Monday 30 April 2012

The STEM Agenda and Educational Authenticity

My attention was drawn to this video 'advertising' STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects which was produced by students in a US college. I don't want to take anything away from their artistic performances, but I do want to comment on the message and the manner in which the message is presented.

The fundamental thing is the sheer  inauthenticity of it. The forced enthusiasm extolling the 'coolness' of science or mathematics is peculiar and rather unnerving. But if I was to speak against these kids' enthusiasm for science (if it really was genuine and I was misjudging it) I would be fearful of committing a kind of heresy. Mine would be a reactionary or purist complaint, not in tune with the young generation.

Well, stuff that - I am going to say something! The real problem with this is not that it is or isn't genuine (it isn't!), but that it escapes the principal ingredient of any branch of knowledge, which is love of the subject. It confuses exuberance for passion for a subject. These kids do not express a passion for mathematics or science; they express their own exuberance as performers acting a script that they don't appear to understand.

But the way it is done, the enthusiasm, the enforced 'rightness' or 'right-on-ness' of it all makes thoughtful critique difficult. It drowns out thoughtfulness in the name of extolling the virtues of science - a discipline which requires thoughtfulness more than any other human quality. Why? Where's the sense in that? Is this simply in the name of corporatism or political expediency? We should ask who serves to benefit from this kind of message, and then we should worry about the power that they wield not only on the education system, but on the growth and freedom of knowledge in our society.

But then we could ask "why have the STEM agenda in the first place?" Clearly governments are anxious to produce capable scientists and technicians. But, in another irony of the education system, teaching science and mathematics is not always the best way to get great scientists. Classics, languages, music, drama, literature and philosophy have between them had a highly successful track-record in producing technical and scientific minds. (This is interesting: What matters, more than anything else, is a love of knowledge and an unquenchable search for meaning in a confusing universe.

Cybernetics, perhaps more than any other science, has had a deep connection to the arts. Norbert Wiener studied mathematics and philosophy with Bertrand Russell and G.H. Hardy; Stafford Beer similarly studied philosophy at UCL; Bateson started in Biology, but ended up an anthropologist; Niklas Luhmann originally studied Law; Von Foerster started as a physicist, but was equally at home in the arts. The list goes on.

Why does this escape those that insist on the STEM agenda? There are of course well-meaning scientists who love their subject and believe kids should have the opportunity of experiencing it. But then there are politicians who watch their backs and try to ensure that their educational decisions are defensible. Imagine a politician supporting a position of prioritising the arts for the sake of producing better scientists! How would that be defensible? (yet it might make more sense!)

My answer to this is that the arts should become more genuinely scientific and critical. In fact, since the STEM agenda has a narrow view of science as a set of technical skilled performances (rather than a critical inquiry about nature), the arts are well-placed to be the home of true science. I think that one of the most important outcomes from critical realist research is that science is not scientific enough: it has lost the ability to inspect its own assumptions and methods. The arts, on the other hand, could fill this void because they require much deeper authenticity and honesty in engaging with what are on the whole bio-psychosocial phenomena. 

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Comenius and C.A. Johnson on "Character formation and Character Development"

My dad was headmaster of a Catholic primary school in Luton for more than 25 years. It wasn't an easy job, and there were frequent disagreements with the church hierarchy on the one hand and the local education authority on the other. Within these arguments, fundamental educational principles were wielded like baseball bats by confused-but-powerful priests and bureaucrats as they threw their weight around regarding the running of the school. One incident (I don't know what it was) must have prompted my dad to write this piece about "character formation", and why he opposed it, advocating "character development" instead. I guess one of the priests must have blurted out something like "WE ARE IN THE CHARACTER FORMATION BUSINESS!"

The argument my dad makes is very powerful, and what strikes me is that the issue of "character formation" hasn't  gone away. Sometimes the technologies that we provide for "personal development" around corporate issues of "employability", "competence development", "reflective practice" and the various other fashionable buzz-words contain a vestige of the ethos of "character formation" rather than the  "developmental" goals they might wish to be associated with. I think their message too often is "play the game and you will develop your personal competence/employability...".

I'm grateful to my dad's brother for keeping this and sending it to me. The quote he ends with is by Comenius. The emphasis that Comenius puts on "scientific principals" I think is particularly important. Maybe the biggest challenge we face now is that our confused-but-powerful priests and bureaucrats mistake "having technology" for "having a scientific approach to teaching and learning". Technology risks making us less scientific because as more is automated and bureaucratized, less is amenable to critique. In University, just as much as in the primary school, the science of gentleness, kindness, encouragement and persuasion need to be the order of the day. But gentleness and kindness require a richness of experience that technology alone rarely affords.

