Tuesday 1 September 2015

Learning Gain and the Measurement of Order

I think the biggest problem with HEFCE's current obsession with 'Learning Gain' is its motivation. One suspects that behind their wish to identify the "causal factors" behind "successful" learning there is the wish that particular practices or metrics might be identified which can then be used by management, the HEA or other agencies who see their role in controlling and monitoring the behaviour of teachers. In other words Learning Gain = Big Management. The funding calls for research look very much like a desire to seek 'Policy-based evidence'. I would be happy to be proved wrong, but I think it is unlikely that HEFCE's wish is that a scientific investigation of learning would highlight the pathology of management itself, and that notwithstanding the relationship between teaching and student success, interfering management driven by targets and greed has a generally detrimental effect on staff morale, creates inflexibility in education practice and damages the overall educational ecology of institutions.

But what if we were to consider a proper scientific study of learning and teaching? How would that study look different to what HEFCE are appearing to do?

First of all, it would focus not on management, but organisation. The problem with HEFCE's approach, it seems to me, is that the scientific problem is misconceived as a problem of management. This is understandable since HEFCE is a regulatory organisation and clearly they would wish for research that justifies their position - and the position of every senior management team in UK Universities (whose sponsorship HEFCE and the HEA crave with collapsing central government funding). But it's the wrong question. How could it be better?

Deep down, Learning Gain is an effort to find a measurement of emergent order. It is closely related to the biologist's study of growth or the ecologists study of viability. But measuring order is a well-known and difficult problem. In ecology, only recently have statistical techniques been effectively used. Epigenesis remains highly contested in biology. And there's the scale of the problem for education: because at least the biologists and ecologists can see growth processes over time. Neither HEFCE nor anyone else can look into the heads of learners and teachers: learning itself is metaphysical; only behaviour and communication are available for inspection. However, not all is impossible - and there's good reason not to give up.

Heinz von Foerster attempted to address the problem of measuring order in a paper "On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environment" in 1959. Despite its age, what he says is profound and deeply relevant. In measuring order, von Foerster says:
"we wish to describe by this term [a measurement of order] two states of affairs. First, we may wish to account for apparent relationships between elements of a set which would impose some constraints as to the possible arrangements of the elements of this system. As the organisation of the system grows, more and more of these relations should become apparent. Second, it seems to me that order has a relative connotation, rather than an absolute one, namely, with respect to the maximum disorder the elements of the set may be able to display. This suggests that it would be convenient if the measure of order would assume values between zero and unity, accounting in the first case for maximum disorder and, in the second case, for maximum order." 
He goes on to say: "What we expect from a self-organizing system is, of course, that, given some initial value of order in the system, this order is going to increase as time goes on." Most teachers will hope for this in their students. The emergence of skilled performance, new vocabularies, mastery of concepts and so on are all indicative of increasing order. This process occurs within sets of constraints. As the system increases in order, both ordered relations and the constraints within which it emerges become more explicit: every parent of every teenager knows precisely what this is! However, the order of the system is relative to the constraints within which it develops. Von Foerster uses Shannon's equation for redundancy to indicate this. Now, redundancy is the 'background' of information (H): it constrains messages - typically it takes the form of repetitions, superfluous ways of doing or saying the same thing, surplus stuff. In information theory, information (H) is a measure of the uncertainty of a particular event. The redundancy is the ratio of the uncertainty (H) of a particular event divided by the maximum possible uncertainty (Hm) of any event subtracted from 1. Mathematically then, redundancy is:
Von Foerster then argues that this redundancy can serve as a measurement of order because if there is total disorder then H equals Hand the constraint, or redundancy, is 0. So no rules, no constraints = maximum disorder - most headteachers would agree, and learners will feel overwhelmed by complexity. Conversely, if order is high, then uncertainty is low, and therefore redundancy is close to 1 - 'total constraint'. Disciplinarian classrooms would be more like this: with low uncertainty, learners will get bored or feel oppressed.

The really important thing that HEFCE should take note of here is that if we see Learning Gain as a measurement of order, it must focus on the constraints (or redundancies) within which order develops. It is this simple shift in focus which is crucial. And what are the constraints of educational practice? Well, dominant among them is... the management and their regulatory instruments!

However, as increasing order makes the constraints more explicit (think teenagers and parents), something else happens which at once decreases the order in the system, but which presents new possibilities for increasing it: this is the increase in the maximum uncertainty. He explains that the easiest way to do this is to increase the number of elements that make up the system. In simple terms, the acquisition of new skills, concepts, social connections and so on is an increase in the number of possibilities: it is an increase in the maximum uncertainty. Order involves a relationship between uncertainties about events (or actions) and maximum uncertainties: intellectual development then is a kind of dance. We can imagine two cases: a. increasing order relative to a fixed maximum possible disorder; b. there is maintained order against a changing maximum disorder. In more simple terms, there is development within a stable environment, and there is resilience within a changing environment. Teachers apply constraints to learners, and are subject to constraints imposed by managers. Management constraints can demand that constraints applied to learners are adjusted (at the extreme end, "don't fail any learners - we need their fees!"); learners equally can apply constraints on teachers. Von Foerster's analysis of order reveals the organisationally miserable chaos of education. But it also provides analytical tools for thinking about how we might analyse and deal with it.

These processes are processes of order arising through self-organising dynamics operating within constraints. However, Von Foerster also makes the case for order arising out of noise. Noise is important in information theory because it constrains the information transmission process necessitating the injection of redundancies (i.e. "can you say that again?") in the communication. The general hubub and atmosphere of educational institutions can greatly contribute to the quality of the experiences (for which read the "increase in order") for everyone there. "Noise" is a constraint that applies to everybody; it is contingent on the actions of everybody - but particularly the action of management who have the power to suppress it. Get things wrong and the atmosphere will be killed.

So, to summarise, being cynical about HEFCE's Learning Gain plans should not distract from the potential of scientific insight into the nature of the organisation of education. However, that insight involves the study of emergent order, where order emerges within constraints. Our measurement of order is the measurement of those constraints. In simple terms, we need to know how the constraints in education, from management diktats to learning outcomes, targets, assessment criteria and timetables, interact. Moreover, the relationship between constraints is ecological - probably in a similar way to the biological dynamics studied by ecological statisticians. There is little doubt that there are synergies between constraining forces which in some institutions produce remarkable results, just as there are combinations of constraining forces in other institutions which do not produce the emergent order that one would hope from a University - indeed, it may even cause a collapse of order. The real challenge is to get the question right.

No comments: