Tuesday 29 April 2014

Darwin, Lamarck and the Progress of Education

Gregory Bateson made some acute observations about evolutionary thinking. Remarking that although Lamarck's basic idea of the 'inheritance of acquired characteristics' couldn't possibly be right, he pointed out that Lamarck's real contribution was the inversion of the scholastic 'Great chain of being', which saw a line of descent from God and the angels down to the man and the plants. Lamarck was the first to consider things the other way round. The fundamental consequence of this is that he is the first person to attempt to grapple with the question of 'mind' from first principles, using (I find this really interesting) "habit" as one of his axioms.

The effort was effectively blown out of the water in the mid 19th century by Darwinian theory. Darwin's mechanism, for all its genius, took "mind" out of the equation in the question of survival. Bateson says this can't be right:
"It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line or the sub-species or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its "progress" ends up with a destroyed environment." (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p457)
Of course, Darwin has affected us hugely well outside the realm of biology. From evolutionary economics to Marxist theory, anthropology, physics and genetics, each has been touched by the Darwinian mindset. And consequently, all of them exclude 'mind' as an integrated category for investigation (even psychology - which is unfortunate!). And that's to say nothing of education.

Education is riven with Darwinian thinking. The whole enterprise is about 'selection', being the 'fittest', 'competition' and performative excellence - all indebted to the British public school system (which, of course, Darwin was himself subject to - did Darwinism exist before Darwin?). When thinking about 'natural selection' wouldn't his mind wouldn't have cast itself back to his own formative years of schooling?

What's the problem here? And what's the solution? I think the problem is what might be called 'variable-ism' - a kind of reductionism to identifiable causal agents responsible for aspects of development and growth which are internal to an organism, but whose manifestation creates the conditions within which selection takes place. I only learnt in the last week that Comte wanted to call his new science 'social physics' - that's variable-ism. The best way to think about variable-ism is to examine the algorithms of genetic computing and to ask oneself "is this really how it is?" Genetic algorithms, after all, have to identify their core variables to begin with: each one is represented as an item of data in their 'genetic code'. Their dynamics (the evolutionary bit) is to hone the relationship between those different variables, and behaviour consequently changes. But where's the novelty? That, for GA enthusiasts, and for Darwin, is merely accident, which if caught by a selection process, becomes manifest as a new species.

Lamarck was concerned to explain precisely those characteristics of novelty and difference and the way that they appeared to be transmitted. We tend to have a view that his idea was in some way 'inferior', or that he was a proto-evolutionist. But maybe Darwin's idea crossed his mind. Had it done so, he would probably have rejected it because it didn't account for the mental processes which he thought were fundamental to the development of life.

Bateson's view is that development and growth are a balance between internal causal mechanisms and environmental "constraint". But 'constraint' has a particular technical meaning. It is what isn't there:

"In the world of mind, nothing—that which is not—can be a cause. In the hard sciences, we ask for causes and we expect them to exist and be "real." But remember that zero is different from one, and because zero is different from one, zero can be a cause in the psychological world, the world of communication. The letter which you do not write can get an angry reply; and the income tax form which you do not fill in can trigger the Internal Revenue boys into energetic action, be- cause they, too, have their breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner and can react with energy which they derive from their metabolism. The letter which never existed is no source of energy" (Steps, p459)
(I find this passage remarkable because of the similarity it bears to the more recent thinking of Bhaskar). Our current progress in genetic understanding, evolutionary processes and environmental development is based on the interactions between those variables that we can see (or identify through some process of analysis). What about what we can't see? What about what isn't there?

Curiously, information theory may give us a way of thinking about what isn't there. In Shannon's theory, information exists against the context of redundancy. I find that one of the most intriguing and exciting simple ideas which might (once again) allow us to turn things upside down. I also suspect that education might be field where it might most effectively be investigated: indeed, it might be necessary if education's progress (whose current madness knows no limits) is not to lead to the destruction of the social environment that sustains it.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

The Personal Learning Environment and the Institution of Education

Learning and Education are not the same, although they are often confused. Whilst technology has augmented and transformed the means by which individuals can do the work of learning, the institution of education has developed in different ways, harnessing technology to increase their dominance and power in the lives of more and more people. This appears contradictory: how can a technology which makes the means of learning more available contribute to the rise educational institutions who, despite rising costs borne by students, take a stranglehold over the business of education, and the lives of learners the world over?

