Sunday 26 February 2017

Meaning, Multiple Description and Organisational Risk in Healthcare

There's a fascinating passage in Von Foerster's paper on "Perception of the future and the future of perception" where he speculates (with the help of Herbert Brün):
"Wouldn’t it be fascinating to contemplate an educational system that would ask of its students to answer “legitimate questions” that is questions to which the answers are unknown (H. Brün in a personal communication). Would it not be even more fascinating to conceive of a society that would establish such an educational system? The necessary condition for such an utopia is that its members perceive one another as autonomous, non-trivial beings. Such a society shall make, I predict, some of the most astounding discoveries. Just for the record, I shall list the following three:
  1. “Education is neither a right nor a privilege: it is a necessity.” 
  1. “Education is learning to ask legitimate questions.” 

A society who has made these two discoveries will ultimately be able to discover the third and most utopian one:
  1. “A is better off when B is better off.” (Von Foerster, Understanding Understanding, p209)
There are occasions in education where "legitimate questions" are asked. When they are asked, the responses are always meaningful. That this should be the case is partly a function of what a "legitimate question" is: by being a question about which the answers are unknown, it is also - by definition - an invitation to the production of many possible descriptions. The meaningfulness lies in the synergising of these many possible descriptions into some kind of formulation which satisfies the questioner that the complexity of the issue has been captured. It is, however, difficult to analyse what all the possible descriptions are: we tend not to have them available to us, and so our ability to analyse the meaningfulness of the answers to legitimate questions is hampered.

One domain of inquiry which is more specific in its identification of the multiplicity of description is in the realm of Organisational Risk in healthcare.

In the wake of a serious incident in a hospital, there is a process of making descriptions about the different dimensions of causal factors which might have led to the incident. So descriptions are made about the actors involved - doctors, patients, nurses, etc. Then there are descriptions about the protocols they should follow, the routine on the wards, the labelling of drugs, the medical experience of each individual, the assumptions of knowledge of each actor, power relations, and so on. From these multiple descriptions, a judgement is made about the causes of the accident and recommendations are eventually made which aim to prevent the accident happening again.

Recommendations are often ineffective - which raises a question as to how it is the judgements about the causes are seen to be satisfactory and plausible to the investigating team. The processes whereby the judgement about the incident becomes meaningful cannot relate to the causal relations between the different factors partly because there are many descriptions of each of those different factors. The meaningfulness must arise from the diversity of possible descriptions: the judgement must have generative power in being able to produce the multiplicity of descriptions which are made about the incident. Meaning arises at a boundary between synergies of multiple descriptions of events, and the multiple descriptions of that synergy. Meaning is a function of constraint.

Because meaning is a function of constraint, and because the constraints which produce an incident are different from the constraints which produce a judgement about the causes of that incident, particular care must be taken in understanding the dynamics of constraint. To understand these dynamics, it is important that "legitimate questions" are asked. The asking of a legitimate question like "Why did x do this?" is an invitation to generate multiple descriptions which contribute to the generation of a constraint. The problem with incident investigation processes is that they seek to reduce the number of descriptions when they should increase them.

The same problem applies to education. Educational processes seek to attenuate descriptions of the world to those which appear in a textbook. But questions which appear in a textbook are not legitimate questions. The asking of questions which aren't in the textbook are legitimate questions.

How do we get from that to "A is better off when B is better off"? The reason is, I think, that B is A's means of opening up new legitimate questions, and that the more legitimate questions which are raised, and the more descriptions which are generated, the better the judgements which will be formed.

