Sunday 31 August 2014

Something and (K)nothing: The knotty problem of shared constraint and project functionalism in the ITEC Project

The ITEC project, which is nearing completion, is probably one of the last large-scale government-funded (EU) e-learning projects that we will see. The era for this kind of thing has gone, and indeed ITEC provides plenty of evidence as to why it has gone. There are many good things that ITEC has done: it has raised awareness of technology across Europe; it has allowed many teachers to experiment with different kinds of pedagogy (particularly inquiry-based, classroom flipping, etc). But against its own ambition to create a technological infrastructure to support 'the classroom of the future', ITEC (like so many other projects before it) has failed. What can we learn from this?

One approach to exploring ITEC is to consider the mindset of those who conceived the project who believed that the ITEC technical interventions would work. Against the nay-sayers, people would point to the adoption of the VLE in education, or the rise of email and mobile phones to say that technology really can change individual practices and social structures. New 'interaction rituals', as Randall Collins calls them, can arise in a new technological context. This is what ITEC sought.

That raises a question about the conditions under which new interaction rituals can establish themselves. Any new technical intervention is introduced to people with a declaration: "this is a new technology for x". This declaration is what Searle calls a 'status function'. Searle argues that the entities of the social world, institutions, objects, textbooks, teachers, schools, etc are all status functions. He argues that it is the declaration of a status function which, if the person  making it has sufficient 'deontic power' then that status function will be binding within the context within which it is made.

Searle's idea is powerful and has far-reaching consequences. However, when a status function is made about a new technology, it is unclear where the deontic power lies. Consequently the extent to which most technological status functions don't appear to have any long-term effect, whilst a few do is not directly explained by Searle's theory. Adoption occurs at the point where there is broad social agreement that the status function is indeed valid (which is the case now for mobile phones, email and social software). However, any new status function is made in the context of many other established status functions within a society. Typically technologies aim to disrupt established interaction rituals involving other kinds of object, practice and institutional structure. Additionally, every  status function, as well as being a statement about what is what in context c, is also a statement about what is not what: in other words, a status function makes a distinction between what counts as x, and what doesn't. Status functions are both positive in affirming an object, and negative in declaring a constraint.

Given that status functions declare constraints, it would not be surprising to see different status functions competing with each other, or contradicting each other: each being each others' constraints. The status functions "I am the master" and "You are a slave" presents a simple example of where one status function is constrained by the other. The master requires the slave to acquiescence; the slave is constrained by the boss in a way which is not advantageous, yet feels compelled to reinforce the boss's power. Fear leads them to be unable to consider life away from the boss's demands. Indeed, in this case, it is fear both instilled by the boss and bearing upon the boss which holds the contradictory relationship between them in place. The stability of such a master-slave relationship may be seen as a basic 'institution': without relationships of mutual reinforcing constraint of this kind every human institution from the family to the firm would flounder.

Technological status functions produce similar patterns of mutual constraint. The assertion, usually by technology corporations, of the status of objects demands the acquiescence of users, whose emerging ritualised patterns of practice entail fears in breaking rituals which further entail the use of the tools about which the status functions are made. The reality of technologies is held in place by knots. But how did the knots get tied in the first place?

In social life, the status functions that each of us lives with comprise highly complex webs of mutual constraint. This makes the intervention of a status function in a pre-existing web of status functions particularly challenging. It is the inability to counteract the forces prevalent in existing status functions that most technologies fail. To say there is "nothing in it for me to use technology x" is to say that existing commitments demand the maintenance of practices which would be unnecessarily disrupted by a new technology. However, in order to understand how it is that some status functions actually do succeed in transforming the knots that people live within, it is important to understand the forces that keep the knots tied together. Since every status function is also a declaration of constraint, and that successful knots are patterns of mutual constraint, the role of shared constraints among the different stakeholders who are implicated in upholding the status of a state of affairs. Through an analysis of constraint, and particularly through a consideration of the relationship between constraint and redundancy, an understanding of the dynamics that distinguish instances of adoption with non-adoption can be explored. In this study, instances of non-adoption are most informative, and since this has been the principal characteristic of the ITEC project, it makes an excellent case-study for examination.

Projects and Status Functions

A project is basically a set of status declarations. The first and most important being the declaration:
"This is project"
Then there are the objects of the project. In ITEC the objects of the project (as set out in the project plan) entail declarations like:
"This is learning scenario (a broad description of educational activity)"
"This is a widget store (a  repository of tools)"
"This is a widget (a tool)"
"This is a widget (tool) for doing "
"This is learning activity"
"This is a "composer" (a way of recording configurations of activities and tools)"
"This is a 'people and events' database (a kind of for schools)"
"This is a learning shell (basically a container for educational activities, people and tools - e.g. a VLE)"
"This is an evaluation questionnaire"
"This is a national coordinator of ITEC activities in your country"
ITEC is focused on schools and what happens in the classroom. Teachers are the principal target for the above status declarations. Teachers, in most schools, already inhabit a world of status declarations from various sources:

"This is the headteacher of your school"
"These are the professional expectations for your performance"
"These are the children you are responsible for"
"These are their parents"
"These are the expectations the children's parents have of their children"
"These are the league tables of your school (if they have them)"
"These are the assessments the children will have to pass"
"This is your timetable"
"This is the curriculum"

It is not difficult to see that these two sets of status declarations may conflict with each other. Individual teachers, project officials, national coordinators, software developers, etc. have to make choices about their actions. Each status declaration presents an aspect of constraint against which choices must be negotiated: whilst each declaration makes a statement of the positive existence of a thing (headteachers, widgets, evaluation questionnaires) they simultaneously declare an absence - what isn't a headteacher, widget, evaluation questionnaire, and so on. A status function is a distinction as the declaration of a boundary.

Within each stakeholder, there are unarticulated status functions: the things people might want to say, or declare in the future, but don't yet have the position, evidence, or so on, to articulate their own status functions. Here we might consider:
"This is my ambition"
"These are the needs of my family"
"These are the people I love"
"These are the things that matter"
"This is my strategy"
"This is the domain over which I have control"
"This is the domain over which I want control"
"This is the domain over which I can do nothing"
A project seeks to harmonise its status declarations with the existing status declarations that already exist within the setting in which it wants to intervene. Given that the potential for conflict between the expectations of different stakeholders, any project might hope that it establishes a dynamic between the inner wishes of individual stakeholders, the existing professional responsibilities of those stakeholders, and the innovations suggested by the project. In other words, it hopes that the intervention of the project creates a closed-loop between three constraints whereby the new innovations are established and held in place because of:
  • The dynamic between individual ambition and professional constraint
  • The dynamic between professional constraint project interventions
  • The dynamic between project interventions and individual ambition
We can imagine a situation presented through the metaphor of a trefoil knot. Each declaration is a constraint for the other, but each constraint holds the others in place.

In the imagined situation of a bid, or a design plan, it will be hoped that the Trefoil knot situation is produced in implementation: should this happen, then the technological adoption is achieved. Unfortunately, reality isn't like this. In reality, the professional constraints of teachers dominate and project interventions tend to get ignored.  The education system tends not to change. So what is the difference between the real situation and the imagined situation where adoption is gained? Under what conditions might engagement occur? How do people react when it doesn't?

The constraints between project managers, software developers and national coordinators

The imagined knots of what the project hopes to achieve tend to mask the real knots that already exist within the project itself. The ITEC project makes many status declarations about entities other than software. In particular, there are different types of participant within the project: different roles, responsibilities, and so on. For example, there are those who are in charge of pedagogy, there are those who are doing software development and there are those who are trying to manage it together. Each group of stakeholders bring different constraints, and each group of stakeholders will be enmeshed in their own knots relating to their professional practice and so on. For example, the pedagogical partners know that the status declarations they are responsible for maintaining are those which state:
"This is a learning scenario"
"This is a learning scenario design activity"
"These are pedagogical trends which constrain the design of activities"
"This is the pedagogical discourse with which to make an intervention"
Whilst at the same time, there are other status functions which lie outside the project which will be of concern to anyone involved in pedagogical research:
"This is the educational discourse"
"These are the important journals to publish work"
"These are the deliverables that must be achieved"
"This is the budget"
"These are the people who are involved"
"These are colleagues with whom it would be good to make connection"
Beyond this, there will also be individual strategic, unarticulated status functions which will affect the relationship with the others. Having said this, it may not be the case that each of the constraints surrounding the different status functions will constrain each other. In particular, even within the project teams, it is difficult to identify the shared constraints which hold everything together which can work to maintain all the different status functions which are declared.

The same is true of the other partners in the project. Technical partners are responsible for declarations of particular technologies:

"This is a widget"
"This is a widget store"
"This is a shell"
"This is a composer"
"This is a people and events coordinator"
"This is a training session"
"This is the software discourse to make an intervention"

Project managers must make declarations including:
"This is a completed deliverable""This is a budget"
"This is a change to project direction"
For each of these statements to hold, there has to be similarly a knot where the declarations of pedagogy partners are constraints for the declarations of software developers and consistent with the declarations of project managers. An idealised knot emerges which contextualises the way that the project makes its declarations to ministries and schools. However, the ideal knot with its status declarations does not reflect the reality either of the project team or the groups with whom the project seeks to make an intervention.

The dominant constraint is the meeting of the  project deliverables, and the status functions which apply to that constraint evolve and move to ensure that project success is achieved at the expense of success on the ground.

The emergence of project-functionalism as the binding force of a project (and its consequent powerlessness)

The concerns of those interested in pedagogical innovation in the classroom are not the same as those whose concern is the development of technology. The knots that each individual will experience will be different in terms of the discourses they are trying to satisfy, the ways that they manoeuvre their actions in the project, the goals and ambitions that they harbour and the actions that they then take.
Yet, each of them is funded and bound to a contract whereby funding can be withdrawn unless they cooperate with the endeavour. However, cooperation is difficult since there are many barriers in the way of solving a problem which may or may not exist.

Inevitably, the meeting of the contractual bargain with the project funder is the principal aim of the members of the project. The list of deliverables and the list of things to be achieved in the project so as to honour the bargain is the most important thing. Not meeting these targets is generally seen as a universal constraint. Around meeting these criteria, there can be seen to be common cause and sense in addressing the project deliverables. Coordination occurs through commonalities in redundancies in the expectations of individuals across the different strands of the project. However, the extent to which this constraint impacts on the other constraints involved in the project is negotiable.

The status function of “this is a widget”, “this is a widget store” is presented as a particular technological status function which doesn’t have any grounding in the reality of teachers. However, the status function "This is a widget training session" does at acquire support of teachers. Acquiescence with the latter status function is a trade-off for teachers, who are happy to be removed from their classrooms to take part in widget testing, but where there is little evidence of them doing any more with the widgets.

This can also explain the discrepancy between the evaluation responses of teachers to the questionnaire and the evidence from web-hits on the widget store, and so on. Acquiescing with a questionnaire and giving a judgement on their widget usage depends on the nature of the way that they experience the constraints of the project, and the way that they deal with the constraints that care placed on them professionally. The dominant constraint is the meeting of the project deliverables, and the status functions which apply to that constraint evolve and move to ensure that project success is achieved at the expense of success on the ground.

What arises in this situation is a kind of project functionalism, where the instruments of the Commission become the principal declarations of the members of the project team. The management question is the one that binds everyone together, not the difficult questions of dealing with the things the project set out to change. Is there any way to avoid project functionalism? Are there recommendations for changing the way we deal with projects?

Why project functionalism and not project critique or project phenomenology?

With projects targeted towards the production of concrete deliverables, and these deliverables related to the organisation of activities, project functionalism will always be the grounding force that steers the project towards outcomes. How might a project be organised that didn’t do this? 