To understand this, I think the economic critique of Higher Education by Thorstein Veblen – a critique whose pertinence to the current situation is remarkable - and the recent work of John Searle on social ontology are both very useful. Both Veblen and Searle are united in a particular focus on ‘status’. For Veblen, Education is a status game played by the aspirant members of the ‘leisure class’ in their effort to imbue their lives with meaning through becoming admitted to the ‘priesthood’ of knowledgeable people. Veblen documented and satirised transformations to educational institutions at the end of 19th century which could easily apply to those today: the pathologies of managerialism are now new (Veblen called it “absentee ownership”). Having said this, it is not entirely clear what Veblen means by status.

Searle’s recent work on social ontology discusses what he calls ‘status functions’ - particular kinds of speech act which relate to networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations and commitments. Searle explains social phenomena like money (e.g. "I promise to pay the bearer.."), nation states and institutions in this way. The analysis is useful when we come to look at the relationship between ‘personal learning’ and University degrees. There are fundamental differences between the patterns of rights, responsibilities, obligations and commitments between 'personal' or informal learning and a University degree, despite the fact that there are similar end-results in terms of skill acquisition and learning. If it is the case that institutions are increasing their power and that students are not turning their back on them to self-educate, does this tell us something about the power of status declarations in society more generally, and whether Veblen is right that the principal driver of education is in increasing status rather than increasing knowledge?

I think that this is an important question with far-reaching consequences for the way that we think about the future of education. Many advocates of the PLE assumed that the purpose of education is learning, and that technology can serve that purpose as well as institutions (if not better). But what would a PLE look like if its focus was on increasing status, not learning? Can technological forms of personal learning, or even learning through MOOCs, ever be functionally equivalent to institutional education? And what are we to do with those powerful educational institutions for whom initiatives like the PLE might ultimately only serve to drive more people into their clutches?

Thursday 17 April 2014

The Absentee Owners of Universities and the Handicraft of Education

Veblen wrote his last major work in 1923 on "Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise". The phrase "absentee ownership" has resonated with me for a while now when thinking about Universities: with apologies to William Frederick Yeames, When did you last see your Vice-Chancellor?

Veblen's account of the rise of "Absentee Ownership" is his way of describing the progress of economies from industrious handicraft when the resources, tools, techniques and objectives were all close-at-hand for those directly connected with the business of production, and the gradual emergence of capitalisation where owners of enterprises became the 'money men' who traded on the ownership of natural resources and the outputs of businesses, but who were detached from the actual running of those businesses. Veblen's analysis makes possible some fine distinctions in the emergence of capitalism, where absentee ownership was not a uniform development across all fields of industry. In farming, for example, there was ownership of natural resource (the land) but but a form of management which was not absent, being concernfully engaged with the operations of the farm. Similarly, not all heavy industry entailed absent ownership: whilst the handicraft industries evolved to use production machinery, managers would have an overarching vision of where to take their business and how to make the most of the new technological opportunities afforded by the machinery. This too was certainly not absentee ownership.

But when it comes to plantations, slavery, corporate agglomerations, and so forth, it is the capitalisation of the enterprise and the trade in credit which becomes the driving force. Absentee owners do money deals disconnected (conveniently disconnected in the case of slavery) from the realities of the industry itself. This 'New Order' of things generally serves to constrain output so as to keep prices high, thus serving the needs of the over-capitalization of production. The distance of absentee ownership can also exploit cultural and political differences: Veblen points out, with the case of slavery, that whilst the American South was the industrial heartland of the trade, the absentee owners were in the 'liberal' north, trading in New York. In this way legitimated practice rubs shoulders with illegitimate or shady practice. 