Since I did not have the opportunity at the time to explain what I meant by not "being in the character-formation business", I should like to do so now by way of the following notes on the subject. 
There is, first, a distinction be be made between moral and intellectual virtues and character traits. The latter are usually considered to be born of the will, e.g. qualities like perseverance and courage. To attempt to form another person's character thus means that at some stage there will almost inevitably be a conflict of wills in which resistance on one side is countered by increased pressure on the other and ultimately - unless the struggle is given up altogether in the meantime - by the use of force. Now it is true that at one time the use of force was held to be justified where the education of children was concerned. Corporal puishment was normal practice in most schools and it was considered perfectly just and right that one collective will - that of the teaching establishment - should prevail in this way i.e. by force - over another - the childrens'. For various reasons, this is no longer the case. 
No one is likely to dispute the primary importance of character in education. The problem is: whose definition of character is to be used? Hitler in "Mein Kampf" put the "highest value on the training of character" in German schools but a "good character" in that context meant a conforming member of a fascist society, i.e. the imposition of the will of the state upon that of the individual. In our own country, a report from the Board of Education in 1906 began by putting "character" at the head of its list of educational aims but went on to define "character" in terms of obedience, subservience and other virtues demanded of the working-classes by employers. Attitudes have changed since 1906. We no longer live in a society where character can be defined one way - in terms of freedom of will, self-development, etc. - for one group and in quite another - in terms of docility and obedience - for everyone else.  
Perhaps these examples will help to explain why I do not consider myseslf to be in the business of "character formation", quite apart from the fact that even considered quite dispassionately as a programme of action, it doesn't work. Characters are not formed by character-building programmes although it is not unknown for individuals' spirits to be broken by them. Character-development, however, is another matter altogether and one I do believe in. I also consider that the school has a very important part to play in the character-development of the children in its care, but any programme for dealing with it must surely be planned in terms of discussion and reasoned argument, rather than the use of force. This of course would presuppose that the children involved are capable of reasoning at this level. Where they are not - and children at primary school are for the most part just beginning to learn to take others' points of view into account - gentleness, kindness, encouragement and persuasion  are far likelier to have a beneficial effect that the imposition of arbitrary commands and the infliction of punishments. As one educational pioneer has pointed out: "a musician does not strike his lyre a blow with his fist because it produces a discordant sound; but setting to work on scientific principles, he tunes it and gets it into order. Just such a skilful and sympathetic treatment is necessary to instil love of learning into our pupils"

Monday 23 April 2012

Visualising Visualising

Visual analytics is the fast emerging field where data is presented graphically and interactively for individuals to explore. The problem that it addresses is simple and fundamental: too much data; too little meaning. The visual analytics approach aims to provide users with interactive tools for allowing them to explore the data in a variety of ways identifying what appears to be meaningful, and what appears to be superfluous. There has been a lot of work going on in this area, including a large EU project called Vismaster (see

I've complained in this blog about the learning analytics/visualisation movement's obsession with pretty pictures (see and, and I have argued that the principal objective of any kind of analytics is decision and control. Too frequently this objective is lost as we become hypnotised by the pictures. The fundamental question is always "what does it mean?"; not only "what does it mean?" to me, but "what does it mean?" to us collectively (as we try to steer our institutions, learners, etc).

Recently I have also tried to get a grip on 'meaning'... or (I guess) the meaning of meaning. I am quite convinced by the arguments presented by Leydesdorff, following von Foerster's ideas of eigenform and Krippendorff's ideas around 'content analysis' that meaning has to do with expectations or anticipations. For Leydesdorff, meaning is "the structuring of expectations" (see I like that. The meaningful moments when I look at a beautiful sunset seem to me precisely moments where my anticipation and expectation is transformed; somehow the gears crunch together in a new way. The same is the case with the meaningful moments in music: at the climax, the expectations shift, the elements come together. This is probably similar (although a bit more precise) to Koestler's bisociation model (see

But there is a problem here and it has to do with abstraction. I love to think abstractly (this blog is a testament to that!!), but the dream of abstract thinkers is somehow to put the world in a formula or a model - or a 'visualisation'. To have the answer. Yet whilst we are (I am) driven to think like this (intellectual progress depends on it), it's a false hope. Experience happens over real time whilst models and formulae abstract time. The time of experience is not the same as the time of formulae or models. Their time is the time of clocks. The time of experience, however, is more fluid. Time ebbs and flows, sometimes (at deeply meaningful moments) standing still.