Von Foerster tells this story about the interaction between a Great Inquisitor and a Holy man performing miracles:
Maybe you remember the story Ivan Karamazov makes up in order to intellectually needle his younger brother Alyosha. The story is that of the Great Inquisitor. As you recall, the Great Inquisitor walks on a very pleasant afternoon through his town, I believe it is Salamanca; he is in good spirits. In the morning he has burned at the stakes about a hundred and twenty heretics, he has done a good job, everything is fine. Suddenly there is a crowd of people in front of him, he moves closer to see what’s going on, and he sees a stranger who is putting his hand onto a lame person, and that lame one can walk. Then a blind girl is brought before him, the stranger is putting his hand on her eyes, and she can see. The Great Inquisitor knows immediately who He is, and he says to his henchmen: “Arrest this man.” They jump and arrest this man and put Him into jail. In the night the Great Inquisitor visits the stranger in his cell and he says: “Look, I know who You are, troublemaker. It took us one thousand and five hundred years to straighten out the troubles you have sown. You know very well that people can’t make decisions by themselves. You know very well people can’t be free. We have to make their decisions. We tell them who they are to be. You know that very well. Therefore, I shall burn You at the stakes tomorrow.”The stranger stands up, embraces the Great Inquisitor and kisses him. The Great Inquisitor walks out, but, as he leaves the cell, he does not close the door, and the stranger disappears in the darkness of the night.

Friday 24 February 2017

What is an interface?

I'm writing a paper at the moment on the cybernetics of organisational risk in hospitals. Most of my thinking about cybernetics has revolved around self-regulating functions in one form or another - most notably in things like Beer's Viable System Model, or Ashby's Homeostat. In doing this kind of analysis, we tend to draw diagrams with lines and boxes, rather like this:
Our focus is on the relations between the boxes (although attention is often drawn to the labels in the boxes). The practice of Beer's cybernetic management analysis involves identifying the components of an organisation which map onto the boxes in the diagram, and identifying the different levels of recursion at which those components operate. The valuable thing in this exercise is usually the conversation that emerges as stakeholders talk about their experience of the organisational situation. 

The problem is that modern organisations are so fluid, it is very hard to identify clearly which components are which: the boundaries between things are continually redrawn - being blurred, dissolved, shifted, etc. So looking at the diagram above again, what is interesting is not the lines connecting the boxes, or the boxes themselves - it is the lines around the boxes which are most important. 

For Beer (and Ashby), what occurs between an organism and its environment is transduction - the conversion of one set of signals, or a form of energy, into another. Beer's genius was to map the engineering concept of transduction onto social systems, pointing out that transduction in social systems must involve the management of complexity. Between an organism of complexity x, and an environment of complexity y, where y>x, the viability of the organism could be achieved through a combination of the attenuation of the environment by the organism, and the amplification of complexity within the organism. The transduction lies in this pattern of amplification and attenuation. 

But we shouldn't stop there. The transduction happens at the boundary. What actually happens in the boundary? 

This is a difficult question, but I'm increasingly aware of its importance. It is the same question as "What is an interface?". There is transduction between me and my computer screen now. There is transduction between my brain and my liver, or between a patient and the hospital admissions. But Beer's talk of amplification and attenuation, whilst useful because it maps on to ideas about technology "extending" the body (McLuhan), is less helpful when all our boundaries start to melt into some kind of Dali-esque confusion. 

What is clear is that there are differences in description on either side of the boundary. The patient's descriptions of the hospital are different from the hospital's description of the patient. The computer programmer's description of me is different from my description of the software. Every description contains a dynamic of constraints: the constraints bearing on the computer programmer are very different from the constraints I operate within when using their tools (the constraints which they created). So the transduction appears to do something to the descriptions...

But equally, this may be the wrong way of looking at it. Perhaps we see the boundary, and observe the transduction, because the boundary is an emergent phenomenon arising from two systems with different constraint dynamics. The transduction is a kind of knotted-nexus. Labelling the boundary and identifying the transduction merely codifies what is in reality a dynamic process. 