A project that seeks intervention in a domain usually usually has little understanding of the domain before it begins.  ITEC is notable for the number of status declarations it made in its bid document before it began. Projects should make as few status declarations as they can before they begin, but instead seek to identify the status declarations and the dynamics which hold them in place in the domain within which they seek to make intervention. In understanding the pre-existing status declarations, the common constraints which hold existing status functions together can be identified. It isn’t enough to simply examine the functions of people within the school environment. It is important to understand their motivations, the problems they face, the binds they are in, and the ambitions they have.

If projects became like the situation they seek to change then they too would exhibit the same constraints as the thing they seek to change. If mutual constraint is the driving force that determines the success of adoption of new tools and practices, then those interventions which are full of redundancies and constraint may be more effective than those which are deterministic in their approach. In this way, artistic interventions can sometimes have a greater impact, since such interventions are characterised by the universality of the constraints they present. Projects could make particular use of games and art as ways of facilitating change within the environment. Art and games are ways in which universal redundancies can be made: they are effectively status functions of ‘nothing’; most of what they declare is absent and consequently the absences affect stakeholders universally.

...Maybe in this way critique and experience can be built in to the project processes from the beginning. 

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Technics and Disputation: Where is Mind in Education?

How did we get from scholastic 'disputation' as a means of assessment to learning outcomes? The evolution from scholastic methods which instructed the art of disputation through the 'trivium' (grammar, logic, rhetoric) which was to be applied to the four domains of the quadrivium: arithmetic, music, astronomy, geometry was steadily critiqued, and eventually evolved into the domination of modern university curricula by specialist domain-specific knowledge. What originated as a method for inquiring about disciplinary phenomena for the purpose of the discovery of the mind became a method for applying the mind to the discovery of domain-specific knowledge. We have seen an inversion. From the critiques of Roger Bacon onwards, the need for more specialised scientific inquiry, and the consequent challenge to the doctrinal rigidity of medieval education as a 'way to God', presented a naturalistic inquiry which steadily divorced itself from mysticism in favour of the mastery of knowledge of scientific accomplishment. Yet for a long time, despite the inversion of the relation between mind and nature in education, something of the development and discovery of mind in the light of phenomena survived - but it is very much at risk from the processes of educational industrialisation.

Industrialisation has brought with it a new phase in the relation between mind and nature in education. Some aspects of specialist scientific inquiry still demand some awareness of mind where the pursuit of these disciplines is not particularly focused on the need to 'get a job' (think about the career aspirations of pure mathematicians, or cosmologists). But now, with the industrial emphasis on making education pay, and the "graduate premium" (COR! Wot a Bargain!), technical skill dominates. Indeed, following the computer revolution, scientific pursuit has increasingly become a matter of application of technical skill. Big data risks dwarfing the critical inquiry. Skills can be sold, learning outcomes as indexes of skill accomplishment measured, courses marketed, jobs coveted - but increasingly mind is out of the picture. Universities and their bosses become rich with their mass-produced education religion, but students and teachers become alienated.

Some students will have acquired something of the intellectual armoury which will mark them out in society. There is still a display among students of elite institutions of the rhetorical qualities of the ancient schoolmen: the ability to critically consider things and to engage in successful argumentative defence of their position: they tend to become politicians and lawyers. But these abilities have not necessarily been given to them by their elite schools (although they will have mixed with many others quite similar to them). Mostly, such skills have been bequeathed to them by their families. The after-dinner conversation, the mixing with important people, the confidence to take on authority and engage it. They may well be subjected to tedious regime of meeting learning outcomes like the rest of us, but in the end it will be their intellectual comportment which carries them into successful careers. But this aspect of 'having a mind' has become the mark of educational quality - the badge which grants entry to elite institutions.

What about everyone else? For them, there are only tedious learning outcomes marking the application of technical skill, and the acquisition of these alone is the means by which education is attained in the form of a certificate which may or may not grant access to the next step in the life-chance gamble. Of course learning outcomes and assessment criteria will encourage learners to "synthesize arguments" and "critically examine" - but these demands seem more vestigial of a former age than core to the business of the university in attracting students and pumping out graduates in the pursuit of its own viability.

We now have a society where the discovery of mind is only supported in families - either those of the privileged middle and upper classes, or of those on the radical left. When education becomes a private domain society has a problem. It is the education system's job, and government's responsibility, to compensate for the fact that not everyone comes from a family background that will support their development. At the moment, the education system rewards elite parents with a pat-on-the-back when little Jonny gets his 10 A*s. At a time when social mobility appears to be going in reverse despite rising educational attainment, we should be asking where the mind is in education. This is a systemic challenge, not a discipline-specific one. It is a testament to the mess we are in that the automatic response of the educators is to "create a module" to address the lack that their ever-more instrumentalised system continues to create - thereby creating more lack.

To put mind at the forefront of education is a structural intervention. It is to examine critically how institutions are governed, how they are funded, what expectations we have of them and how staff and students are supported. If there is a light on the horizon it is in the fact that mindless education is dangerous in ways which we are only beginning to discover in our dismal geo-politics. Broken promises, alienation, disempowerment and lack of freedom of expression only lead to tyranny and terror. 

Sunday 24 August 2014

Phenomenology and the Paradox of Designing Learning

This is my sketch for Chapter 3 of my book "Education and Information". It's given me quite a lot of trouble which I think is still quite evident in the text. It helps me to blog it - seeing the text in a different context is rather like reviewing proofs (and I always seem to want to make radical changes at proofing stage - I know I'm not alone here!)

It's important to get a grip on 'experience' and the phenomenological/interpretivist tradition as it applies to educational technology, learning analytics, big data, etc. But phenomenology is incredibly messy. Burrell and Morgan quote Natanson (1973) in arguing that phenomenology is a disparate body of ideas which isn't (in Burrell and Morgan's view) coherent:
"Phenomenology is a presuppositionless philosophy which holds consciousness to be the matrix of all phenomena, considers phenomena to be objects of intentional acts and treats them as essences, demands its own method, concerns itself with prepredictative experience, offers itself as the foundation of science, and compreises a philosophy of the life wolrd, a defence of reason and ultimately a critique of philosophy"
Yet phenomenology in one aspect or another underpins almost  all education research, educational surveys of student experience, and so on. Education is characterised (by Roger Brown) as an 'experience good'. Phenomenological analysis indeed has become a kind of handmaiden in the functionalist or managerialist pursuit of 'evidence-based policy'.

Introduction: Positive and Negative Subjectivity

Potential students in higher education cannot know what it is like until they have actually attended: education is an 'experience good' (Brown). This essential difficulty has been one of the key problems in establishing a ‘market’ for education: markets depend on information to support 'consumer choice'. The effort to establish reliable information sources for education has led to a plethora of surveys, league tables, and other data including job prospects and salary forecasts which supposedly gives an indication of the ‘quality’ of the experience learners might expect should they choose an institution. The hope is that the choice of an education institution might become like the choice of a technology, where the experiences of others can be easily shared, aggregated and the compared. Education is unlike technology in many ways, however. Most technology serves a specific purpose which is clearly codified in the expectations of users. Consequently performance can be measured against codified expectations. Expectations concerning the function of education are contested and the subjectivity of educational experience remains difficult to codify. In addition, educational institutions differ: elite institutions select their customers on the basis of their academic ability - a distinction which is used to reinforce their status. The further one goes down the ‘status ladder’ of institutions, the less choice students have in selecting an institution irrespective of the amount of information available to them about their likely experiences.

The study of experience belongs to the discipline of phenomenology instigated by Edmund Husserl in reaction to the excessive claims of Comtean positivistic sociology with major contributions including those of Heidegger, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty and Schutz. As Burrell and Morgan note, the interpretivist movement in the late 19th century sought to reframe knowledge of the social sciences through the lens of individual subjectivity, a concern also driving Weber’s methodological individualism and eventually connecting phenomenology with sociology through the work of Schutz.  Phenomenology is limited by the efficacy of its methods, its tendency towards solipsism, and its relationship with the kind of naïve empiricism which it critiques. These limits were evident in the very beginning. Comte’s view that social science should follow the physical sciences in its methods and processes seemed problematic given the that human subjects were not the same as the objects of physics. Experience in the social realm was seen to have a causal bearing on social reality - it was argued that the study of the structure of experience could serve as a study of the nature of society. Husserl argued that the endeavour of sociology is “to transcend the natural attiditude of daily life in order to render it an object for philosophical scrutiny and in order to account for its essential structure.” (Natanson, quoted by Burrell and Morgan, p233)

This chapter explores the way methods of phenomenological analysis relate to issues of experience and the results of application of analysis. Two aspects of phenomenology are considered:

  1. experiences as codified entities whose structure can be explored
  2. experiences as uncodified feelings, sensations, intuitions and emotions

In each case, the fundamental question that is pursued is "How does experience communicate?" In the case of codified objects - Husserl's “object” for philosophical scrutiny as the essences exposed through processes of phenomenological reduction – the way that such objects are themselves the sources of other experiences is examined. Phenomenological method has grown into an industry: the methodological approach of capturing experience and reducing to essences has been boosted by normative practice in the academy. Humean scientific reasoning, which depends on regularities of events sees in the phenomenological method a way of identifying regularities in the patterning of essences of experience. Hardly any PhD in educational technology passes without some reference to experiential data and phenomenology. Grounded theory has become the object of methodological practice. Unfortunately, a lack of critique in these processes can lead to regularities in the application of methods and somewhat contrived regularities in the perception of pattern. In this practice, the privileging of language remains the principle problem. Yet increasingly, learning analytics, automatic topic analysis, and a number of other techniques stand for evidential processes. Essences are encoded through language as the cyphers of meaning behind the speech acts of individuals who are asked about their ‘experiences’. Phenomenological analysis presents cyphers of authentic experience – the method which evidences what people like and what people dislike within the education system. At its worst, phenomenology has become the handmaiden of functionalism: it has become the tool for the production of evidence which has supported the managerialist intervention. Accounting, rationalising, packaging and marketing of experiences is important to the purveyors of educational products. What matters in a commercial educational universe are the experiences of the ‘paying customers’ (students). The tools of phenomenology appear complicit in an atomising of experience and an ignorance of the social dimensions of experience: the experiences of teachers tend not to be measured. The frequent use of surveys in education to assess the ‘experiences’ of students is typical: in the UK, the National Student Survey asks students whether they agree (on a Likert scale) with statements like “Staff have made the subject interesting” or “The course is intellectually stimulating”. Responses are coded, analysed and meaning and 'trends' deduced. 

The experiences produced by codified experiential data - typically in managers and politicians - can fall into the 2nd category of 'uncodified experience' of emotion, intuition and feelings. With the presentation of data concerning experiences in the use of technologies, data graphs are both codified analysis and intervention where the experiential impact is uncodified. How are we to view experiential data given that it is both an indicator of experience, and a source of experience? Experiential data becomes another artefact in the educational universe. This has become more apparent with the rise of learning analytics and rich data analysis of the responses of people to software, curricula, teachers, etc. Following practices devised through the internet in terms of identifying the ‘best product’ and supplying reviews for those products, the capturing of educational experiences is now part of the educational picture, with providers of education taking decisions with regard to how those decisions will be represented in statistics. How are we to consider the uncodified aspects of the experience of data presentations of codified experiences?

