Monday 30 August 2010

What ought the education system to be?

The problem with asking this question is that it is rarely seen as a matter of objective judgement, but instead one of subjective opinion. It is an ambitious question: it is closely related to 'What ought the role of government to be?' or 'how ought we to live?'. But is it really that subjective? In most social situations, there are actions which are generally acknowledged as 'the right thing to do', and where the wrong thing is done, there is usually some sort of political retribution (Iraq, over-zealous government cutbacks, etc).

I think we need to get real about 'oughts', and this means reconsidering the separation that Hume argued for between 'what is' and 'what ought to be'. Often doing the wrong thing is a matter of having misunderstood the nature of the context within which that thing is done. Iraq is a classic example, and the government cut-back looks very worrying for the same reason. What do we know about the 'what is' of the education system? Enough to make sound judgements about what to do?

Rather than knee-jerk reaction, calmer methodical identification of the nature of what we are dealing with is a surer way to creating an education system which is closer to what it ought to be.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Morals and Methodology in Educational Technology Strategy

E-learning practitioners, managers and strategists have a higher profile within the University than they have ever had. That means their decisions and actions have a greater power to disrupt the practices of others. With every decision there will be losers as well as winners. Who has the right to decide what action should be taken? What procedures must be gone through in order to do the 'right thing'? Who is thinking about the emergent long-term impact on education and the education system we are handing down to generations to come? In this domain, it strikes me that morality and methodology come together. There is no doubt that decisions have to be taken: which VLE, virtual classroom, e-portfolio, etc do we choose? But the outcome of those decisions may depend not on the particular decision that is made, but on how it is made. Top-down managerial committees present moral problems, which in turn produce practical difficulties and possible emergent pathology in education. Appreciating the causal impact of the way decisions are made may be very important...

Friday 20 August 2010

Grace, Madness, Play and Education

A lot of the discussion at the New York cybernetics conference conference concerned play, madness and viability. It's good to talk about this stuff again - it's was the central concern of Ashby, Bateson, Laing and Pask. The role of play in opening channels of communication is I think very important. It's making me think that Freire's pedagogy is systemic in the same way that Piaget's is, but at a different level (a moral level). I need to flesh out the mechanism here.

However, Bateson says that whilst we easily talk about madness/pathology, we struggle to talk about health. This is because the differences made in pathology are quite clear to us (and in making them, we become part of the pathology!), whereas health is a state of being where differences are absorbed and negotiated often pre-cognitively. This may be what we mean by a state of 'grace'. Grace may be the ultimate aim of any education. But what is it? How do we get there? I often find that grace in great art is in the 'silences', the white space, what is not done or said, rather than what is...

Thursday 12 August 2010

Calm in an Alienating Storm

Ever since I got back from New York I have been thrown through the technical hell of creating a huge interactive questionnaire. I'm using XForms with server-side support from BetterForm - fascinating, and I think powerful architecture, but as with so many things like this, it doesn't *quite* work!

More interesting is how I feel. Programming seems to suck the soul out of me. I feel 'instrumentalised', technologically-determined. It's quite alienating. A world full of this is a horrible world. Is this where we're going? What can we do about it?

I did this improvisation to calm down. What's 'calming' about it? Slow regular metre - gently rocking some human sense in a madly disruptive world maybe; Steadying disruptions with undramatic harmony; Stillness which draws me back to what I perceive, not on the crazy communications I'm having to make; Like a prayer.

Monday 9 August 2010

2nd Order Cybernetics and Blind-Spots

The discussion about the reality of causes on the cybernetics blog ( continues to be fascinating.

My views on this are slowly forming. I think that 2nd order cybernetics tries to set itself up as a way of thinking that doesn't exclude any other ways of thinking. In reality it fails to achieve this because it carries an implicit ontological position which is inconsistent. People fall into the ontological trap and struggle to get out.

Beer's position was that 2nd order cybernetics is not necessary. The ontology of 1st order cybernetics was based around models. At its best, it extended scientific method with ways of making sense of the world based on a few principles (Ashby's Law is the main one). No fuss about observers, etc. But models are like masks: the person wearing it will be changed by it, as will those they engage with. But it depends on the person, and doing the right thing is always the bottom line.

