Tuesday 30 November 2010

Strong and Weak beats: Performing knowledge

A musical interlude in my exploration of knowledge... In thinking about semiotics, I've been rethinking my interest  in semiotic approaches to music. The core of these approaches is a two-stage approach to looking at the notes: a syntagmatic analysis (which is basically looking at the distribution of regular patterns over time), and a paradigmatic analysis, which is identifying the higher-level patterns in the piece. Thus we get a double articulation, and hence an approach to what might be a connotative experience (although the semiotic analyses I've seen rarely explore what this might actually mean). Below is an extract from Nattiez's syntagmatic analysis of Debussy's Syrinx:

What a semiotic analysis of music highlights is double articulation in general. So whilst we might talk about the 'content-form' of knowledge, that content form has a double-articulation (distribution of marks on the paper, higher level formation of words, etc); in a person, there is double-articulation in the form of phonemes that make up the sounds of words. So these double-articulations (and the connotative processes associated with them) are recursive.

It's all looking rather more complicated!

But hang on. What do we perceive? If, as I have argued elsewhere, what we experience is a flow of disruptions, exhortations and coercions, and from that flow we vicariously create models of each other, all we are talking about is how these disruptions, coercions and exhortations are constructed - or performed. Sitting in a lesson - whether good or bad - is a process of tuning into a skilled performance working out how it was done. It may be like listening to a musical performance. We hear the whole score, but we may be aware (depending on how much knowledge we have of the performing process) of how the overall impact of the score is produced: there are plenty of clues. The fact that we have the capacity to mimic complex performances suggests that there is some mechanism which relates an experience to its means of production.

And because this is the only way we or anyone else can 'perform knowledge' in a 'good performance' we will attend to those aspects of the performance which we might wish to reproduce. If the overall effect of a 'bad performance' leaves us feeling unsatisfied, we will not bother.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Semiotics, Knowledge and Connotation

Much of this thinking about knowledge has been drawn from Gregory Bateson's idea of 'double description': that 'two descriptions are better than one' (for example, binocular vision). The process of identifying the difference between descriptions was closely associated with a process of 'abduction' (a term he took from Peirce), where the significance of something (it's meaning) was connoted, not denoted. Regarding Peirce himself, it's interesting to note that his concern was primarily for how knowledge was conveyed through signs. He remarked:
"The essential function of a sign is to render inefficient relations efficient... Knowledge in some way renders them efficient; and a sign is something by knowing which we know something more." (Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol 8, p332)

Connotation is contrasted with denotation. Denotation, for Bateson, belongs to the sphere of descriptions which carry their own propositional content. For example, a dictionary definition is denotative; it is, as Wittgenstein says, basically a tautology. Connotation is formed from difference between descriptions; meaning is abducted: the propositional content lies between different descriptions.

However, I think that something which appears to be denotative may nevertheless carry a number of descriptions. The dictionary definition may be denotative, but the fact that it is published in a dictionary carries information concerning the veracity of the definition. If the definition appeared in a blog, it might not carry this in the same way. This seems important to me when we consider open learning content.

I wonder if a blog on its own may be denotative, and may not carry any claim of veracity, but if it is recommended by a teacher, then a person description is added, together with the ethos of the teacher. A blog by a recognised author may also carry the ethos of the author (if this is discoverable to the reader). The veracity or ethos of open learning content might be conveyed by the institution which promotes it. But what then for a wikipedia article which might not have single authorship, or institutional branding? I suspect that if Wikipedia was the only source of information, then this would be a problem. However, Wikipedia is one of many descriptions of things available through the web (and each page contains a variety of descriptions). Personally I use it as a route into literature which is authored. My experience of Wikipedia is rather like that of a detective finding fragmentary clues which I piece together through a process of following-up leads through the technology. Person descriptions and ethos descriptions can be found eventually - I suspect this is an ultimate requirement for knowing.

We might consider that in linguistics connotation results from the articulation of multiple descriptions (double articulation). It's interesting to consider this in the light of semiotic/structuralist attempts to understand music, movies or art. I might look at this tomorrow.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Agency Games

There's something a bit unsatisfying about the concept of language games because clearly there are aspects of those games which are not linguistic in a formal sense. It strikes me that it is the 'game' that counts, and a term which sees language games in the same light as other games (for example, ping-pong) is useful.