The meaningfulness of me writing this now is meaningful now. In the future, all I have is a vestige of what might have been meaningful at some point. But yet, there is a vestige of meaning in the document I produce, and as I browse my archives, my experience might recapture some essence of the meaningfulness that was experienced at the time of writing. This is a kind of hermeneutic analysis, and it has  been practiced for centuries.

But to come back to the problem which visualisation tries to address: too much information, too little meaning; No decision and control. If abstractions can't deliver the goods, then what might?

This is where I find the 'visual analytics' work most interesting. Because in visual analytics, what is created are experiences for interactively engaging with the data. So we have an original experience in time; we have a visualisation of the data from that experience which is also experienced in time. This means that users exploring the data explore their meanings of the data through interaction with it, and relate those meanings to the meanings of original experiences.

But this visualisation process could go deeper and more recursive. What about visualising the visualising of the data? or visualising the visualising of the visualising of the data? That's fascinating me because it starts to look like a von Foerster 'eigenform'. It also conforms with the fractal mathematical models of Dubois that desribe anticipatory systems.

But most interestingly this 'recursive visualisation' deals with the problem of abstraction by always having time and process as the fundamental underpinning of a meaning-making process of exploration. So time isn't stuffed into an equation or a pretty picture; it remains part of the process. In this way, analysing data and looking for meaning starts to look more like analysing music.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Treating iPads with respect and cheap, disposable technology

iPads are all the rage at the moment. I can't get excited about it though - indeed, what I see in the iPad phenomenon is the power of branding and corporate presence to convince people that there is something new and technologically innovative, when in fact the only thing that's new is the packaging. Bandwaggons are not indications of progress. They are more often an indication that something important is being missed.

The use of iPads in the classroom is particularly interesting in this regard. The advantage the device has over a computer is that it is portable. However, in the hands of children, it is hardly robust (no doubt vulnerability of the device is part of Apple's business model!). Its interactive potential is no different from a laptop, apart from the presence of touch interfaces. But what's 'touch' all about?

Would the kids experience be all that much worse if they had to use a mouse? Of course, the ubiquitous networked connectivity of the device is also important - but again, not much different from a laptop. But fundamentally, even when the networked potential of the iPad is deployed to its full potential making use of rich collaborative activities, it is still basically a display of virtual buttons or switches, which change the state of the device so that the buttons or switches change functionality (and display their functionality to the user).

Seen this way, I cannot see that the iPad is anything more than a very expensive way of doing physical (i.e. mobile, touch) computer-based activities. But because the iPad presents itself as the generic do-it-all solution (for a hefty price), everyone jumps at it rather than looking for cheaper alternatives. But I suspect the real disruption will occur around the price for doing any kind of physical computing.

I've documented in this blog my interest in physical computing using Arduino and JeeNode. You want networked switches? Here's a switch... (for a tenner). You want to dynamically change the state of a device based on user input? Here's a way you can develop it (for nothing). You want to integrate with different kinds of physical device (tables, chairs, doors, trees..).. here's how (and that bit is much more difficult with an iPad). And the price matters, because it makes the technology 'unimportant' as technology per-se. It is no longer a fetish object, but part of the everyday. It doesn't matter much, but is powerful and can be used and experimented with very easily.

What is interesting here is that the price of something does have an impact in the way we think with it. If something is cheap, we don't worry about breaking it, and are prepared to take risks. If something is expensive, we treat it with respect. With iPads, "treating things with respect" is the real problem. Indeed, being told to treat anything with respect can be a problem. In the middle ages, books were to be treated with respect. Of course, they were very beautiful, but the 'respect' was also a way in which power structures were created around knowledge. Treating iPads with respect creates and reinforces similar power structures: the "rules"of using the technology, the warranty conditions of the manufacturer (I'm sorry, but you dropped it and that's not covered!). This is the generalised creation of new risks through the technology - and that is the real business model of Apple.

I would prefer to see technology not treated with respect. Only then I think can it really unlock human creativity. "Respect" for expensive, branded technology only creates the conditions for realising the visions of technology manufacturers. And we should be really worried about them!

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Educational science and Educational innovation

On a similar theme to yesterday's post on the awkward relationship between Systems theory (particularly social systems theory) and management science, I want to deal with the specific issues of 'educational science' (that is, the scientific study of the educational system, learning, teaching, etc) and 'educational innovation' (that is, pedagogical innovation, technological innovation, organisational innovation, etc).

