on the delivery of qualifications above understanding (which is most of what happens in today's universities), is to drive a wedge between our common origins, to isolate individuals who in truth are connected, and to create the conditions for what we call "mental illness".

As R.D.Laing noted, mental illness is not the sickness of the individual. It is the sickness of their environment. Being "mentally ill" is the only truly authentic reaction to that environment, only exacerbated by the naive attempts of others to "cure" the individual.

Torday is pointing the way to a scientific underpinning of the way we understand understanding. One may hope that the light of science may one day lead us out of this rather dark place we have ended up in!


Thursday, 26 July 2018

Dialectic and multiple description in Haydn

The slow movement of Haydn's piano sonata in C major, no. 50 is full of gestures which articulate a simple tonality, but which are so varied in their rhythm, range of the keyboard, dynamics, texture and lyricism maintain interest in what would otherwise be rather uninteresting music. But what Haydn actually does is anything but uninteresting: it is full of surprise, and is highly expressive. Where does the expression come from? This is Lang Lang playing it:



The contrast with the Bach sinfonia no 9 (which I looked at a couple of posts ago) couldn't be greater. Yet, I think the principle is the same. Haydn, like Bach, creates overlapping redundancies. But where Bach takes a chromatic harmonic structure and weaves motifs all the way through it, Haydn takes a relatively simple harmonic structure (I-V-I-IV-I-V-I...) Played as straight chords, these are not nearly as interesting as the Bach chorale chords with their diminished chords and exotic chromaticism. Which means that the reduction of the Haydn is even more unsurprising than the Bach - a very low entropy.

Haydn seems to add disorder through contrasting ideas: this is, after all, the composer who wrote a "representation of chaos" at the beginning of "The Creation", which does a similar thing. But like Bach, this is not disorder, it is redundancy. Basically, rhythm, articulation, range, figuration and dynamics are used to articulate the same basic simple tonality of the piece: one way of describing it follows another in often contrasting juxtaposition.

Each way of describing the tonality is not arbitrary, but unlike Bach, the redundancy of the added patterns does not run through the whole thing: it is episodic, frequently punctuated by silence, from which Haydn then surprises us again.

Silence is important in this process. Silence is when all the parameters of overlapping redundancies all tend towards the same thing. I suggested in my analysis of Bach, that this shared movement of entropy between different parts was an indication of a new idea: a new countable thing. And indeed so it is in Haydn. It's just that the ideas are layered sequentially rather than layered on top of one another.

Each closure to silence creates uncertainty as to what is coming next. Something seems to have been defined that is stable - will it be continued, or will something different follow? Haydn plays with this uncertainty, and when we do get a lyrical melody (the falling melody over an undulating accompaniment) it feels like a relief.

In dialectical theory, the succession of musical ideas might be considered to be like a "thesis", "antithesis", "synthesis" triad. But really, those three elements are different descriptions of the same thing, their juxtaposition a way of accumulating redundancies on a journey to creating a relationship between different descriptions whose interactions reveal the inner structure of the music, and which can close to silence without feeling the need for more. The tension that is established between different descriptions isn't "resolved" as such. It creates the conditions for the emergence of another description which is more fundamental than those which precede it. This new description coexists with its predecessors.

Such moments are felt emotionally.  Emotion and meaning in music is like a light-house which guides the generation of a set of redundant but never arbitrary descriptions which eventually together reveal some kind of insight into what underpins the whole thing.