All utterances in a language game are forms of agency, just as hitting a ping-pong ball is. All are constrained by the rules of the game. So I wonder if 'Agency games' is a better term for what we are talking about.

One of the interesting things that this exposes is the different levels of rules which affect different aspects of rule-based agency. For example, the physical space of a classroom can preclude certain types of agency (embodying rules in the environment), and this can sometimes be in conflict with what students are asked to do. (Don't sit students in rows and then say 'work in groups of 5'). Most interesting is the physical disposition of students and the physical demands of preferred learning styles for students (although I don't like the 'learning styles' discourse!). Doing maths whilst hunched over a desk may be impossible for the student for whom doing maths is only possible walking around and thinking.

By examining 'agency games' in this way, we can start to unpick some of the impossible games that some learners are asked to play (and often don't have a choice in playing!)

Sunday 21 November 2010

Knowledge and the 'Morphological Turn' in Learning Technology

What happens to disciplines if we see them morphologically - that is, to see them as accounting for insight into structures and processes of change and development of forms, rather than seeing them as accretions of categorised phenomena? Categorised phenomena are fine - if we can agree on the categories. Then there can be some sort of coordinated activity. But in social science particularly (and very noticeably in e-learning) we can't agree on the categories because we can't unpick process of making categories (and our role in it) from the categories themselves. So there are deep problems in coordinating activity.. and hence we find ourselves in a bit of a crisis. In fact, the problem of coordination is bigger if your 'coordinated activity' is about running an institution (not just an education institution, but any institution - a bank, say..)

Knowledge, value, teaching and learning are all tied up together in morphological processes. People change; institutions change; values change and knowledge changes. This is hardly a new insight - Heraclitus knew something of it, and it was a much more common perception in ancient Greece. Indeed, the Greeks would talk endlessly about whether 'something' called knowledge was even possible (for example, Protagoras). This had a significant effect on the thought of Plato and Aristotle.

It's not that we shouldn't reduce things to categories... but we've got to do this sensibly, with the simple aim of being able to coordinate ourselves effectively. A society that continually argues about its own categories for understanding itself is a society in its death-throws.

Personally, I'm up for the 'morphological turn' in Learning Technology. The 'psychological era', which began with Pask in the 1950s has done its job. Our concerns are no longer psychological, but bio-psychosocial. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations are basically a critique of psychology. I think he's right. It's just taken us 60 years to realise it. We need to explore more fully the Sociological, biological and epistemological aspects of institutional, societal and personal morphology in this strange technological world we have made for ourselves.

Saturday 20 November 2010

The forms of institutional knowledge

Looking now at the knowledge within the institution, lets see how the 4 forms of knowledge I have discussed map.

Institutions produce knowledge in various content-forms: strategies, validation documents, personnel files, student records, etc. Such content-forms of knowledge have implicit within them some sort of 'purpose-form' - "we have a strategy because..." - some codification of institutional values. But these purposes are rarely deeply authentic - there are usually layers of thinking that need to be unpicked, where the fundamental value is "you've just got to do it". Sometimes certain content-forms have tool-forms as well: for example, the student record system, or systems for validation document production.

However, the person-form of institutional knowledge is more complex. The person who wrote the strategy ought to be the best person to explain it (indeed, most others probably will not understand it!). The person-form can deepen the purpose-form by showing the extent to which they believe in the document. Often however, even the people writing the strategies don't believe in them, so sometimes the reverse is true: the person-form of the knowledge reveals deep problems with its authenticity (the purpose-form).

Fewer problems arise where there is a tool-form of the knowledge: where systems and procedures are in place which work, and are understood to work. I think procedures and workflows in this instance also count as tool-forms of knowledge: they are instrumental. But again, the tool-form can contradict the person-form or the purpose-form.

Where such mis-wirings occur, it might appear that the institution doesn't really 'know' something when it professes (through content-forms) it does: it becomes very difficult to coordinate a language game. It's like trying to play chess with pieces from Buckeroo!

Can an analysis of the problem be a step towards a solution? Are these distinctions meaningful?

Friday 19 November 2010

Distinctions about teaching and knowledge - analysing OERs

Whilst all the stuff around inter-disciplinarity is interesting, we tend to study subjects: maths, physics, chemistry, music, geography, drama, etc. It's always struck me that different types of people are attracted to different types of subjects, and that the 'feel' of the study of different subjects is different too. The choice of subject may be biologically, psychologically or socially determined.

