Saturday, 7 April 2018

Teaching as Science: An Educational Cosmology

One of the interesting challenges behind the concept of a Personal Learning Environment has been the difficulty in making clear distinctions. Where is the boundary between a "person" and their "learning" or the "environment"? More profoundly, where is the distinction between "living" and "learning" and "using tools"?  These are not just fundamental questions about a branch of educational technology. They are fundamental questions about education. The PLE exposes the sheer difficulty of saying anything sensible about learning, and chips away at some of the dogma of educational research.

Educational research makes distinctions in order to make rational statements about educational activity, policy, technology, and the organisation of its institutions. The PLE challenges those distinctions. If there is no way of distinguishing learning from using or environment, then the distinctions which are made to defend the current institutions of education fall down. The problem is one of a scientific foundation for sense-making about education.

In dissolving the normative distinctions of education, the PLE operates in a different way to the normal way in which distinctions are made in the educational literature. Fundamentally, the difference is between what Bohm and others call a "synthetic" approach and an "analytical" approach. Like most areas of scientific inquiry in the social sciences (and indeed, much in the physical sciences), educational research is synthetic: that means it gathers evidence of perceived phenomena, available theories, and accounts of practice and attempts to coordinate them into something coherent. The result - particularly noticeable in education, but also in other social sciences - is incoherence. The approach is epistemologically-focused.

An analytical approach, by contrast, seeks to imagine fundamental generative principles (which may or may not be conceived of as mechanisms) which might produce perceived phenomena. This approach is ontologically-focussed. In scientific advances, it is usually the analytical mode which marks breakthroughs: from Copernicus to Kepler, and Newton to Einstein. In each case, what emerges is a new kind of cosmology: a description of the total system, which is sufficiently flexible to accommodate the variety of perceived phenomena, and which is sufficiently generative to produce new phenomena which can be accounted for within the system.

Cosmologies are, by definition, coherent in their own terms. In creating any new cosmology, the theoretical focus must fall on error.

The cosmology behind the PLE was cybernetic constructivism as exemplified by Von Glasersfeld, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask. Yet this cosmology has been poor in predicting the reinforcement of institutional structures, the dominance of status, the way the institution declares the scarcity of knowledge, and the ways in which technology itself has become dominated by global corporations. So we need something better - but does this mean that cybernetic constructivism is wrong?

Any cosmology - and particularly a constructivist cosmology - needs to account for its own claim to truth. Whilst privileging "conversation", constructivism cannot account for the fact that conversational learning has to be directed or designed at some level, and that the authority which imposes it is not the product of egalitarianism. It must also account for the fact that implicitly, constructivist education upholds the division between "teaching and learning" and "science" - as if "teaching and learning" provides a way into science. Yet there is no clear distinction between education as a practice and science as a practice beyond the distinctions made by the institution. At the same time, it must account for truth and facticity within a discourse - no learning is ever "the blind leading the blind". Yet neither is it merely the imposition of facts on others.

In addressing these problem, I've been thinking about the idea of a "stratified constructivism" which can be seen as an underlying principle behind the generation of the fabric of nature, not just conversation or dialogue. I've been particularly influenced by Bohm's physics and his work on dialogue. The idea was developed and refined in the process of putting together the Vladivostok experiment (see, in preparation for rolling the programme out to 300 students. In using an educational intervention as a way of exploring a new theory of the world, the boundary between education and science is broken down. In the process, the dialogue within the course becomes a way of revealing deeper truths about education, technology and the world. This is teaching as scientific inquiry.

We have come to believe that teaching is an instrument for learning. But what teaching is really is the generation of multiple descriptions of the world. It is the production of redundancy. Learning is an epiphenomenon - a bi-product. Teaching is one side of a transduction process with the social world. If the transduction works, then learning occurs.

Generating multiple descriptions of the world is fundamental to any scientific and any artistic activity. It is only by generating redundancy that we have any hope of detecting deeper patterns. Coherence in a work of art is precisely the determination of a deeper pattern which connects its form, the materials of its construction and the world. The artist discovers this through generating redundancy. The scientist generates many descriptions of the world from which they too seek a more unifying pattern. Teaching is no different from this. More fundamentally, teaching is connected to both. 

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