Wednesday 30 May 2018

Synthetic and Analytic Approaches to Technology and the Future of Education

Most research in almost all domains today has the form of a synthesis. Attempts are made to establish coherence between current knowledge, manifest phenomena, available theories and prevailing methodologies. Whether one is trying to reconcile relativity theory with quantum mechanics, or the secrets of epigenesis, or one is trying to find out what the future of education holds, it's the same story. In the case of physics, the manifest phenomena are produced by experiments designed with the available models (the immensely complicated "standard model"). Experiments tend to confirm the model - which might mean it's right, but might not tell us how something more fundamental is going on, from where we might look at things differently.

Major scientific breakthroughs rarely follow the synthetic path. We call them "Copernican" because they don't. We call them that because somebody comes along and asks an analytical question, not a synthetic one. They ask "What simple origin could be producing this complexity of theory, phenomena and methods?" Copernicus realised we were looking down the wrong end of the telescope, as did Galileo, Newton, Einstein and quite a few others.

My colleague Peter Rowlands, has drawn the relationship between synthetic and analytic science like this (from the perspective of physics). I find it a powerful diagram:

So what of the future of education? The synthetic approach is to seek the manifest phenomena, use the available methodologies, assess the current knowledge and try to fit it with available theories. In education, of course, none of this is coherent: there is no coherent theory, there is no agreed methodology (although there are some which have become normatively established - largely through PhD programmes), and where reporting manifest phenomena, all education can seem to manage is responses to questionnaires and interviews, and test scores. Is a synthetic approach going to work? I doubt it. It will tell us what we already know.

So what of an analytical approach to education. Where would we start? The starting point is to speculate that there must be a simple originating principle behind the rapidly increasing complexity that we find ourselves in - something behind the babel of theories, interviews, methods. Freud saw it in terms of psychodynamics; John Bowlby saw it in terms of attachment; Gordon Pask saw it in terms of conversation; Maturana and Varela saw it in terms of what they call "structural coupling"; Beer saw it in terms of "variety"; Piaget saw it in terms of assimilation and accommodation. And these principles are not limited to explain social phenomena: they are connected to the explanation of physical phenomena too (particularly in the case of Beer, Maturana and Pask)

Analytic approaches are good at predicting the future. One of the most powerful analytic approaches to the future of technology is contained in Winograd and Flores's Understanding Computers and Cognition. There are no interviews, and their methods are a combination of critique of the status quo, and the seeking of a coherence between philosophy, speech act theory and cybernetics. But their predictions were right where so many others were pointing in the opposite direction. Edgar Morin's Seven Complex Lessons of Education for the Future (see is another example. He too is well ahead of his time - even if the book is less than practical.

It's interesting that the concentration of scientific effort on synthesis can in a large part be attributed to the current practices of scientific publication. In order to get past peer-review, in order to play the citation game, etc, one has to synthesise knowledge. The citation is the mark of synthesis. An important step in moving towards a more analytic frame is to break the hold that publishers have on academic activity.

Saturday 26 May 2018

Individuation and Higher Learning in Vladivostok (Paper for the Philosophy of Higher Education Conference)

Of all the things I am doing at the moment, a radical educational experiment in Russia has been by far the best. Weirdly, myself and Seb Fiedler have had to travel to the other side of the planet to do something different. I'm going to San Francisco in a couple of weeks for a conference on biosemiotics, but it struck me that in the 60s, to do something radical, people went to California to escape the stiffness of the establishment. Now, the establishment is definitely in California (it's defined by California!)... so we fly 14 hours in the other direction... to Vladivostok! Not as warm in climate, but just as warm in terms of the people there. And when I think of the trouble that Russians have to go to to get a visa to come and see me in the UK (they have to fly 9 hours from Vladivostok to Moscow), it puts my 10 hour flight to San Francisco in perspective.

