Thursday 3 May 2012

What is a Person to whom education is meaningful? And what is Education that it might be meaningful to people?

I'm paraphrasing a paper given by Louis Kauffmann at the Heinz von Foerster congress in Vienna in 2011. His title was "What is an Object that a Person might know It, and a Person that She might know an Object?"  I believe a similar (and related) epistemological problem exists between people and education. Instead of 'knowing' something, I am concerned with something being meaningful. Indeed, even for Kauffman's paper, we might 'know' an object, but if it isn't meaningful, what's the point? (I asked him whether you could have observation without anticipation - I still think that's a good question. Anticipation seems to me to be fundamental to meaning.)

But to come back to my question. First of all, what is a person to whom education is meaningful? Over the years, I've played around with a number of models of the person. The most successful have used Beer's Viable System Model. and this we used to argue for the Personal Learning Environment. I would say, looking back, that the VSM modelling of the person was the best thing to come out of that work. At the same time, I have reflected since we did it, on why it wasn't quite right. After all, whilst many of us are using personal technology within the institution, not everyone is. Institutions haven't been transformed by personal technologies, and the VLE still dominates the e-learning landscape. We were idealistic (rather Illichian - although I now think we misunderstood Illich... see Basically, the VSM of personal organisation presents a model where an individual has to manage their VARIETY (or complexity) through the use of technology. The environment they operate in perturbs the individual with differences that makes a difference, or change the individual in some way (in Bateson's terminology, this is INFORMATION) and this consequently changes the regulatory mechanisms in the individual:

The problem with the VSM model of the person was that it was an individual model. And I have become increasingly convinced that we are not individuals (I'm the one at the back who says "I'm not!" in the scene in the life of Brian when Brian says "you are all individuals!"). So the first thing to say about the person to whom education is meaningful is that there must be a recognition of inter-dependence. This was not elaborated in the in the original VSM model of the person (although it may be implied by the 'environment').

In terms of this aspect of awareness of others, I have increasingly focused on 'ATTACHMENT' as a mechanism of maintaining IDENTITY and viability. The upshot of this is that communications with the environment have a bearing on the regulating mechanisms in the individual. I've recently mentioned the double-contingency of communication that Parsons talks about (I'm grateful to Leydesdorff for that), and this means that the VSM produced a duck-rabbit appearance, where we can either focus on the VSM diagram, or we can look at the communicative effects of using the VSM: one is figure, the other ground. This is the diagram which I explained this phenomenon in my PhD, although it would need more unpacking than I want to do in this post. But the important thing is the correlation between the mechanisms in the individual and the communications between them.

I realised this double-contingency when I was doing the SPLICE project for JISC (see It made me realise two things which have subsequently been very important to me:

  1. Our viability depends on proximity to each other
  2. Luhmann's theory of communication is probably right

But then I can be near the people who are important to me (because I need to be near them); I can communicate because I need to communicate (and it helps me maintain my closeness to those I love, my job, etc). But being near and maintaining attachments doesn't explain how it is I recognise something to which I choose to attach (or maybe forego existing attachments to be close to or to acquire). In short, it doesn't explain how I fall in love, am curious or continually seek new discoveries.

That, I believe, is to do with MEANING. At the level of meaning, I think what needs to be analysed is ANTICIPATION. Meaningful moments occur when anticipations are restructured: that's precisely (I think!) what happens when I gaze at a beautiful woman, artwork, sunset, etc. (Is art the communication of anticipation?? - another blog post there...)

So, to summarise what a person is to whom education is meaningful, I would say there are three levels of interaction between the person and education:

VARIETY   <----------->  INFORMATION
But then to come to the second part of the question: What is education that it is meaningful to people?

There, the answer is perhaps a bit easier. As I write this I am thinking of a definition:
Education is the possibility of increase in possibilities.
In other words, education is how anticipation may increase the things it anticipates. Luhmann say the essence of education is 'cultivation'. Schrodinger says that life feeds on negative entropy. These are the probably the same statements.

Both in the sense that education is cultivation and education is the possibility of increasing possibilities, education is something that individuals do which does something to individuals. The system of education is operationally closed: its inputs are fed by its outputs.

But that is not to say that it can't go wrong. But it will go wrong if we misunderstand the nature of a person. If we instrumentalise education and see it as being about information, then the education system we create no longer creates possibilities because it doesn't see any need for possibilities (or meaning or attachment). It will only create information. What that may do to people and societies is hard to compute.

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