Wednesday 21 September 2022

About Learning and de-growth

Seymour Papert argued that we do not have a word for the art of learning in the same way that we have words for the art of teaching (pedagogy, didactics) (see his "A word for learning": Papert then suggests the word "mathetics", drawing attention to the fact that "mathematics" appropriated the word for learning to refer to its specialised practices, when the word "Mathematikos" simply meant "disposed to learn". There may be deeper things to explore in this etymological relationship. 

We tend to think of learning as a kind of growth. As we learn, we know "more stuff", we gain "more knowledge", and we might even imagine that we get bigger heads! Babies start small and get bigger (up to a point), and as they get bigger they learn. Learning produces material artefacts which certainly do increase in size - before the internet, knowing more stuff meant more books, and (perhaps) a bigger library (to display as our zoom background!). The bigger the library the cleverer the people.

I was listening to Neil Selwyn talking about "de-growth" as a possible response to climate change and thinking about how education might support this (here: Crudely, we imagine that our ecological crisis is caused because things have grown too big, and that to address it, we need to "degrow". But what do we mean by "big" or even "growth"? My favourite source for thinking about this is Illich's "Tools for Conviviality". He talks about the outsized growth of technology and institutions beginning as beneficent, and becoming malevolent. The causes for the transition from beneficence to malevolence are mysterious - they may lie in our physiology and evolutionary biology (that's another post). But the actual manifestation of pathology is not size - it is a reduction in variety. Illich's clearest example is 100 shovels and 100 people digging a hole, which is eventually replaced by one person and a JCB. Which has the greater variety? The loss of variety as the technology becomes more powerful results in an increase in the creation of scarcity - and the "regimes of scarcity" are the ultimate propellent for positive feedback loops and accelerating crisis. 

The ecological crisis is a crisis resulting from the loss of variety caused by modern living, and within modern living, we must include education. No human institution excels in the art of producing scarcity more than education. The rocket fuel for the rest of the ecological crisis lies at the classroom door. But we can't seem to help ourselves. We see education as the solution to our troubles, not the cause! Education will teach us to "de-grow"... quick! roll-up for "degrowth 101"! Why do we do this? It is because we mistake education for learning. 

We tend not to see learning but instead see "education" in the same way that we tend not to see health but instead see "health systems". "Education" (and "health systems") get bigger and more powerful - rather like the library which forms part of educational institutions. As they get bigger and more powerful they lose variety (look at the NHS today). But "learning" (and "health") do not grow or get bigger. Both of these terms refer to processes which relate an organism (a person, a community, an institution) with its environment. These terms relate to the capacity of any organism to maintain their viability within their environment - indeed "health" and "learning" are deeply connected concepts. Learning is not about growth, but about homeostasis. 

Having said this, it's obvious that as we get older, we learn more stuff, we can do more things, we talk to more people, and so on. But we are really in a continual process of communion with a changing environment. Babies may seem to learn to scream to get attention, but their physiological context is changing alongside an epigenetic environment within which what it is to remain viable is a continual moving target. The education system appears to be a way of forcing certain kinds of environmental change, and as a result insisting on certain physiological responses (which appear to reproduce regimes of scarcity, and social inequality). Indeed, what we call "growth" is an outward manifestation of an unfolding of physiological potential in a changing environment. If growth was as fundamental as the "de-growth" people say, why does anything stop growing?

So if learning is not about growth, but about the viability of an organism in an environment, how can we visualise it differently? One way is to think about it mathematically - and so to draw back to the origin of the word for mathematics, mathematikos and "mathetic". If learning is a process of variety management, and a developing environment has differing levels of variety (and indeed, increasing entropy), then learning is really a process of finding a kind of resonance with that environment. These orders of variety and variety management might be rather like orders of prime numbers, or different levels of scale in a fractal, or different orders of infinity. Mathematically, we might be able to see learning in geometrical forms produced through cymatic patterns:

or knot topologies, 

Or Fourier analysis, or even in Stafford Beer's syntegrity Icosahedron (see Beer's book "Beyond Dispute"

These forms are expressions of relations, not quantifications of size. If we see size (and growth) as the problem we don't only miss the point, but we feed the pathology. 