Education seems to be going through its own period of industrialisation at the moment, and it is no surprise to see absentee ownership of educational institutions on the rise. It's not just Universities, although they seem to be leading the way (as they certainly have done in America for the last 20 years or so). Even mainstream schooling is increasingly subject to absentee ownership: the UK Academy school programme, the Free School programme and the University Technology Colleges have encouraged private investment in state-funded education creating a breed of corporate 'sponsors' whose "money might" sways policy on curriculum, strategy, technology and staffing. But the current crop of Vice-Chancellors in the UK are the most telling example of absentee ownership. They are very different characters from those who served in that position 20 years ago. Apart from being paid industrial-scale salaries, they are noticeably less present in their own institutions, doing money deals with wealthy businessmen (some of whom are the same characters taking the lead in the provision of schooling!), touring the world selling their brand of education, and lobbying politicians and the establishment for acknowledgements of legitimacy (particularly from Church and the Judiciary), status for themselves or for their financial backers, or political favour in the corridors of power.

The contradictions of the industrialised education system and its absentee owners are manifest. The business of engendering learning remains within the domain of handicraft. Parents are the first source of this, but then it comes down to skilled teachers to listen to and understand their students so as to develop their confidence and ability. That some parents are far more skilled at this handicraft than others will remain a continual source of social inequality which the education system always hopes to ameliorate. If the modus operandi of the absentee owner in industry is to constrain productivity to maximise profits by keeping prices high, how does the absentee owner of an educational institution operate? Surely there is a desire to maximise the production of successful and confident graduates? How could constraint on the production of successful and confident graduates ever maintain the appeal of an educational operation?

Here it is useful to make a distinction between the business of learning and the cultivation of an individual as handicraft, with the conferring of graduate status on individuals. Higher education is a status game (Veblen wrote a earlier book about this). Universities have always constrained the conferring of graduate status on individuals. By so doing, they have maintained their appeal. The rise of the "leisure class" as he called them was primarily a status-seeking process. Higher education institutions effectively admitted people to the 'priesthood' of people who could laud their knowledge and expertise above those around them. "Lauding above" is the principle activity in Universities, occurring not just between the institution and the rest of society, but between individuals in the institution. The controls are simply to do with where the line is drawn as to who is admitted and who is not. Universities, as Illich reminds us, create failure.

The absentee owner of the university acts both as a high priest and as 'captain of industry' in his or her shady dealings with businessmen, the establishment and politicians. His financialized assets maintain their value through the exploitation of his or her status and the constraints on the conferring of graduate status on others. The constraints on the conferring of status are however highly flexible and within the control of the Vice-Chancellor. At will he can confer PhDs (honoris causa), give assurances (if the circumstances are advantageous) that certain things will be so, despite custom and practice in maintaining academic 'quality' within the institution apparently precluding it. In doing so, he has to manage two things: maintaining his own status as the high priest, which is conferred on him by the board of governors, and ensuring that his flexibility for implementing his plans is not curtailed by opposition from workers in the University. The former he achieves by delivering financial returns in the form of economic surpluses. The latter he does by increasingly draconian and authoritarian control of the workers in the institution.

Where does this leave the handicraft of learning? Skilled teachers find themselves in an impossible position. Charged with the care and nurturing of their students in conditions where the actual cultivated benefits in students matter less than the simple "numbers game" on balance sheets of student fee income. In industry, mechanisation allowed the handicraft industries to increase production, yet in education, mechanisation (the internet) has certainly created new opportunities for learning and access to knowledge for those with the disposition to use it (which are generally those subject to the skilled handicraft of parents), but has done little for those who do not have these advantages. Good teachers remain largely trying to hand-spin threads against a background that demands mass-scale production which increasingly constrains their actions within assessment frameworks which preclude hand-spinning. Consequently, the conferring of graduate status becomes a mechanical process of hoop-jumping where contagious absenteeism infects teachers and learners alike: the qualities of the educated mind are substituted by academic credit scores and marks whereupon the criteria for status awards are made. (Of the many amusing Veblen anecdotes was that he would frequently award all his students the same mark irrespective of their achievement!)