I find this a more useful way of thinking about it, because it retains the possibility that constraints on either side of the boundary might be reconfigured, and as a result every other distinction, and the boundary, might shift. We're seeing this happen a lot around us at the moment. Rather than talk about transductions and interfaces, we would be better getting to grips with the dynamics of interacting constraints.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Revisiting Inquiry Based Learning: Uncertainty-based teaching

I've become re-engaged in the issue of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) - this time under the guise of research-based teaching and learning. IBL was one of the major things that I worked on at the University of Bolton's Institute for Educational Cybernetics, where we created a curriculum framework for IBL courses, called IDIBL. At Bolton, it didn't work as well as we'd hoped, although a similar initiative had worked quite well at Anglia Ruskin University, and I've always felt that it was the right thing to do. It's good to see many of the ideas return - but this is an opportunity to rethink things.

The problem with IBL is that it can so often seem (as I overheard two Manchester University students complain about their IBL course) that it involves "the teachers not telling us anything, and us having to work stuff out for ourselves". This happens because IBL aims to loosen the vertical curriculum structure which "delivers" knowledge and skill from teacher to student (via textbook, VLE, exams), and reinforce horizontal self-organisation among students. On IDIBL this horizontal self-organisation was meant to happen in online communities - a similar idea to Siemens and Downes original MOOC. However, it turned out that establishing self-organising online learning communities was much more difficult than anticipated.

However, many teachers are naturally skilled at reducing the amount of vertical coordination in teaching. One engineering lecturer said "I used to go to lectures with loads of Powerpoint slides; now I go with a blank piece of paper, and use a visualiser to project my notes as we start a discussion". However, he also said "I think the dialogue in the class works with a relatively small number of students. I don't think it would work with a large number."

I think in order to  confirm or confound that hypothesis we need a better model of the problem. Dialogue is the key word: dialogue is what self-organisation really looks like in education. Online, I don't think what we get is dialogue as such. But we get something else. The differences between the different situations relate to what the phenomenologists call "inter-subjectivity" - the understanding we reach of each others' 'inner-worlds'. This, I think, is what is powerful in the engineering lecturer's technique - he reveals something of the inner world. If you watched Mozart improvising, or Picasso doodling, you would get a similar impression.

Part of what happens is a shared experience of time. Alfred Schutz points out that in pure intersubjective experience of face-to-face engagement (what he calls the "pure we-relation"), we "get old together". But we can watch Picasso doodling, we can "get old together" with him - even though he's dead. Doesn't it have a similar quality of revealing his inner life?

What if each of us did this kind of thing as part of "maintaining a dialogue"? What would it require? What are its properties?

I think the requirements are "courage", and the essential property of doing something like this is that it is an "expression of uncertainty".

Uncertainty is crucial to understanding IBL. It is not that self-organisation should be imposed on learners by teachers (which is what the Manchester students were complaining about). Self-organisation is a natural consequence of shifting the focus from certainty to uncertainty.

We are at a strange moment in the history of science. Today's science is data-driven, and largely contingent and probabilistic. Yet within this uncertain scientific world, we insist on maintaining the communication practices of the 18th century - journals speak of Newtonian certainties, evidence and so on. We are not generally good at appearing uncertain - either in front of our peers, or our students.

IBL as it was conceived in IDIBL, was a pedagogic 'certainty' for those of us who devised it, and there was an asymmetry between our certainty and the uncertainty we aimed to impose on the students. The engineering lecturer engages in uncertainty-based teaching: he is not sure where the lesson will go, and there will be areas in the discussion which will throw up things which he isn't sure about. Yet there are other things - and skills - which he is sure about. It's all there; it's all modelled for the students. In the mix of things about which one is certain, and the things about which one is uncertain, there is a clue as to what is happening:

It is not knowledge, but the contraints of knowing which are communicated. 

Picasso communicates the constraints of his drawing - the pen, the page, time, the movements of his body, his emerging intentions. He gives a glimpse as to how he negotiates them. The engineering lecturer does the same.