The distinction between codified and uncodified experiences has been expressed within Searle's social ontology as the difference between "epistemic objectivity" and "epistemic subjectivity". To say that experiential data is an “artefact” of education is to identify that what Searle calls a ‘status function’ is made about a data analysis: “this is a legitimate and accurate measure of the experience of those who engaged with this lesson/course/software/etc”. Status functions are made about all kinds of educational artefacts from courses to textbooks. Now the very 'status' of data becomes causally significant in addition to the content of the declarations that comprise the experiences that are captured.  This is not to say that experiential data isn’t indicative of experiences. It plays its role in the production of an ‘information economy’ in the market of education (Brown). Yet, status declarations entail power structures, and consequently not all status declarations are equal. Husserlian phenomenology concerns itself with codified experiences (the epistemically objective aspects of experience), whilst the consideration of such objects of experience as sources of uncodified experience, the phenomenology of Heidegger presents an important contrasting route. 

At the heart of the question of codified and uncodifed experience, and the relation between epistemic objectivity and epistemic subjectivity is a fundamental difference between Husserlian and Heideggarian approaches to subjectivity. Husserl's approach is transcendental, and as such positive in terms of its identification of the essences of experiences. For Heidegger, there could be no separation between objects of experience and experiences themselves: there was always an infinite regress of experiences which language and thought struggles through. In contrast to Husserl’s attempt to conceptualise experience, Heidegger attempts to articulate the struggle of conceptualising experience. What concerns him is not the articulation of essences but the constraints within which subjectivity operates. Thinking’s objective is to push against constraints.

Heidegger’s subject and the experience of technology

It is not only tools which constrain being; it is thinking about tools; it is any kind of philosophical reflection about tools. This raises questions which are rarely asked by educational technologists.
1.       What is it "to be" (and indeed, "to learn") in a world of tools?
2.       What is it to be in a world of other people who we care for?

He gives technological constraint a name: he calls it ‘enframing’. Technology is characterised as the “setting-upon that sets upon man”. There is an emerging pessimism about technology (which he saw as inevitably leading to enslavement) leads him towards an increasingly mystical position which seeks refuge in art and poetry: in contrast to 'enframing', Heidegger draws attention to poets who "dwell" in the world, rather than are enframed by it. The problem with this is that it seems that Heidegger sees little hope in the world of everybody else, and that ultimately he feels he wants to retreat into a world of art and poetry. It is on this last point that the critics of Heidegger seized, accusing Heidegger of engaging in the kind of mystical retreat from the world which ultimately leads to the rise of the fascism which Heidegger was himself implicated in. “Heidegger was always a Nazi” accuses Adorno. Adorno complained that the phenomenological project (and its associated existential project) effectively mystified subjectivity: for all Heidegger’s jargon about authenticity, there was a radical gap between the political problems in the world and the way that reasoning about the world was conducted. Into this gap, criticised Adorno, come people who exploit the mystification of experience. Consequently, experiential jargon becomes the handmaiden of "evidence-based policy" and its managerialist champions. It also gives ways way to automatic pictorial representations of reality, without any critique as to what is being examined or looked at. The question of the nature of the subject in education is fundamentally a question about the possibility of naturalism in educational research.

What Heidegger is effective at, however, is in describing the moments of experience of using tools in a way which relates to actual technological experience. His achievement lies in articulating a complex vocabulary for these different moments of experience. He describes how tool usage fades in and fades out of conscious thought: one minute we might be conscious of putting the clutch down in the car, and the next it becomes an automatic exercise. Heidegger believes that these kind of automatic exercises dominate daily experience with technology; it dominates the thoughtlessness with which so many of us move through life: he calls this thoughtlessness ‘falling’. This puts particular emphasis on the moments when those things to which we become accustomed to stop working. At these moments of ‘breakdown’, Heidegger argues, there is a moment of ‘revealing’ in the world, as we are interrupted in falling and have to look around us and consider what to do next. Heidegger’s presents concepts like ‘falling’, ‘ready-to-hand’, ‘present-at-hand’, ‘dasein’: as a way of focusing attention on the specific moments of experience of what it is to be in a world of tools. Educational technologists might ask themselves “what is it to be in a world of computers as we try to learn?” The question seeks after essences, after the nature of things – about the nature of the ontology of the world. 

Heidegger’s radical questioning of subjectivity is a negativising of subjectivity. When Heidegger asks profound questions about the nature of being, the issue concerns the relationship between ‘subjectivity’ and the social. He has been accused of technological determinism because he sees technology as framing being – that the technical bears on the subject in a way where the subject is enclosed by the external technical realm. In inquiry about the nature of Heidegger’s ‘subject’, we can first ask whether subjects are “enclosed” in the world. Other phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty would argue that subjects and the world are entwined – that the constitution of subjectivity is dependent on the world, whilst agency transforms that subjectivity at the same time. Merleau-Ponty’s evocative (and somewhat Catholic) phrase “Flesh of the world” is indicative of the way in which the issue of subjectivity in the light of technology is open to question, and so Heidegger’s concern for the enframing brought about through technology is not as much of a problem as he might think. More recently, the entwining idea has become popular among thinkers who support the concept of ‘socio-materiality’ in the understanding of technology.

Between the positions of Heidegger and Husserl there is a question about whether or how the negative subjectivity of Heidegger’s inner life might rise above the material constraints of technology (and this indeed is one of the features of art) and how it might do this. In other words, how are limits surpassed? This is an educational question: the means by which each of us moves beyond limits is through processes of learning which are almost always dependent on the care of other people in the surpassing of limits and the creation of a deeper engagement with the world. What is the interaction between technologies and the agency of those who aid the process of moving beyond constraints? Behind these we return to questions raised by Husserl: if the agency of other people is important in the moving beyond constraints, how is it we know what to do? How is it that we have some understanding of what holds each of us back? Doesn’t this point to the possibility that there are experiences which we do recognise in each other? If we reject the identification of essences of those experiences as the essential objects of communication, how is it that experience communicates without objects? These abstract questions have very practical and real consequences in the world of educational technology.

The Paradox of Design in Education

All teachers design educational experiences. Design as an activity is directed towards purposes and functions – usually to achieve lesson objectives. The experience of designers and the experience of learners exists in a dynamic relation to processes of design: every act of the designer is a new source of experience; every new experience feeds into acts of design. Knowledge gained from experience and actions which are taken are entwined. When a design manifests itself in a new artefact, that artefact will the source of experiences to those who encounter it. Designs determine the physical form of software, lesson plans, classroom designs, buildings, textbooks: indeed, the material objects of education. Designs – of learning, buildings, textbooks – are processes which manifest in a declaration: “x is a design for y” or even “x is a design for producing y experiences”. But if a design is a declaration about the status of an object, what is the relationship between the experience of creating it and the experience of encountering it? This is a question about the relationship between that element of inner knowledge – the inner world of the person having the experience – what Searle calls “epistemic subjectivity” and the artefact produced at the end of the process about which a declaration is made – what Searle calls “ontological subjectivity”.

Whilst the design of schools, textbooks, building, lessons and curricula seen as an act of making interventions in the experiences of learners, it relates to broader social mechanisms of status of those designers (teachers, ministries of education, governments) and others making the interventions. The successful designer gains reputation as a result of design and implementation. The success of a design may depend not only on the quality of the design but on the social relation of the designer to the learner. If teacher X wants to implement a design because they feel that it is the most effective approach, they make a status declaration “this is the most effective approach” which because of their already established power, they know they can enforce the design. In order to do this, they must have some idea of the experiences of those around them even if their anticipation of the effects of the design on learning experience is accurate or not. The insight from which design proceeds is polyvalent: there is insight into the likely experiences of other people encountering a design (which may amount a personal insight into the designer encountering the design), but there is an insight in the possibility of promoting the design – of making the status declaration in the first place. Social structures surrounding the design process assist in the latter: designs produced through a large-scale funded project will carry greater chance of successful status declaration than an individual’s idea. The European Commission declaring that “X is a tool for Y”, “Z is a project” is different from the individual teacher’s idea. Designs with the backing of major technology corporations like Microsoft carry even more weight. Yet, the weight of the organisation behind the status declaration does not determine the experiences of users.

It is useful to distinguish expectation as a unit for exploration in educational experience. The declaration of something ‘working’ depends on a social process whereby the ‘workingness’ emerges. When examining the experience of learners, there are measurements that can be made which can be interpreted as measurements of expectations. Such data becomes, of course, the subject of experiences in the minds of designers, politicians, etc: they contribute to the weight of ‘evidence’ that leads to a reinforcement of the original status function of the object with the declaration that ‘x works’. But the statement “x works” is a statement about what others might expect. Around these status declarations, there are points of dispute because “x” never works for everyone. However, simple organisational features such as lectures that begin on time, good activities, clear textbooks, transparent marking criteria have an impact on what is conventionally termed ‘learning experience’. Learning experience at the very least relates to the nature of the encounter with the objects of education and in particular an encounter where the expectations of learners are met.
If there is a paradox in designing learning it is that there is a conflict between expectation and experience. Expectations exist at many levels: the designer’s expectations are not the same as the learners. Some expectations are codified, others exist in unarticulated patterns of practice. Things work when there is a coordination of expectations, and indeed, society is replete with codified expectations: money, institutions, textbooks, teachers, government are codified expectations. What Searle calls the ‘ontologically subjective’ is the domain of codified expectations. But the paradox of designing learning rests on the fact that there are expectations which are not codified, but yet can be communicated. Here we can be more specific about the question about how experience communicates: we should ask how uncodified expectations are communicated.

The domain of Searle’s “epistemically subjective” comprises those things which we cannot give voice to: itches, feelings, emotions, intuition, reaction, bodily gestures are all examples of uncodified expectations. Design as a process relies on codification of expectations to produce experiences which has uncodified expectations as a component. The interface between uncodified and codified expectations is the interaction with discourse and the extent to which the “epistemically subjective” can become knowable as “epistemically objective”. Social structures facilitate or block the process: The teacher with inflated expectations concerning the ability of their learners do not teach well, yet the means to change the teacher’s expectation relies on the codification of their learner’s experience and the articulation of a status function in the form of new designs to remedy it. Since the relation of the teacher in relation to the learner is one of power, the possibility of the expectations of an individual having bearing on power is dependent on a social climate which makes privileges the articulation of uncodified expectation. Yet since power is required to make a status declaration, some giving up of power is required so that design might be successful. The European Commission is a powerful organisation which can make status declarations. Yet its power makes considered reflection on expectations difficult. Fear plays a part in the critical exposure of a mismatch in expectations. And since expectations are hard to codify, educational alienation results from educational design.

The relationship between uncodified and codified expectations, the status functions of educational objects (including the objects of experience) and the relationship between the epistemically subjective, epistemically object and the ontologically subjective presents one more mystery. This is the way that the curriculum itself has divided itself into subjects. This too appears to be an aspect of educational design; indeed we continue to create new ‘subjects’ on the curriculum in a social process which aims to match educational qualifications with economic function of individuals.

From Designing Learning to Forms of Knowledge and the question of natural education

Subjects of knowledge are codifications of expectations within education. In the medieval universities, codification of educational practice was established around the basic practices of argumentation which underpinned the method of disputation that derived from Socratic thought. The techniques of disputation were developed to be exercised on the quadrivium: an elemental group of subjects: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. To the extent to which all western educational practice derives from these medieval practices, we might ask to what extent these curricula were designed. Is there something natural about them? On the one hand, to the medieval mind, the philosophical foundations of the curriculum design were entwined with the theological values of the society. On the other, even in the medieval world, the exploration of the phenomena of music and the exploration of the phenomena of astronomy or mathematics must at least have appeared different in nature or appearance. However, the approach was one of illumination where the medieval mind was to schooled in identifying the similarities between things and fundamental concepts. Music and astronomy were linked by the doctrine of the music of the spheres; arithmetic was connected to the nature of the relation between strings; the stars presented geometric patterns, whilst the relation between geometry and number encompassed the differences between mind and body. Medieval education was a process of the discovery of mind through nature; it was fundamentally cosmological.