We tend not to talk about a single 'educational science' in the broad sense of a scientific discipline which looks at all educational phenomena from learning and teaching to the sociological issues of educational organisation because the issues of education are scattered among a variety of different academic disciplines: psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, educationalists, etc all have their claim to a bit of 'educational science'. But this presents us with a big problem, because often the different disciplinary critiques are not commensurable, and as with the relationship between systems theory and management science, the theoretical traffic tends  to be one way: theoretical ideas inspire innovations, but innovations are evaluated in terms of their immediate benefits within the organisational context, with no deep questioning as to whether the underpinning theory behind them was a good one or not. If they work, great! - the theory must have been good! But the causal link between what happens on the ground and the explanatory and predictive power of the theory is tenuous and rarely inspected.

I'm thinking about this as I read Klaus Krippendorff's collection of essays "On Communicating". His concern is what he calls 'communications research'. I think that is basically another term for 'educational science'. But Krippendorff is well aware of the difficulties of the role of theory, which is itself a communication, in communications research. He argues that
"Theories of human communication must not contradict how they are created, communicated and used"
What happens with educational interventions based on theories? On the one hand those theories articulate ways in which people learn by discovery (say), but then do not apply the same principles of discovery to the technologies that are pushed onto teachers and learners in the name of innovation. In this way, constructivist pedagogy becomes fascist technology. But I don't want to make a political or ethical point here; I want to make a scientific point. Krippendorff is right. The thing we must be particularly alert to is inconsistency.
In terms of how we might deal with inconsistency in education, I think there is another of Krippendorff's aphorisms in another essay ("An alternative paradigm"). He indicates a number of imperatives for communications research, and amongst them is his "empirical imperative". That says:
"Invent as many alternative constructions as you can and enact them to experience the constraints on their viability"
That's the closest I've heard a constructivist (which Krippendorff is) get to a 'critical realist' position regarding empirical activity. It seems to me very close to the practices of 'Realistic Evaluation' argued for by Pawson and Tilley.

But in this phrase, the two important elements are 'constructions' and 'experience'. Too often in education, we pay scant regard to 'experience', overlooking it by simply giving learners and teachers a questionnaire. But the questionnaire cannot capture experience. It merely captures information in response to being asked the questions on the questionnaire. Our current conception of 'learner experience' is a classic example, where National Student Surveys (a questionnaire) is regarded as capturing the experience of students, and so guiding policy decisions. Those policy decisions presumably have some sort of theory behind them. But where is the link between the theory and the 'experience' of students? Where is the process of identifying the inconsistencies between the theory and its implementation? Where is the process of identifying the inconsistencies between the theory of experience and the implementation of a questionnaire?

These may seem like abstract academic questions. But I'm convinced that they're vitally important. There may be only one deep reason why people have bad experiences in education: bad theory.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Management Science, Systems Theory and Theoretical refinement

I'm writing a paper at the moment about the stand-off between Management Science, which has always grounded itself in the Systems theory tradition (think of Beer's use of Ashby and Shannon), and 'pure' cybernetic/systems theory which continues to develop, although rather removed from operationalised practice.

There is a problem. This rests in the fact that Management Science, despite some successes in the workplace (but more failures) rarely revises its own theoretical presuppositions. Instead it validates itself on the impact on business health - profits, productivity, wellbeing, etc. That is considered justification for the validity of the theory which underpins the methodology. But there is usually little causal connection that can be defended between the impact of systems interventions and the underlying theory of the methodology.

The paper argues that there is a need to 'close the loop' in management science interventions by assessing the meaningfulness of those interventions to the people who are subject to those interventions. It argues that meaningfulness can be assessed through analysing the communications in the organisation (something which I've been talking a lot about recently in my blog). If the methodology for analysing meaning produces results which can be compared to the predictions of the underlying theory of the systems methodology, then there can be a reasonable comparison of where the theories have explanatory and predictive power, and where they do not. That, I think, might help to make management science methodology a bit more scientific (I think the 'science' label current is misplaced - it simply alludes to the fact that the management science methodologies are 'inspired' by systems science, rather that denoting a branch of enquiry intent on improving and developing its own knowledge base).

