Friday 31 December 2010

Happy New Year

This is the last post from 2010. It's been a surprisingly good year. 2011 is going to be very tough for anyone working in any connection to a UK university.

Friday 24 December 2010

The music of psychology

Being stuck in an airport (which Astrid, Izzy and I have been for the last day or so) makes me think about what goes on in people's minds as they are awaiting something together. The facial expressions and body language are all remarkably similar. What this is suggesting to me is that there are very clear patterns. With the metaphor of frequencies and regulation, resonance and topologies, I'm increasingly interested in the possibility that the best way to describe the pattern is through music. This puts a different spin on all that work on the 'psychology of music'... what about the 'music of psychology'?

Positioning theory allows me to consider the inner and outer worlds as co-determining - I can study the outer world with more precision than the inner world: there are notes, frequencies, symmetries, patterns. Anyone who has studied music already knows that the study of the outer world (the sound world) is a good way of trying to understand the inner world and the relationship between inner and outer.

What is interesting me particularly is the scansion of musical metre... each musical articulation being like a 'line' that makes up a drawing (like the lines in the Rodin picture I talked about the other day). The question of how the different articulations, the different metres, the role of harmony and counterpoint which underpins them, is perceived and resonates with an individual psychology is a question of such complexity that it might provide a more sufficient way of describing psychology and social processes than the reductionist tendencies of psychological 'science' itself.

Each articulation, in a multi-instrument composition, is also performed within the material context of the instrument that plays it. Each instrument brings its different properties. Just as a knowledge performance is played with 'some content' or 'an inspiring teacher' or 'a useful tool'. Somehow I think we map our world according to these articulations. Finally there is a question about the rationality of this mapping process (one of the criticisms of Mezirow's pedagogy is the rationality he assumes that learners posses in being able to reaon about their understanding) I wonder if our maps at once are rational and at the same time appear to us irrational, and that this might be because the topology of these maps is so complex: it's very hard to hold the whole of a knot or a Möbius strip in one's head at one time.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

The cosmology of topological approaches to cognition

I'm not sure this post will make much sense. But I want to start putting things together..

The things I'm putting together are a view of cognition which is consistent with positioning theory, inasmuch that it  emphasises relationships for thinking about cognition. The space between an illocutionary act and a perlocutionary effect is essentially a relational space. This means that we can abstract away details of complex mechanisms within an individual mind, and speculate on possible consistencies between inner and outer worlds: what is reflected in the inner world, is also available (and produced) in the outer world. The most obvious analogy to this is that of resonance (although I'm uncomfortable with Sheldrake's 'Morphic Resonance', maybe he's got something...?). A body resonates because it is in an environment which is sympathetic to the frequencies at which it resonates, and feeds back those resonant frequencies. I wonder if cognition is like this...

What if in the Viable System Model, the regulating layers were merely different frequency resonators? And some frequencies have an impact on others - both within the individual and socially? To what extent do 'higher' or lower frequencies 'regulate' other frequencies? I'm still thinking about this...

But the link between frequencies and the VSM means a number of things can be explored.. First of all, the work I am currently doing in social simulation, with different agents regulating each other like a big Ashby homeostat, can be thought of as a frequency spectrum. Then there is the issue of double description (or double-artitculation) in knowledge performances. A knowledge performance not only involves different frequencies of the different regulating mechanisms of an individual, but these frequencies are performed in a material context which determines that nature of performance: so we can have a content-focused performance, or a person-focused performance, or a tool-focused performance. Extending the 'frequency' analogy, I wonder if the different types of knowledge performance, and the resonance of individual VSM frequencies in a material context is rather like making sounds with different 'instruments': each instrument equates to a different context for a knowledge performance. Thus what happens is a very complex sort of 'orchestration': the regulating levels of an individual will be conditioned by the different sorts of resonant frequencies to be found in the environment: the same melody might be played by a tuba or by a violin; essentially they are the same, but have different properties.

The VSM categories, 'instruments' and a frequency spectrum all invite analysis of their symmetry... and that is one of the most interesting things about the social simulation... what it might reveal in terms of symmetrical diachronic patterns. And then of course, there's synchronic symmetry in terms of the relations between one frequency and another.

But then we have to think about topology too... Because diachronic symmetry and synchronic symmetry meet at some point, where synchronic structures are changed in response to a recognition of diachronic pattern. (this seems to be what Mezirow's pedagogy is all about - fascinating). What do these topologies look like? (maybe a Riemann surface like this). This point at which synchronic structures are changed seems to occur when we become aware that our knowledge of the topology of our being is wrong, or usually, a double-bind. At those points a new topology is mapped out. I think...

What's really fascinating me is that the topologies that we construct are very complex. I'm fascinated how similar this topology is to the cosmic topologies of the universe..  If they are toruses, knots, or Riemann surfaces of some sort, what does that all mean?? Or is that question just a new point on my own topology?