It's taken a while for me to articulate what the plan was in Russia. As I've written before, it's a course on systems thinking, but really, we are aiming to use technology to oil the connections between the inner world of learners and the outer world of communication. It's pretty much what psychotherapists do. Which leads me to think that Higher Learning is really about "Individuation" in a Jungian sense.

My 18-year old daughter, who is eschewing university (at least for now) in disgust at it simply being "more school for which we have the privilege of paying" (she's quite right),  has been pointing to the rise in mental health problems at University. "But they're doing this to their students!" She may be right. But we don't understand how or why. Except that I think it's got something to do with talking and listening.

The technological explosion of the last few years has exposed us to vastly increased variety in sensual stimulation which reaches our minds, but the experience of increased variety is rarely talked about. Instead we may talk about Trump or cute kittens and giggle, but never talk about what is actually happening to us. So a lot is going in and not enough is being intelligently exchanged in discourse to maintain a balance between the inner psychodynamic mechanism and social mechanisms. Internet porn is probably the most obvious example of where this is happening, but really it's everything from fake news to constant social media checking. AI may help alleviate the problem by facilitating deeper human connections between people, or it may exacerbate it. Either way, we have to wake up to what is happening, because AI is going to make it bigger.

The human result is unmanaged uncertainty in the psychodynamic process - which is a recipe for varieties of psychological problems. This Russian course is constructed to use the rich stimulation of the web - particularly in terms of the vast array of resources from all subjects - to get people talking about deeper mechanisms underpinning life and experience. It's a bit like an updated version of Marion Milner's "A Life of One's Own". From a technological point of view, it's simple. From a human perspective, it's been fascinating and rewarding.

Uncertainty, Objects and Technology in Education: Inverting the relation between content, process and conversation in a complex world

Mark William Johnson
Sebastian H.D. Fiedler, University of Hamburg, 
Svetlana Rodriguez Arciniegas, Far Eastern Federal University 
Maria Kirilina, Far Eastern Federal University

Computer technology has changed education and the world in a remark- ably short time and nobody seems to be certain exactly what’s just happened. There has been an increase in uncertainty in educational practice as people try to decide on what tools to use, confusion about institutional purpose coupled with managerialism, metricisation and financialisation which has left scholars of higher education expressing concern about the state of universities and higher learning (Brown 2010; Collini 2017; Barnett 1990). In the face of market de- mands, university has become more like school. Defenses of ‘higher learning’ to provide necessary ‘unsettling’(Barnett 1990) through presenting ‘troublesome knowledge’(Meyer and Land 2006) giving students ‘epistemic access’ (Morrow 2009), or providing opportunities for personal transformation or individuation (Mezirow 1991) do not appear to have had mainstream impact on pedagogic practice. Such distinctions themselves raise questions about the status of the ancient academy in the face of a new world of communications technology which works in very different ways to the university’s slow rhythms, and students appear unwilling to be ‘troubled’ once they see themselves as customers. This is not the first time in history when humans have been faced with technical changes that render existing social structures no longer fit for purpose. The computer and its communication networks have disrupted the most basic foun- dation of human activity: the way we talk to each other. Our institutions of higher education have yet to find an effective way of reorganising themselves in response.

We present an argument based on information-theoretical analysis concerning the relationship between uncertainty in education and technological development. We argue that technological development creates uncertainty in the environment of existing institutions, and that social change which sometimes follows technological development is a reaction to this increasing uncertainty. We contend that the institution of education is in a positive feedback loop with environmental uncertainty, which it is exacerbating with its current use of tech- nology. This position, we argue, distinguishes itself from technological determinist arguments about the social effects of technology, whilst also avoiding the often equally problematic social constructivist position (Feenberg and Callon 2010; Smith 2010). Technology does not determine social change, but creates uncer- tainty by increasing the variety of options for acting.