In conventional teaching, we rarely talk about our constraints. Most of the time, constraints are taken for granted - time, the lecture space, the online space, the assessment, prior knowledge, skill (or lack of it), and so on. In IBL, we forced self-organisation as a new kind of constraint - but again, failed to really discuss it as a constraint, or why it might be there. But to communicate uncertainty, the only thing that can be done is to be open and honest about the constraints in which we all try to fathom what is happening around us.

Thursday 16 February 2017

The problem of Information and Ergodicity

Information is not ergodic: the average surprisingness of an entire message is not the same as the surprisingess of a section of the message. So how does this affect the way we use Shannon equations? What makes information non-ergodic is the continual transformations of the games that we play when we communicate. A surprise for one game is different from a surprise in another.

The transformation from one game to another is a key part of Nigel Howard's metagame theory where a shift from a game with one set of rules, to a metagame of that game is prompted by a "paradox of rationality" - basically, a crisis. It is a bit like shifting up a level of bifurcation. Maybe even there's a shift up from one energy level to another (which makes the connection to Schroedinger and Kauffman). What's interesting is the cause of the shift.

In Howard, the crisis - his "paradox" of rationality - means that only the jump to the metagame can resolve the contradiction of the current game. The shift is a redescription of existing descriptions in new terms.

My examples for this are all emotional in some way - the experience of "crisis" is very real, but I think Luhmann is right that these things are social-systemic, not psychological. So, for example, in music the climax of the Liebestod at the end of Wagner's Tristan is a moment when constraints of pitch, harmony, rhythm, etc all coincide. It has a curious homology to orgasm. In intellectual life, Koestler's idea of "Bisociation" is also a synergy of multiple descriptions in a similar form. Luhmann's 'interpenetration' is another example, as is Schutz's 'intersubjectivity'. Bateson's levels of learning and Double-bind are further examples. Politically, there are some obvious examples of "regime change" at the moment - changing the game most obviously!

The result of this kind of process is that a distinction is made between the old game and the new one: a boundary produced. On one side of the boundary, there is a degree of entropy in the number of descriptions. On the other, there is a degree of synergy between those descriptions. It is these processes of continual game-change which are non-ergodic.

Whilst I doubt whether we should make Shannon entropy calculations across different games, Shannon is useful for counting within a single game - that would indicate how close a "regime change" might be. Shannon mutual information is itself a kind of game between sender and receiver. I think it would also be worth counting "game changes" - that seems do-able to me - the boundary-markers are the moments of synergy. [my physics colleague Peter Rowlands mentioned to me that he thought that the things that Boltzmann actually counted in statistical thermodynamics were 'bifurcations'. I don't fully understand what he means, but an intuitive reaction says that is a similar thing]

In Stuart Kauffman's "Investigations" he goes into quite a lot of detail about these transformation processes. It has woolly edges.. but "Investigations" is a powerful book - there's some value in it (I didn't like it at first). Kauffman's introduction to Ulanowicz's book "A Third Window" is quite revealing in terms of mapping the space between his ideas and those which centre more around Shannon. Both lines of thought have powerful contributions to make.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Finding the "Aesthetic Line"

The dynamics of human experience are such that there is continual blurring and shifting of focus. There are rare moments when focus brings revelation, insight and emancipation. At such moments, the contrapuntal lines of experience map each human being on each other. These are moments of solidarity. The opposite of this experience is where everyone is in the fog: every individual cannot see their own steps, let alone the steps of others. The feeling is of isolation, loss: anxiety pervades everything. At such times, it is not surprising that people clutch at straws: it's in these moments that the strong man appears, whipping up a collective fervour with tales about how things are, spewing falsehoods and directing hatred in perverse directions.

What it is that comes into focus at moments of revelation is a line: a set of connections between different levels of experience. It connects basic and immediate drives, with deep spiritual needs, the need to be loved, the need to belong. But I think lines may be drawn in two ways: either by excluding things, or by including things. The latter is much more difficult than the former. The former is the beloved technique of dictators.