Monday 20 December 2010

Walking the surface of time: the topology of learning

Time is the hidden factor in our thinking about learning; indeed, it is the hidden factor in our thinking about anything. I think the conception of time in learning processes is linear and individualistic and this is something that requires a deeper critique.

Lineally thinking, we conceive of time as "we do one thing, we do the next thing". In essence, "we progress". Yet linearity does not I think reflect our actual experience of time. For whatever we do next depends on what we might have done before: not even immediately before, but maybe the 'before' long ago (the 'before' may even be mystical). Indeed, when I think 'why' I am doing the thing I am doing now, the 'befores' seem multiple and complex, each one fading in and fading out as I anticipate my next move.

Individually, our obsession with time and the linear processes of action we take in it are conceived within the context of our individual selves. This despite the fact that whatever we do, we do to others, and that whatever we do is shaped by others.

My thoughts about learning outcomes yesterday hint at a critique of the learning outcomes as essentially belonging to this thinking about time and learning. The criticisms are:
1. learning outcomes are linear and cumulatively progressive;
2. learning outcomes are individualistic, not collective

As a way of dealing with these two problems with the conception of time, I want to suggest an alternative based on:
1. time as 'pattern', rather than process
2. time as collective, rather than individual

When I think "what does my time look like", I can conceive a pattern. I've been reading about Riemann surfaces (Weyl wrote a great book about it). This may be what time looks like...

And if time looks like this, it has pattern and symmetry. How does this relate to "what I do next"? How does it relate to the collective?

Personally, I find that what I do next is determined by perceiving an aspect of 'patterning' in my experience. I have some knowledge of where I stand on the surface of time, and some understanding of the local topology. My understanding of this pattern may be due to an appreciation of its symmetry. I also find that that this symmetry is not purely individual. The symmetry relates to my action, and the consequences of my action with others. Is my action to seek archimedian points which lie between my internal state and the social forces I am subjected to? Is the surface of time the output of continual plotting of archimedian points?

Much as I'm fascinated by the metaphysical implications of all this, I think it's useful to be practical. I've been looking at Jack Mezirow's emancipatory pedagogy recently. It strikes me that he's doing something quite similar to the identification of 'double-binds' I did with the computing students the other week. I think that to see your way through a double bind is precisely to get a bigger feel for the topological landscape you inhabit. Unpicking a double-bind is to identify an archimedian point, and by so doing, the topology and symmetry start to reveal themselves.

Learning outcomes need to be seen as part of the double-bind, an aspect of the social forces that shape agency. If we use them like this, then we might be able to leverage something both rational and deeper in the learning processes of teachers and learners.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Beyond Learning Outcomes

I've been thinking about the examination and assessment of musical performances. Much depends on being 'convincing', 'correct', 'accurate', 'fluent' in the style and manner of performance. Indeed, in the rubric of music examinations will often use these sorts of words. But of course, these aren't (and can never be) objective assessments. It depends on creating a relationship with an examiner; it depends on communication. When we say "this is a convincing performance" what are we saying? Are we saying "what I experience on hearing this is a feeling which I associate with the feeling that I have had when listening to performances which I know to be good"? There is the whole question of 'family resemblance' that Wittgenstein was so fond of pointing out... "This performance feels like one of the family of the 'good and true' performances which I know..."  How does a skilled performance become 'one of the family'? How does a radical performance define itself and gain acceptance outside the 'received' family, but starting a new one of its own? To me, these questions highlight the deficiency in our current thinking about 'learning outcomes'.

The organisational benefits of learning outcomes are significant: they have contributed to the educational institution having a conversation within itself about how to organise education. They have also become embedded in the inspection regimes of government authorities who audit public expenditure on education. However, the important question to ask is "what have they done for learners?" This question will I believe become more important because understanding the learner's problem is going to be central to institutional survival as the new fees regime comes into place.

Learning Outcomes are basically a behaviourist take on education: that the black box of the learner, through conditioning, can be shown to have acquired new behaviours which can be objectively measured, and which can be the basis of assessment of the aptitude of the learner, and the effectiveness of the teaching. The confusion which has surrounded the issues of "what has gone on in the learner?", and "was the teaching any good?", together with the utility of learning outcomes for organising curricula into modular units so that learning can be organised across institutions more easily, has in effect shrouded the fundamentally behaviourist ontology which lies behind it.

If we look at the issue of learner needs, and what the best teaching can do, then I think there is something going on which relates to unpicking double-binds. Indeed, the worst teaching can reinforce the double-binds of the learner, whilst maintaining a stable relationship - and adhering to the rhetoric of learning outcomes. Often the most fundamental question a teacher can ask of a student desperately trying to meet a learning outcome is "why are you doing this?". By organising our system around learning outcomes, we've created an organisational structure where that most basic of questions is not only a challenge for the learner, but also risks putting the teacher at odds with the policy of the institution. Increasingly it takes a brave teacher to ask such a basic question.