According to the information theory of Shannon (Shannon and Weaver 1949) an increase in the number of options increases the maximum entropy of choice, so the selection problem of choosing a particular option to pursue becomes more difficult. Institutions - and the people within them - have to adapt to this increased uncertainty: some- times by attenuating the technological possibilities (i.e. with new regulations to banish particular technologies), or sometimes by exploiting some aspects of a technology to reinforce existing institutional structures (e.g. the LMS’s ampli- fication of the classroom). Recent developments in higher education have seen both of these reactions.

While the ancient academy developed its structures to manage a once stable environment of uncertainty concerning science and knowledge, the technologically- driven explosion of uncertainty renders its structures ineffective. In a sea of uncertainty, psychoanalytical and sociological work suggests that intersubjec- tive engagement through conversation can still provide effective management of personal uncertainty through what Schutz calls the ‘pure we-relation’ (Schutz 1974), Luhmann calls ‘double-contingency’ (Luhmann 1996) and Freudian psy- choanalysis characterises as a ‘talking therapy’ (Freud 2016). The ‘tuning-in’ to the inner-worlds of each other through conversation remains the most powerful mechanism to address uncertainty at the interface between the psyche and in the social environment. Such a personalisation of uncertainty management how- ever, presents challenges to formal structures and practices in education which are tied to curricula and rigid assessment schemes.

The search for new ways of exploiting technology in organised learning con- versations which do not contribute to the uncertainty feedback-loop is urgent since the pace of technologically-driven uncertainty is not going to slow. We report on an experiment at the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia where technical artefacts have been used in conjunction with activity coordination tools and flexible assessment strategies to put learner intersubjective engage- ment centre-stage and create a virtuous cycle between what we call, following Luhmann (Luhmann 1996), the management of ‘psychic uncertainty’ and ‘social uncertainty’.

Figure 1 shows a schematic diagram drawing on the cybernetics of Stafford Beer (Beer 1995) of the experiment’s uncertainty management approach, where each individual ‘self’ or ‘Ego’ has both structure and uncertainty (contained in the large lower box) which are kept in balance by a process which is similar to Freud’s concept of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ process (Ehrenzweig 1968). This psychic uncertainty, which we relate to the Freudian ‘Id’, is managed by a meta- system (at the top): in this case, the individual’s ‘Superego’. The metasystem helps to determine communicative utterances, assisted by the presence of me- diating technological artefacts. A virtuous cycle is theoretically possible where effective management of psychic uncertainty leads to powerful communications which in turn benefit psychic processes.

In the experiment, technological artefacts (videos, pictures) other objects (shells, rocks, trash, artworks) and visiting experts (artists) were mashed-up in unusual combinations to stimulate conversation through coordinated activities. The process is designed to reflect the lived experience of exposure to a rich variety of online phenomena, but to bring the psychodynamic effects of this into conscious experience and conversation. We report on the results of a 3-day pilot with 30 participants.
In conclusion, we argue that the full force of technology’s threat to education and society has yet to be felt. The nature of this threat is not automation of hu- man action; the threat lies in the pathological reaction of human institutions to uncertainty created by new technology. A good society manages its uncertainty. The conversational inversion of uncertainty management of the kind we report presents an opportunity to explore the ways technological artifacts - whether videos, AI, or Virtual Reality - can be used to drive a virtuous personal and convivial uncertainty management process.

