Saturday 31 March 2018

Ancient Islamic and European Science: A lesson for Western education today

Why was the renaissance not Islamic? After all, the Greek scholarship passed through the Islamic world first. It was Islamic scholars who learnt Greek and translated the texts of Aristotle and Plato into Arabic. It was Cordoba not Oxford which was the home to the discovery of ancient philosophy. So how did this become a European story?

I've been thinking about this as I have been reflecting on the state of global Universities today. It is really a story about ideologies and cosmologies. One cosmology becomes so ideological that it cannot become intellectually creative or sufficiently open to debate new ways of thinking about the world. Another cosmology seems to have sufficient openness built into it that it can appropriate new ideas and develop them. In the end the torch passed to Europe because of an ideological battle about Aristotelianism in the Islamic world and the receptiveness of Christian theologians. The greatest muslim Aristotelians, Ibn-Sena [Avicenna] (980-1037) and  Ibn-Rushd [Averroes] (1126-1198), found themselves on the wrong side of an argument with more conservative muslim voices - most prominently that of Al-Ghazali.

Now I wonder if there is a similar situation, not about ideas, but about the practice and organisation of education. In Vladivostok, a video of Indian mystic Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev was shown to me by two different people on the same day. I enjoyed it and went searching for more, finding a  talk that he gave at the Oxford Union: 

The contrast between Sadhguru's message and the audience is striking: "I saw all these books on the shelves  coming here. You look like you carry them all on your heads!" Quite. They don't know what to make of him. But this is where we are in European Universities today.

Not that I think that Sadhguru is entirely right. After all, the amazing technologies of modernity which he cites, have been created by the culture that feeds the Universities: books, study, discourse, science, etc. But the real moments of genius which gave us the things which have transformed the world have not occurred in the ways that the modern university likes us to think. Bateson described how we believe:
"we shall know a little more by dint of rigour and imagination, the two great contraries of mental process, either of which by itself is lethal. Rigour alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity." ("Time is out of joint", Mind and Nature, appendix)
The modern university has become entirely geared for what it believes to be rigour. The space for imagination is being squeezed out in the University's pursuit of a modern ideology - the worst kind, the ideology of money.

Will the universities of Europe and the US be able to shift themselves to rebalance rigour and imagination? Will they be able to cast off the mantle of "marketisation" and become human (and humane) places once again? I wouldn't bet on it. The market ideology seems to have the same hold over the west that Al-Ghazali's philosophy had over the Islamic world. Most seriously, our faith in money has replaced our faith in science. The UK government's stated refusal to underwrite the USS pension scheme is basically saying that science is of no national significance (see Universities are merely businesses like any other, and deserve no special treatment. Although we talk a lot about science these days, nobody in in government believes it beyond it serving the capitalist machine with new products and the selling of qualifications.

Might it be western scientists thirsty for imaginative space, job security and receptivity, who take their dose of rigour to the East? Why not? 

Friday 30 March 2018

Thursday 29 March 2018

Constructivism and Truth in Vladivostok

It is a privilege for an academic in educational technology to be given the opportunity to create and implement a large-scale pedagogical transformation. Every academic has some idea of how education should or should not be conducted. Every academic has some kind of theory as to how teaching and learning works, and they act on those theories every day in their teaching – even if they are not directly conscious of it. But a large-scale intervention which makes new demands of many other teachers, and which impacts 300 students at once is of a different order. Inevitably this means one academic’s theory about teaching overrides the others. I have been privileged at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia, because that one academic is me.

One of the more intense discussions I have been having here has been about constructivism. Sebastian Fiedler accompanied me here. He and I have known each other for a long time, and are both advocates of Personal Learning Environments. Unusually for educational technologists, Seb knows his systems theory, and has a deep grasp of constructivist views on education.

There is a strand of constructivist thinking which verges on relativism, and which is particularly antithetical to any privileged position or to the notion of “truth”. In essence, everything is a speech act which coordinates with other speech acts to produce a dynamic that creates the phenomena we see as “real” or “true” in the world. Given such a view, what is the justification for saying that one academic’s theory about education should be trusted to such an extent that it dominates the practices of everyone else – even if that theoretical position asserts the prominence of conversation, cooperation, and activity? What is the justification for saying that “constructivism is true”?