The problem seems to be that however useful learning outcomes are for the internal conversation of the institution, they may be pretty useless as a measure of learning in terms of freedom from double-binds. They tend to be at the heart of the autistic conversation in the institution. Worse, they can make it increasingly difficult for teachers to ask the powerful questions that are necessary to really help learners. They can be a barrier to empathy. They lead teachers to judge that a skilled performance is or is not 'one of the family' on shallow criteria without allowing them to really consider what being 'one of the family' means.

Is there a way forward?

What if you could pin learning outcomes to learners' double binds in some way? Obviously this is a bit ambitious, but I'm thinking about extending my questionnaire of computing students ( in a way which might help the process move forwards. The issue seems to be the transparency and objectivity of the process,  which makes itself available to inspection, and the meaningfulness to learners. Maybe in this way the meaningfulness of learning outcomes might be more evenly distributed between learners and the institution than they are now....

Friday 17 December 2010

Marketing double-binds: educational conversations with businesses and learners

I've been wondering if educational institutions (maybe all institutions) develop a sort of 'cultural autism' where their internal conversations become incomprehensible to outsiders. With educational institutions, this is particularly problematic, because they are constantly seeking to 'engage' with learners, businesses, community leaders, etc, but these engagements are often framed by internal conversations of the institution, rather than the real needs and problems of learners, business, the community, etc. It is certainly very hard to find the grounds for having a conversation with businesses or community leaders where there is a deep level of mutual understanding and empathy and where ways forward address everyone's needs.

Part of the problem may be the premise for conversation and what it means to different parties. There is usually asymmetry between the needs for the conversation for each party: for example, businesses maintain their viability through doing other things than talking to people (they make and sell products, for example). Universities maintain their viability by awarding degrees, where this is the result of conversations of a different kind. Conversation for a business may be a way of marketing products or increasing productivity, but its core profitable activity will involve skilled performances beyond talk. Does business not sometimes perceive universities as 'all talk'??

More generally, education might be perceived by business as a 'good thing' - but the motivation for having the conversation on the part of a business may sometimes be more philanthropic than practical and strategic. The university, on the other hand, is having a conversation with business because it needs the conversation to continue into those conversations which it can charge for. It is, in short, marketing. But why should business be tempted? What skilled performances beyond words are valuable to it? Ideally, the University might have developed a fledgling product which the business might be enthusiastic about and take on. But these are rare cases.

Institutions are geared for conversations with individuals as potential learners. The institution markets a 'human good' and a status symbol which accompanies that good. The conversation with business often revolves around rather loose talk about 'skills' - but this is rarely well-defined; 'skills' so often disappoint. The marketing conversation with learners is more successful because learners perceive a need in themselves which the University offers to meet. I'm wondering if the needs that learners perceive in themselves is related to some double-bind that they find themselves in. It may be that this double-bind find some requisite variety in the double-bind presented by education: the two cancel each other out, the match is made.

There's a bigger topic relevant to marketing and double binds. I've been thinking that buying Christmas presents is an interesting experience! Maybe the variety of the double bind that we all find ourselves in at Christmas can only be matched by the double-binds of shopping brands and products. Does society position learners in a sort of 'Christmas state' which can only be matched by educational double-binds? Should the university be trying to unpick the double-binds of businesses to position them in a way where they too might see value in the double-binds of education? Is education becoming more aware of its own double-binds a step towards active awareness of the position of its customers? It's probably not a bad thing to do.

Ultimately, I think this is about educational institutions becoming rather more empathic - and smarter about the irrationalities of the world in which they operate. Difficult for an institution which fundamentally is built upon the principle of rationality!

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Programming Freedom: From therapy to emancipation via computer science

I've recently spent some time helping struggling students to learn Java in my university. In the UK (as I guess elsewhere) many young people who struggle with the traditional academic curriculum find their way into studying technology courses: this is often driven by schools and colleges themselves, who see this as the best way the students can get 'a result', and consequently the league table score of the institution will also benefit. It's often justified by the students and their parents that learning a technology skill will help gain them employment. This is true in a sense - but it really depends on what we mean by 'skill'. In particular, it demands a distinction is made between 'easy' skills (from browsing the web, for example - to maybe creating a mashup - which is perhaps at the harder end of easy skills) and 'hard' skills. In computing, the hard skill is programming, and in my university - which is a university which focussed on giving life chances to these types of students - less that 15% of the year's intake typically develop anything like solid proficiency in the hard skill of programming. This inevitably impacts on their ability to find employment.

I conducted a little survey with these students: was interested in how they approached 'hard' things. How did it make them feel? If it stressed them, how did they deal with this? How did their achievement of deeper goals in life depend on being able to deal with difficult things better? What opportunities might they see in learning to program which could help them to deal with difficult things in general? The responses were interesting.