The question of how the trivium and the quadrivium acquired its structure is not only a question of the nature of subjects. The distinction between phenomena and senses: the sense of sound, the visual phenomena of the environment, the stars, space and logic. Irrespective of social structure norms and experiences, every human being encounters fundamental phenomena in the world, and different people engage with each in different ways. In anthropological and historical evidence in education, deep paradigmatic distinctions between what might be called functionalist inquiry (mathematics, logic, the arts of human coordination and warfare) and interpretivist disciplines (the art of persuasion, and the early exploitation of hermeneutics for the interpretation of biblical texts) together with ethical and aesthetic inquiry. To what extent might we talk of a natural structure of knowledge? How are the practices of education which are codified in the classroom related to the phenomena of life upon which knowledge is founded?

This is the question that Paul Hirst articulated in writing “Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge”. Hirst argues that:
“to acquire knowledge is to become aware of experience as structured, organised and made meaningful in some quite specific way, and the varieties of human knowledge constitute the highly developed forms in which man has found this possible. To acquire knowledge is to learn to see, to experience the world in a way otherwise unknown, and thereby to come to have a mind in a fuller sense”
What does ‘becoming aware of experience as structured, organised and made meaningful in some quite specific way’ mean? What does Hirst mean by experience? Is he talking about the codified experience as it is represented in the educational curriculum? Hirst’s statement might be compared with Newman talking about the intellect:
"The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause."
Newman’s idea of perceiving “in sights and sounds something beyond them” echoes the medieval cosmological view of education and knowledge. Newman similarly talks about order and structure in experience, but his emphasis is on a unity of experience – what he called “universal knowledge”. In Hirst’s statement that “to acquire knowledge is to learn to see, to experience the world in a way otherwise unknown.”, ‘making aware’ means a process of having ones’ expectations transformed.

In becoming transformed by events, bodies are reoriented and expectations are changed. Hirst appears to reify ‘bodies of knowledge’ and equate ‘having a mind’ with having a particular disposition of awareness towards those bodies of knowledge. The ontology of knowledge rests in the particular dynamics of those social structures: the structures of school, teachers, timetables, assessments and so on: in other words, it is practice not content.
Hirst argues that:
"to have a mind basically involves coming to have experience articulated by means of various conceptual schemata."  
Conceptual schemata are codified expectations grounded in particular communities. When Hirst makes the distinction between forms of knowledge and fields of knowledge he attempts to grapple with the content/practice problem. Hirst’s  forms of knowledge are “ideal types” much in the manner of Plato. Knowledge, to Hirst, is a process of ‘becoming aware’ of ideal types.

The fundamental question of Hirst is whether the coordination of expectation forms around conceptual schema, or whether conceptual schema are epiphenomena surrounding the process of coordinating expectations. In the medieval view, expectations grew around fundamental qualia and phenomena of the world, and this contributed to the conceptual schema of the trivium. Hirst’s conceptual schemata in a world of academic subjects which are evidenced by textbooks, webpages, video lectures, teacher training programmes and curricula a Platonic view of ideal types of education is understandable. It is the process of coordinating expectations which can explain the nature of the different structures we have in education may make Hirst complain that there is no way of ‘seeing’ the expectations of somebody. The practices within the maths lesson and the music lesson relate to the expectations of music and maths teachers, the expectations of school authorities and examiners. In this sense, the content of the maths and music lessons including calculators and recorders, forms a sociomaterial context within which expectations can be managed. However, this does not explain the extent to which some individuals choose to focus on one subject or another, to reproduce one form of knowledge over another.

The Communication of Expectations and Experience

This chapter has focused on the problem that whilst it may be possible to codify aspects of experiences through identifying essences, there remain aspects of experience which cannot be codified. In particular there are aspects of experience of the data of experience which are not codified. Yet, experiences appear to be communicated even when they are not codified. How is it that this can be possible? How is it that something which does not have a conceptual schema communicate? This question was addressed by Alfred Schutz in a paper he wrote on how music communicates.  For Schutz, the communicating of experiences like music is indicative of a fundamental “interpersonal subjectivity” in operation: individuals engage in a mutual ‘tuning-in’ to one another. Schutz explains that “the reciprocal sharing of the other's flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together” – for Schutz, it is in this domain of the ‘we’ that communication arises, not in the semantic content of symbols and messages. This is not to say that people have to be together to tune into one another, but it is to say that what happens is a process of tuning in. Mutual tuning-in can help to explain the collective euphoria of mass entertainment like football matches, rock concerts or the theatre.

To talk of education as an experience good means that the we-ness of educational processes has to be engaged in in one way or another. If the question about the communication of experience is a question about the communication of expectations, the answer to ‘how do expectations communicate?’ lies in the nature of meaning and communication not only as it is represented in words, but as it is transmitted in gestures, non-linguistic utterances like laughs, glances, bodily movements, or the general sound of the classroom (one only has to listen to a classroom to know if a lesson is dead or not). Does such an analysis of the way that experience communicates entail a positive or a negative subjectivity? What is the balance to be struck between those aspects of experience which can be identified (in the language that people use) and those aspects of experience which are extra-linguistic? As a negative subjectivity, what must be engaged with are the limits of the subjective: the constraints within which subjects are able to form. Here Heidegger's approach is useful insofar as it is not just technologies that constrain experience - it is other people, and in particular the articulations of experience (whether codified or uncodified) of other people. Experience communicates negatively in the sense that every individual's experience mould's everyone else's.

Having said this, codified expectations have an impact on uncodified expectations. It is through this mechanism that parent can bribe their children to work hard! Money, assessments, curricula, rules of the classroom and timetables are all codified expectations and each is deployed in educational experience as a way of coordinating uncodified experiences. Behind codified expectations lie aspects of routine: the "redundancies" of practice in daily life - the things which each individual thoughtlessly does as part of their being. For Heidegger, this is part of 'falling' and 'throwness' through the world, although redundancy also has an analytical meaning.

In information theory, redundancies are important in framing the successful communication of messages. Redundancies are the "ground" upon which the "figure" of a message is produced. In human interactions each individual has many redundancies concerning their practice and their expectations of what might happen as a result of practice. When people come together in classrooms there are naturally overlaps between the redundancies of expectation concerning the situation that people engage in. When expectations and experiences are codified in the form of timetables, curricula and assessments there is a coordination of the redundant expectations of individuals such that new kinds of overlapping of redundancies are produced. This creates the background against which the 'messages' of the classroom - the topic of the day, the task for the assignment or the assessment criteria ‘stand out’ as the 'messages' (figures) conveyed. 

Analysis of redundancies is possible. Hirst raised the problem of which activities are considered to be 'teaching' and which are not. So, for example, we might ask whether "opening windows" or "sharpening pencils" is part of teaching. What might be said here is that opening windows and sharpening pencils constrains expectations - at least of the teacher, and the students are collective witnesses to the teacher's routine. Awareness of routine as constraint can be focused on simple measures of data: at a very basic and practical level, absences of data in systems like a VLE can be more informative than presences. The reading of the 'routine' of non-engagement will usually prompt teachers to act (i.e. create different kinds of events for the student) in new ways like phoning up the student. If a teacher, when faced with a learner like this discusses “What are you interested in? What do you do most of the time? How do you feel?” then the learner’s opportunity to talk about the things which excite them can lead to a change in orientation.  There are different explanations for the efficacy of this kind of situation. Harré, for example, talks of the differences in “positioning” between people. The asking of such questions are events. The teacher may have an understanding of “what’s missing” – but they can only do this if they have some understanding of their own absences – of their own figure and ground. The utterances that are made are made in this context of mutual understanding of absence and redundancy.

Schutz's idea of 'tuning-in' to each other finds a different kind of expression in Parons's concept of ‘double-contingency’ in communicating process. For Parsons, double-contingency is the process whereby an utterance is made by somebody in the light of the understanding of the effect that their utterance might have on the person they are talking to: double-contingency entails a reflection and modelling of the other person. Luhmann developed Parsons idea into a social theory which privileged communications over individual agency: for Luhmann, agency is oriented towards the maintenance of specific codes of communication, where each of the domains of social life (e.g. economics, education, law, art, love) manifest in particular sets of social expectations. The concept of double-contingency, and Luhmann's theory of social systems presents a powerful explanatory framework for social life which reveals both a communication environment as a constraint on subjectivity, whilst at the same time with its emphasis on codes on communication, embraces a Husserlian transcendental (and positive) phenomenology. However, Luhmann's deflation of agency and individual psychological experience makes assumptions about the constitution about individual psychology to fit with his transpersonal concept of communication. In this sense, Luhmann remains true to the Kantian idea of the 'transcendental subject', except that in place of Kant's categories of understanding, Luhmann supplants an idealised dynamics of communication. This weakness in his theorising throws the spotlight back on the theoretical position from which Husserl and Heidegger's approach to phenomenology began in the first place - in particular the transcendental subjectivity of Kant and its relation to the empiricism of Hume. 

Phenomenology, whether a transcendental activity or an existential one, entails idealisation about people. For all its claims about getting to the essences of experiences, real people, real action, real situations are removed. As we become more immersed in the alliances between phenomenology and functionalism through big data and learning analytics, the removing of concrete experience carries great social risk. Tuning-in to each other happens in the context of real things that happen - whether it is experiences in the classroom, or the presentation of analyses. In particular, the way that data increasingly leads to a codification of 'educational excellence' through league tables and other indicators serves not to deepen insight into educational processes but to drive markets for education by which institutions maintain their viability at the expense of the deeper social function of education. Idealising subjectivity at any stage means blindness to real concerns and concreteness. In such a context, Heidegger's worries about technological enframing seem justified: we risk living through analyses of what computers believe our experiences to be, always blind to those aspects of experience which remain uncodified.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

In Praise of University Technical Colleges?

I'm surprised that Andrew (Lord) Adonis - Labour guru - thinks that functionalist monocultures should be encouraged in education (see It seems he's been taken in by the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) lobby in supporting Kenneth Baker's (who'd have thought it!!) idea for industry and university-led schools (actually, it's Baker's second stab at this since the collapse of City Technology Colleges in the 90s). My own university is embarking on this path. I'll be happy to admit I'm wrong in few years when hundreds of citizens thank their lucky stars that they ever crossed the threshold of a UTC, but UTCs seem to embody a very narrow vision of education. Unfortunately, narrowness is attractive to politicians who on the whole are bad at resisting deterministic narratives from lobby groups who insist There Is No Alternative: it makes politics easier - nothing is less electable than fluffy policy.

The irony is that the simplicity of the monoculture tends to garner support, particularly a functionalist monoculture. UTCs provide opportunities for employers to train workers. The hope is that this does something for the employability of students. Maybe. My university's UTC has a chemist's dispensary built into it. Great! Monday morning at the beginning of September will be thrilling as the kids mix all kinds of potions (with fake tablets of course). By Tuesday it'll be "been there, seen that, what next?" Many designers of UTC pedagogies like innovating in education; but they're not good at thinking ideas through: in the case of things like chemist dispensaries, there is a fundamental problem in confusing a single educational activity (mixing and selling potions) with a coherent scheme of work with meaningful progression, differentiation, context awareness, etc. Weirdly, although we were all young once, few other than well-experienced and talented school teachers understand the dynamics of groups of teenage kids who don't really want to be caged in a classroom (or a chemist's dispensary). Universities on the whole are not known for their understanding of this age group.