We can consider two lines: the "Trump" line and the "Aesthetic" line. The Trump line is straight and unvarying. It 'straightens' all that it encounters (or perhaps, flattens it). It asserts the positive identity of itself and it threatens the existence of all which isn’t like it. By contrast, the "Aesthetic line" is sinuous, it bends and curls, whilst always maintaining its direction and purpose. The aesthetic line is like a tree branch or a river. It divides into other branches, or tributaries, always embracing the difference of its tributaries, but always aware of its one-ness. Each bend and curve in the aesthetic line is an inflection: a moment of additional description, which complements the descriptions of the line so far. The aesthetic line is formed of multiple descriptions (the L-System, which produced the picture below, is a set of string 'descriptions'); the "Trump" line is a single description.

In the fog of experience, lines are presented to us in a haze. We can only work out what they are by examining multiple hazy descriptions. The addition of hazy descriptions can gradually bring different levels of the line into focus. It is by accumulating descriptions that we work out what is what. It's a bit like the addition of waveforms which make up a complex wave in Fourier analysis. Each contributing waveform is a kind of "redundant description". But together they bring the concrete reality of a rich sound into focus.

Music and the arts reveal this kind of process. Any piece of music immediately presents multiple descriptions: a rhythm, melody, pitches, timbres, and so on. Each is an inflection on everything else; each inflection depends on everything else. On first presentation of multiple descriptions, we are in the fog. We cannot connect where things are going, where the lines are. Multiple descriptions at the same level clarify the situation. They negatively specify the pulse, direction, trajectory of where things are going. As the trajectory becomes clearer, new layers of description – descriptions about description, description about the ways in which descriptions are revealed, are all added. The deeper inflections become part of the whole. At some point, the "root" description – the description which generates all others - comes into view. There is a moment when the presentation of the root description – usually a harmony – brings a piece of music to a close.

The production of multiple descriptions and the emergence of lines does more to us that affect our own experience. They give us an insight into the experience of others. Finding the line is to find the connections between one another – to see the inner world of others is to discover new ways of organising ourselves and transcending adversity.

I think of the aesthetic line in the context of Nigel Howard's meta-game trees. Howard makes the point that the ascent to a meta-level is the reaction to a process of confusion at the existing level. Howard provides another way of thinking about transcending double-binds: we change the game. So when descriptions are presented they are joined up in ways which might at first appear that they contradict one another: this is the fog. The metagame tree needs to be reorganised in some way. New descriptions bring deeper reflection and articulation of more complete aesthetic lines. In this way, decisions are felt emotionally. 

At an analytical level, what concerns us is the redundancy of description on the one hand, and the inflections between different descriptions on the other. This is easy to see in music: various elements, like rhythm, tonality, harmony, pitch can display redundancy. Each represents a different inflection of the line. The need for novelty is inherent in the production of redundancy, and the need to generate new inflections at a deeper level - particularly when redundancy in a number of areas (like a continually repeated melody) is very high (as when things are repeated too much). 

The use of technology also brings very high degrees of redundancy, creating the need for novelty and new forms of inflection. In technocratic environments, new forms of inflection can be prohibited quite easily. This produces a general frustration and depression, with the end result that a more radical "change of the game" is generated. Trump is the result of an inability to vary the inflections of experience which has been produced by a toxic mixture of neoliberalism and technology. Unfortunately, his success means that there is a positive-feedback mechanism which will make the finding of the aesthetic line even harder.