One of the key things which leaps out from the responses I got was the sheer leap of faith that students commit to when embarking on education. When asked "how are you going to achieve what you want", a common answer was "through hard work". But it was also clear that 'hard work' stressed them out in a way which was not conducive to solving hard problems. This looks like a classic double-bind: "I can only achieve success in difficult things through hard work" vs "hard work will stress me out and stop me being able to solve difficult problems". There is a prohibition in being able to talk about failure because the reason why they're allowing themselves to be caught in this is "I need to get a degree".

In conversation (amd maybe only in conversation) I found that I could explore this more deeply. But the double-bind does seem to revolve around difficult things, hard work and the management of emotion when dealing with living.

Friday 10 December 2010

In what way is it "all about sex"?

I was going to give this post a more pretentious title alluding to Luhmann's theory of intimacy, but I think it's better to be frank! My music professor once remarked that music is "all about sex really". It's easy to agree with him him when I'm listening to something like the 'liebestod' at the end of Tristan and Isolde (this performance with Isolde apparently bleeding to death!), or Scriabin's 'Prometheus'
or Debussy's Jeux (I could go on).  But I am tempted to agree with him more generally, and to say that it being "all being about sex" relates to more than just music. Learning and sex are no strangers. Radicalisation too has a strong hormonal content, which is worth bearing in mind in the light of the passion of yesterday's protests. If education is about politics, politics has got a lot to do with hormones!

I don't think we should be coy or embarrassed if we really want to know what it is that propels our curiosity about things - particularly when we are young. Is the drive to learn something a sexual drive? Perhaps more importantly, is the difference between those who are educationally successful and those who are not the difference between those who can sublimate their desire and focus it on learning activity and those who can't?

A lot has to do with interest and curiosity. The visceral bodily effects of knowledge performances are a key part of educational engagement which excite our interest. How much of interest derives from the educational content? How much from sexual chemistry with fellow students or teachers? Surely its all in the mix: and sex is the common denominator in the interests of everyone. I wonder if online it is perhaps harder to talk about this than it is face-to-face. So much trust and confidence has to be gained before the long journey of making connections between our biological condition and our intellectual potential can be embarked upon.

So, in online learning, where are those connections made? Or is online learning inevitably going to skirt around the issue without making any deep connections to the biological condition of learners? I think we risk this, not just in education, but in our approach to technology generally: that technology drives a wedge between the intellect and those aspects of the body and perception which are simply too embarrassing to mention.

For Georges Bataille, such embarrassment is an expression of the fear of death. For to acknowledge sex and eroticism is to "assent to life even in death".

As an example of what Bataille means, we can look at Rodin's erotic sketches. The skilled performances of their execution have a visceral effect, complex, rich in double-description (all those lines!). What is communicated is not only the 'content' - a body - but the artist too, and at so many levels. But there is also something deathly about it: an objectification of a body. My interest lives through this deathly image, excited not just through what is represented, but through exploring the questions of its existence and my own. I know that the sexual feelings I feel on looking at it are at least comparable to those of the artist who created it - who himself is now dead, but who once looked upon this woman as I now do.

Such things are the baseline of the human goods of learning where the intellect connects to the body. Right now, the risks of a disconnected education are very great. But those students who are discovering their radical voice are also rediscovering these biological connections (although some risk forgetting their minds!). I'm tempted to think that the economic woes of education are a bit of a sideshow. The real challenge is to reconnect bodies and minds of everyone in what is going to be a rather cold, marketised, servitised educational environment.

What is 'class'?

Class divisions in society are often thought about as divisions between 'haves' and 'have nots', rich and poor, etc. This is too shallow a perspective. I think class is really a social dynamic where different sections of society, demarcated by the types of language game they play, do not look after each other. Their games become exclusive and detrimental to one another as they seek to continue to play their game knowing that its continuity is at the cost of others being able to continue theirs. In passing the legislation of student fees today, the government has set up such a social dynamic. This will no-doubt resurrect old-fashioned radicalism and the 'class war' discourse. But that discourse is deficient, and I believe the real challenge is to understand better the injustice in what has just happened so that we might do something constructive about it.

I have always been a bit sceptical of 'old-fashioned' radicalism. After all, we all seem to be 'middle class' now - aren't we? The events today are making me think. The image of the day is that of the shocked Charles and Camilla as their car is attacked by student protesters. There is little doubt that the legislation passed today is no 'skin off the nose' for the rich, and unfortunately for them, Charles and Camilla are the epitome of 'the rich'. The legislation will enslave the poor in financial arrangements over which they have no control.

In helping to solve the Universities' problem (actually, only the 'posh' universities' problem), the legislation creates huge problems for those learners who do not happen to have rich parents to bail them out in their education. I think the problem is basically one of 'positioning', and Rom Harré's work is very useful to help unpick it.