Is this to say that the knowledge within them is similarly differentiated? Is the nature of mathematical knowledge related to the 'feel' of studying mathematics - and to the preference of those who study it? Can we relate the feeling of studying something to a classification of the type of knowledge it contains? Can we relate the ways in which things are taught to the type of knowledge it contains?

With my 4 quadrant model, I may have a way of classifying the type of knowledge something contains. With so much open content, there's an opportunity to study this through looking at videos of lectures. For example, it might be interesting to compare this to Richard Feynman's lectures or Gordon Pask on Cybernetics.
In both these cases, there is a strong element of the purpose-form of knowledge: both these individuals exude the importance of what they talk about through their character and presentation. It's interesting that the content-form of knowledge is in the background, but only alluded to by the speakers, who also exhibit a strong aspect of the person-form of knowledge. There is little tool-form.

Pask and Feynman were great individuals and great teachers with high authenticity. I would suggest that the following is more normal for this sort of content:

Here there is a lot of content-form and person-form. Tool-form might be considered in the mathematical tools which are introduced. But the purpose-form is less strong: the teacher, whilst they might well be deeply grounded and authentic in what they do, fails to reveal it in the way Feynman does.

What about this video interview with a life coach? I think this is person-form and purpose-form but little content-form. I think there may be tool-form in the sense of the techniques which are presented ("use positive language.." etc.). There's also tool-form as well as a lot of content-form in this computer-science lecture:

I think these distinctions are important because confusion about different types of educational performance can lead to category mistakes. For example, the curriculum cannot be replaced with something like life-coaching - to wish to do so is to misunderstand the nature of knowledge. In the same way, boring lectures are just boring lectures, but may well do their job in allowing for different representations of the knowledge to be made. Some topics in the curriculum may naturally lend themselves to content-form or tool-form. But it's the language games that count - the different forms of knowledge are different ways of coordinating it.

Thursday 18 November 2010

What is bad teaching?

Let's assume that the 'goodness' or 'badness' of teaching is objective (the opposing argument that it's relative gets lots of attention - and may be a bit pernicious!)

The objection to bad teaching fundamentally must be ethical: there are good and bad ways of treating people - waterboarding is bad for example (whatever George Bush thinks). Indeed the 'simulated drowning' induced by waterboarding has an analogue in bad teaching. As forms of suffering, how different is boredom or exam stress to drowning? (I blogged about the nature of boredom as suffering a while ago, see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2009/10/tiredness.html)

But I don't want to exclude suffering from education completely: as an aspect of authentic human experience, it has a fundamental role to play. You can't learn to swim unless you have some concept of drowning. But there is a difference between the teacher who warns their students that "this stuff is really boring, but you have to work through it... it's worth it!" and one who continues on regardless and without acknowledging the element of suffering involved. What's the difference? It's between the teacher who reveals their own awareness of the knowledge, and of the learning process, and of their own experiences of learning and one who simply reveals a shallow aspect of the subject without any authentic engagement.

I wonder if authenticity is very important for good teaching: knowing something (the content) is linked to that thing which you know being 'real' to you. It ultimately is related to the 'purpose-form' of knowledge; it's ethical dimension; of being able to say honestly "I have experienced this to be good". It is to reveal your joy in something.

Inauthentic teaching, without the purpose, may be like the teacher saying "I'm telling you this because it's my job. I don't quite know how my job came to be doing something so meaningless, but there's nothing I can do about it, other than just do what I've been told to do"

What's interesting me now is that different aspects (subjects) of the curriculum lend themselves to different forms of knowledge, and the purpose-form may be more present with (say) inquiry-based learning, or life-coaching - where ethics and authenticity is high on the agenda, than (say) teaching chemistry - when content-form may play a bigger role (than in life-coaching), or computer programming where there's more scope for both the content-form of knowledge and the tool-form.

Maybe we can map the curriculum in this way??? Would that be useful?

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Knowledge and Cause

Talking about different forms (or maybe dimensions?) of knowledge as 'person-form', 'content-form', 'tool-form' seems rather like Aristotelian causality, where cause has a material-aspect, a formal-aspect, an agency-aspect and a purpose-aspect. Do these relate? If they do, then there's a line of thinking we can go down...


1. agency-aspect of causation   <==> person-form of knowledge
2. material-aspect of causation  <==> tool-form of knowledge
3. formal-aspect of causation    <==> content-form of knowledge
4. purpose-aspect of causation  <==> ??? purpose-form of knowledge ??? (what is knowledge for?)