What we have done in Vladivostok has been successful beyond anything I hoped for. It really has been an extraordinary experience. This picture below, drawn by one of the teachers sums things up... But there is an essential tension here – does this mean that I am “right” in my theory and approach? And it may be too early to say. We have been working with 30 teachers over the last two weeks, not 300 students (that is to come). I could still be wrong – but it’s looking less likely. 

Another aspect to this question is that it is not just cybernetic constructivism which has guided these interventions, but consideration of current scientific inquiry – particularly in physics and biology. It's these fields - particularly physics - which I have gained most inspiration from Peter Rowlands.

Education as a discourse lends itself to a constructivist interpretation more readily than the physical sciences. Of course, “gravity” as a concept is a construct… but its phenomena produce regularities which appear powerful enough to convince us of their reality. So when we consider phenomena and issues from physics – for example, in the remarkable experiments which seem to mimic de-Broglie/Bohm’s “pilot-waves” in quantum mechanics (, or to consider cellular dynamics from the context of Torday’s theory of ambiguity-related self-organisation (which is also Bohm-inspired), or to consider issues of symmetry in both physics and biology, there’s a more fundamental question to ask. It’s not just whether our approach to education is wrong; it’s whether our approach to science is wrong. It is to ask about the possibility of a cosmology which connects education to physics - which is pretty much what Bohm argued for. If the physics experiments show he might be right about "hidden variables" (which is hotly disputed among physicists who tend to hold to the Copenhagen interpretation), he may also be right about symmetry and dialogue ( Peter Rowlands has been saying similar things (although he's not a fan of hidden variables): but there's something in the air...

At the root of this is the obsession universities have had with “teaching and learning”. It may seem heretical to say this, but I think the “teaching and learning” obsession is a grave mistake, dictated by the turning of education into a commodity. Universities are really about scientific inquiry. They are about looking at the world and asking questions, not about looking at “subjects” and passing modules. We need dialogue in its deepest sense, not "teaching and learning". 

I don’t think this is a relativized “opinion” about education which can be contrasted with any other; it is a different level of discussion, to which most education academics are oblivious. It is to say that the boundary between education and science is itself a construct – and one which we could do well by dismantling.

Not all constructs are equal. They exist in strata – much like quanta of energy in the atom. One level of discussion is not the same as its meta-level. Playing a game is not the same as having a discussion about playing a game. The surprising thing is that stratification is entirely consistent with constructivist theory – Gregory Bateson is its principal exponent. When constructivism accepts the stratification of itself, it starts to feel like realism. But constructivism, like any discourse, can find itself stuck at a particular level and lose sight of the meta-level. I think this is basically what’s happened to constructivist thought and cybernetics over the last 30 years: it’s got flabby. I have been very privileged in Vladivostok to explore a corrective.

Friday 23 March 2018

Keynes on Now...

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

Education as Music: Some thoughts on the “Vladivostok Experiment”

I’m in Vladivostok at the moment. I’ve had a long-term relationship with the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) here, which has led to a large-scale educational experiment which is one of the most exciting things I have been involved in. The experiment takes the form of a course which:
  • Is free of any specific curriculum, although it revolves around “systems thinking” 
  • is a conference, concentrated into two weeks rather than spread over 14 weeks 
  • is assessed by patchwork-text and a form of comparative judgement 
  • is driven by conversation 
  • is coordinated with video
  • is oriented around resources or objects 

It’s intended for students in the Management and Economics school to help them prepare for the world of the future, and to help them fill the gaps between their disciplinary knowledge and the skills they will need in the workplace. There will be nearly 300 students involved in it in October. In order to make it all work, we need teachers to be facilitators. 

For many teachers who see themselves as disciplinary experts, this is a challenge, so this week and next I am coordinating some activities with teachers whilst also trying out some of the ideas for the course. Helping me is Sebastian Fiedler from the University of Hamburg, as well as key staff from FEFU. 

 It’s all going rather well… and that leads to the question “What are the design features of this course which are making it work?” I’m slightly uncomfortable with the question, because “design” feels too stiff a term to describe the process that has led to its creation. In many uses of the word “design”, there are intentions which are stated at the outset about “how things will work” and for whatever reason, they never work out like that (think of “learning design”). 

This course feels more like making music together: We do something together, everyone has a good time… nobody quite knows why or exactly what’s happened, but everyone feels changed in some way. Music isn’t really “designed”, but it is “created”. What’s the difference? 