Saturday 4 February 2017

Ashby's Experimental Method in "Design for a Brain"

Ashby's Design for a Brain is a remarkable book containing a lot of detail about how Ashby saw cyberentics as a science. Some of the most interesting passages concern his defence of his own methodology as he sought to create a "mechanical brain", building on his earlier work with homeostats. In contrast to much second-order cybernetics, Ashby remains a down-to-earth and practical scientist. But he is looking at the world in a different way: he is exploring constraints and relations rather than causation. The principal relation which concerns him is the relation between the experimenter and the experimental situation. In this, of course, he is very close to second-order cybernetics - but with a penetration of analytical thought which has been unfortunately overlooked by many of his cybernetic colleagues.
"It will be appreciated that every real 'machine' embodies no less than an infinite number of variables, most of which must of necessity be ignored. Thus if we were studying the swing of a pendulum in relation to its length we would be interested in its angular deviation at various times, but we would often ignore the chemical composition of the bob, the reflecting power of its surface, the electric conductivity of the suspending string, the specific gravity of the bob, its shape, the age of the alloy, its degree of bacterial contamination, and so on. The list of what might be ignored could be extended indefinitely. Faced with this infinite number of variables, the experimenter must, and of course does, select a definite number for examination - in other words, he defines the system." (Design for a Brain, pp15-16).

Ashby goes on to describe specific examples of empirical practice:

"In chemical dynamics the variables  are often the concentrations of substances. Selected concentrations are brought together, and from a definite moment are allowed to interact while the temperature is held constant. The experimenter records the changes which the concentrations undergo with time.
In experimental psychology, the variables might be "the number of mistakes made by a rat on a trial in a maze" and "the amount of cerebral cortex which has been removed surgically" [ugh!]. The second variable is permanently under the experimenter's control. The experimenter starts the experiment and observes how the first variable changes with time while the second variable is held constant, or caused to change in some prescribed manner.
While a single primary operation may seem to yield little information, the power of the method lies in the fact that the experimenter can repeat it with variations, and can relate the different responses to the different variations. Thus, after one primary operation the next may be varied in any of three ways the system may be changed by the inclusion of new variables or by the omission of old; the initial state may be changed or the prescribed courses may be changed. By applying these variations systematically, in different patterns and groupings, the different responses may be interrelated to yield relations
By further orderly variations, these relations may be further interrelated to yield secondary, or hyper-relations; and so on. In this way the "machine" may be made to yield more and more complex information about its inner organisation." (pp17-18)
What Ashby was arguing was that the internal relations of a system - its internal constraints - are revealed by applying constraints to their investigation.  ("Relation" and "constraint" Ashby saw as synonymous terms)

As to the detail of what it means to apply constraint, Ashby argues that it is about creating regularity. This is not to suggest that regularities are necessarily real, or external to the observer, but that they arise in the relations between the experimenter and their subject.

"If, on testing, a system is found not to be regular, the experimenter is faced with the common problem of what to do with a system that will not give reproducible results. Somehow he must get regularity. The practical details vary from case to case, but in principle the necessity is always the same: he must try a new system. This means that new variables must be added to the previous set, or, more rarely, some irrelevant variables omitted."
I find "he must try a new system" a very powerful statement. So often in educational theory, psychology - even cybernetics - regularity is assumed at various levels of the system. It is treated as a foundation upon which all other variables are tested. Maturana's autopoietic theory, for example, makes great statements about the need to adapt to regularities in perception: as if regularities are real, the mechnaism of perception is regular too, and what needs to happen is that the two come together in some way. Ashby doesn't say this. If a scientist discovers a regularity, it exists in the relationships of the experimental situation. If they fail to find regularities, they seek (create) another experimental situation. The conclusion one might draw from this is that there are no real regularities beyond a relationship.