I'm not sure about this. Maybe too abstract.

"To know something is to know what causes it" - Aristotle (in the Posteria Analytics)

I think if I'm pursuing a theory of 'double-description' of knowledge, then Aristotle basically says that to know a cause is to become aware of a number of descriptions of different aspects of cause. That seems similar to what I'm saying.

I would say "To know anything is to have a number of different descriptions of that knowledge."

Are the descriptions of knowledge the causes of knowledge?

Maybe. This is very hard stuff and my brain hurts slightly! (how do I know..?)

It's interesting to think about the 'purpose' of knowledge. Let's say, for example, that the purpose of knowledge is to 'do good'. How does that relate to the surgeon almost accidentally killing a patient? What we would say is that the language game the surgeon plays has an ethical dimension related to the purpose of what he or she does. This ethical dimension helps to coordinate the language game along with the other knowledge-forms.

Going back to the classroom where the surgeon might have learnt his skills (or rather the language game), the safer language games that the students play will be coordinated by the teacher of the surgeon who reveals a person-form of knowledge, uses a tool-form, and a content-form... against the background of a purpose-form? or an ethical-form? I wonder if this isn't to do with the authenticity of the teacher.

This is interesting because it means that we need to consider 'bad' teaching, 'bad' ethics and 'bad' knowledge...

Tuesday 16 November 2010

The tool-form of knowledge

I'm thinking about the ways knowledge exists in people and the material forms it takes: Educational resources (open or not) are examples of that material form. But we might say that technologies also carry knowledge as well. For example, a Greek vase carries knowledge - explicitly in this case because is contains images of people making music.

What's the difference between the knowledge contained in a vase and the knowledge contained in an online learning tool (like ReCourse below)
Can we say then that knowledge has a 'tool-form' as well as a 'content-form'? (or maybe a tool-form is a type of content-form...

What's clear to me however is that the person with knowledge - possessing the person-form of knowledge (the knowledge embodied in the knower) - uses the tool-form and the content-form to regulate a language-game with with learners. It may not be that knowledge is 'transferred', but that the game is played. How the game is played may well be passed on to those who 'learn it' (by learning how to use the content and tools to regulate their own games). They may well play the game with others in the future. 

Often such language games are used to teach skills (for example surgery). What is the difference between playing the surgery game with a teacher, and using those skilled game-performances in real life? There are clearly differences in risk! 

If a surgeon acts alone in operating on a patient, is he playing the language game with himself? What happens if the patient nearly dies, or the surgeon recognises that they have made a mistake? What is a mistake in this circumstance? A mistake might be a 'move' which threatens the viability of the language game and any future language games: the patient dying would be a catastrophic upsetting of the game. The knowledge in the surgeon is likely to contain the person-forms of their teachers, the content-forms of their textbooks, and the tool-form of their instruments.

There's something about concernful action here, and the way that agency reproduces and transforms structure. The accidental killing of a patient may also have implications for knowledge - the inquiry would identify the cause of the accident: education might come under scrutiny, the teachers, or the tools, or the textbooks. Obviously, the inquiry itself would be another language game!

Sunday 14 November 2010

Institutions and Knowledge: the gatekeeper fallacy

Is there something that institutions do which directly relates to the nature of knowledge? Would we talk about physics, chemistry, philosophy, etc if it weren’t for the continued existence of institutions? Do institutions merely produce knowledge or are they tied up in the mechanisms of its existence? If institutions disappeared, would knowledge disappear?

Grounds that might give us reason to think that institutions are not knowledge factories may rest on ideas that knowledge requires a ‘double-description’: a ‘content-form’ and a ‘person-form’. Institutions implement processes and regulate those processes through teachers, content and learning activities. ‘Knowledge’ can be seen to be in the people and in the content.
Talk about the institution no longer being the gatekeeper to knowledge is to see knowledge merely in its ‘content’ form. This is a category mistake. The person-form of knowledge (the knowledge as it is known and lived by a person) does not necessitate an institution, but institutions tend to do this well: it is how they are made. To do it in other ways requires strong local support where open content might be used to regulate processes with others who might reveal the ‘person form’ (family members, friends, etc) – but those who support would likely be the products of institutions in the past. If institutions were to disappear and we were only left with the content-form I think we would lose the forms of knowledge we have now; we may generate new forms of knowledge – but that process would accompany a ‘re-institutionalisation’.