Universities and the government have 'positioned' learners as consumers of (reified) learning services. The inauthenticity of this position is probably its most debilitating effect. There's little learners can do to escape it. However much they know deep down that education is a human good (and as such is ultimately political), the positioning has been done in an authoritarian way, exploiting the controlling privilege the governing class (the language game played by those in power) has over everyone else in its effort to continue its existence unchanged. It is important to remember that such authoritarianism is what any government does at some level. The great Islamic political philosopher Ibn Khaldun's definition of government is instructive: "an institution which prevents injustic, other than such as it commits itself". But that's a definition which identifies the most unpleasant and the best regimes in history as forms of government. But the difference between good and bad governments lies in the way they 'position' what they govern.

In Harré's theory, authoritarian positioning robs the individual of that part of the self which establishes itself through social discourse: there is no discussion; you are told what you need. But the biggest surprise in all of this - and the fact which belies the category error at the heart of the government's thinking - is that suddenly students everywhere are finding their voice, and saying in unison what everyone knows deep down: education is political! Education is ultimately about how we should look after each other in a society. In that discourse, the social dynamic of 'class' really matters because it is precisely about looking after each other (or not...). It is about positioning each other well, leading a good life.

Maybe the category mistake of tuition fees has short-circuited politics back into education...

Thursday 9 December 2010

Education and Failure

Ivan Illich remarks that "Education creates failure". When we consider the double-bind that students are in with regard to education, failure is rarely spoken about. Certainly not in the student prospectus. Not in the interview with tutors before admission. And yet failure is the principal risk that can render huge personal expense worse than useless ("it would have been better if I'd never gone to university").

Universities won't talk about failure because it wants the students to come (in a marketised education system - interestingly it didn't used to be like this). Students won't talk about failure because they want to appear worthy of admission and want acceptance and fear rejection. So the system gears itself up around the prohibition of talk of failure.

But for widening participation students, failure and rejection is very common: but only after they've committed themselves. The institution might take a 'hit' from this in the form of its 'retention' statistics (another construct!), but not as much as the 'hit' which the learners are subjected to. And it's not even as if 'failure' is a clean break. If a student wants to leave after having failed but wants to be accredited with a part-award for what they have passed, they often have to retake (and re-fail) the requisite number of times (and pay for it). Such regulations can only be seen as ways of protecting the revenue of the University; it is clearly not in the student's interests.

In this way, failure is tied into the double-bind the students are in. A rational discussion about the risks of failure is not possible under these conditions.

What can be done about it?

I think in making it transparent about 'what you have to do to get a degree', including up-front assignments which can be inspected before entry, a rational judgement about the risks of failure can be made. This would make the discussion about the risks of failure possible, because it would be clear what the university expects for success. It would enable students to judge when they feel they are ready to be submitted to assessment. Most interestingly, much of the counselling discussion which takes place whilst the student is on the course, could occur before the student is submitted for assessment.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Vote No! - Universities should not be allowed to rob the future generation!

The government's proposals for funding higher education are ill-judged and will have a devastating effect on students.

No one would invest £50k in something which is a leap of faith. Yet this is what will be demanded of the students by Universities if the legislation is passed. Universities will struggle to avoid being seen as shamanistic tricksters.

A better policy would be to put learners in control.

Learners need degrees to get on in life. To get a degree they have to study to pass exams and assignments. Universities should be up-front about what a learner needs to do to get their degree; at the moment they hide this away, so the learner only sees the dreaded (and often dreadful) assignments once they have paid-up - and by then it's too late. This is the rational bit of education: a degree is a necessary commodity today. If Universities were up-front, learners could make an informed decision about their chances of success, and the financial risk they would take on.

Learners ought to be able to choose the right teachers, the right social environment and the right lifestyle for them to be happy in their studies. These things are the fundamental 'human goods' of education. Learners should be able to take time to make these decisions; they should be able to make the wrong decision without onerous financial implications. They should be able to flexibly adjust how they engage with the university as their life circumstances permit.

Why does this not happen already?

Because we have been focussing not on the learner's problem, but on the institution's. Universities are not organised to operate like this. The institutions (at least, the posh ones) have argued "we can only continue in our current form by charging this much in this way!". The government has danced to their tune and our children are at great risk of being burdened with uncontrollable debt as a result. Were the vote to pass, Universities would share the culpability for this robbery with the banks.

Deal with the learner's problem and organisational change in universities is inevitable. Redundancies are inevitable. But it would be the right thing to do: it would put learners in control.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Services, Value and the Human goods of Education

In my video yesterday I tried to apply my thinking about value to understanding what's happening with the servitised economy. My conclusions from this are:
  1. that 'intrinsic value' of a commodity is intransitive (i.e. is objective) and when the intrinsic value is distibuted amongst the people, there is a greater share of individual control and empowerment since this intrinsic value can be passed around individuals at their will.
  2. if a commodity with intrinsic value is servitised, its intrinsic value is taken away from the people and concentrated in the hands of a few. The value of a service is far more transitive than the intrinsic value of a commodity. The mechanisms of the value of a service are largely controlled by the controllers of the service, not by the people (although the people determine the demand for the service, but not by organised conscious action, but rather through collective unconscious behaviour). The controllers of the service will use the intrinsic value of the commodities they acquire to control the value of the services they provide. The people lose control and freedom.
But what about the value of knowledge? This I think is to do with human goods. The essence of personal liberty as a human good is the ability to make informed choices about how one acts in the world. The capacity to act well depends on flexibility in choosing appropriate action, and this is the result of knowledge. This too is a human good. What then is the value of this human good, and what is the value of the opportunity to develop it?