One of the key features of any musical activity is the amount of redundancy that is involved. Music is highly redundant: repetition of rhythm, melody, harmony, etc is its fundamental constitution. Educational design doesn’t “repeat” in the same way – partly because it doesn’t seem rational to do this. But this emphasis on redundancy is important, and particularly relevant for this course in Vladivostok. I came to Vladivostok as a visiting professor three years ago at the invitation of a young Russian academic who I had met through collaborating with Loet Leydesdorff. Her name is Inga Ivanova, and she had made an important contribution to Loet’s work. 

Inga's contribution was to highlight the importance of redundancy in innovation networks, and to suggest ways in which mutual redundancy between different agencies could be calculated. Ever since, I have been fascinated by redundancy in teaching and in music. (Ironically, my trip to Vladivostok came a week after I was made redundant by the University of Bolton – something which, it turned out, was rather a good thing – but it didn’t feel it at the time). Redundancy is a technical term for the production of multiple descriptions of things. I’ve since realised that the process of producing multiple descriptions of the same thing is fundamental to the process of teaching. Human communication relies on the production of redundancy, just as machine communication has to add redundancy in order for signals to overcome noise (as in Shannon’s theory). Good teaching involves saying the same thing in many different ways. Student understanding is expressed through the generation of many descriptions of what is understood. Our assessment processes rarely recognise this. 

Redundancy may be generated in many ways. Conversation among students is a way of doing it.  So a discussion about an object invites many different descriptions of that object. Conversation is a mechanism for the coordination between the many descriptions to establish a shared meaning among a group. In the activities we are doing in Vladivostok, staff either create or are presented with different kinds of object: sometimes it's photos on their phones, other times, its pictures or unusual artifacts. Each time, groups are asked to express descriptions of these objects and coordinate their different descriptions into a coherent narrative. 

There are a number of side-effects of this which are powerfully educational. Firstly, individuals get to know each other better: they discover things about each other which they didn't know before, and this leads to new conversation (for example, two academics in the session yesterday, realised that they had a shared employment history). These conversations continue long after the event.

Secondly, some of the objects they are presented with stimulate curiosity in the conversation which leads to further reading and research: the objects serve to disturb the equilibrium of individuals such that new learning becomes necessary. 

The assessment strategy of Patchwork text provides a mechanism for participants to keep a record of what happens to each individual, how they are changed by things, what new research they do about things. It all seems to work!

Our conventional understanding of education focuses on information - the opposite of redundancy. But it seems to me that redundancy - and its music - may be far more powerful.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Do Universities need Vice Chancellors? Some thoughts on the pension dispute...

One of the ironies of the pension dispute is that it centres around risk, which was the topic of expertise of the former University of Bath's overpaid Vice-Chancellor, Glynis Breakwell. Her book on risk is on my desk, which I got cheap in an Amsterdam bookstore. Earlier today I, along with other USS pension scheme members, received an email about USS's assessment of risk in their pension deficit calculations. Everyone agrees that risk is not an exact science, and the battle is about whose interpretation you believe. This is compounded by the fact that trust between the academics (for which read UCU) and the management (UUK) has broken down not just on the issue of the pension, but on a whole host of issues related to the running of the academy over the last 10 years, where we have seen the closure of departments, zero hours contracts, students as customers, compromise agreements, outrageous salaries, ridiculous expenses, VC globe trotting and a complete absence of humility.  In the view of many academics, it's all gone to shit.

All these problems are the fault of management, not teachers or researchers. So why do we need them? Is it an unthinkable thought that we rid ourselves of vice-chancellors and their management cronies, and that universities run as academic cooperatives? How could such a thing be possible?Martin Parker's point in his "Against Management" (see is absolutely right: we need to think about the organisation of education, not its management.

How have we ended up here? Like most crazy aspects of capitalism, it's the fault of the Americans. Even in the early 20th century, it was obvious that US universities were taking a more commercial path to higher education than their older European cousins. Veblen saw it first, commenting (in 1899) that:
"it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain of industry in place of the priest, as the head of seminaries of the higher learning. The substitution is by no means complete or unequivocal. Those heads of institutions are best accepted who combine the sacerdotal office with a high degree of pecuniary efficiency" (Theory of the Leisure class)
He could have been writing about today, where literal "captains of industry" (a term which Veblen coined) are making a mint out of universities. What do they do, exactly? What do they do which is worth the £200k - £400+ salary they are paid? Well, one thing they do is join a club called Universities UK...