What the institution must do is to extend the person-form of knowledge to the world just as it is extending the content-form. For weaker students, the person form is more important: learning must be more ‘fleshly’. The question is “how can technology help the institution do this? And how can they do it cheaply so that the weakest can afford it?”

Friday 12 November 2010

Want to be bowled over by insight? or steamrollered by dogma?

I remember by predominant desire and expectation of going to university was that I would be thrilled by insight and intelligence. I was lucky - I studied music (the most important discipline on the curriculum!) and I had a wonderful professor, Ian Kemp, whose biography of Michael Tippett I had read prior to going. "The only thing we expect of you is that you like music" he said in his welcome to us. That was a good start.

Music for me was wonderful because on the whole I was encouraged to ask any question of it I wished. And all the questions of life are there - and I asked many of them. Indeed, my professor would often write down the questions (and answers) we came up with. Occasionally, less open teachers would try to 'close things down', but I was largely able to avoid them.

My experience of Higher Education following this was increasingly disappointing. I found that in place of openness and questioning, increasingly I found dogmatic attachment to methodologies, rigid thinking tied to insecure personalities, and increasingly the sense that the University was not somewhere where any question (the sort of questions a child might ask) could be asked. Indeed,as Alasdair MacIntyre has recently commented, in the modern university there were some questions which seem to be impossible to ask.

I was lucky because my first experience was wonderful (also free!). Only in my current role at the Institute for Educational Cybernetics have I found anything as open in University education (a role for which my first degree prepared me better than I could possibly have imagined). But for many students, their first experience of Higher Education is their only experience of higher education. They might arrive at University hoping to be bowled over by insight, but immediately find themselves steamrollered, not just by theoretical dogma and the insecurity of teachers, but by bureaucratic mechanisms - which often work hand-in-hand with dogmatic teaching. And they're paying for it! They may indeed get their degrees through jumping through the hoops - but what else do they get?

The most worrying bi-product of this experience is a cynicism about knowledge and questioning which continues the attack on curiosity and authentic being begun by schooling. I find the emergent social consequences of this frightening.

Personhood, Learning and Activities: The double-description of knowledge

Engaging in a Learning Activity is a special type of concernful action. Rather in the way we might play a game, we submit to rules and constraints. In fact the game metaphor is useful with regard to learning activities. They demand the somewhat restricted exercise of particular skilled performances (linguistic, maybe technical) in a language game. At its most basic, a teacher asks a question and the learner wonders "There's something I am required to do/say.. I must think what it is!". The teacher determines the rules of the game. The learner might not choose to play the teacher's game (and maybe try to establish their own game) - such behaviour might be construed as indiscipline.

Even with Pask's teach-back, I think it is still the teacher who determines the rules of the game. Teach-back is simply a more elaborate skilled performance that is required by the learner. Teachers and learners are obviously asymmetric.

What is the purpose of restricting the skilled performances in a learning activity? I think it can facilitate 'personal revealing'. With a restricted set of communicative acts within the activity context, the speech acts can expose more of the person of the teacher and that of the learner than might be revealed in everyday life. This might be because in everyday discourse, skilled performances relate to personal viability: threats to viability might be perceived with certain communications, and as a consequence they won't be made. Within the constrained context of a learning activity, there is less perception of threat because all parties understand the relatively simple rules of the game.

Where does the learning happen?

There are two things that go on in a learning activity:
1. There is the use of subject 'content' as a way of framing the rules of a language game;
2. and then there is the recognition of the person of the teacher.

The teacher's knowledge is part of their personhood. In this way, there is effectively a 'double description' as Bateson might explain it. We come to know best when both the aspect of the language games of the subject and the person of the subject are there. If we only get the language game - maybe from reading about it - our knowing tends to require playing that game with others (talking about the knowledge).

What does this tell us about the role of content - and particularly open content? I suspect learners need both descriptions. I think without the person of the teacher, learning with just content online is likely to be deficient unless the learner uses the content to play language games with others around them. Alternatively, it is possible that the author is also available for inspection online (biography, etc) - in which case both descriptions (the person and the knowledge) could be gleaned from online engagement. Teachers might use open content as a way of defining language games which they may want to play with their learners. But this can only work if the teacher uses the content in a way which helps to coordinate the language games they play with their learners.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Amplifying, Attenuating and Transduction

What happens between our perceptions and our communications? One way of thinking about it is to think of a transducer which converts perceptions into communications (the 'T' in the middle is a transducer)

But what does 'amplification' and 'attenuation' mean in the context of perception?

