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.

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