Having said all this, particularly the problems of understanding teenagers, somebody has to be given the job of setting up a UTC irrespective of how much experience they have. It's a scary job - there's a lot to go wrong. As with any scary job, there is a balance to be struck between wanting to be seen to be competent and knowledgeable on the one hand, and admitting inexperience and requesting help on the other. The functionalism of the UTC philosophy will suit the unfortunate architect of the UTC because it's relatively simple: get some employers involved, say you're doing real stuff for the real world and that kids will get jobs as a result. Easy. Depending on the circumstances of the way in which a school is established, the fear and pressure can create conditions where ill-informed judgements are made: simple solutions to educational problems will always be attractive to the fearful, irrespective of their consequences. The problem in education is that everyone (including, one wonders, education ministers) thinks its easy: it's probably because nobody dies (on the whole). To underline the point of education being regarded as 'easy', one would only have to look at this: They wouldn't think this of brain surgery, would they!

The deep problem with UTCs though is not the monoculture (where do the kids do music, play tennis, act in plays or pray?) It's the functionalism of the whole thing. It's the deterministic and behaviouristic approach that says our future economy will be driven by people with 'skills' that have been drummed into them whether they liked it or not as employers pick their favourites to work in their factories, offices and shops (what about the ones left behind?) This is complete bollocks. What theory of education says that this is a good way to proceed, that it will produce what the politicians say they want - that it will create confident, creative and resourceful citizens? Or that it will solve problems of social mobility?

It leaves me (angrily) asking What is the alternative?  The Trades Union education programmes were important in industrial Britain ( Following Thatcher, a lot of this disappeared. I'm surprised Adonis isn't thinking more about this kind of thing. They did more for social mobility than any University has ever done; many working class members of parliament from both sides of the house owe their position to the unions. The unique thing about the Union education programmes was that it balanced functionalist requirements with a critical perspective. It was political education. There's an interesting sentence near the end of the union history doc (above):
"The Tories paid closer control to the content of publically funded courses and materials, to ensure they were free of 'bias'" 
In other words, the Tories tried to kill it by ensuring it was no longer political! Freire knew that the roots of learning were in overcoming oppression, in surmounting fear. We need schools that are political and critical, not functionalist. Then we might get what the government is looking for.

I would never expect a Tory government to take this proposition seriously - although one might always be surprised: Dominic Cummings (Gove's former adviser) is clearly thinking very deeply about education - I wonder where his journey will take him... see His approach currently is still much within the functionalist domain of his former boss - but the cybernetic seeds are there for what might be something different.

I would expect a senior Labour figure to consider the importance of critical education.

Monday 18 August 2014

Fear in #Ferguson, Hysteresis Hysteria and Education

The concept of limit has no better expression than what is happening in Ferguson at the moment. Something seems to have snapped - and the results are frightening. We watch aghast in seeing robotic police officers treating people in ways which only signal their own fear, and the response of protesters reeling at the inhumanity of the robotic response and fearful of where it might lead: who wouldn't be on the streets in standing against such oppression? Curiously, my wife and I encountered our own instance of police roboticism in Manchester at the weekend whilst chatting to a Gaza protester outside a store which was selling Israeli beauty products. During our chat (which ranged from the situation in the Middle East to issues of integrating Romanian immigrants), a burly policeman forcefully tried to move what he called "protesters" elsewhere. We explained we were just having a chat - to no avail: the same kind of stony face, robotic gestures - basically fearfulness. It naturally provoked an angry reaction. My guess is he had been told to move us; if he failed, he would be in trouble. His fear was for his own job: the response to these kind of structural constraints is a kind of anaesthesia and mindless determination to achieve those goals which you believe are essential to maintain your own well-being.  It's probably the same in Ferguson. Fear is structural. The question concerns the composition of the structure.

This is where I think limit really matters. Fear exists at a limit: each person's limit is connected to everyone elses's limit. The individual police officer is subject to the limits of fear of their superior, and on it goes. We fear moving beyond limits because beyond a limit, the world is irrecoverably different: humans have what engineers call 'hysteresis' - where one might stretch a spring to a certain point and it will always return to its original form; but stretch it beyond its limit, it will never return to its original form. The individual police officer could tell their superior to 'get stuffed' - but then their world is irrecoverably changed (although this might be an important moment for them). When things reach a crisis point, people become more ready to move beyond limits. Education's job is to move human beings beyond limits: it is to overcome fear of operating within one set of limits, and to embrace new worlds which result. The business of teaching is partly to induce a kind of mini-crisis which encourages movement.

I think what is happening in Ferguson is the result of educational failure. Education has become rather like Veblen's assessment of the peace treaty at Versaille: a way of continuing (class) hostilities without killing anyone. This creates prisoners, and last week, one prisoner (a police officer) killed another. In the Middle East it is of course much worse - although we find that less surprising because we all know (and shockingly accept) that Gaza is an open prison (it's now looking like Abu Ghraib)

Education is about giving, not taking: it is the principal means whereby society supports its citizens in looking after each other and helping them to grow and to know one another better. Only the limit of fear can stop that happening. Our society might fear that it cannot afford it. It ought to be more worried that it cannot afford not to do it. 

Friday 15 August 2014

Meillassoux's Challenge to Critical Realist Natural Necessity

Among the younger philosophers who loosely became associated with the term "speculative realism" (although many disown the association) Quentin Meillassoux is the most impressive. Closely allied to the work of Alain Badiou, who is something of a father figure lurking in the background of the directions of travel of speculative realism, Meillassoux wrote an important book called "Apres la Finitude" in 2006 (English translation, "After Finitude", 2009).  It's a difficult short book which I've been poring over for some months now - and only slowing coming to an understanding of. Philosophy is like this! It is fascinating to me how intuition is often the only guide to persevering with text that on first appearance seems intractable. Where does the intuition come from? It's really quite mysterious.

The issue of the mystery of intuition isn't beyond the scope of Meillassoux's topic - although not central to it -  it is clearly important territory for Badiou - but I'll write about that some other time. Meillassoux takes on the issue of 'natural necessity' - the attitude to which is one of the principal areas of dispute in the philosophy of science - particularly in the philosophies of Hume and Kant. It is also the fundamental point upon which Critical Realist philosophy reacts to Hume and turns back towards Aristotle.

To briefly summarise the Critical Realist attitude, it is that Hume's scepticism about causality which demanded that causes must be human constructs in the light of regular successions of events can't be right. The reason why it can't be right is that causal laws discovered by science apply in situations which are beyond the confines of closed-system experiments, and so this suggests that those laws are not entirely human constructs, but real operational things - Bhaskar calls them mechanisms - actually at work in the world which have been discovered. Bhaskar uses a transcendental argument - rather like Kant's approach to subjectivity - to argue for an ontology of causal mechanisms: those mechanisms that must exist independently of human agency (intransitive mechanisms) and those mechanisms which must exist through human agency (transitive mechanisms). I think it's interesting to note that this transcendental move is rather similar to Kant's move, except to say that Kant transcendentalises the subject in the form of categories rather than transcendentalising the world.

Meillassoux's position runs counter to critical realism and is more closely associated with Hume's original insight that there can be no necessary laws of nature. However, Meillassoux, like Bhaskar, is aware of the problem of closed system experiments - which he refers to as the 'problem of ancestrality' (ancestrality refers to how we reason about the evidence we are surrounded by of the world before there were humans in it - fossil records, geology, etc) but takes this as a philosophical problem which demands a solution that is in keeping with the proposition that there are no necessary laws of nature.

Meillassoux considers the proposition that if there is no natural necessity, then the laws of nature could theoretically change all the time. How come they don't appear to? He starts by arguing that the Hume argument can be interpreted as a probabilistic argument: The determination of causes rests on a probabilistic judgement about probable events - so it is unlikely that light will suddenly turn round corners - which in turn, argues Meillassoux, rests on a presupposition that the totality of possibilities about the behaviour of light might be known, and its probable behaviour calculated. I recently argued at the conference on Ontology of Organisations that Hume's argument looked rather like a theory of 'redundant expectations' - which I guess is amounting the same kind of thing - so I'm with Meillassoux on this.

Meillassoux then argues against the possibility of grasping the totality of possibilities. In an argument drawing on Badiou's thinking about "multiples", and particularly Badiou's use of Zermelo-Fraenko set theory (which conceptualises the 'unencompassable pluralization of infinite quantities') and Cantor's diagonal argument about orders of infinity, Meillassoux presents the 'non-totalizability' of possibilities as a key foundation for thinking about causation. This is interesting because, from dealing with the same problem as Critical Realism, it articulates a solution which is effectively in the opposite direction to the natural necessity argument of Bhaskar. Meillassoux pinpoints a contradiction in Critical Realism's position (without identifying CR). He says:
"although we have not positively demonstrated that the possible is untotalizable, we have identified an alternative between two options - viz, the possible either does or does not constitute a totality - with regard to which we have every reason to opt for the second - every reason, since it is precisely the second option that allows us to follow what reason indicates - viz, that there is no necessity to physical laws - without wasting further energy trying to resolve the enigmas inherent in the first option. For whoever totalizes the possible legitimates the frequential [probabilistic] implication, and thereby the source of the belief in real necessity, the reason for which no-one will ever be able to understand - thus, whoever does so must maintain both that physical laws are necessary and that no one can know why it is these laws, rather than others which necessarily exist"

Meillassoux's criticism of those who uphold natural necessity is basically that that it leaves the door open to woolly metaphysical arm-waving about the nature of the world. In response to questions like "Where do we come from?", "Why do we exist?" he points out that philosophers will generally "find the easiest way to shrug their shoulders" and find a way of arguing that the question is somehow flawed. For critical realists, the answer to such questions has always been along the lines of 'social emancipation', and the dovetailing of political arguments with a materialist upholding of natural necessity is perhaps the most significant aspect of Bhaskar's work. Meillassoux (and Badiou) reach a similar point. However, in place of Bhaskar's somewhat dogmatic assertions of "the real", "properties", "tendencies", etc (often using the language of Marxism), Meillassoux (and Badiou) use apriori mathematical reasoning. Bhaskar might accuse them of "ontological monovalence" (at least Alan Norrie has done this in his "Dialectic and Difference") - but I think this criticism doesn't really stand given the richness and depth of the work: indeed, Meillassoux and Badiou are fundamentally polyvalent in their thinking, and themselves complain (effectively) of what is effectively "monovalence" in the work of Deleuze and Foucault.

The tendency towards dogmatism in Critical Realism is its real weakness. It exists partly because of a failure for it to effectively address theory-practice gaps. Despite inspiring better methodological approaches in the social sciences (like Realistic Evaluation), there is still something missing. Of course, Realistic Evaluation is more sensible than Grounded theory (which is remarkably ungrounded in my opinion!), but it does not seem  to have ushered in a more naturalistic social science, nor does it show any signs that it might. The lack of a naturalistic social science from critical realism is due, I think, to a fundamental mystification that surrounds the description of natural necessity in CR. If we can deal with that mystification - as Meillassoux attempts - then coordinated approaches to closing theory-practice gaps become something perhaps a bit more realistic. 

Tuesday 12 August 2014

EdTech, Oughts and Crosses

I'm currently writing a book about EdTech called (at the moment) "Education and Information". It exists in fairly richly-sketched chapters at the moment, which I'm gradually bringing to the point where I'm happy enough to open it up to other people. So - what the hell - I'll bung it on my blog! What follows is still sketchy (not least, lacking references) - but hopefully slightly readable....