What's the difference between the  cybernetics of models and the cybernetics of observing systems? I think 2nd order needs a lot more terminology to describe the observing process. 1st order doesn't worry about the observing process. The terminology, like all terminology, enframes in ways that models don't, because models are merely representations of causal mechanisms.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Not-Quite-So-Radical Constructivism

Von Glasersfeld's assertion in the unreality of causes has got me thinking. I want to avoid the typical gain-saying of whether something is real or not, but I do worry that the radical view leaves out something important. Many things are contained in his Radical Constructivism: notably something which appears very similar to Harre's model of the self and positioning theory. The bit on communication is anchored in Peircian semiotics, which maintains the irrealist trend (I would cite Luhmann in this instance, but that upsets constructivists)

What isn't there explicitly is anything about ethics or politics. The political emerges when I accept that my reality and the behaviour which emerges from it has an impact on yours. This derives from positioning theory, but is also in R.D.Laing, and Radical Constructivism. Equally, my reality is dependent on your behaviour arising from your reality. Equally, my wellbeing is dependent on your behaviour, my freedom, etc... and we both know that there is a decent way to behave to one another. With regard to right action (decent behaviour) abstraction is pretty useless at best, and dangerous at worst. If I believe my constructs to be merely constructs with no ontological component, I might be tempted to do with them what I will. But my constructs have an impact on others - they are, for want of a better word, causal and have concrete moral impacts. In denying reality, we get carried away with a hubris of human understanding which is individualised and revolves around an incomplete understanding of the relationship between mind and nature. Realists like Marx, in reacting to 19th century idealism (not least Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc), understood this, I think.

Cybernetics can allow us to be free with our distinctions and play with them. I'd like to apply that freedom to considering the possibility of real world of causes.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Reality and Sensuality

I've been thinking about the obsession with constructivism after my trip to the cybernetics conference. There are issues with sensuality: laughter, tears, pain, sexual desire, etc. There seems to be some sort of 'order' to the reality of these things. Some seem more real than others. Pain, tears and laughter feel pretty real, biological - hardly a construct. Even to talk of them as being aspects of 'structural coupling' somehow takes away their potency in human experience: to abstract away these things risks losing sight of their causal impact on social organisation. What about other aspects of sensual experience? Sexual desire may be partly conditioned by cultural ideas of beauty (but it still feels pretty real to me!) Perhaps more 'constructed' are things like grief, happiness, courage, joy...  But then there seems to be a relationship that links sensual phenomena to each other...

I think it has to do with causality. Ernst von Glasersfeld remarked forcefully that 'causes are not real' at the conference. I can't be so certain. Hume's reason for doubting the reality of causes was to make sense of scientific practice in the 18th century. Aristotelian causality is a different matter altogether. I'm interested in Beer's statement that 'the purpose of a system is what it does': it seems to me to hark back to Aristotle rather than Hume: that purpose (final cause) relates to material, form and agency. The problem with thinking about sensuality is that all of these feelings are causally connected: sexual desire is connected to grief as well as joy; tears relate to laughter as much as pain. And the mechanisms behind it seem common to human experience. That suggests to me real causes. Moreover, ethics is tied into this as well. For the cause that turns sexual desire into pain and grief can be a selfish or cruel act. Reality is a tricky thing - but doing the right thing is where it really counts.

Reflections on New York, Cybernetics and Reality

I did these two improvisations whilst in New York, after leaving the American Cybernetics Society conference. They are very contrasting impressions: one is quite bleak - I felt the force of the city rather dehumanising and it made me sad. The other is very energetic although strangely, this was produced after visiting the 9/11 site, which I found incredibly moving (I was surprised and slightly embarrassed by the extent to which this affected me)

The conference was very good. It's left me with some big questions. Two key themes came out for me:
1. the importance of play, experimentation, 'lightness' and not getting tied to any particular way of looking at things. This is making me re-look at Baudrillard's work on 'seduction'... very interesting. Unfortunately, cybernetics isn't free from dogmatism - even 2nd order cybernetics dogmatism. It strikes me that 'is-ness' may be the real problem: "there IS no reality, just construct". Why  say 'is' rather than 'may be'? 'Is' suggests a statement about reality; but this 'is' statement is saying there's no reality... This makes me think that 'is' may be also a personal 'is' - something which may be significant to the identity of the person saying it. But the great joy of cybernetics is(!) the flexibility it can give us to see the world in many different ways (back to playing); that may be the flexibility to be different types of people all at once; to hold different identities.  For me, cybernetics works as a safety-mechanism that whenever I say something 'IS', I can consider the conditions under which I might be convinced otherwise. As such, ironically, cybernetics may provide a way of 'getting real' (real needs to be distinguished from 'actual' I think), where to 'get real' means this sort of flexibility of personal identity.

2. The cybernetic mechanisms of the emergence of social form, politics, personal identity and value.  The cybernetics of value - social values and personal values - may be something which we need to get to grips with if cybernetics is to have any real use politically (and many technological and institutional matters, including educational technology, boil down to politics at some point). Cybernetics, in changing the world as it has, has introduced new values and mechanisms of values; it has been less successful at changing itself to understand the impact it has had.