Tuesday 27 November 2012

Towards A Negative Theory of Learning

If the best we can do with constructivist learning theory is the MOOC, and if theory predicts that MOOCs will work, then it's time for a new theory! As I have been arguing recently, constructivist theory is essentially positivist: it reduces reality to actual posited mechanisms of the learning process, and that learning and knowledge is a process which can be accounted for by the action of these mechanisms. To adopt a constructivist approach in this way means trying to account for the most mysterious aspects of human experience through a mechanistic metaphor. Computers, in being the epitome of mechanism, are ideally suited to this approach. And yet all we have managed to do appears deficient in comparison to established and ancient practices of learning.

As a cybernetician I perhaps ought to be sympathetic to the mechanicists. But equally, as a cybernetician, I am more familiar with the deficiencies of this kind of mechanistic thinking. It leads here: http://www.talkcarswell.com/ (more about that later). And I want to suggest an alternative approach.

My experience of learning is visceral. Music knocked me sideways, philosophy thrilled me, science intrigued me, technology fascinated me and religion allowed me to step back into a space where everything was one. I fell in love with subjects, sometimes teachers or fellow students, and all the time being battered by a continual drive for something... I think (now)... meaning. I might well have constructed my world, but the extent to which it could whack me in the solar plexus was the richest reality I knew, and (through music) I knew that it was real for others too.

It's the whacking and the reality of it that matters! Not everyone feels it like this (I was odd!). But my first task is to compare my experience with what I imagine the experience of those who are unmoved by these things. Often, I wonder, they were being whacked by other things - by family, relationships, worries, etc. I believed getting whacked by science or music would help me establish the connections to others that I wished for; those uninterested in science didn't wish for those connections. My antennae were tuned in a particular way; others had different antennae. In essence, we had different strategic priorities. It's much like the differences that emerge in relationships when two people have moved past the stage of physically exciting each other to realise they are wanting entirely different things.

It is not what is thought, it is not what thinking itself is that matters. It is what is not thought. What is not thought bears on what is thought, what is decided, in powerful ways. My strategic priorities, like those of others around me, were the product of what each of us could not think. The reasons why things are unthinkable are, I believe, emotional: unthinkability relates to family, love, attachments. That means that unthinkability is social.

Constructivism is wrong in characterising a coordination of understanding - a coordination of thinking. What I think happens - what amounts to a negative theory - is the idea that coordinations occur around what is not thinkable. Shared absence is at the heart of this: those experiences which in a group of people produce the same physical reaction, the same turning of the stomach, the same 'knocking sideways'. Learning stems from this as a process of directly engaging with that shared absence and progressively determining it.

This is the process of human intimate relationships. The sexual absence which is felt is a shared question for each. It's gradual determination, exploration, identification leads to new absences which will either bring people closer together or drive them apart. Learning is the same. The astonishment of seeing sodium explode in water is shared amongst those who witness it. What happens then is a kind of critique. Different things are determined depending on the backgrounds of the individuals who experience this, depending on the thinkability or unthinkability of things, which in turn will depend on deeper emotional predispositions. The absence of the explosion is determined in different ways. One might say "rubbish! it's a con!", the other says "I can join a community of scientists!". Of course, they might both be right!

In education, we aspire to get everyone to the view of "I want to join a community of scientists" (or some other academic community). We measure individuals as to the extent to which they succeed in this, and determine their life chances based on this. A negative theory of learning highlights how dangerous this is. For the reaching of that position is determined by what is not thinkable. It is determined by a set of attachment situations and emotional predispositions which are codified in class structures which succeed only in delimiting thought. The anti-education critique is however a different set of unthinkable propositions which are no less worth exploring and critiquing than those which fit the system. Yet the system struggles support their exploration - particularly in school.

Most serious are the growing noises from government circles about particular 'idealised' educational experiences. I was horrified to see Geoff Mulgan saying that 'bad' universities should close (see http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=421875&c=1). I'm horrified because I've been a fan of Mulgan in the past, and he shares an enthusiasm for the work of Stafford Beer. But this is terrible. The ideals of 'good education' are essentially what is thinkable by the likes of Mulgan, Gove, Cameron and others. They believe, like the constructivists, that learning results from a 'coordination of understanding'. They believe that the community within 'good universities' might be expandable to learners at bad universities (i.e. takeovers). The opportunity to coordinate your understanding with the understanding of the great and the good can be sold as a product. Because of this, "Bad Universities" represent an absence for them which is different to what they represent to those who study and work there. But the absences of the great and the good (in good Universities) will never be the same as the absences of those in 'bad' universities: this cannot work. In essence, there is a shared absence relating to 'badness' of an institution amongst a class-oriented group, and a contrasting absence amongst the immediate stakeholders within that institution.

Ultimately, this results is the opposite of learning: oppression. The danger lies in the unthinkability of that proposition for Mulgan and co., and its visceral reality for those who will be their victims.

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