Friday 8 July 2016

A counterpoint of constraints in learning

There is a space to open up between the study of learning, technology and living and the study of art - and particularly music. Fundamentally, this space concerns the study of constraint - how constraints emerge, how they shift, what their effects are, and so on. There is a counterpoint of constraint which is, I think, available for inspection.

The counterpoint of learning can be elaborated by an example: learners enrolled on a course are subject to different constraints which partly result from interactions which have occurred prior to their meeting each other (from family, previous experiences, etc). The moment at which they meet is a moment when each of them voluntarily subjects themselves to the same constraint (the course). This constraint will create a complex dynamic with the other constraints they are subject to: they will turn to each other and ask "why did you decide to do this?", "what are you interested in?", and so on. The pattern of constraints which each is enmeshed in will vary from some fixed concepts about the world (opinions and values) and some less defined vague experiences, where the connection between concrete experiences and vagueness is poorly defined: confusion will often hold rigid but inflexible concepts in place. Each is likely to have different concepts. As they learn more about each other, they will identify each other's constraints, and will agree or disagree. The more rigid the concepts the higher the chances of disagreement. Conflicts and cliques ensue.

Then another element to the counterpoint: the teacher exercises their own constraints on the students. They will organise the learners into groups or activities, making judgements about the most appropriate activities to engage the students in to loosen rigid concepts or tighten vague thinking. The teacher is guided by their own set of relations between rigid concepts and vague thinking - but often the teacher has some kind of map which guides them from confusion to clarity, and from clarity back to confusion. They navigate this map in conversation with the students. Moving from rigid concepts to questioning vagueness and then to redefined clarity involves skillful navigation. The parables of Jesus are an excellent and very gentle example of how this can be achieved.

There are moments when there are distinct constraints operating independently - concrete opinion, practical difficulties, course criteria, timetables, etc. There are other moments where somehow everything shifts together, things are realigned, views are transformed. Just as there are moments in a Bach fugue where there are clear moments of independence, and then something happens which affects everything else. Each voice exercises a variety of constraint on the others. There are many dimensions to the constraint - pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics and so on.
In learning, the common constraints of timetable, assessment, lectures, etc shape all other constraints. But just as in music, this is a dialectical process - it triggers behaviour from the other learners which partly is in response to the common constraint, but mixed with the individual constraints each carries with them (I can't possibly do this assignment by then because of my family commitments). Time as a constraint in learning is probably as important as rhythm in music - it binds together (which is a problem in the asynchronous way that the web works). Also, when parts come together, their interactions create a shared context within which new possibilities emerge. When learners come together the shared "system"  which they create together has different self-organising potential from that occupied by an individual. 

In more formal terms, coming together increases the 'maximum entropy' of the coupled system creating greater scope for self-organisation. Conversely, where there there is a well-defined activity or skill for a learner to perform, the maximum entropy is kept stable, and the learner must develop their self-organisation capacity in order to succeed.  Knowledge (and eventually wisdom) arises in the acquired flexibility to move up and down the loosening-tightening axis in one's relation with others. Interestingly, this knowledge of the dynamics of constraint is what I think happens when we learn how a piece of music 'goes': we understand its entropic structure. 

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