Ashby wrestles with the idea of objectivity always conscious that this is one of the fundamental criteria for a commonsense view of the world. He wants to make the distinction between a "natural system" and an "absolute system" and reflects the challenges of making association between the mechanisms of physics and those of biology. He asks:

"both science and common sense insist that if a system is to be studied with profit its variables must have some naturalness of association. But what is natural?"
His definition of naturalness of association is related to his definition of an "absolute system" where the state of a system in entirely dependent on its historical (previous) states.  With a operating definition of an absolute system, he sets the criteria for defining a "natural association". These criteria insist on some alignment to common sense, and some sense of "objectivity". In effect this places the scientist's own reflexivity in the frame: "only experience can show whether it [an idea of a system] is faulty or sound". It is not to deny objectivity, but it is to resituate as a relation, or a constraint.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Multiple (redundant) Descriptions of the World: A Lesson for Teachers

Gregory Bateson's final book, Angels Fear, contains some fascinating details in his thinking which still require some unpicking. I was drawn back to it (it has been sitting on my shelf for many years now) by a wonderful paper by Peter Harries Jones on Bateson's concept of "bio-entropy" (see What caught my eye is the extent to which Bateson expands on his idea of "multiple description" which he first dealt with in Mind and Nature, and clearly aligns this to aesthetic experience, metaphor and redundancy. I'm particularly interested in the redundancy aspect, having just collaborated on a paper on redundancy with Loet Leydesdorff.

So here's Bateson being very clear that our science is really a science of description:
"When we study the biological world, what we are doing is studying multiple events of communication. In this communicating about commuinication, we are particularly interested in describing injunctions or commands - messages that might be said to have causal effect in the functioning in the biological world - and in the system of premises which underlies all messages and makes them coherent. [...] Having noted that the communicative fabric of the living world is ordered, pervasive, and determinant even to the point where one might say of it, this is what men have meant by God, we move ahead in the effort to describe its regularities with some trepidation, looking both for patterns and gaps in the weave.
Biologists looking at the natural world create their descriptions, for even their most objective recorded data are artifacts of human perception and selection. A description can never resemble the thing described - above all, the description can never be the thing described." (Angels Fear, p151)
He summarises his position later on:

  1. The data of the scientist studying biological phenomena are created by him. They are descriptions of descriptions, forms of forms.
  2. At the same time, message material, descriptions, injunctions, and forms (call them what you will) are already immanent in the biological phenomena. This it is to be internally organised, alive.
  3. All forms, descriptions, etc - including those immanent in the organisms - are like language. They are discontinuous and distortive.
  4. The forms are totally necessary if we are to understand both the freedoms and the rigidities of living systems. They are to the total process as the axle is to the wheel. By restricting the motion and preventing its movement in other planes, the axle gives the wheel a smoothness in moving in the chosen plane.
This last point is incredibly important for teachers to understand. The operative word in point 4 is "understand". Understanding is gained by apprehending forms, or patterns - or constraints. In education we ask "what are the constraints bearing upon this student? How can we overcome them?" How do we go about learning about the learner's constraint? We apply constraint. We say "do this activity" or "read this" or "let's play a game" or even "do this test". These are crude constraints but with their application, the constraints of the learner become clearer. We will then adjust the constraints we choose to apply next. 

Bateson makes the connection between constraint and redundancy, and moreover he makes the connection between the multiple descriptions of the world and the redundancy between descriptions. Our many descriptions overlap. It is in the overlap that we understand constraint. So the activities chosen by a teacher present new descriptions (often of what the learner already knows) which overlap in particular ways. To specify an activity, to recommend a text, to give a judgement - all these are additional descriptions to those which comprise the learner's understanding. The teacher's skill is knowing how to mix these new descriptions: it is in understanding the degree of redundancy between them and the learner, and observing the new constraints that are revealed. 

The golden rule of teaching is that constraint is the path by which constraint is understood. 

Tim Farron on University Compromise Agreements: some reflections on my experiences at the University of Bolton

The Times Higher Educational Supplement has become strangely less attractive since it stopped printing its institutional index on the back page. I rarely opened the plastic cover for any scandalous stories that emanated from my previous institution (Bolton).  Bolton was hardly in there unfortunately - something I found a little weird since it seemed that almost every week there was some new crazy 'WTF??' moment which caused consternation in corridors, and would have brought some colour and excitement onto the THES pages. This week I noticed a short entry about Tim Farron's appeal for the banning of "compromise agreements" in academia which reminded me of my experience in Bolton.

