Thursday, 18 January 2018

An Educational Techno-Utopia

Last week, one of my favourite sociologists, Christian Smith, published an angry piece in the Chronical of Higher Education entitled "Higher Education is Drowning in BS" (see https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Education-Is-Drowning/242195). I've been fascinated by Smith's work for some time (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/ethics-good-society-and-technology.htmlhttp://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/explaining-explaining-and-knowledge.htmlhttp://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/critical-realism-and-cybernetics.html), and there are two things that strike me on reading his Chronical piece.
  • First, it is no ordinary rant from any ordinary academic: this is someone who is an authority on human experience.
  • Second, I doubt that the senior management of his institution have read his work or have anything like the high opinion I and many others have of him. Some of those senior managers will call themselves "professor" and consider themselves to be intellectual authorities (since this is what "professor" denotes). In reality they will simply have been ambitious enough to acquire the title of highest academic rank without having to have read or thought that much.

There are some serious qualitative distinctions that need to be made and which are becoming blurred. Smith says it in his piece:

BS is universities hijacked by the relentless pursuit of money and prestige, including chasing rankings that they know are deeply flawed, at the expense of genuine educational excellence (to be distinguished from the vacuous "excellence" peddled by recruitment and "advancement" offices in every run-of-the-mill university).
For me personally, I have this disaster coupled with a very bright 18-year old daughter who is adamant she doesn't want another "three years of school" - and that is pretty much how all universities have become. So the bright kids are starting to desert the academy. The intellectual authorities in the institutions (the ones who know their way around the library), have either retired or have "had enough". What hope is there?

Among the many factors which have fed this decline, confusion over what "educational experience" is is high on the list of culprits. Because of the sheer difficulty in examining experience, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the only reliable methods are "by proxy" - questionnaires, surveys, etc. Yet these things do nothing  to measure experience. As Roger Brown says, University is an "experience good". That means "you can't know it until you've experienced it" (after having parted with £9250). That's an experience in itself!

In truth, Universities do their best not to be honest about the experience of university. Everyone knows that photographs of smiling students are a lie. Universities never tell you what it's like to struggle to get assignments done (or even, exactly what assessed work will be expected) or be bored rigid in a lecture. Why don't they publish their assessments up-front and let students decide when they feel they are ready? Because that wouldn't be in the commercial interests of the institution, even if it clearly is in the interest of the students.

In Dennis Potter's play from the 1980s, Blind Lazarus, a dead man's experience is available for others to enjoy (or at least experience too). Might technology deliver something like this to us one day?

I'm beginning to wonder if its not impossible. I've been doing some experiments analysing the dimensions of real-time experience as a kind of "counterpoint". At the moment it takes a lot of processing power to produce a map of the interplay of different domains of experience (visual, auditory, haptic, kinaesthetic, proprioceptive, etc). But as with any data processing, it will get quicker to the point of becoming instant. That would change things.

There could be no hiding of experience. One person could know another's consciousness. Would we still talk? probably - but it would change. I don't think capitalism would survive this innovation, let alone universities. But it would usher in a completely new era of learning and communicating. We would have tools to amplify the tuning-in to one another that is essential to communication. Assessment and certification would disappear as trust (which is what those things are about) becomes an explicit pattern of consciousness. Would we still lie? Maybe - but equally, we would know that we do it, and understand it better in others.

This isn't as far away as I once thought. It is really the flip-side of AI and machine learning. Those tools (AI) contribute to objects which transform themselves, presenting automatically generated multiple descriptions of themselves to the consciousness of individuals. Individual experience, contextualises these automatic multiple descriptions, and situates them within the many other multiple descriptions which comprise the context of conscious life.

I doubt Christian Smith will be able to look into the crystal ball like this - he is, after all, longing for the disappeared old academy. But here we see a new academy. It's not a hierarchy of professors and managers, but a heterarchy of intersubjective insight.

Learning and teaching will take care of itself.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Learning Analytics, Surveillance and Conversation

In the noisy discourse that surrounds learning analytics, there are some basic points which are worth stating clearly:
  1. Learning Analytics, like any “data analysis” is basically counting: complex equations which promise profound insights are in the end doing nothing other than counting. 
  2. Human beings determine what is to be counted and what isn’t, and within what boundaries one thing said to be the same (and counted as the same) as another thing. 
  3. Learning analytics takes a log of records – usually records of user transactions – and re-represents it in different ways.
  4. The computer automates the process of producing multiple representations of the same thing: these can be visual (graphs) or tabular 
  5. Decisions are facilitated when one or many of the representations automatically generated by the computer coincides with some human’s expectation. 
  6. If this doesn’t happen, then doubt is cast over the quality of the analysis or the data.
  7. Learning analytic services typically examine logs for multiple users from a position of privilege not available to any individual user. 
  8. Human expectations of the behaviour of these users is based on bias surrounding those aspects of individual experience that a person in privilege will have: typically this will be knowledge of the staff ("the students have had a miserable experience because teacher x is crap")
  9. Often such high-level services exist on a server into which data from all users is aggregated with little understanding by users as to what might be gleaned from it. 
  10. The essential relationship in learning analytics is between automatically generated descriptions and human understanding.  
  11. Data analytic tools like Tableau, R, Python, etc all provide functionality for programmatically manipulating data in rows and columns and performing functions on those rows and columns. Behind the complexity of the code, this is basically spreadsheet manipulation. It is the principal means whereby different descriptions are created. 

So the real question about learning analytics is a question about automatically-generated multiple descriptions of the data, and how those multiple descriptions influence decision-making. 