Luhmann talks of a 'perception system' (or a psychic system) and a communication system, and how the two relate through 'structural coupling'. We might just as easily say they relate through transduction. But 'perception' is very hard to talk about - because as soon as we talk about it, it becomes communication.

We could characterise it as 'difference' - and maybe certain differences get made 'big enough' (amplified) for them to be transduced. Attenuation is easier - we hear the communications we can deal with in our perception - and ignore the ones we can't (so the frog never knows the water is getting hotter!)

On the other side, communications are amplified through social engagement. And the attenuation occurs as we select those who we talk to, and what we choose to talk about.

'Learning' is probably no more that twiddling the attenuators and amplifiers!

Jazzy improvisation today!

Monday 8 November 2010

Cause and Blame and Wittgenstein

It is not unusual for things to go wrong in education. Indeed, most things that we try tend merely to 'sort of' work (depending on who you talk to), or conversely 'sort of' not work. And when things go badly wrong, it's tempting to blame things.. or people. But when we 'blame' things we mistakenly think we are identifying the cause. But blame and cause are not the same. Blame is tied up with personal subjectivity, those aspects of it which relate to personal identity and injury mixed with a subjective reading of causal mechanisms. Causal mechanisms on the other hand, are not necessarily subjective (although our ideas about them might be): causal mechanisms are discoverable - but it takes some cool heads!

Identifying cause means identifying how things really work. Given the evidence of things that actually happen, it probably means that some theory or idea about how things ought to be needs to be revised. The challenge then is to find more effective ways of expressing our ideas about reality which better fit the phenomena we see. Only through doing this can we realise the value of doing things (whether they work or not), and better prepare ourselves for the likely outcomes for the next intervention.

But this raises an interesting question. For what we are doing is understanding better what the university is through observing what it does under certain conditions. But how can you understand what something is by looking at what it does? Surely the causes for something are antecedent to that thing's existence? Yet I think this is a reasonable thing to do: it's where Aristotle got it right, and Hume got it wrong.

But it struck me that Wittgenstein had some sort of insight into this when he shifted his thinking from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations. He always maintained that philosophical problems resulted from misunderstanding what language is. He spent the first part of his career analysing propositions for their inherent meaning. Later on, he realised this was a mistake: you can't understand language from analysing what it is; only by looking at how it is used - in effect, what it does.

The video is my explanation of what education does in cybernetic terms for our Chinese students.

Friday 5 November 2010

Learning fetishism and the ontology of educational institutions: A response to Graham Attwell

I had a thoughtful response from Graham Attwell (see http://www.pontydysgu.org/2010/11/learning-and-instiutions/) after yesterday's post. He said that I "seem to think institutions exist outside social, political and cultural forces in society". Of course I don't - in fact the very opposite. I ought to say, however, that I used to be more sympathetic to Graham's position than I am now, having done a lot of work on Personal Learning Environments - only to see learners and teachers struggle with the concepts and technologies and feel alienated by the process.

What are the ontological implications of the ultra-personalised anti-institutional model of education proposed by those advocates of learner-driven education? It is an individualistic model of a society of learners seeking to increase personal power (I want my learning and I want it now!), yet strangely unconcerned with the morphology of their collective agency and the institutional forms it takes. (Despite the fact that most advocates of this are employed by institutions!) Institutional overthrow is one thing (but be careful what you wish for!); but to suppose the individual is separable from those collective social forms which shape them (starting with their families) seems to me to be a category mistake: persons, it strikes me, are not singular entities, and learning is not an individual activity. To think otherwise is what I would call 'learning fetishism'.

My argument is that persons as agents reproduce and transform the social structures they inhabit, and in turn are conditioned and constrained by those social structures. Learning is tied up in the process; it is not an end in itself. This structure-agency ontology is well-known in sociology, being associated with Giddens, Bhaskar and Archer (although they disagree on the details!). Learning Fetishism wants to change the structural context of education as a way of changing the agency of individuals so that ideal 'learning' processes as ends in themselves emerge in those individuals. But this is to fail to see the symbiotic co-determination of agents and structure. Institutions and the learners are a single organism, making it very difficult to intervene in structure without addressing individual motivations which are shaped by structure and contribute to its existence. Usually, such structural interventions don't work because individuals don't see 'what's in it for me'. The extreme end of learning fetishism seeks to remove the institutions so as to remove the structural impediments to transforming agency. But this is like taking a scalpel to part of the organism without knowing what that part really does. The consequences (were there to be a realistic peaceful way of doing it) are likely to be terrible. These are the natural consequences of the mistaken belief that learning is an end in itself.