But beyond the paper, I have begun to think that there is a pattern between those disciplines which practically orientate themselves in the world - for example, Management Science methodologies - action research and the like - and those disciplines which seek to develop a more solid theoretical grounding, but often not practically realised: economics springs to mind as a classic example. Yet knowledge and action in these cases is deeply entwined: successful Management Science yields positive economic results. But who gets to claim the credit for positive economic results: economists? or Management Scientists? (or technologists? or teachers?)

Neither economists of Management scientists have a legitimate claim to cause positive results, because neither has the capacity to causally link things that happen to why they think things happen. Keynes's theory, for example, postulates about the motivation for spending and saving, and suggests economic policy as a result. If growth results, Keynes will say "I told you so!" and (let's say...) he's rather pleased with himself! But exactly what did he tell us? Does it really  fit the deep story of what happened? How can we find out? How can we take a closer look at the theory?

The issue rests on our ability to analyse and make sense of the messy business of reality. In my recent posts, I have been arguing that the messy business of reality is meaning. In a world of immensely rich data, all of which must have been meaningful to someone at some point (just as this blog post is meaningful to me right now), it may reasonable to assume that the meaningfulness of information is left as an imprint on the form of that information. Uncovering the imprint may be an important step to bridging the gap between knowledge and practice, and making our theories better.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Music, Meaning and Compositional process

I've often wondered why I find composing so difficult. I always wanted to be a composer (much more than a learning technologist!). But I struggled to get notes down. It was only much later in my education (after studying music at University) that I realised that getting notes down was the most difficult thing, and the principal objective of any composer. [I wish someone had told me this at the time!]. I have spent years analysing the problem in the hope that one day I will find a solution. This angst and struggle has not (I believe) been in vain, since many ideas which have been useful in other areas (for example, learning technology!) have emerged from it. But still, I haven't really cracked it.

Composing is weird for me because I struggle to understand how writing notes is different from writing words. I don't struggle with writing words. Or at least, when I am working on a paper, I know where I am in the process and can coordinate myself accordingly. I have a set of techniques which are now well-developed for getting words down, getting rid of them, honing arguments, etc. This seems to work for me (even if it doesn't always please reviewers).

But my composing process goes something like this...
  1. I feel like doing it (I get inspired)
  2. I begin to notate the musical idea that excited me (either on paper or on the computer)
  3. I end up with 3 or 4 bars of music which I am happy with
  4. and then I stare at the blank staves which are left unfilled and think "what do I do about that?"
  5. If I have enough energy, I will battle on to try and get something down in these gaps, although at some point I get tired and give up
  6. My intention is to return to the composition... 
  7. If I do return to it, I may add bits and pieces for the next week or so
  8. But gradually it fades from my consciousness and nothing materialises 
I ought to say that in the past I have completed pieces (some of which I'm happy with), but this is a rare event. 

So what is the difference between writing music and writing a paper? 

In my recent reflections on meaning, I have been thinking about this issue in the light of one of the tricks which I tell students about refining written work. They find this very useful: I call it "last sentence, first sentence". The point of the trick is to tighten written style by parsing paragraphs of a first draft and examining their last sentences. Often, I suggest, it is the last sentence which contains a more clearly-defined essence of what the paragraph is about. Because of this, what is at the end would work better at the beginning, so the reader doesn't need to "beat about the bush".  I would now rephrase this by saying that when we write a paragraph, we articulate our thoughts in search of what we mean to say. Each paragraph is an attempt to hone out a meaning, and once the meaning is reached, we stop searching for that meaning and begin a new paragraph in search of another.

I use this technique all the time - although not so much on my blog, because I consider that a place for 'just getting stuff down' (apologies to readers!). But how might this technique translate to writing music?

I think the key is meaning. When writing, I search for meaning in each paragraph. Having established my meaning, I seek to bring it out (by reorganising sentences) so that the meaning has the maximum impact. I think meaningful music in the composition process works slightly differently to this, although there are deep similarities. I don't think the musical imagination seeks meaning in the way that a linguistic imagination does. Music is a short-cut. It goes directly to what is most meaningful straight away. When the meaningful music hits us, we feel inspired. It is at that moment that we have to get it down. 

The composing problem rests in the fact that having got the meaningful bit down, there is no context which we have written in the notes on the page which can render the music as meaningful as it was in my moment of inspiration. In my head, when I thought of the music, there was a whole host of things going on which contextualised my moment of inspiration. But on the paper, I only have that moment of inspiration and no context - so it's rather unsatisfactory.