EdTech is a discourse of advocacy of social change through technological transformation of education. In common with much educational discourse, EdTech is replete with 'oughts', and consequently is always vulnerable to the critique of those positivist ethicists who argue that is and ought are radically separable. I find this interesting because whilst he is credited with originating the doctrine of the is-ought gap, David Hume in introducing the problem of deriving an ought from an is, really presents a critique of ethical thinking which is particularly pertinent to educational thinking and to EdTech. Hume doesn't say whether getting to ought from is is possible or not: Smith argues in “What is a Person?” that the attribution of the is-ought gap to Hume is due to the misreading of him by the logical positivists who came long after and had their own agenda). In fact, Hume’s critique amounts to a complaint about the ‘paradigm switching’ involved in making ethical arguments.

Hume says:
“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason”
In Burrell and Morgan’s terminology, Hume is indicating a paradigm-switch between a functionalist viewpoint and a critical one.

Edcational ‘oughts’ start with Plato “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”, or (rather similarly) Comenius, “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”. The perennial problem in education is to determine the reasoning behind these statements in a way which articulates something deeper about the nature of the society wherein such statements need not be made. Behind every such statement of ‘moral guidance’ in education is a fear about the consequences in the society should that guidance be ignored. The deep issue is to articulate the relationship between interventions – whether in the form of technologies in education, or in the form of ethical advice of Plato or Comenius and the intended social change which is envisaged. To get to grips with this, we have to begin with an account of what we understand by ‘social change’ in the first place before considering how the paradigm-switching of the “arguments of advocacy” found in the EdTech literature as well in ancient guidance on education, relates to the transformation of social structures.

Technological Advocacy, Education and Social Change

In understanding social change and technology, it is useful to start with a description of the different conditions under which social structures are transformed. In his study “What is a Person?”, Christian Smith identified a number of conditions for changes to social structures. His list is:
·       "Social change occurs when new relationships between different groups are initiated and when old relationships are weakened or terminated."
·       "Social change occurs when the categories of understanding of prevailing social structures change. For example, social structures change when people no longer think in terms of “lords, peasants and knights and imagine life instead in terms of burghers, citizens, traders and entrepreneurs”"
·       "Social structures change when sustaining material resources are significantly reduced (and sometimes when then are increased). Political structures, in particular, become vulnerable with a reduction in material resources."
·       "Social structures change when material objects that instantiate and express social structures (like, for example, church buildings, pubs or post-offices) fall into disrepair or become irrelevant."
·       "Social structures change in response to changes in moral and normative beliefs in the practices, procedures, rules and laws those belies underwrite."
·       "Social structures change when enough of their participants simply – for whatever reason –    stop sanctioning noncompliance, deviance and rebellion."
·       "Social structures change when new or newly mobilized systems of communication decrease the intractability of coordinated interactions."
·       "Social structures change as a result of disruptions of normal reiterated body practices and collective activity patterns… The doing by some people of unexpected things with their bodies can exert significant causal forces of social structural change."

In each example of social changes that Smith provides, both education and technology are implicated. There appears to be some ground for asking whether, in terms of ‘engines for social change’ technology and education are inseparable, or even equivalent. New relationships, for example, are fostered by education and by communications technologies. Education teaches categories of understanding and creates the conditions for critique and debate, whilst technologies undermine existing categories and cause new ones to be invented. Technologies form a fundamental part of the material resources around which society organises itself (and of which education inculcates usage), and technologies as well as ideas undermine existing material structures. In terms of moral categories, education again creates a space for debate, but the forces that challenge and drive the debate are more often than not technological in important aspects. And the ritualised, iterated body practices (the kind of thing that Randall Collins has recently written about) adapt around emerging tech-cultures and practices – which education is so often slow to pick up on.

However, education employs technology to achieve its ends and technologies demand knowledge and understanding which is deemed to be the domain of education. Perhaps more importantly the practices of education are determined by political policy (in a democracy, mandated by popular vote), whereas (as Ulrich Beck has argued) technological development pursues an internal logic related to rationalism, historicism and determinism: “Technological change is legitimated social change without political legitimation”. The fundamental issue which is exposed by asking whether technology and education are the same is one the political determination of society. To ask questions about technology or education is to ask questions about how we live and the society we might want to live in.

Neither education nor technology presents absolute categories for inspection. Only education, it seems however, really presents itself as a political category; technology pursues its own internal logic largely without political debate – and when technology ‘troubles’ society (in matters, for example, of censorship) the emerging debate is fought on a kind of Platonic educational platform rather than one explicitly technological (rather like Plato insisting on the goodness of particular kinds of music). Personal judgement, individual history and experience of education, political preferences and aesthetic disposition all play a role in determining one individual’s position regarding education. Each individual demarcates the limits of what they deem admissible within the category of education (just as they might demarcate what they think is admissible as art). Each proposal for educational development (including those which involve technology) are framed by limits which have their ontogeny in personal histories, and which are rarely explicitly stated. Every limit of understanding education is ultimately vulnerable to critique and challenge. Every discipline establishes limits of its understanding of education. The education ‘debate’ suffers from an inability to express clearly the limits of those who make a claim to determine its future.

Paradigms of Thought

Burrell and Morgan’s situating of the 19th and 20th century sociological tradition within four paradigms is useful when thinking about the framing of educational thought. They made a distinction between the subjective and the objective, and between the sociology of regulation and the sociology of ‘radical change’ situating mainstream intellectual efforts across the spectrum: Interpretive (phenomenological), Radical Humanist, radical structuralist (constructivist) and Functionalist is thus presented within four ‘paradigms’ of sociological thought which Burrell and Morgan argue have been applied in various ways to organisational analysis. Although much discussed and critiqued, the paradigm idea finds resonance with other authors. Notably, Badiou has presented his analysis of Western philosophy as a related tripartite division of Marxism, phenomenology/existentialism and Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy. In considering paradigms as a way of examining limits of thought in education and technology, I do not intend to reinforce the idea of concrete discursive ‘schools’ – which, after all, says rather more about sociological discourse than it does about the way people think about concrete problems like education. Rather, I’m going to suggest that the paradigm view is at least helpful in marking out the way individuals work with their limits of understanding of education, making arguments for educational reform or technological innovation. 

The multi-perspectival nature of education means that there is ample opportunity for jumping out of one paradigm into another. Educational practice are inseparable from the political context institutions, the socio-economic context of societies and the experiential aspects of individuals and their personal histories. No aspect of education exists independently of any other. However much one might consider an academic problem from the focused critique of one paradigm or another, the political context of the academy frequently interrupts. Yet it is not unusual to find scholars creating a radical separation between their work, their professional position and status and their personal experience. Sometime the interruptions cannot be ignored: when the department is closed for lack of students or funding, or when scholars find themselves in ideological battles with colleagues which owe rather more to personal histories and experiences than to reasoned debate. The difficulties and (sometimes) disinterest of students too can present to scholars issues which lie outside their discipline, but which are inescapably entwined with it. Rarely do scholars make the connections between the disconnects between their discursive practice and their practice as teachers. Perhaps the greatest evidence for this is the fact that few serious scholars have taken the disruptions of technology or managerialism within their institutions as challenges to their own discursive practice.

EdTech itself has suffered something of a fall from grace in recent times. Once responsible for encouraging people to engage in new ways with the issues of teaching and learning supported by technology and generous government funding, after results that were less than what had been promised, the funding was stopped. The academic discursive practices which had been focused on learning and technology suddenly were faced with thinking about politics and funding. The components of this mix of feelings and experiences are experiential and individual (worries about the future, crisis of professional identity), critical concerns and objections to the direction being taken, and analytical both in terms of the creation of new coping strategies and in the proposal of new strategies for coping with the situation. Yet each dimension is interconnected.

Different paradigms can be identified by their champions. Who would be most concerned for the powerless teacher being manipulated by politicians than Karl Marx? The Critical Theory which grew from Marx’s ideas is responsive to broader social objectives, questions about political power and the entailments of policy. Beyond Marx himself, the Critical tradition includes such figures as Marcuse, Fromm, Adorno, and Freire. Who would be most concerned with the inner life of teachers and learners in their struggles with the situation of education? Experiential thinking belongs to a philosophical tradition beginning with Brentano, Freud, Schutz and Husserl which exposes a mode of thinking which is deeply reflective. Experiential thinking is a deep inquiry into epistemological issues of learning, and its origins may be traced to the epistemological work of Kant (sometimes referred to as ‘correlationism’), but more recently it refers to the work of people like Piaget and Vygotsky (although Vygotsky identifies most strongly with a critical Marxist perspective). Who would be most concerned for the identification of solutions to the problems of education, even solutions to the struggles of teachers and learners to adapt to policy? The kind of solution-seeking which might have inspired political interference in the first place belongs to behaviourist psychologists, sociologists who assert the conditioning power of institutions over individuals (Durkheim for example), or large-scale social systems thinkers such as Talcott Parsons or Niklass Luhmann. 

In the experience of anyone involved in education, there exists a basic relationship between a person and a problem identified through the making of distinctions. It is this distinction-making process which I will characterise as the identification of a ‘limit’. The multi-perspectival nature of education means that most situations present conflicting limits. It is because of the conflict between limit descriptions from different perspectives that rather than state limits explicitly, they tend to be approached from a variety of different perspectives.

The limits of Functionalism

There is no better illustration of the concept of a limit that in thinking about functionalism, from those who might identify with its methods and ambitions, and those who might oppose them. There are limits on both sides and these limits so often demarcate the battle lines of political and economic argument grounded in vastly different individual experiences. This particular limit is already drawn within the school curriculum from early childhood. Most broadly, it is the limit that is experienced between the sciences and the humanities. It is the limit that exists between the maths lesson and the music lesson. It exists between approaches to assessment from the exam to the inquiry-based project. The contemporary dominance of functionalism denotes the limits that define the reaction against it. The limits of functionalism and the limits of those who oppose it are defined by the winners and losers at the hands of functionalism. In contemporary management, functionalism tends to get lumped together with managerialism. It is functionalism which is responsible for targets, performance metrics, greed, capitalism, and so on. But from our perspective here, these are just ordinary people dealing with the problems that life throws at them in a way which they believe to be sensible.

Functionalism tends to be demarcated by a pragmatic approach which privileges rational description which is easily codified and communicated, and which by necessity, tends to wash over rich details of particulars in favour of broad abstract descriptions of universals. Much technological development has a tendency towards functionalism. Educational technology in particular has been framed by the regulative and pragmatic mindset of the functionalist perspective. However, functionalism is not a necessary condition for technical development: complex technological developments can be seen in the design and production of artefacts which do not appear to have teleological significance in the same way as much educational technology - musical instruments are an excellent example, whose purpose lies beyond the performance of a ‘function’. Pragmatism comes at a cost: functionalism is often driven by impatience with the nebulous, and a preference for the concrete. It tends to exclude more than it includes. The limits of functionalism are the limits of the actual.

Functionalism dominates thinking about education as ‘instrumental’ for economic gain: it can be seen as largely responsible for the current trend towards the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) agenda in primary school. The limits of functionalism are not only the result of cultural conditioning: the distinction between functionalism and its opponents reproduce themselves across different cultures throughout history. The limit between functionalism and its opponents is indeed inscribed in educational culture, yet this culture reflects something deeper within human ontogeny.