The human good of education is always a leap of faith: faith that the teaching you receive will meet your needs and transform your capabilities; faith that the degree you earn will improve your life chances; faith that people you meet will become friends and you'll have a good time; faith that the subject you study you will really enjoy in all its depth. There are, however, no guarantees about any of this. The link between the human good of education and faith is instructive: it may be that where the value of commodities and services, intrinsic or otherwise lies in reason, the value of human goods lies in faith.

This is important because it highlights the category error when we talk about the 'investment' and 'price' of education and the servitisation of knowledge. Servitisation of knowledge and education leads to an association with a financial transaction. Financial investments and price belong to the world of commodities and services (like banking) which can be rationalised, risks assessed, etc. Human goods, in being bound to faith, are a challenge for reason because the risks are so high and yet the desire, borne out of simply being human is nevertheless so great: it is a very irrational transaction.

To demand individuals make rational financial decisions about human goods is to trap them in a 'double-bind' of the kind which is more often found in religious cults.

The nature of the double-bind is this:
1. Education will set you free! (for a price...)
2. Financial impoverishment and submission to institutional assessment will enslave you (but education will set you free... and so on)
...and discussing your imprisonment by education is to admit failure

Institutions must address the learner's problem!

Monday 6 December 2010

The redescription of educational reality

There is something mad about education. The madness is made more apparent when those who are part of the system which is to blame for the current crisis vocally support the student protests against the political response to that crisis.

I think there is a problem with those who are part of the system "protesting". The students ought to be protesting against them too: "what do you do that's worth £9000 a year of public (or my) money?" It's a good question isn't it?

I'm interested in the madness because the protesters (students and 'insiders') seem to balance each other out. Their values deep down are conflicting, and the end result is a sort of impotence which guarantees some degree of stability. Of course, if the protesters sorted out the inconsistencies in the deep values of those who support them, then as I said yesterday, they would win a victory. But let's assume they don't do this. What will happen? My guess is the protests will peter out, particularly in response to minor concessions. The system will remain stable. Education may remain unchanged. Some universities will become even more powerful (that's ominous!). Students will reluctantly pay their fees. Bad debts will occur in the future, but that's tomorrow's problem.

Pathology in individuals is borne out of confusion: an inability to unpick the double-binds that we are tied up in. In cybernetics, Ashby tells us about 'requisite variety': that only variety (the number of states a system can exist in) can absorb variety. But the logical consequence of this is 'requisite pathology'. A pathological system occurs when variety is out of control, and this can happen with confusion and crisis. But one mad individual may provide the requisite variety for another mad individual thus producing a stable system. This may be what happens with the protests.

Requisite pathology I think is a realistic way of looking at the world. It has something in common with Kauffman's idea of the 'edge of chaos'. Most cyberneticians like to think that variety can be managed in a rational way which can be planned for. But how variety is really managed is much more complex, multi-layered and dependent on social dynamics which defeat the best attempts to engineer all-in 'solutions'.

I think if we really want to change the education system, we need to understand the mechanisms of requisite pathology. Ultimately, new categories are required which can help individuals identify the double-binds they are caught in. Historical figures who effect massive social transformation do it through a process of redescription, allowing individuals to untie themselves from their current pathologies (of course, over time they create new ones!). Jesus and Marx are good examples. Jesus brought new categories about love and freedom; Marx brought new categories about work and equality. What redescription can address our current pathologies?

Sunday 5 December 2010

Student Protests, Universities and the Servitisation of Knowledge

Currently students are protesting in the UK at having their fees increased threefold and a burden of debt to last until they are in their 50s. Most people would put up a fight if someone lumped a £50k debt on them. The students are rightly angry, arguing that there's a principle at stake (more than their own personal loss) - but what is it? Their protest is unfortunately threatened by the inability to focus their fire. However, if they can nail the 'principle' then I think, because they have such self-organising power for collective action, they could have a spectacular victory.

The 'principle' is, I suspect, to do with freedom and equality and establishment's failure to deliver either. There are signs that the activism is moving in this direction. The #UKuncut ( campaign is targetting tax-evading high street stores with the slogan "pay your tax!". That's pretty unambiguous and might have some mileage.

The issue of freedom is I think directly related to education. Universities can be places to go to think and talk freely, away from the pressures of working life. Free talk in working life is rarely that free: there are so many unaskables, unthinkables in most corporations large and small: where the watchword is profit, the doublethink and newspeak will squash the thinking and the intense hours, the high mortgage, the daily commute and the demanding family will squash the will. This is not healthy. University is a place where the human good of expressive freedom can be attained and converted into a social good: although Universities themselves need to continually examine the extent to which they deliver this (students - beware what you wish for - the institution of education is at much at fault as big business!)