Veblen's analysis of absentee ownership is subtle and powerful. In conjunction with his analysis of the Higher Learning in America, there are some very important questions we need to ask ourselves about education. Veblen laid the blame for the first world war on the absentee interests represented by nation states. He foresaw the economic disaster of 1929. Education does not suit itself to absentee ownership. We need management that is present. The best educational managers are like the farmers with one hand in the soil and the other in market. How we find our way back there is an urgent question.

Thursday 10 April 2014

What is Value in Educational Technology?

I wrote my PhD about Value in Educational Technology 3 years ago. I described value (rather fancifully) as being like "a fabric which wraps around practice". In studying a number of different interventions in educational technology (I effectively gathered together findings from a number of projects I'd been involved in - my PhD was by publication), I considered the ways in which people communicated about what was "good", what became fashionable, what got funded, etc. I created a cybernetic model which focused on communications. There was, it seemed to me, to be a strong case to argue that value could be assessed as a kind of normative framework of conversation: certain things got talked about; as they got talked about, so they got funded; as they got funded, so personal egos became tied up with particular positions in the discourse; despite results being inconclusive, vested interests and egos saw to it that more funds were allocated - partly because things being inconclusive leads to them being talked about... that is until the whole thing went 'pop!'

Among the theoretical frameworks for looking at feedback between personal agency and communication, the theory of Niklass Luhmann is one of the most comprehensive. I still think Luhmann's emphasis on supra-individual communication as a way of accounting for agency is important - not least as a challenge to psychology (which is a more dismal science than economics in my opinion!), but there is a problem. I now see that my position in the PhD was essentially linguistically reductive. There were no real people; just communicating agents (I'm glad my examiners didn't pick this up!). Whilst the "values" of individuals may be situated in this framework of communication,  can you really talk about value in isolation from a concrete person? My journey since my PhD has been to realise that you can't.

So the question about value becomes a question about the constitution of an individual. I think Christian Smith's recent book "What is a person?" is an excellent starting point. But the deep question is, it seems to me, to be in finding new opportunities for empirical justification of the virtue of the real person. Social policy, education policy, university managements are all disastrous at the moment because we've lost sight of virtue. Common sense tells us that there is plenty of evidence this is the case and that its effects are palpable. But an empirical foundation for those judgements seems to elude us. Performance metrics only make the problem worse.

The interesting theoretical question is that Luhmann's 'people' formed out of the coordinations of communications, or the coordinations of coordinations of communications. It's all connecting stuff - deterministically causal. But I think (beyond my PhD) that persons and their values arise in the gaps between communications. It's not in the information we exchange, but in the redundancy we create, and in the ways those redundancies overlap. Attachments, love, caring for each other are all forms of redundancy (think how our minds turn continually around another person we love). It's from there that value arises. And indeed, in the models of normative value judgement that I examined in my PhD, the dominance of particular communications (say about e-portfolio or Learning Design), it is the redundancy of those communications which seems to do the business.

Value as "a fabric which wraps around practice" may still apply. But we must look closer to see what the fabric is made of and what its properties are.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Meandering, Connecting and Learning

Tim Ingold is right about lines (see his http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lines-Brief-History-Tim-Ingold/dp/0415424275) Actually, I only stumbled on his work (so much of life is stumbling) because I showed some of my distorted musical scores to a friend who happened to have the book on her kitchen table and made the connection. This is the latest incarnation of my score:

Ingold's fundamental question is "how come all our lines became straight?" To put it another way, how come 'connecting' became more important than 'meandering'? It is, after all, meandering that is the dominant form of human experience. The tragedy of the education system is that it fails to recognise the importance of meandering: it assumes that learning is 'connecting'. It sees 'connections' it those 'aha' moments as Koestler called them - the moments when something 'clicks'. But I wonder before the advent of the 'switch' how human beings accounted for that moment. The scholastics, for example, would not have talked about 'clicking'. They might instead have talked about revelation, epiphany or quest. Epiphany does not happen at a click (imagine the Magi being teleported instantly to the stable on receiving a text-message of a virgin birth!) It is the journey that matters, not the destination! C.S. Lewis got it right "The longest way round is the shortest way home"

Our straight connecting lines leave us no space to "be". It is because we have no space to 'be' that we cannot find our way home. Connections have caused us to lose ourselves.