Functionalism’s prowess rests in a capacity to coordinate human action with teleology. The power of scientific advance rests on the creation of explanations around which society can be ordered. Here Burrell and Morgan’s paradigms may be compared with Kuhn’s paradigms. Functionalism displays a particular relation between logic and reality whereby individuals with sufficient mastery of analytical skill and social judgement could find themselves coordinating armies, institutions and nations. The limits of functionalism rest at the limit of the power relations between individuals caught up in this dynamic. Human coordination and goal-directedness may be clearly articulated, and even when there are differences of opinion as to whether they are good goals or not, the power of the arguments may still carry along a coalition of interested parties, not all of whom may agree to the fine detail of what is latent behind the scenes. Analytical propositions depend on pure reason for their articulation, even when aspect of the reasoned argument are not as strong as they might appear to be. Even within the social sciences, the impact of the computer in so-called qualitative research suggests here too that functionalism’s basic premises dominate. Within social theories which are themselves careful to avoid determinism nevertheless embrace teleology as a fundamental mechanism of human self-organisation.

The functionalist view is a product of enlightenment thought. Hume’s theory of causation, around which enlightenment proceeded, turned the scientific world upside-down. The technological world predetermines thinking about goals and teleology which is not eternal. Functionalism’s limit is, to a large extent, a limit that is applied to rationalism. Yet, even for the super-rational Greeks, functionalist ideas would only account for part of intellectual life: rationality co-existed with the irrational regime of ritual and the divine madnesses of the muses. Some commentators argue that the rationality of modernity is in fact a reaction to the archaic roots of civilisation – for Bataille, it is deeply linked to the taboo; for Veblen (who thinks similarly) it is related to the archaic ritualistic roots of society.

Functionalism’s ambitions to impose its limits on the way that education is conducted are everywhere and typify many attempts to intervene with technology in education. Examples of reasoned argument in the application of technology to education have traversed a landscape of approaches ranging from talk of the ‘arrangement of services’, interoperability ,artificial intelligence and other the semantic web which have demanded a technico-rational approach. It is clear that certain types of people are attracted to these formulations. One of the basic characteristics of engagement at this technical level is a lack of critique of ontological foundations for a proposal: practical and operational challenges take precedence and rather than articulate deeper rationale for technical interventions, and intellectual endeavour is targeted toward the production of a ‘functional specification’. Processes of functional decomposition are also processes of social atomisation. The rationale seeks to maximise organisation of resources, and to fund efforts to design and build solutions to technical problems, whether they be problems of interoperability, or problems of resource management at scale. These advantages are significant and distinguish analytical approaches as being often genuinely collaborate, as opposed to critical or phenomenological approaches which tend to locate themselves around ‘key thinkers’.

The limits of Marxist Critique

Functionalism exists as an entity largely because it is named by its critics. The critics of functionalism see it from the perspective of their own limits: indeed, the limits of the functionalist are determined by other people. But the limit boundary that determines the marker between those who operate to benefit from technology and those who are subject to technology and the inequalities which that can bring introduces new limits. The limits of Marxist critique rests in the blindness to idealism but from a different perspective and to the broader understanding of the efficacy of critique and its coordinating power.

The Marxist sees the problems of education as fundamentally social, not psychological. Yet, in so doing, the Marxist runs the risk of a kind of social idealism. For Popper, the Marxist discourse is one where the emphasis on materiality and social progress and the idea of progress ultimately (like functionalism itself) admits no real people. The dangers of not admitting real people is that a disconnect between rhetoric and reality can set in, whereby emancipation is talked about, but the realisation of any plan results in oppression. As with many kinds of opposition, the Marxist paradigm’s opposition to functionalism often presents two perspectives on the same limit.  When faced with the managerialist’s diktats, technologies and performance indicators, the Marxist can only be challenged to say “what would you do?” – only for a different set of technologies, diktats and protocols to be suggested in their place. Alternatively, the Marxist might throw their hands up and say that “nothing is possible as long as we are in capitalism”.

Critical and Marxist thinking can be analytical in different ways from the functionalist. Whilst the managerial ‘guruism’ of the functionalist is avoided, a kind of ‘critical guruism’ can take its place. The nature of limits means that each critical perspective is framed by those things around it to which it reacts to. A good example of this is the application of critical thinking to the educational system itself, and the recommendations for things which might be done to it. Within the critical tradition there are many great educational thinkers including Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Augusto Boal and Ira Shoh. In each case, there is a carefully articulated critique about the ‘nature of education’ and an argument about how education should change. For Illich, education is a pathological enterprise whose relation to society as a ‘component’ should be overturned, where education should be seen as intergral to the conduct of social life. Friere’s position is similar, although more practical. His ontology begins with the challenges of social life and the ways in which real political challenges can be leveraged for pedagogical benefit. The relationship between learning and emotion is highlighted. Other thinkers of the Left including Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein highlight the enculturation effects that education has on students and social systems in general. Their position rests on a critique of the role of social class (Bourdieu) or language (Bernstein) in the emergence of educational structures in society. More recently, deeper ontological critiques have emerged, citing Critical Realism, Speculative Realism and other forms of ontological inquiry as a basis for rethinking the relationship between schools, colleges and universities and the societies they operate within.

The limits of phenomenology and Existentialism

The pursuit of both sociologically-oriented idealism and functionalist idealism and its real consequences becomes the focus for the identifying a different set of limits concerned with inspecting feelings, reactions, intentions, and experiences.  The nature of subjectivity, experience is a fundamental part of any ontological investigation. Here, the phenomenologist’s limit is to skirt with solipsism: it is to say “what else  beyond experience is there?” This is turn can lead to a failure to recognise those things which are shared, those things where the political and social relate to the phenomenological.

Some sociologists schooled in phenomenology were keenly aware of this problem. Alfred Schutz, whose career was dedicated to the exploration of the gap between what he believed to be the profound insights of Husserl, also felt that the social was absent from Husserl’s account. He intended to bridge this gap with an account of experience which was grounded in the sociology of Max Weber. Theories of both Piaget and Vygotsky highlight the processes of cognitive adaptation to stimulus where even the cognition of the environment is dependent on such processes. Given that the can be such scepticism about the nature of reality, how is such a reality knowable? The solipsistic limit of phenomenology is evidenced in the radical constructivism of Ernst Von Glasersfeld.

The most significant influence of phenomenology has been on educational research methodology. Whilst functionalism has been supported the making of interventions, and Marxist critique has generally sought to oppose functionalist hubris, phenomenological inquiry has steered a methodological programme of attempting to map practical intervention with experiential “evidence”. A programme of phenomenological inquiry where multiple perspectives which are necessarily individual are sought and a process of coordination between those perspective is entered into in the hope of agreeing local norms and conditions, with knowledge claims strictly limited to the observing groups. Over many years, methodological inquiries have been conducted along these lines, with new methods like Grounded theory becoming very popular in the identification and coordination of different perspectives and analysis. Such measures have also had an effect in the domain of management, where soft system analysis similarly has sought to articulate different points of view. Yet phenomenology has survived on the back of its exploitation by functionalists: evidence-based policy really becoming policy-based evidence. It is the methodological application of phenomenology where the analytical approach holds. Methodologies like grounded theory see experience as a scientific object with genera and species identified through processes of phenomenological ‘bracketing’. 

The interaction of Limits

When limits move, social structures change. Smith’s articulation of changes to social structure are another way of discussing the way that the limits of individuals may change. Through political pressure, or through technological development, or through changes in fashion and social norms, what was once seen as a barrier between acceptability and fear moves. The shifting of limits provides a way of accounting for social change over time. The reproduction and transformation of social structure through agency is a reconfiguration of social order such that the limits of different agents and their relations with one another are transformed. In an academic career, one may start as a phenomenologist (expressing one set of obligations and commitments to a group) and end up a Marxist (expressing a different set of commitments to a different group). However, within a confusing discourse, limits are experienced from different perspectives without really knowing from which perspective knowledge comes.

It is easy to characterise this process in an abstract way: limits expose the identity of the individual: their enthusiasms, passions, identity and fears. These in turn reflect the relations between people: obligations, commitments, rights. Perhaps rather, it is the encounter with the limits of an individual that others discover them. What is apparent in print is very different from what is apparent in person; the dynamics of text-based exchanges are very different from the dynamics of face-to-face exchange. Those paradigms and limits so far discussed relate to aspects of thinking as it is represented in academic thinking; they are precisely the limits of the abstract: the Marxist vs the phenomenologist. Fears and enthusiasms are at the root of where these limits lie. The academic whose reputation has been established through a particular paradigmatic viewpoint, who sees professional fear in themselves being shifted from that viewpoint to another. But this is not simply a matter of the limit of discourse, or the limit of a set of ideas or a perspective. Something in the academic psyche led them to the point that they felt comfortable with a particular way of looking at things: something which probably has its roots in childhood led them to this point. The point here is that limits are not just established through the interaction of discursive paradigms: they are the product of personal histories – of patterns of engaging with the world.

The means of expressing oneself, the means by which limits are revealed are largely technological. The playing with the channels of communication, the means and organisation of communication pokes and provokes limits in ways which challenge existing limits: both education and technology exist in the in-between domain – where the experience of them subtly move limits whilst challenging the individual to assert their position with regard to it. Technologies are at the heart of this. When we talk about education and technology in education, we are not talking about defined discourse: they are invitations to ways of thinking which expose the gamut of individual limits.

The academic journey may well take one from functionalism to Marxism as a limit boundary becomes more clearly articulated from a different paradigm. Limits have much more to do with personal identities: they are exposed variously through advocacy or defence. In matters to do with education and technology, declarations of elevated status of new tools or procedures are made. In recent years, new objects and processes have been elevated in this way by various powerful groups: Virtual Learning Environments, Learning Outcomes, Student loans, CATS points, Competencies, E-portfolios, and so on. It is not long before some of these new declarations are accepted, or begrudged by the educational establishment. However, at their inception, any declaration of status will meet opposition to the functionalism – that limit which identifies in technologies solutions to problems which are themselves viewed through the lens of functionalism (and which are themselves often the product of technologies) – which is established through discourse and the rational support of the efficacy of artefacts. Critique and opposition to any functionalist position is met with counter-critical arguments. For example, in countering arguments about instrumentalising education through Virtual Learning Environments, counter-critical arguments point at the inadequacies of the status-quo, mobilising critical arguments in defence of a functionalist one. Behind the attempt to find evidence to support a functionalist overview, or the drive to ‘solve’ an issue, defending itself against critique, lies personal experience itself, together with phenomenologically-grounded descriptions of the defence of that experience. Limits are approached from different sides of an argument: power and technology all play their part in the process of establishing a new tool or practice.

This is inseparable from the individual’s limit: the managerialist’s confidence in logical solutions, the technologist’s euphoria over a new kind of technology; the critic’s passionate striving for the ‘good society’, the phenomenological quest for rational insight into the workings of the mind. Education involves many people with many kinds of limits. Each has some understanding of the others’ limits. Each tunes into the other to defend their own position. Certain positions belonging to functionalism appear to hold sway: the economic necessities of education, the gaining of higher learning, and so on. The status of procedures and pedagogies appears to take second place to the status of objects and software: those things which can be easily pointed to and people mobilised around. When particular procedures and protocols are then used as a vehicle to make new kinds of status declaration, from a variety of perspectives, then this creates the conditions for the guru.