The equality principle is not only about the gap between the rich and the poor, but also the comparative freedoms between generations. If freedom is measured by one's ability to control one's destiny through being empowered to make informed choices from a range of options then we can situate the issue of debt with regard to personal control. It is not necessarily true that debt is bad. But only under the conditions where individuals have freedom to choose how much debt they should take on, what they will gain, and how they can manage it. Financial constriction and privation can sometimes yield greater human rewards (just as artistic constrictions can yield greater art); the social responsibility that goes with financial burden can also be good. The proposed loan arrangements for students impose huge debt with little control. This is in contrast to the financial freedoms enjoyed by the parents and grandparents of the current students, where there was plenty of scope for well-judged financial decisions which have paid-off handsomely in their retirement. These control levers are simply not available to the students, and ladling more debt on them will only make things worse.

Part of the blame for this I think is the increasing servitisation of the economy: moving from products to services has meant moving from artefacts which have intrinsic value which can be transferred, to artefacts which have no value to be transferred, but which are merely vehicles for consuming services. It's not just mobile phones (although that's a classic example) - there's an increasing trend to servitise everything from houses to rubbish collection. This servitisation has accompanied the collapse of manufacturing as a major employer, thus many of the jobs which students will end up doing will ultimately be in these 'servitised conversions'. A common feature of these services is the need to establish long-term legal contracts with consumers to ensure sufficient revenue for the service provider: consequently, people find themselves 'trapped' in long-term binding financial arrangements. But servitisation has a further trick, which has much greater impact. For in transferring the intrinsic value artefact to the service-consuming artefact, the intrinsic value has not disappeared. It has been swallowed up by the service providers who leverage the intrinsic value of products to extort greater custom for their services. They consequently have been getting more wealthy. It is not unusual in big cities to find streets where residential houses are aggressively purchased by developers, only for those houses to be demolished and flats (which service contracts) built in their place. In this way, the intrinsic value of artefacts gets transferred to a few. Servitisation may be the single most important driver behind the widening gap between rich and poor.

In the same way, we can consider the intrinsic value of an education. The intrinsic value of education is knowledge. It is knowledge that gives people the flexibility to make informed choices in their lives. I think the universities have succeeded in turning knowledge into a service. It's interesting to see the British Library ( trumpeting the 'value of knowledge' whilst selling 'services' to 'discover' it. Universities similarly sell services to discover knowledge in the form of courses. But a learning service is not knowledge, nor does it always deliver knowledge - as many dissatisfied consumers of learning services will testify. Indeed, learning services in the form of assessments and lectures can actually work against the discovery of knowledge. What learning services do deliver is the maintenance of the institution which keeps the service running. In this sense, the University's servitisation of knowledge is comparable to the servitisation of products by big business. The end-result is that Universities get more wealthy and powerful.

Educational institutions are large employers and economically important in their local communities. In a post-manufacturing economy, there is a requirement to generate need for the services that the institutions provide. Thus, it is increasingly hard to find employment in any of the service industries without having first consumed 'learning services' of one kind or another. In such a situation, does it matter who pays for it? If the need has been manufactured by society, and individuals can't get on in the world without consuming learning services, they have no choice but to stump up and pay their £50k. The students know this - that's why they're upset. So what can they do about it?

The issue centres on the intrinsic value of knowledge and the flexibility with which it can be accessed. The problem is that knowledge ultimately is discovered within the individual, not transferred by an institutional service. Universities have servitised knowledge but they have been able to do this because the service industries demand consumption of learning services as a condition of employment. The learning services the universities offer are very inflexible and expensive. The universities consider that their offering has to be like this to guarantee their revenue. But knowledge comes through care, space, communication, access to top professors, activity with peers, reading, etc. Not to mention a certain degree of suffering (but not too much!). So why don't the Universities ask how an individual might:
a. become knowledgeable
b. make their way through the world
c. contribute to the sustainability of knowledge for following generations
... without having to consume the existing services of a university?

The resistance to such thinking results from the pathology of universities in wishing to maintain themselves and their services. But it's only by a trick that Universities have swallowed knowledge and servitised it. Their wealth has been given to them by the service economy because it is in the broader economy's interests to maintain the educational services sector. But carrying on like this will lead to the enslavement of the future generation and possibly a worrying de-privileging of knowledge in society. Is there a way out?

Maybe we should have a fresh look at those aspects of the acquisition of knowledge:
1. care
2. space
3. communication
4. access to top professors
5. reading
6. activity with peers

I don't think this can all happen online. But technology can facilitate human contact that is necessary for much of it. Ironically, the protesting students taste of solidarity might be the best education they get! Maybe the protesters should consider forming their own university?