There are a number of easy mistakes that struggling composers like me make with this. First of all, I tend to write down my meaningful music as the beginning of a piece. That leaves no space for the creation of a context which might make it meaningful. So I've started writing my inspired musical ideas in the middle with lots of space around it. Secondly, I cannot convey the confused array of phenomena which rendered my idea meaningful in my head. So I've started to think about techniques for creating a musical analogue which would frame the idea as meaningful on my manuscript paper. Rhythmic, harmonic or melodic elements can be used to frame an idea - just as one would frame a picture. And then there is the question of how the framing can itself be framed - not least by beginnings and endings.

Music teaches so much, and in this case, the lesson I have learnt is about the relationship between inspiration and action. We so often get inspired but fail to act. In my written work, I know the importance of acting on the moment of inspiration (i.e. writing notes with whatever device I have to hand). If I don't do it, it is lost. But inspiration itself I believe is an intensely meaningful moment. Understanding the ways in which meaning can be captured and communicated lies at the heart of some of the most difficult challenges of human organisation.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Dream of a sleeping machine

My previous post on silence is making me think about the possibility of a machine that 'appreciates' silence and inactivity. Most interventions in robotics are, after all, about activity, not inactivity. Yet it is often in inactivity that we find meaning (as for example in the 'inactivity' of performing 4'33''). Bearing in mind the description of the inactivity of experiencing silence that I presented before (, what would it take to create a machine that similarly would recognise the regularities in itself, attend to the regularities in others, and appreciate the random sounds that disrupt and transform those regularities?

This would be a machine that sleeps, snores, turns, coughs and gurgles. How could that be done?

My first thought here is that the mechanisms of the body are tied up with the mechanisms of the mind. Sleep is an attenuation of the senses and the sense-making processes. But whilst our eyes are shut and we don't react to environmental sounds, smells and sights in the way that we do when we are awake, our nerves carry information about our bodies all the time.

Some of this sensory information is regular and some not. Heartbeat (especially) and breathing (mostly) are regular. But digestion, bowel contractions, mucous  reflexes and body positions are not. (It may be that the change in body position relates to digestive, bowel or mucous reflexes). How could we look at this kind of sensory information?

This has made me think that after so long trying to create artificial brains in computers, we ought to turn our attention to creating artificial bowels. The fluid dynamics of digestive juices can be modelled. With that the information arising from a modelled bowel can be simulated.

But how might this help in the creation of a machine that sleeps?

The point of all this is the relationship between the meaning of silence and the meaning of sleep... and beyond that, the meaning of meaning. Looking at meaning in a sleeping machine, there would obviously be information transfers between the regular events and those which are irregular, much in the same way that the 'musical' experience of listening to John Cage shifts between regularity and disruption. The body responds in sympathy: or at least the conscious (or semi-conscious?) body responds. An event in the gut produces a disruption to breathing, a change in position... a flood of sensory information where before there was little of note. And then it subsides and regularity takes over again. There is information transfer (in the Shannon sense); there is a restructuring of expectations. There is meaning.

The sleeping machine is not an inactive brain. It is a brain wired into gut, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, muscles, mucous and blood. The sleeping machine is a machine intent on its search for meaning among the sensations of sleep.

How is that different from a waking machine?

And if sleeping and waking are both searches for meaning, and meaning is the central objective, why oscillate between sleep and being awake?

My only initial thought to that question is that sleep is a disruption to being awake, and being awake is a disruption to sleep.  

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Michael Gove, Educational Eugenics and University 'restructuring'

The first thing to catch my eye this morning was UK education minister Michael Gove calling for Universities to start to set 'A levels' (AP equivalents). Michael Gove believes 'A levels' are too easy, and believes that if the clever professors in the Russell group universities set them instead, then they would be more difficult, and that would be a good thing for everyone. 'Easy' exams, after all, don't do anyone any favours, do they?

Of course it doesn't really matter who sets A levels. Universities used to do it, now we have commercial exam boards overseen by government regulators. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Gove appears to have another agenda, which has to do with vague notions about 'knowledge', 'intelligence' and a strange fetish for 'academic thinking' (which of course he regards himself as practicing). But Gove, like many on the right, appreciates criticality as long as it doesn't impinge on their own idealism (and when it does, he would probably say it becomes misguided or even decadent). Crucially, he doesn't appear to admit knowledge of the history of education into his cannon of 'worthy knowledge', because if he did, he'd know that we've been round this track a few times already. The sociological, educational, psychological, organisational and political difficulties of demanding that 'clever professors' be the judge of the 'clever students' who enter university have been written about tirelessly.