Technology, Education and the Traversal of Limits

To talk about the traversal of limits is to talk about the conditions for social change. Material changes, political challenge, changes to individual relationships and profound artistic and emotional experiences can each be a motivation for travelling across or moving limits. Returning to Smith’s description of the conditions for social change, in each instance it is possible to redescribe the conditions in terms of the limits of individuals, with those limits resulting from particular configurations of social structure. For example, the difference between old and new relationships occurs as the constraints which held communication practices with a particular social group (and away from another) weaken. Many narratives around the integration of previously ostracised social groups could be used to support this. Where were the limits which once caused racial segregation, or excluded women from political processes? Something, over time, happens to the feelings of individuals who at one point would see a clear boundary between acceptable and unacceptable social engagement, and at a later point in time, that particular boundary appears to have disappeared (or moved). Of course, ‘categories of understanding’ are part of this process (Smith’s second point).That might lead to the conclusion that discourse is, fundamentally, at the root of the construction of limit. Yet discourse configures itself around the expectations of individuals, and expectations themselves will be formed against the backdrop of limits. Expectations too can help understand the impact of material factors in the ways that individuals experience limit. The impact of material scarcity on the perception has powers of limitation which extend beyond those limits imposed or structured around a discourse: material limits are ostensively defined and codified in discourse, and material limits of food or shelter evoke immediate and primeval responses which are limited by biological structures. Similarly, the vestiges of what was once a material limit, but which no longer counts as such, becomes a different kind of limit inspiring other kinds of discourse – particularly those forms of narrative which account for historical change and social progress. The limits of morality clearly shift – witness the transformation in attitudes to sex in the West. Limits appear related to normativity is indicated by mass movements of protest, and there is little doubt that normativity includes new practices with technologies – particularly the new forms of communication ushered in by social media. Finally, the deep articulation of human communication transcends discourse: the reiterated body practices (for example, the staring at mobile phones on the train) create their own set of expectations.

Having said this, such a redescription – whilst it simplifies (perhaps it flattens) the instances of social change that Smith describes – it doesn’t explain what happens when individuals cross or move a limit. The encounter with limits is visceral: its principal response is fear. At what point does a fearful response yield to one where fear is overcome? To argue that the overcoming of a limit is an automatic social structural process would be to deflate human agency to the point of determinism. Every human limit is overcome through the agency of another human being. Indeed, it is precisely the moment of moving limits which we associate with the processes of teaching and learning. The question is, What sits behind the motivation of that agency? What sits behind the desire to change oneself and the desire to change other people?
In order to deal with this question, it is first important to clarify the relationship between those limits which emerge through discourse and those limits which are entailed through matter. Actor Network Theorists and Socio-Materialists argue that the powers and properties of matter have agency. In his articulation of the entwining of matter and humans, Latour needs to make a move whereby all aspects of social structures participate in an equal way in the processes of reproduction and transformation of social structures. Whilst it is the case (as Smith says) that restrictions or abundance in material resource have an effect on the perception of limit, material resources, robots, roads and buildings each exist by virtue of social processes which assert their significance: what Searle calls a ‘status function’. The allocation of material resources such as food, shelter and money exist through power structures which are also related to status functions (this food is not for x but for y). Behind material artefacts lie declarations of status which implicate not only the causal powers of those artefacts on those who encounter them, but also the power of the individuals making the status declarations. In other words, agency is specifically human: it is not a life-force which somehow unites an entwining of the material and the human.  
The deep question then is, What are the grounds for agency? If we are to argue (with…) that ethics must sit at the root of agency, then we are caught in the limits of the ethical – and the ways in which ethical narratives are constructed in discourse. If we are to argue that love is at the root of agency, where love is separable from ethics, then we must encounter the limits of love and the different ways in which love might manifest.  If we are to argue that emancipation is at the root of agency, and that agency is most fundamentally politically-motivated, we must consider the limits of the political and particularly those aspects of political life which can ride roughshod over concerns of human love and sometimes ethics. If we are to argue that aesthetics and the pursuit of the beautiful lies at the heart of agency, then we have to consider the limits of the perception of the beautiful. But still, the discoveries of the physical sciences present another perspective: the agency is fundamentally concerned with the pursuit of scientific truth. Yet here, we must follow the discourse of the philosophy of science and inquire into the nature of the limits of scientists, their methods and the separability of their knowledge from other limits. Here, perhaps, there is a clue as to an answer we might give to the question “what sits behind agency?” The pursuit of scientific truth entails engagements with other limits: those to do with politics, those to do with love and security, those to do with art and beauty. agency is, fundamentally, caught between each of these limits: the limits of love, the limits of the beautiful, the limits of emancipation and the limits of science. Agency is caught in the interaction of limits in ways which are palpable and in many cases obvious. It is the love affair which leads to the writing of the symphony, or the scientific discovery which reframes an attitude to politics, or the TV documentary which changes social behaviour or the disability which reframes an approach to science, or the oppression which binds communities together.
Travelling across a limit is a process of interaction between different kinds of limit and this in turn must entail an interaction between different kinds of people, objects and social structures. Physical travelling is but one aspect of this. But essential to the picture of travelling across a limit is awareness of an ‘absolute’ through the processes of interaction. Everything that happens to an individual challenges limits in the light of a perceived “truth” which exists somewhere beyond a particular limit at a particular time. It is unlikely that truth in this sense is relative. Were it so, then those aspects which we associate with each of the factors listed: political emancipation, scientific advancement, artistic expression and human love, would be impossible. The continual being-in-flux of knowledge and ideas about education, religion, science, love, politics and so on is not an indication of the absence of the absolute. It is rather the reverse: the continual being-in-flux of the interaction between love, science, politics and art is testament to an absolute truth that holds the flux together.
Education is the domain where the flux of being is most apparent. It is the education discourse that demonstrates the interplay of limits. Paradigm switches in education are indicative of the spaces between awareness of the absolute and awareness of present limits. Seen at best, technologies present new ways of exploring material limits and in the process serve to expose limits of understanding and stimulate critical inspection: technologies can grant permission to think about education. However, technologies are themselves the result of status functions made through power structures within society. Technological implementation may reinforce limits of understanding rather than cause travel across limits. This may be particularly true in cases where technologies reinforce a functionalist paradigm to which those subjected are already reacting against.

The phenomenon of paradigm-switching by those advocating technologies in education may be seen as a means of shoring-up a status declaration which in turn is intended as an assertion of limits on other people (like, for example, the withholding of material resources, or the imposing of new practices) with the intention of establishing social change in a particular desired direction. The weakness of the paradigm-closure position then becomes apparent: such acts are politically-motivated and rarely produce the desired consequences. Under conditions of oppression, new forms of expression eventually arise (although not usually after a protracted battle), which will explore other aspects of limit: the binding of communities through solidarity, the discovery of subversive forms of artistic expression or the pursuit of new methodological practices to challenge the functionalist orthodoxy of the policies being implemented. Yet this latter aspect is the most challenging and asks the deepest questions not only about how we reason about education, but how education is coordinated in society. The question of the governance of education is a question concerning the possibility of naturalistic inquiry within education.

The Possibility of Educational Naturalism

The inability to establish coherent empirical methodologies which coordinate consensus-driven focus on theory-practice gaps in education leaves a void into which political expedience and managerialist interventions – each bolstered by new technologies and evidence-driven (for which read ‘policy-driven’) defences present themselves. Paradigm-switching is convenient license to replace clarity with ‘spin’ and assert technologically-mediated social change in the name of scientistic ‘progress’ which nullifies critique. The possibility of a coordinated attempt to address theory-practice gaps rests on the possibility of objective judgements about social structures. Whilst it has become fashionable to challenge objectivity in the social sciences, the existence of social institutions, textbooks, vice-chancellors, prime ministers, teachers, secretaries of state for education, exam results, certificates and curricula is generally accepted beyond the solipsistic realms of radical scepticism. Given the existence of such aspects of education, it is sensible to ask how they are structured and constituted in relation to one another. In essence this is a way of describing a ‘social order’ of education. Furthermore, new structures and assertions about the “reality” of new software applications, professional practices, institutional positions, awards and sanctions will each of them change the relations between the entities of the education system. We possess theories about the structures of the education system, about the relations between its parts, about the constitution of those parts and the structural shifts that we expect to see in the light of our interventions. We are also capable of recording the structures of education in terms of networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations, commitments and duties within the system. Yet the effort to compare theoretical understanding of the social order of education with the reality of the social order isn’t there.

The methodological problem is deep-seated within the social sciences. A radical break occurred after the enlightenment between numerical quantification and ordering. In particular, the use of quantification extended beyond its traditional use of accounting for available material resources (how much money does the King have to build the castle, or to fight a war?) to becoming a cypher of social order. The birth of statistics gave social scientists ways in which they believed empirical event regularities could be established in the same way that they were in the physical sciences and defensible accounts of causation could be established as a result. This remains the de-facto practice within not only education research, but many other disciplines including economics, psychology and biology (particularly modern genetics). On top of the mapping between quantification and social structures, probabilistic reasoning provided simple models which could be tested against closed-system human experiments (such as playing games or gambling on the stock-exchange) More recent incarnations of the quantification paradigm include the increasingly popular use of agent-based modelling and the analysis of big data.

The challenge that quantification presents is that it asserts abstract models as cyphers for real structure where the admissible measurement of those structures can only be achieved through quantification. In essence, there are two ‘status functions’ here:
1.       “this is a (conceptual/mathematical/agent-based) model of reality”
2.       “this is a representation of data gathered from looking at social structures”.
These two status functions are either radically divorced where there is no defensible relation between the two, or they are effectively one and the same thing (as is often seen in economics). The question underlying this situation is whether behind the use of numbers for calculation there isn’t a deeper mathematical reasoning which takes relation, order and structure as its foundation rather than quantities. Were such a methodological approach possible, then the two status functions would instead be:
1.       “here is an idea of the structuring of education, and here is how it might change in the light of a new status declaration (i.e. a new technology)”
2.       “here is the apparent structuring of education as determined by the observed social relations between individuals”
The possibility this presents is one of feedback between measurement of structure and articulations of structure presented as theory. The question then concerns the consequences transformations in structure brought about through new status functions.

A structurally-oriented empirical approach would at the very least identify the dramatic changes we have witnessed in higher education, where power has increasingly become centralised to a managerial elite, where evidence of that power is made apparent through the technological status functions which are declared by managers and to which everyone is subjected. The question then concerns the consequent changes to the structural relations between teachers and students, and students and the outside world. Where individual limits are affected by the structural conditions within which teachers, managers and learners operate, what are the effects on the capacity and opportunities learners have for travelling across limits? What are the effects on the agency of teachers in attempting to create the appropriate conditions for learners to travel across limits? Increases in centralised control, fear and oppression within the institution would appear – at least in the short term – to compromise opportunities for personal growth.


This paper has been about the relation between social change and interventions in educational technology. The fundamental concepts introduced have been:
1.       The Paradigm-switch as the mark of a discourse of ‘advocacy’ for social transformation through new practices  (or technologies). The paradigm switch exists because in any form of advocacy (whether it is a campaign for healthy living, or a campaign for better use of the internet), the purpose is to establish the intervention, rather than engage in a critical argument. Typically, this is done from all angles.
2.       The nature of limits in paradigms. Paradigms exist in relation to one another, and academics tend to associate with one paradigm or another in contradistinction to the others. The point of interface between one paradigm and the next is presented as a limit.
3.       The conditions for moving across limits or shifting limits. Limits are dependent on social relations, normative practices, discourses, matter and biology. Understanding the way that limits move is to understand why social structures change. Characterising changes to social structure as shifts in limits entails a consideration of the nature of the agency which causes limits to move, and the motivation behind agency.
4.       Acknowledging the necessity of the absolute in the processes of change in limits emerges from understanding the coexistence of fundamental dimensions within which limits are expressed: particularly those of love, politics, art and science. Agency occurs at the interplay between limits.

5.       In a time of oppression within education, social cohesion, art but most importantly science must counter the assertions of functionalist-dominated managerialism. Engagement with the issue of the split between quantification and ordering lies at the heart of this. New methodologies which privilege order over quantity may help in coordinated action in opposition to managerialism’s oppressive use of technology.