As a cybernetician however, I'm aware we can do funny things with connections. Feedback is the way back to meandering. But because feedback is made out of connections, the connecting mentality assumes that meandering is in fact connecting. That's a meta-connection - the connection that our clever connecting brains make out of understanding connections. But it's wrong.

It's all a bit like Popper Clocks and Clouds. Are clocks clouds? Are clouds clocks? But I can't help thinking that like most philosophers Popper was a connecting man. Deep down, his clouds were clocks.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Values, Practice and Theory in Educational Technology and Society

There is an immense array of different kinds of activity which go on in education. It seems reasonable to say that education is a microcosm of society: much of the knowledge we have about each other's likely behaviour comes from the social experiences in school. We know how the bully, or the swot, or the joker, or the procrastinator, or the team-builder will behave partly because we got to know these people in the classroom. We got to know them particularly because our lives were framed by the educational universe with its shared activities, obligations and responsibilities. But this is all personal knowledge. What if we were to try and formalise the knowledge we gain from education and apply it to social thinking?

There are plenty of social theorists out there, and there are plenty of theories about how society works. There are also rather few effective theories of education (is there one??). Why might that be? Well, my guess is its easy to theorise about something that remains essentially abstract: whilst social structures may well be real, we don't understand them properly, and the typical academic response to not understanding something properly is to focus on universals, not particulars, and to mind one's own academic career in talking about abstractions. Education, on the other hand, is inescapably concrete. The kid who can't write, or the teacher who's incredibly boring (or exciting) are very real and individual phenomena. The complexity of explaining it is enormous. In education we seem incapable of grasping real subjectivity; instead, we accept (uncritically) abstract subjectivity - a neo-Kantian transcendental subject - ideal subjects who fit ideal theories. Real learners, real teachers and real schools go out of the window.

I want to find a way in which we can map experiences in education onto experiences outside it (I'm doing this for a bid at the moment). Originally, I thought that we could categorise forms of activity, and map them across different domains (I blogged about that here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/from-forms-of-knowledge-to-forms-of.html) I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but now I think the mapping exercise won't work. It is simply too difficult. But there is something deeper which might work.

Everybody, whether they are an academic sociologist, or a practising teacher, has core values about what they are doing, why, what matters and what doesn't matter. Values are rather like personal 'fault lines': they exist at the limits of the disparities between the different sets of understandings we possess. Even the most mild-mannered academic can be hot blooded and aggressive if they feel their values are under threat. Values are tied up with identities. In academics they are also tied up with theories about the world. With teachers, they are tied up with approaches to teaching and learning and attitudes to learners.

So what if we simply present academics and practitioners with a list of values like "trust", or "commitment", or "responsibility" or "obligation" or "privacy" or "identity" and ask them to describe what they mean to them? Then we ask them to describe how this description fits with their broader description of the world. What will emerge? Well, my guess is that there will be differences between value descriptions not just between different academics, but between teachers and academics. Theoretical descriptions will not fit the world of practical experience. We see this is Educational Technology interventions all the time. And these gaps between theory and practice can be a driver for coordinating collaborative action between stakeholders (of course, there's another value in 'collaboration'!).

More interestingly, though, from the perspective of learning about education and society, we can run the same exercise with any group of stakeholders - it doesn't have to be in education (although education does provide us with a platform with which we can experiment - particularly with technology). In business, stakeholders also have at heart descriptions of what these value statements mean. They act in accordance with this. How does their understanding of core values relate to understandings in education? How do their practices translate into education? What new inconsistencies between theory and practice might be revealed by making the comparisons between values in education and values in industry? Again, it is the tension between theory and practice which drives the innovation and drives the theoretical rethinking.

In the end, we get to policy makers. They too have values. How to their values relate to the values in education, or the values in industry? Where are theory-practice gaps in policy-making? What can be done to address them?