Tuesday 13 August 2013

Was Gordon Pask Right about Conversation?

Pask's conversation theory is a rich and rather dense piece of work that few people outside the cybernetics community - within which he was a central figure - know. Thanks to Diana Laurillard however, most people know about the 'conversation model' - that model which situates learning as a coordination of communications between the teacher and the learner, where teachers judge their actions according to the feedback (or 'teach-back') given by learners. At a basic level, this appears defensible. However, the concept that does the most work in the conversation model, and in Pask's theory in general, is the concept of 'agreement'. I came across this video where Pask talks about 'agreement' in the context of his 'entailment meshes' (basically, the relationships between concepts).

The problem with agreement is that a mechanistic approach that sees it as a coordination of speech acts, or other forms agency has many explanatory gaps when faced with real teaching and learning situations. Where is boredom? Where is novelty? Where is the feeling that either a learner or teacher might get that "despite all the words being right, something's not connecting"? Where is empathy (there appears precious little of that in his presentation here!)? Where is enthusiasm? Where is passion for the subject? And perhaps most importantly, where is the explanation for our wanting an explanation in the first place?! Like a lot of cybernetic theories, there are no real people in Pask's model; only abstractions of people. That most human of attributes, agreement, is subsumed into an inhuman context.

The problem with this is that an abstraction of person is basically the description of a process. Concepts fly into concepts, bound by some mysterious force which negotiates some kind of attraction or repulsion between them. (Pask was very fond of physical metaphors). But it all sounds a bit like Newtonian "hard and massy" particles. Concepts become related to fundamental mechanisms which by their operation alone can constitute the full richness of a person. But what of the person (Pask and friends) that want this to be true? To you and me they are awkward, funny, real (but dead, of course!) people - not constituted by fundamental mechanisms of 'P-individuals' and 'M-individuals'. Those technical terms are just the terms by which those real people (the real Gordon Pask) wants to know himself. But if he wants to know himself in such a constrained way, what does that tell the rest of us about him?

Of course, I'm being a bit unfair. This isn't just about Pask. It's about EVERY lunatic social and psychological theorist who believes they can explain what a person is, whilst failing to see the person they are in wanting to do this! (I obviously include myself in this). Surely it can't be feasible to reduce a person an abstraction, or (worse) to a process?

The physical analogies are interesting though, because one thing physics tells us is that whilst we may see mechanisms of hard and massy particles knocking into each other, there's a hell of a lot we can't see which nevertheless seems to play a big role in the process. It's not just 'dark matter', but the full gamut of unimaginable causal influences on things that happen.

In physics and in learning, there is a common rule which I cannot sum up more simply than by saying: "The thing that's missing is the thing that's missing."

Most importantly, that's not to say that the "thing that's missing" isn't causal. Dark matter is causal, but we only know the cause by its effects. In fact, as Hume pointed out centuries ago, we only know any cause by its effects (or at least, the regularity of its effects). The problem with "the thing that's missing" is that regularity is hard to come by - there can be no regularity with something that is missing.

Pask was wrong because in his eagerness to overlook his own desire to explain conversation, and his eagerness to overlook the "thing that's missing", he failed to consider the "thing that's missing" as a fundamental part of conversation, and a fundamental part of agreement. I'm not writing this out of some clash of concepts in my head. I'm writing it because I sense something missing. There's another  way of saying this: I am not writing this as some logical consequence of what I already know or conversations I have had; I am writing it as the result of critical inspection. Being logical and being critical are different intellectual attitudes. The logical approach seeks to concretise ideas and form coherent structures out of them; the critical approach seeks to overcome the fears that sit behind the desire for the logical approach.

Pask has a logical model of conversation and of agreement. In criticising it, I am advocating a critical approach to conversation instead. The coordinating forces in conversation are not coordinations around concepts, but coordinations around fears. Frightened teachers teach worst because fear typically leads them to take an authoritarian stance to students, so that they protect themselves from awkward questions. They could still be doing exactly what Pask says in his model, but the positioning between teacher and student would make the experience very different from an unafraid teacher.

By saying we coordinate around fear, what I'm really saying is that the coordination is around 'what's missing'. The driver for learning - indeed, the driver for agreement - is critique, but what's missing emerges in the flow of experience which includes conversation. Much of experience just passes us by without any impact until a particular point when suddenly we realise what it was about. The way our expectations and realisations arise floating on a sea of redundant information is the great mystery of human experience. The irony is that since most of what passes is redundant, we take no notice of it. Yet it may be the most important thing: a melody without accompaniment is a pale shadow of the melody with its accompaniment

This is where Pask went wrong. He took the 'aboutness' of things - the topics - and tried to create a logical mechanism where aboutnesses interacted (in entailment meshes, agreements, and other paraphernalia). He lost sight of the things the aboutness was about. He lost sight of the redundancy upon which aboutness arises. He lost sight of what he'd lost sight of.

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