We urgently need a more scientific approach to learning. We are going to need our technologies to achieve this. This is not ed-tech, but technology that is necessary to help us understand the nature of relationship. I fear that for those consumed with ed-tech, blaming it for the demise of "education", a different kind of approach to technology and a more scientific approach to learning is not a thinkable thought. 

I feel the need to make this thinkable is now very important. 

Monday 19 September 2022

Rethinking Education and a "Trope Recognition Machine"

I went to a conference at the weekend on "Rethinking Education". As is often the case with these things, there were some good people there and some good intentions. But I came away rather depressed. It's often said that there is nothing new in education, and events like this prove it. What it amounted to was a series of tropes uttered by various people, some of whom were aware that they were tropes, and others who genuinely thought they were saying something new. Meanwhile the system trundles on doing its thing - and while everyone there might admit that the thing it does is not very good, there is a surprising lack on clarity on what the system actually does. 

When we ask people to rethink something, it is often framed as an invitation to think about the future - to say, "let's bracket-out the system we have, and conceive of the system we want". But this is naive because the system we want is always framed by the system we are in, and it is always difficult to see the frame we are in, and what it does to our thinking. Frame-blindness has specific effects - one of which is the tropes.

At one point I was getting a bit frustrated by the degree of repetition in the tropes that a wicked thought occurred to me: what if we had a trope recognition machine? What if there was some device that could process all the utterances and classify them according to their trope identity. And of course, current machine learning is very good at this kind of job. But if you had a trope recognition machine, what use might it be? 

If we look at "rethinking education" as a problem situation - not the problem of "rethinking education" but the problem of talking about "rethinking education" - this problem is one of time-consuming redundancy of utterances. Basically many people say the same thing, and feel the need to say the same thing. Indeed, I suspect meetings like this owe their appeal to the opportunity they present to people to say what's in their heads in the confidence that what they say will "resonate" with what else is said. In other words, the redundancy is there in the desire to attend and speak in the first place. Perhaps we need to think about this - about the dynamic of redundancy in communication. 

One of the most interesting things about redundancy is how attractive it seems to be - it is after all about pattern, and patterns are what we look for when we try to make sense of something. So if we want to make sense of education, we need to go somewhere where we can fit into a pattern - a conference. But this is curious because the motivation of most people at conferences is to "get noticed" - to have their version of a trope which is distinct that everyone looks to them as some kind of originator of something which has been said before (actually the whole academic discourse is like this, but let's not go there!). So how does that work? How does the desire for collective sense-making through pattern and egomania fit together?

I've been reading Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power" and I think there is something in there about this tension between the search for redundancy and pattern, and the expression of the ego. Canetti sees the individual as someone who wants to preserve the boundary of their self. They don't even want to touched by someone else most of the time. And yet, they also want to belong to the crowd. Although Canetti was opposed to Freudian psychodynamics, clearly his analysis of the crowd is treading similar territory to psychodynamics: the crowd is the Freudian super-ego. 

The search for redundancy in going to conferences and saying similar things to everyone else is crowd-like behaviour. It seems to be driven by egos who want to get noticed - to preserve and reinforce their boundary of the self. 

I think the best way to think about this is to see both the ego and the superego as essentially dealing with contingency. They have to find a way to maintain a balance between their internal contingency and the external contingency. That means that it is necessary to understand and control the external contingency. Creating redundancy through utterances is a way of establishing some degree of control over external contingency: it is a way of establishing a "niche" in which to survive (my favourite example of an organism using redundancy to create a niche is a spider spinning a web). 

What is discovered about the external contingency has an effect on internal contingency. The ego is troubled by the subconscious, which contains the vestiges of experience and desire from infancy - and the legacy of education. The ego is satisfied with the niche it creates in talking about education and feels more secure. (What appears as egomania may simply be a need to establish some kind of inside/outside balance). But as a result, conferences like this actually satisfy the psychodynamic needs of individuals struggling in a terrible system for a short time. They are essentially palliative. 

Understanding these dynamics at conferences may be a first step to remedying the problems in the education system itself. A trope-recognition machine could pinpoint the different positions and contingencies which are expressed in a group: it could highlight areas of deep contention and uncertainty and thus focus discussion on those issues, codifying the underlying patterns that everyone is searching for in a way which could save a lot of time and frustration. That might result in some better decision-making perhaps.