Barnett, Ronald (1990). The Idea Of Higher Education. en. Google-Books-ID: eTjlAAAAQBAJ. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). isbn: 978-0-335-09420-2.
Beer, Stafford (1995). Platform for Change. English. 1 edition. Chichester ; New
York: Wiley. isbn: 978-0-471-94840-7.
Brown, Roger, ed. (2010). Higher Education and the Market. English. New York, NY: Routledge. isbn: 978-0-415-99169-8.
Collini, Stefan (2017). Speaking of Universities. English. London ; New York:
Verso. isbn: 978-1-78663-139-8.
Ehrenzweig, A. (1968). The Hidden Order of Art. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Feenberg, Andrew and Michel Callon (2010). Between Reason and Experience:
Essays in Technology and Modernity. English. New edition. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. isbn: 978-0-262-51425-5.
Freud, Sigmund (2016). Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. English. Cre-
ateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. isbn: 978-1-5375-4930-9.
Luhmann, Niklas (1996). Social Systems. isbn: 978-0-8047-2625-2.
Meyer, Jan and Ray Land (2006). Overcoming Barriers to Student Understand- ing: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. en. Google-Books-ID: RCUVmm05qmcC. Routledge. isbn: 978-1-134-18995-3.
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John Wiley & Sons. isbn: 978-1-55542-339-1.
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of Social Reality v. 1. English. 1972 edition. Hague ; Boston: Springer. isbn: 978-90-247-5089-4.
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Smith, Christian (2010). What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. English. Chicago, Ill.; London: University of Chicago Press. isbn: 978-0-226-76594-5.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Do Cells Sing to Each other? - Some thoughts on biology, physics and educational theory

This is the abstract from my paper which I'll be presenting at the Biosemiotics gathering in Berkeley in June (see This is a fascinating group of scientists from all fields. The next wave of educational theory will come from renewed focus on the current state of biology and physics.

At the moment in education, we are stuck with what biology thought in the 1920s - not that it was all wrong, of course - but we certainly know more now. Physics is connected to biology, and our understanding of quantum mechanics and its relation to relativity is particularly important, with some significant work going on there. Of course, the quantum thing is also critically important given that this will underpin the next wave of technology.

I think a renewed scientific focus will help clarify some of the confusion surrounding neuroscience's role in education (neuroscience is biology, after all), and also some of the problems which have crept in with half-baked philosophical speculation (sociomateriality, etc) which has become dogmatic. Speculation should be encouraged. Unfortunately education has a habit of turning speculation into dogma.

Do Cells Sing to Each Other?

                 Mark William Johnson

David Bohm considered that:

“in listening to music, one is directly perceiving an implicate order” (Bohm 2002)

Whilst remaining controversial, the wide-ranging nature of Bohm’s theory of implicate and explicate order presents an imaginative opportunity to connect to other scholarly considerations of music and communication (notably by Langer (Langer  1990)  and  Schutz  (Schu¨tz  1951))  and  consider  that  Bohm’s  insight might extend to cellular communication as well as physics. This paper consid- ers whether a process of “directly perceiving an implicate order” might be a mechanism in cellular communication, and how such a process might be artic- ulated with reference to ways of describing musical communication.

Central to Bohm’s approach is the acknowledgement of multiplicity of de- scription: what we think of as single descriptions like “a chair” or “a message” are, he contends, multiplicities. Fourier analysis of music reveals multiplicities which are both synchronic and diachronic, as shown in the spectral sound image below:

Each synchronic (vertical) level of the sound spectrum can be considered redundant: overtones add to the richness of the sound, but the essential function of a tone is preserved by the context. Diachronically, melody and harmony describe different aspects of the same thing, but both synchronic and diachronic aspects together form a coherence, which in Bohm’s physical theory, he saw as a symmetry.

I suggest a logical characterisation of this drawing using McCulloch’s model of perception (McCulloch 1945). In McCulloch’s work, perception is a coherence between multiple excitations of ‘drome’ circuits which configure each other, producing a syn-drome. McCulloch illustrates his idea with a diagram of the inter-connected circuits where each dromic excitation can either stimulate or attenuate every other level. I argue that this is comparable to the synchronic structure produced in music frequency analysis. In arguing this, I suggest that McCulloch’s dromic diagram can be drawn with different circuits representing basic categories of music (e.g. rhythm, melody, harmony, tonality)