What if they all went? Would universities fall down? No. But if students don't get taught, or can't sit their exams (particularly all those foreign students who pay a fortune for the privilege of sitting in classrooms in the UK rather than in their home countries), do things start to fall apart? Well, probably yes they do.

The people to blame for the current strike are the Vice-chancellors. I'm not surprised that some VCs are talking of the need for "compromise" from UUK. They know they are on a sticky wicket. The VC of Cambridge even blamed government policy for turning Universities into businesses ( Quite right. Except that such strong criticism of government proposals was not voiced at the time of when the government introduced the policy. The VCs then pushed for the highest fees, from which they ramped up their own salaries.

We have a moment of a reckoning. Something's gone badly wrong in Higher education. 

The Creative Process

Of the stages of artistic creation, beginning something appears not as difficult as continuing something. I think continuing is generally more difficult than finishing, but at each stage, the artist has to make choices, and the choices at the beginning shape the choices made when continuing and when finishing.

In the beginning, a distinction must be made. "Let there be light" is a distinction. The world begins with distinctions. The context of this initial distinction is an undifferentiated totality - it is something drawn up from Freud's "primary process". How this decision is made is quite mysterious. Something is required to attenuate the possibilities to make the first distinction. For Leonardo, when preparing a fresco, it was the "cracks in the plaster". There'll be some observed constraint in the material which makes that first moment of making a reality. Gombrich talks about the way that Picasso tears a piece of paper: the form of the tear, the fibres hanging out in the initial moment then give him a way forwards. The first distinction creates constraints for subsequent distinctions. 

Any first distinction is taken with a view to how subsequent distinctions might be made. Everything has possibilities, creates expectations. There's something about a first distinction which resonates with possibilities, with the ideas expressed in the culture, with other aspects of the material or form. The criteria for selecting an appropriate first distinction is symmetry. When Stravinsky talks of conceiving works as wholes (he's not the only one to say this), he is referring to the discovery of a symmetry which connects a first moment of creation with the completed artifact. David Bohm would call this the perception of "implicate order": an awareness or consciousness of totality - not just totality in the moment of creation, but totality through history. It's a symmetry of diachronic and synchronic dimensions.

"Continuing" is then an unfolding of the first distinction. That makes "continuing" sound easy - which, of course, it isn't. What typically happens in "continuing" is that we decide that the first distinction was no good, and so we make another one.  Like Amédée the playwrite in Ionesco's absurd drama of the same name, it's not unusual to have a creative process which continually writes beginnings, crosses them out, and writes a new one. For most people, this becomes exhausting, and whatever impulse there was to create something new dissipates in the frustration of abortive beginnings.

When it works, beginning and continuing are connected by something deeper. The first distinction isn't simply a mark on the paper or a crack in the plaster. It is the identification of a generative principle. The creative process is one of discovering a deep generative principle which connects the first moment of creation with the unfolded form. Every person engaged in an attempt at creativity experiences the frustration of abortive attempts at beginnings. Not every person understands what they are in, or that to understand the form of the process one is in is to understand the deeper nature of the search and purpose that they are engaged in. Disorientation kills the creative process. Successful creation results from having a compass.

All of this interests me partly because I am frustrated by my own creativity. After 8 years, I really am now finishing my book. It's taken so much longer than I anticipated. But I had to go through the process of identifying what it was about, what's its generative principle was, what the first distinction should be. But a book is easy compared to writing music, which is what I always wanted to do. When I was a teenager, music flowed out of me much more easily than it does now. When we are young we are much more attuned to the implicate order and its generative principles than when we get older. Academic knowledge hides the implicate order. My experience of university was that it stultified creativity: where there was energy, curiosity and passion, it created concepts and discourse. That was the death of creativity for me - particularly on a music degree! (I was fortunate that my professor, Ian Kemp, who was head of department at Manchester, knew this all too well: "You'll never learn anything in a place like this," he said. I admired his courage for saying it at the time, without considering exactly how right he was)

Getting the book done is a big deal. But it is an academic book - it's about concepts and discourse. When we talk about human creativity however, whether in art or science, this is not where the action is. The problem is that the way we are taught to think in University is fundamentally synthetic: we are taught to aggregate and synthesise different presentations of phenomena and different theories. We're taught to say "x says this, and y says that", and we taught to see that "a can be explained by x and b can be explained by y". Stephen Hawking is a good example of a synthetic thinker - a product of the university system. He sought to unify quantum theory with relativity. But really, he failed, just as everyone else has. It's not that they're stupid. It's because they are starting from the wrong place. Artists know this more clearly than scientists.