Learning fetishism I think is a form of utopian idealism which I now believe is quite pernicious. It is not that people with this view are not well-intentioned: clearly they are. But they leave the door open to those who aren't, who may seek to destroy institutions for their own purposes - and our current government, with its sharpened scalpels at the ready, is showing some worrying signs of wanting to do this. If we're not careful, we'll be back on Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" (see http://mises.org/books/TRTS/)

Thursday 4 November 2010

Looking down the wrong end of the telescope? What's with the 'learning' fetish?

There is a misconception that pedagogy is about psychology (thanks to Oleg for this insight!). Learning concerns psychology; pedagogy is about the sociology of educational organisation, institutions, etc. For to teach on a one-to-one basis is entirely different than to teach 1 to 100. The pedagogy reflects the organisational situation. It occurs to me that this misconception has deep implications. For we persist in justifying everything we do in educational technology (which is fundamentally pedagogical) around the psychological benefits for ‘learning’ rather than considering its broader sociological implications – particularly those concerning the longevity of institutions.

Why do we make this mistake? Is it because to appeal to the ‘benefits to learning’ of using technology is virtually impossible to establish with any certainty? (.. and such impossibility is a useful defence in the face of scrutiny!?)

Is it because ‘learning’ is seen as the index of a person’s economic worth and the value they extract from education? Or indeed, the value which they demand from it as paying customers?

Maybe our adherence to ‘learning’ lies in the traditional definition of ‘learning’, where a person of 'great learning' was someone able to communicate in a wide range of registers, with reference to a wide range of reading, and whose analytical linguistic performances bear testimony to this preparation and consequent high social standing.

Whatever has happened psychologically is only available for inspection through what Wittgenstein calls ‘skilled performances’ – linguistic and technical. But such performances are necessarily social performances, and so the institutional context that nurtures and supports their development is as important as the individual minds that appear to produce them.

For all our talk of the technology impacting on the relatively short lives of learners, their economic effectiveness, their 'purchasing power', etc... how often do we talk of technology impacting on the much longer lives of institutions and the social life that embraces them?

Even work which purports to address the needs of institutional organisation, it is indirectly focused on the needs of learners, not institutions: CRM is a good example.

The lives of institutions are very long indeed. They remain fundamental building blocks of civil society, playing a role not just in the support of fashionable means of production, but in the peaceful development and emergence of new means of production (from feudalism to individualism for example). Their only enemies are those who seek to corrupt society for personal gain.

Human life is short. But in its passage of 80 years (in the West) or so, amongst the ends of an individual human life is its continued reproduction and transformation of the things that outlast it, that will continue to nurture civil society for centuries to come. This is a much bigger picture than the ‘learning’ picture: To focus on the individual at the expense of what can be sustained, on the ephemera of life rather than its ends may be a costly mistake.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Deep and Shallow thinking and Practical Action

Rationality is probably all we've got. But in a world of confusing surface phenomena, where so much sparkles at us and demands our attention, critical rationality can sometimes find itself passed over in favour of a 'this is cool! live in the moment' philosophy. At its most pernicious, such a philosophy will ground itself in a gently or event delightfully confused relativist philosophy, which embrace multiple narratives as a way of escaping the challenge of seriously exploring the relationship between deep rational judgements and collective coordinated action.

Deep thinking means turning everything into questions. Ultimately, it results in taking a rationally justifiable position. If such a position is sufficiently warranted, and it is taught well (now there's the real challenge), then some sort of coordinated action is possible. This is my position.

Shallow thinking often involves thinking strategically. It works with simulacra of rational justifiability. It seeks to persuade others into coordinated action through guile and self-interest. Coordinated action is indeed possible - but those who coordinate it know deep down that it will only serve its own purpose (and possibly theirs). It cannot escape some hint of cynicism.

Most work in E-learning falls into the second category. Indeed, most work on social policy. Any branch of inquiry which cannot ask certain questions is inevitably heading this way. But I believe deep thinking is necessary. How can it be made more possible?

Isn't this the job of Universities??