Beyond basic categories like this, in music there are emergent categories as articulations of tonal and thematic structure unfold. In McCulloch’s diagram, this emergence can be represented with new dromic cycles interfering with ex- isting ones.
To explore this logical idea, experiments can be constructed which examine music for the Shannon entropy of its different aspects. Each feature can be treated as an ‘alphabet’ with an emergent entropy, where each aspect’s change in entropy affects every other aspect. The resonances from McCulloch’s loops can be re-represented empirically by plotting the changes in entropy over time from one description/alphabet to another. In doing so, we can investigate at what point (and by what mechanism) new alphabets are introduced, and secondly, by what mechanism do existing recognised aspects disappear. Using evidence of such analysis on a variety of music, I suggest that new categories emerge when the relative entropy between descriptions is coordinated in some way such that the correlation acquires some new label.
Is cellular communication like this? Is there a similar dance between multi- ple redundant descriptions? Musical coordination occurs in a context of aware- ness of multiple descriptions and self-awareness of participation in descriptions. Sometimes multiple descriptions of the environment present ambiguity and un- certainty. If awareness of self and ambiguity is a function of the symmetry between different descriptions of reality then cellular development might be di- rected in ways which address resonant symmetries within and between cells. A mechanism similar to this has been suggested by Torday (John S. Torday 2012). Emergent categories in the development of symmetries may then break apart those symmetries (creating a broken symmetry in a similar way to Deacon’s autocell (Deacon 2012)), just as a musical development will arrive at a cadence for something new to take shape.


Bohm, David (2002). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. English. 1 edition.

London ; New York: Routledge. isbn: 978-0-415-28979-5.

Deacon, Terrence W. (2012). Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Mat- ter. English. 1 edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. isbn: 978-0- 393-04991-6.

John S. Torday (2012). Evolutionary Biology: Cell-Cell Communication and Complex Disease. Wiley-Blackwell.

Langer, Sk (1990). Philosophy in a New Key: Study in the Symbolism of Rea- son, Rite and Art. English. 3rd Revised edition edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. isbn: 978-0-674-66503-3.

McCulloch, Warren S. (1945). “A heterarchy of values determined by the topol- ogy of nervous nets”. en. In: The bulletin of mathematical biophysics 7.2, pp. 89–93. issn: 0007-4985, 1522-9602. doi: 10 . 1007 / BF02478457. url:

Schu¨tz,  Alfred  (1951).  “MAKING  MUSIC  TOGETHER:  A  Study  in  Social Relationship”. In: Social Research 1, p. 76. issn: 0037783X.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

E-portfolio and Personal Uncertainty Management

One of the practical problems we face in my university is a plethora of e-portfolio systems which are meant to capture competencies and student "reflections" in various ways. Big questions about what competency is, how to measure it, what reflection is, how to capture it, whether it should be assessed and so on tend to get ignored: in the spirit of Cohen and March's "Garbage can model of organisational decision-making" the choice of the tool (and a different one for each academic area!) suffices for making a decision about intractable questions in education. So choosing a tool manages the uncertainty of the decision-makers (actually, its worth reflecting on how much of capitalism is like this in general!) Deep questions of education get buried further once a tool is adopted, and technical questions about "how to do x" then dominate thinking. Bateson summarised the problem in Mind and Nature:

Innovations become irreversibly adopted into the on-going system without being tested for long-time viability; and necessary changes are resisted by the core of conservative individuals without any assurance that these particular changes are the ones to resist.

Confusion is an important aspect of the educational journey. There is no learning which isn't preceded by some confusion. Confusion generally is managed by conversation, but thought is a counterpart to this conversation. Conversation itself is not just about talking to each other: conversation is about intersubjectivity both with those immediately around us, our contemporaries who are not with us, and those who are no longer alive. Libraries (and now the internet) are places of conversation - often with the dead (are they really dead?!)

Conversation works by coordinating rich multiple descriptions of things. Everybody has different ideas and descriptions of what they experience. We explore the differences between our descriptions by talking in the pub, or by reading books or watching videos. In the end, what occurs is a process of tuning-in to the generative mechanisms in others who attempt to describe the same things that we do. The more we tune-in, the more powerful our communications will be.