The education system is an immensely complex and confusing biological, psychological and social machine, and trying to use political policy to determine a particular outcome of the machine is at best impossible, and at worst, a kind of radical idealism where the question is not what  you want to happen, but what you do with all the other things that happen that you don't want. That is where 'educational eugenics' is not an entirely inappropriate term to use. And for those who would argue that the 'eugenics' is a specifically biological initiative, the differences between somatic manipulation and social manipulation are much argued over, and whether we are social Darwinists or social Lamarkians (which camp would Gove put himself in?), there are ways in which social manipulation of the kind Gove is fond of can lead to a kind of 'inheritance of acquired characteristics', and its consequent disinheritance of the characteristics he doesn't want to see!

But to be fair, it's not just Gove who is playing the 'educational eugenics' game. It seems fairly widespread amongst the leadership teams of many universities. Bravely presenting his position is the VC of City University, Paul Curran: Curran believes only the 'cleverest' professors and teachers should survive in his University. Unlike Gove, Curran at least has a slightly more specific metric for cleverness: the research outputs of individual teachers and researchers (for Gove, it appears that all that matters is that they work for a top university!). Unless you are publishing papers in indexed journals, winning research contracts, etc, he's not really interested. If you only teach, you probably need to look for another job (and given the fact that Curran's views are shared by many other VCs, a new career).

Curran isn't alone; he's just had the balls to spell it out in the Guardian (for which he should be commended). Many university executive committees have resonated to management moans about academic staff staff not be up-to-scratch (a view expressed by those who hold much power in institutions often without being academics themselves). Academics are expensive, often irritating to managers (envy cannot be excluded from possible causes for that) and in the light of the current financial worries facing universities, they are inevitably top of the list for execution.

But rather like Gove's, this is an idealistic move, which is not grounded in deep knowledge of the history and nature of the education system. If one were to be charitable (it's lonely at the top), then one would say that Curran has been somewhat blinded by the impending funding changes in HE in the UK, worried by the threat of 'no students', and distracted by the apparent success of competitor institutions who appear to have 'clever' people being successful in the currently fashionable games of research council bidding, journal peer review, popular doctoral programmes and lucrative business schools.

But most of these activities are skin-deep and fashions change (particularly if they are the product of government policy). Yet a narrow view of the 'progress' of the institution is presented as dependent on following such fashions. What will it take for these fashions to change? Here's my guess:

  1. Students continue to go to university because they have no choice but to get a degree;
  2. Many of the 'clever' professors who were good at the research funding games and the publication games turn out to be less successful at teaching real students;
  3. As all Universities try to play the same games for limited research funds, so the government moves the goalposts again, wrong-footing many who were good at the game beforehand;
  4. As a consequence of (3) the clever professors become less successful in winning research contracts (and they still can't teach very well!);
  5. Universities become lucrative targets for commercial takeovers by publishers, technology firms, other private universities, etc. Their business is students;
  6. Students demand better teaching and more contact with good teachers (and please don't put me with professor xxxx because I can't understand him/her!);
  7. Technologies will continue to transform the ways knowledge is established and new competencies will emerge for building academic reputations (once again wrong-footing many professors);
I don't think any of this is beyond possibility. But point (1) is most important, because that is the driver for many of the changes. Whilst there is no doubt that Universities have to slim, (and, to be fair, academic salaries are probably too high - the result of an artificial market created with the expansion of Universities in the last 10 years) the excuse for the 'gastric band' they are being fitted with is that students will not continue to come, and therefore drastic restructuring must take place. But on top of this is overlaid this 'vision' of the future of the institution that Curran wants to promote. But like Gove, this 'vision' is based on a narrow view of the education system. Like Gove, whilst Curran can specify what he wants, the fundamental challenge he faces is how he gets rid of what he doesn't want. And he cannot be sure that he will get what he wants if he tries to get rid of what he doesn't want. He knows that fashions may change, and his professors may not be able to teach very well.

The deep problem with all this is that Universities and Governments are looking to solve what they perceive to be their institutional problems. Government wants 'A levels' to deliver to universities more capable students; Universities want to deliver to businesses more capable graduates and make themselves look good in the process. In each case, demonstrating effectiveness solves the institutional problem. Unfortunately, in both cases, it doesn't solve the learners' problems; it idealises the student as a 'unit to be processed'. It is blind to the real emotional stresses which are facing young people as they stare at a cold and unwelcoming world, and clearly oblivious to the affective components of learning, teaching and knowledge.