Monday 5 September 2022

Learning and the Redshift of Biology

When we think we observe learning happening in others, we think of a change in an individual. We see each individual as on some kind of trajectory along a path which we have determined through making prior observations throughout history. This is encoded in our formal processes of education. In each individual we observe, there is a wide range of variation in this trajectory. Some lead to "success", some lead to "failure". One of the tragedies of education is that there is never enough time, nor the energy, to look at an individual's learning really closely. Perhaps parents (sometimes) and psychotherapists get a bit closer. Scientists observe ecosystems, stars, and cells with far more intellectual curiosity and desire for precision.

Learning never happens in "others". It happens in relationships - and those relationships inevitably include anyone who wants to "observe". If we imagine that in any relational situation, there are "engrams" - structures in consciousness - and "exterograms" - externally observable phenomena, the only observable aspect of relationship are the exterograms of communication - we can at least write spoken words down, record actions, assess, etc. In education research, this is basically what is done, and these "exterograms" of the learning process are subjected to various kinds of analysis which produce conclusions like "phonics helps children to read", or "people have different (codifiable) learning styles", and other such stuff. These are really political statements about which there is endless debate. Good for the champions of phonics and learning styles - after all, "there's only one thing worse than being talked about..."

The phrases "exterograms" and "engrams" were suggested by Rom HarrĂ© as a way of introducing the problems addressed by his "positioning theory". HarrĂ© said something very sensible about learning: "you know when learning has happened because the positioning changes". This seems true - the transition from apprentice to master is precisely a change in positioning between master and apprentice. This suggests to me that rather than look at the trajectory of an individual, we should look at the trajectory of positions. 

How could education become focused on the trajectory of positions, rather than the trajectory of individuals? Perhaps a good place to start in thinking about this is how an "individual" focus of education is different from a position-focused education. The former is built around the material consumption and production of students - textbooks, lectures, essays, exams, etc. The latter is built around the energy of communication between people. Is the shift one from a focus on matter to one on energy? 

In an energy oriented focus, there are no "exterograms" really. They are mere manifestations of energy in the learner (or lack of it!). In a dialogical relation, these exterograms have an effect on others in causing the production of other communications. But in the process, there is a  physiological background which is where the thinking and adaptation takes place. These physiological processes obey rules about which we have little understanding - but where an increasing amount of biological evidence is suggesting we might have new and highly productive scientific paths to tread. 

We are all made from the same stuff, and all our stuff - our cells - comes from a point source - a unicell. Through evolutionary history, cells diversified and acquired (through endogenisation of aspects of their historical environment) various features (mitochondria) which we find in us and everywhere else in nature. There is a surprising lack of variety of cell types in the human body - only about 200. Our learning processes are processes of cellular communication - not just within us, but between us. Those processes of communication reference the origins of cells - shared cellular history is a deep coordination mechanism which underpins what we might call "instinct". Instincts arise from cellular relations, just as learning arises from human relations. The same processes are in operation at different orders of scale. 

Looking at learning as the trajectory of "positions" in relations is like looking through the James Webb telescope for the beginning of the universe. Learning shows us the "redshift of biology". The cholesterol from which we are made had its origins at the origin of the universe (see David Deamer's book "First Life"). And there are powerful clues for this at a more mundane level. Simply counting the variety of possible relationship trajectories (just as counting the behaviour of individual learners) will reveal statistical structures which form normal distributions. Regression structures reveal differentiated groups - the learners who like maths, and those who like music - these too will be normally distributed. But simply to refocus on more fundamental things - love or hate - will also produce the same structures. It is fractal. 

To see education in terms of positions raises an important question about how to make education better. Do we want more kids to pass more exams? Or do we want better positions/relations between people? I don't think the answer to that question is too hard, although some might say that education is about "knowing stuff". So what is "knowing stuff"? We can see that too either as a material process - knowing stuff is about material consumption and production. Or we can see "knowing stuff" as being about energy - the capacity to engage with and position well a large set of relations in harmony with (and not against) our biological origins. I think this is the same as being "in dialogue" with one another.