The communication "x is competent" if it is said with real feeling (where someone might add "x is brilliant", or "you should get x to do that!") is the revealing of the inner generative mechanism of judgement by someone of somebody else: the different ways in which "x is competent" might be articulated is an indicator of the strength of feeling about x. Said without feeling, it doesn't mean very much. There is no feeling in e-portfolio competency management systems.

By talking to each other, by reading, by practising, students acquire redundancy of expression: multiple ways of saying things. Through a process over time things are experienced and gradually the structural mechanisms for producing a rich variety of expression emerge. It is a diachronic process, and e-portfolio presents itself as a way of capturing the episodes of experience which go into forming the whole person at the end.

The problem is that e-portfolio becomes a kind of ritual which students are compelled to do. It becomes thoughtless, automatic, alienating. It needs to become conversational (in the deepest sense), intersubjective, a way of tuning-in to the inner-worlds of others; a way of generating insight.

No tool alone can do this. It requires a rethinking of pedagogy.

When students write entries in their e-portfolio, what they are doing is creating 'objects'. Objects are powerful mediators of conversation. They reveal something of the inner-world of one person to another. Different kinds of objects reveal different things. The pedagogic problem of e-portfolio is the demand that all students create the same kind of object and keep on doing it. So while something is revealed in the first instance, it gradually becomes less meaningful.

The making of digital objects is an opportunity to inspire students to creative forms of expression which break the boundaries of ritualised description. Activities could be coordinated such that drawings, poems, videos, photographs and so on can all be used as a way of driving conversation. Competency will reveal itself in the richness of descriptions produced through intersubjective engagement. It can all be much more fun.

It's interesting that given the richness and power of the technology, that we've turned it into something so dire. Why have we done that? Because the institution has needed to manage the uncertainty created by technology!

Monday 14 May 2018

Diagrams of Uncertainty Management

The second diagram here is based on the diagrams in Beer's "Platform for Change"  which shows an entity which in order to maintain its identity, must manage its uncertainty. It struck me that the diagram fitted rather neatly the relationship between the Freudian Ego, Id and Superego.  Then it struck me that two Ego-Id-Superegos might communicate, which is what we would see in group dynamics. Freud has his own diagram which looks like this. Note the significance of the "external object". It's a fascinating diagram - Freud thinks like a cybernetician!

My diagram also has an external object which helps to mediate communication between the two individuals. It is connected to the Superegos of both. This is because the superego is the part of consciousness which imposes norms and rules of communication. A shared object doesn't impose norms and rules, but creates a context within which new norms and rules might be formed. That's why particular objects and activities can be very powerful in shaking-up the superego and reconfiguring its relationship with the subconscious.

The subconscious itself represents "inner uncertainty". The self, or the ego, contains uncertainty in the undifferentiated aspects of experience. But the connection between the two superegos represents the uncertainty of social life: the challenges is to find the right words with which to communicate.

There is therefore a vertical process of uncertainty management which deals with the psyche, and a horizontal processes of uncertainty management which deals with social relations, mediated by objects.

I've used this diagram to describe my Vladivostok educational experiment. It really all hangs on the use of technology to create highly diverse and mutable objects. The computer affords the colliding of many different kinds of object from many different contexts. When they are mashed-up together, the superego has to find new patterns of communication in order to maintain its relationship with the inner-uncertainty of the psyche.

The combination of mutable objects and conversation is very powerful. New things can be brought out into the open from the subconscious through conversation. Not least important of these things is the experience of inhabiting a world dominated by the internet and machines. The educational process helps to articulate these experiences and bring  them into consciousness.

I've argued in my book that this is where higher learning really lies: it is in the individuation process which is stimulated through the interaction between horizontal levels of managing uncertainty (the psyche) and vertical levels of managing social coordination.