Whilst institutions wring their hands, real students worry  about their futures: how to get a job, have stable relationships, pay for their education, get a degree and make their way through the world. The crazy restructurings of educational institutions must look like a somewhat autistic charade in the light of the real concerns of students. But most worrying is that institutions seem content to let the students worry a little bit more, whether about the A levels they sit, or the quality of teaching and support they will receive in University.

That institutions can get away with this is the real scandal of Higher Education. Students, on the other hand, have no alternative. 

Monday 2 April 2012

What is the Meaning of Silence? (Expectations in John Cage)

I've been thinking again about the 'Deep Listening' techniques of Pauline Oliveros and the radical musical philosophy of John Cage. In both these cases, silence is meaningful. It can be a deeply memorable experience to be part of a 'performance' of 4'33''. Why is this? What's so meaningful about silence?

This presents an interesting case-study for thinking about meaning as a 'structuring of expectations', which I have been exploring in recent posts. In the case of 4'33'', expectations of the listener/performance are particularly important. If I choose to listen to silence, what do I expect to hear? It is perhaps easier to say what I do not expect to hear.

Unlike listening to Beethoven I do not expect to hear sounds which have been consciously organised to give me a particular kind of musical experience which the composer and the players are all party to realising. Instead I choose to listen to whatever happens: traffic, the wind, my breathing, coughs, birds, the air conditioning, etc. I consciously 'open my ears' to the world around, hearing everything as significant - or meaningful.

My conscious expectation is to be 'elevated by the everyday'. That may be because I've 'bought in' to the rhetoric about the piece - how this is philosophically and musically revolutionary; how our ideas about music have narrowed, and how we need to open our ears. Although for many people encountering 4'33'', they might think that the very idea of being 'elevated by the everyday' is nonsense; they do not 'buy in', and their experience would be completely different (irritation, scorn, boredom).

But the rational exhortation is one thing; the experience is another. One feature of the experience is that even though we might expect the 'unexpected' sounds of nature, much in our listening processes have regularities. Our breathing and heartbeat are regular. We also become familiar with the regularities of the breathing of those around us. Some people (like me) have tinnitus, so that is a constant background sound too. Something might happen around us and we might hold our breath briefly, and then relax again. Some sounds we are responsible for, like the shuffling of legs and arms as we shift position.

On that 'sea' of regularities things happen and disturb it. A loud bang and we look around shocked, our breathing stilled, but only glancing at each other as we continue the performance. Someone farts and we try to stifle the laugh (or someone laughs as they try to stifle a fart!). The rumble of digestive juices is usually guaranteed to have a similar effect.

What I want to think here is that there are transfers of information going on here, and restructurings of expectations continually occurring. I don't believe there is really a performance of 4'33''  without someone saying "we are going to perform 4'33''", and there being some understanding of what that entails. That in itself creates an anticipation of something special everyone is going to do (much like the chemistry experiment in my last blog post). Then there is the experience itself. I anticipate continuing to breathe and my heart continuing to beat, and sitting quite still. I do not anticipate most of the sounds that happen around me. When they occur, I revise my anticipatory system: is it something that will repeat (like birdsong or someone else's breathing)? or only a temporary shock (a fart)? If it is something which repeats, I might anticipate it occurring again (I may tune into it to see)... My expectations shift.

But the specialness and meaningfulness of a performance of 4'33'' is more than just the shifting of expectations of a bird singing or someone breathing. It is a realignment in expections at different levels. At one level, I am told "this is special" (by those organising the performance). At another level, I have direct experience before and after. Before, I might feel there is nothing inherently special in everyday sounds: my expectation of them is nothing more than as the background of the more 'important' things I have to attend to in life. After the performance, I will have tuned into things and found regularities which I had payed little attention to. I will have heard the ways those regularities are disrupted by other sounds. I may even have taken more  control of my own regularities by slowing my breathing, or even holding my breath to listen more carefully at certain moments.

I think the meaningfulness of silence lies in that moment of taking conscious control over bodily regularities like breathing and physical disposition. There, the exhortation of 'specialness' of 4'33'' which makes its own disruption to everyday conscious thought (who would believe this?), finds an echo (or rather the information about 'specialness' is transferred) in bodily experience which realises itself through a performance of 4'33''. The moment of holding breath, or looking around, of focussing on the regularities of birdsong or the breathing of others, of embracing accidental noises... all these serve to transfer what was only contained in the conceptual exhortation into lived bodily experience. And in that transfer, so expectations are restructured and the meaning of silence revealed.