I left Bolton in 2015 when my department was closed. It was a bitter and hurtful experience. The department had been very good and successful for many years with an international reputation for educational technology research. I find that the injustice and hurt of the closure stays with me - even though I am very happy where I am now and appreciate that I might have been done a huge favour. I loved Bolton, and believed passionately in "widening participation" - although this became a corrupted ideal in the world of marketised education, and particularly so in the hands of Bolton's management. Injustice hurts, and the closure of my department was a period (a week!) of the most appalling abuse of power I have ever experienced (Trump looks very familiar to me, as he will to anyone who has had experience of Bolton's VC).

In the same week that my department was closed, the Vice Chancellor summarily sacked his Pro-VC, the UCU rep. and his wife (see He blamed the UCU rep for a Daily Mail story about the purchase of his new house in Bolton (for which the University lent him £960,000) and a staff awayday which cost £100,000 ( at the Lake District hotel where the VC kept his yacht (a moment of excellent journalistic manipulation as everyone exclaims: "he's got a fucking yacht!"). Also in the same week, we were all invited to congratulate the VC on becoming a "Deputy Lieutenant" for the Queen - which apparently allows him to dress up like this: - that's him on the left)

When I left, I signed a "compromise agreement" - making me fearful of repeating anything negative even if it was already in the public domain. Fear is powerful - even when everything is in the public domain!

The period of unemployment that followed was very frightening. I would be overcome with waves of anger and physical pain. It felt like I'd been physically assaulted. There were moments when I wanted to die. This was obviously very distressing for my wife and daughter too, in a year when my daughter had also had a very serious accident.

Now Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has been getting fired-up about "compromise agreements" and the prevention of people speaking-out against the abuse of power by management (see All I can say is "About bloody time!". Farron said:
“Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech and forthright opinions, yet our research has shown that confidentiality clauses may have been used not only to avoid dirty laundry being aired in public but now are just common practice in higher education,[...] This is simply outrageous. These gagging orders have a deterrent effect, employers seem to think that employees will just sign away the right to whistleblow. [...] The cold wind of gagging staff and stifled debate, much in the public interest, is going through the halls of our bastions of enlightenment and tolerance. This must end, these practices must be stopped.”
Despite massive protests and the involvement of local MPs, Bolton remains under the same regime. The VC covers himself with the blessings of establishment figures: baronesses, earls, judges, Prince Edward (FFS), the former Bishop of Manchester. It's a sickening charade. The University is in the process of negotiating a merger with two neighbouring FE institutions which together will become responsible for the educational futures of many thousands of young people in the region and beyond. It all begins to look "too big to fail". What government minister will challenge him? To cap it all, he awarded himself a 10% pay rise this year.

"Too big to fail" seems to have been the plan for Bolton's VC in his previous job at Doncaster College. It was a very similar plan to the one unfolding now. It ended like this:

This passage is interesting:
"Earlier this year principal Rowland Foote and finance director Tony Myers were suspended amid a probe into the college's financial management, and the college abandoned a restructuring plan that would have seen 140 lecturing jobs axed. Mr Foote later resigned and was replaced by interim principal John Taylor, while Bill Webster - one of two deputy principals at the college - left the institution."
Fast-forward 10 years, and we find the same Bill Webster formerly of the University and now as principal of Bolton College!

We have to talk about this. We have to talk about these people. We are all custodians of educational institutions, but some senior managers (not just in Bolton) behave like pirates, grabbing things for themselves. In the week when Parliament has decided to discuss how we deal with the pirate who's just taken over the US, we must turn our attention to the pirates who (unlike Trump as president) have had the luxury of being protected by the neo-liberal establishment. In the end, it's about heading-off a disaster before things really get out of control.