Thursday 2 December 2010

On the possibility of mimicry

I watched my daughter yesterday in a short show at her drama group: she had to put on accents, pretend to be different types of people, etc. She also demonstrated an acute sense of comic timing - something which has become more apparent in recent months, and which will no doubt grow as she gets older (she's 10). When she realises the laughs she gets in response to the things she does, how will that lead her to develop? How has she managed to pick up all those behaviours and accents and combine them into a comic performance? As much as I'm proud of her (and there's little more moving than watching one's child perform like this), I'm puzzled by how this is possible.

I don't know of a satisfactory explanation for mimicry, What does the fact that we mimic tell us about the world?  Yesterday I suggested that to mimic is to reproduce the skilled articulations of somebody else's performance. And I suggested that it is remarkable that we can identify exactly what those independent articulations are. For what we are exposed to in a performance is like a 'wave' which sweeps us along: the whole which is more than the sum of the parts. It is our identification of the the parts through experiencing this 'wave' together with the realisation of how to reproduce them which strikes me as the remarkable bit.

The central question here is "what are the mechanisms of modelling?". I think it also relates to the question of 'family resemblance' which Wittgenstein identified. In short, this is the sort of thing I'm thinking about (thanks Katy!):

A 'wave' impacts in broad ways - it's mass of different articulations striking us to produce an overall effect. A musical analogy is perhaps the best way to describe this. A 'spectral' graph of a moment in music looks something like this:
Within that graph, all the articulations are present but overlapping. Imagine the graph represents all the levels of double-description (double-articulation) in a 'knowledge performance' which might be mimicked. My state on being exposed to the 'wave' of the performance might be analogous to my state on hearing Berg's violin concerto (above): most broadly, I will have been disrupted, exhorted, coerced at different moments. At each moment I will be aware of the physical/biological effects of the state I am put into. My biological challenge on being exposed to the wave is to make successful communications in its presence (which are in turn linked to the wellbeing of my state). In music this would be revealed by the empathy with the expression and intention of the composer. In a knowledge performance, it would be the empathy with the performer. If I choose to survive in the environment of the wave (and I can decide it's not to my taste), then making articulations which accord with the articulations that I experience increases the probability that I can communicate effectively in this environment, and that the environment will not perturb my system to put me in a state where I could not communicate.

Interest leads me to identify the articulations, and the interest is borne out of the necessity to survive in the context, which in turn depends on the choice that I have made that this is something which I want to exist with.  Thus my state produced by the overall effect of disruption, exhortation and coercion leads to a chain reaction of apprehension of individual details of articulations, awareness of the biological effects of those articulations, and explorations of those articulated performances in my own body. It is a chain reaction in much the same way as I think memory might be (see here)

This would not work if I could not identify some family resemblance between the articulations I perceive and those which I perform. But maybe the family resemblance lies in the prolongation of state?

Gosh - that's all very dense. I think perhaps I need to find a way to say this more simply!

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Knowledge, Performance and Positioning

let's assume we perform the things we know...

To what extent is performing the things we know related to revealing who we are? 
How does the type of performance relate to the artefacts we produce? 
How to artefacts relate to the performances that are created?
What do we learn from a performance?
Do we learn the knowledge, or do we learn how to perform the knowledge?
What are the conditions for mimicry?
How does performing the things we know relate to the ways we treat others?

I think I can address some of these now.

Revealing who we are is related to the authenticity of the performance. It is a description about the ethos of knowledge: "this is worthwhile because..."

Artefacts are created through a performance which creates content. Artefacts themselves contain different descriptions which can be analysed at a semiotic level (marks on the paper, words, brush strokes, picture, motifs, melodies, etc)

We are usually part of a performance because the performance is coordinating an 'agency game'. We learn the rules of the game; we learn the articulations of the performance (for example, learning to sing a song)

It's the agency game that counts. A teacher's performance of knowledge is really a coordination of an agency game - with learners, on their own. Learners learn to play the game by learning its rules, by learning the articulations of the performances of the teacher.

Mimicry is extraordinary. To mimic I must be able to deduce (or abduct) how it is that the overall knowledge performance is articulated: what skilled performances are required, how they are produced, how I can produce them, how they are coordinated, how I can coordinate them, and so on. How is it that I deduce from a musical performance the articulations of skilled performance I need to perform to reproduce it? Mimicing accents or personalities is even more complex. Yet we seem to be able to do this easily. Somehow my biological state can apprehend the agency that caused it to come about.

Positioning is important. It may be related to taste. Not all performances are to my taste. I might love Haydn and detest Boulez. I would not seek to reproduce the skilled performances of Boulez. It relates to my capacity to engage in the agency games with either Haydn (or using Haydn) and Boulez. My position detects the likelihood that I can engage in the agency game successfully in my current state. A teacher might similarly find a student not to their taste: they judge that they cannot engage in a meaningful agency game with them because the skilled performances the student can do does not match the game the teacher wants to play. Good teachers will change the game and find one the student can play.