The opposite of a synthetic approach is an analytic approach. My colleague Peter Rowlands argues that this lay at the heart of Newton's scientific approach (see Chapter 2 of . I'm convinced he's right. Newton was able to identify deep generative principles; he didn't seek to synthesise available theories and phenomena. This is ironic, because the Universities modelled themselves on what they believed to be "Newtonian" science. And the artists - like William Blake, who was Newton's antagonist - knew this was wrong. Peter argues that Blake got Newton wrong, and that had he understood how Newton worked, he would have recognised a kindred spirit. It was the institutions that screwed it up.

The issue at the heart of this has to do with how we think about "selecting" a course of action from a set of possibilities. It is about how we think about "information". We tend to think that selecting something involves consideration of the synchronic context: the options available at a particular moment. Technology encourages us to think like this.  But it doesn't work like this. Selecting involves identifying the symmetry between synchronic and diachronic dimensions. This, I think, has profound implications for the way we think about information and technology. We need ways of thinking about diachronic and synchronic symmetry. The generative principle is the source of an unfolding symmetry.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Science at the heart of the system

The “student as customer” should not be the driving force for the development of universities. But the government is determined to pursue a policy of shaping Universities in the image of student desires. Since everybody – students, academics, managers, politicians - is confused about what education is for, what university is about, what matters and what doesn’t, it would be foolish to let any single group determine the direction of universities. The latest wheeze is to brand courses as “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” ( – as if it is "the course" which is the independent variable in the life and career of the student. This is nonsense – there are no independent variables!

How have we got here?  

We have pursued an ideology which turns everything into money. The easiest route to turning everything into money is to identify a group of people as “customers” and another group as “providers” and the interaction between them as the provision of a “service” which is charged for. In reality, nobody really agrees who is a customer of who, who provides what and what on earth a “service” is. Everything get blurred in the complexity of intersubjective engagement. Consequently, the distinctions “customer”, “service” and “provider” needs reinforcement if the financialisation process is to work at all – even in its own terms.

What we see in every effort by the government to “regulate” education – from the REF to TEF to NSS to the latest “gold and bronze courses” is an effort to reinforce infeasible distinctions. This is a positive feedback loop. Every effort to codify the uncodifiable results in new confusion. New confusion leads to new efforts to reinforce the distinctions. So some new even more granular metric will always be around the corner. And the effect of this on the system? Inevitably it changes institutional and individual behaviour. The education system has become financialised because it has sought to fit the distinctions that are determined for it, and increasingly to ignore the fundamental problem of the impossibility of making clear distinctions.

This creeping ignorance is the most serious problem for universities. Multiplicity  of description and difference of interpretation are the cornerstones of academic discourse. Universities have always been places where ambiguity and confusion are coordinated in the conversations between members of the institution – students and staff. In a world of government-determined, clearly codified distinctions, where failure to comply results in personal disaster, the space for discussion disappears in an environment of fear.

Science only survives and advances in an environment of openness to difference and ambiguity, in much the same way that Amatya Sen argues that economic development depends on democracy. This is why the Arabic world could not capitalise on its extraordinary scientific discoveries, and instead they passed to Europe. The government is killing the universities, and with it, it is killing the foundation of social flourishing.

The kids aren’t stupid though. They can see this is ontologically wrong. My daughter complained the other day about the bronze and gold courses: “This is why I don’t want to go to university. They’ve become as bad as school”. She’s right. There’s hope in that she can see it.

Saturday 10 March 2018

Monday 5 March 2018

"Provost": A definition

This is for my friends at the University of Bolton, who may be curious as to what a "Provost" is.

(a) a derogatory term for an individual who mistakenly believes themselves capable of running a school.
(b) a more general term of abuse. e.g. "He's a complete and utter provost", "What a provost", "What happened to that other provost? You know, the Greek one..."
(c) a short-lived academic position awarded to an individual who causes a lot of problems in an institution and eventually disappears

Do you suspect someone of being provost near you? Don't delay - call the Education and Skills Funding Agency. Their anti-provost team will swing into action immediately - like it did here:

Next time: definitions for "President and Vice-Chancellor", "Deputy Lieutenant", "Presidents' Club Member", "Former Bishop of Manchester" and many more!