Of course, decisions made from good data will not necessarily be good decisions, nor are decisions made with bad data necessarily bad. What matters is the relationship between the expectations of the human being and the variety of description they are presented with. 

In teaching, communication, art, biology or poetry, multiple descriptions of things contribute to the making of meaning. Poets assemble various descriptions to convey ideas which don't have concrete words. Composers create counterpoint in sound. When we discuss things, we express different understandings of the same thing. And teaching is the art of expressing a concept in many different ways. What if some of these ways are generated by machines?

AI tools like automatic translaters or adaptive web pages are rich and powerful objects for humans to talk about. As such tools adapt in response to user input, people talking about those tools understand more about each other. Each transformation reveals something new about the people having a discussion. 

This is important when we consider analytic tools. The richness of the ability to generate multiple descriptions means that there is variety in the different descriptions that might be created by different people. The value of such tools lies in the conversations that might be had around them. 

With the emphasis on conversation, there is no reason why analytic tools should be cloud-based. There is no reason why surveillance is necessary. They could be personal tools, locally-installed instead. Their simple job is to process log files relating to one user or another. Through using them in conversation, individuals can understand each other's understanding better. They should be used intersubjectively.

Recently I've been doing some experiments with personally-oriented analytical tools which transform spreadsheet logs of activity into different forms. The value in the exercise is the conversation. 

Whatever we do with technology, it is always the conversation that counts!

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Learning as an Explanatory Principle - a response to Seb Fiedler

Seb Fiedler (University of Hamburg) wrote this (http://seblogging.cognitivearchitects.de/2018/01/11/on-learning-as-an-explanatory-principle/) earlier last week in response to my post about a "logic of learning" (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/a-logic-of-learning.html)

My original post was about the impossibility of saying anything sensible about learning. Bateson's idea of "explanatory principles", which Seb uses, was his way of pointing out the essentially relative nature of anything we say about anything. Gravity? It's an explanatory principle!

Seb highlights Jünger's view that "learning is an explanatory model for the explanation of change".

The effect of any explanatory principle is to allay uncertainty about the environment. We are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty, and seek to explain it away. If it's not  God, it's the Government, or "human nature".... Because we attribute learning to so many aspects of change in the world to which we are uncertain, we have established institutions of learning to do an industrial-scale mopping-up of this uncertainty!

Explanatory principles - particularly when they are institutionalised - wash over the details of different people's interpretations of an explanatory principle. When the institution defines what learning is, individuals - learners and teachers - can find themselves alienated from their own personal explanatory principles. A common experience in education is for a learner to be told that they've learnt something when they feel just as confused (or more so) about the world as they did before they started.

At the heart of Bateson's argument about explanatory principles was the epistemological error which he feared would lead us to ecological catastrophe. He believed, as many believe in cybernetics, that one has to correct the epistemology. Bateson's attempt to articulate the logic upon which the epistemological error was based revolved around his work on the "double-bind". Double bind logic is a dialectical logic of levels of contradiction and resolution at a higher level. This is the logic which I think we should be looking at when we look at education and the discussion about learning. 

The use of the explanatory principle of "learning" is a bit like a move in a strategic game. When x says "this is learning" they are maintaining a distinction through a process of transducing all the different descriptions of their world and what they observe into a category. They then seek to defend their distinction against those who might have other distinctions to make. It's not the distinction that matters. It's the logic of the process whereby the distinction comes to be made and maintained. 

The logic behind the double-bind which produces the distinction is not Aristotelian. Bateson did not fully explore the more formal properties of the double bind logic. Lupasco did, and Joseph Brenner is able to tell us about it. Also I think Nigel Howard's theory of Metagames is also able to articulate a very similar kind of logic in a formal way using game theory.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Partial Notation of Improvisation and Creative Processes

I experimented with creating an instrumental voice (a flute) using some music notation software (Staffpad) and then improvising some kind of accompaniment to it on the piano. The notation process was interesting because it was effectively a process of creating space in the score. The gaps between the instrumental sections were more important than what occurred in those sections. I improvised into the gaps.

This worked quite well. It struck me that the process is a bit like doing a drawing where you demarcate the background and work towards the figure. The instrumental sections were pretty random - but it was just a frame. The colour was filled in with the improvisation.

I listened to the ensemble and started to add another voice which reinforced some of the features of the piano. Eventually I imagine I could dispense with the improvised bit completely.

When we sing along, or improvise with existing music, what is happening is the making of an alternative description of it. It's rather like taking Picasso's bare skeleton of a bull, and gradually filling in the bits which are missing. The bare bull is still a bull. What we add are alternative redundant descriptions.
This is what my improvisation is in relation to the fragments of notated melody on the computer. Gradually more and more description is added, and more and more redundancy is created.

One further point: thinking about my interest in Ehrenzweig's work on psychotherapy and the creative process (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/ehrenzweig-on-objects-and-creativity.html), the notated score with its bare bones and large gaps is a means of creating what Ehrenzweig calls "dedifferentiation" in the psyche. It breaks things up and creates a framework for the drawing up of new forms and ideas from the oceanic primary process. Ehrenzweig talked about serialism doing this. This is the first time I have had the feeling that technology might actually be able to do it too. My experience with technology and musical creativity generally has been that it gets in the way because it reinforces the superego's "anal retentive" demand that things must be done in such and such a way.

I have not felt this with this particular exercise. Of course, it's not great music. But the process promises something...


Wednesday, 27 December 2017

A Logic of Learning

I don't know how anyone can say anything defensible about learning. Learning is like an "itch" - it is what Searle calls an aspect of "epistemic subjectivity" - something we know about in our individual consciousness, but provides no direct object for shared social inspection and agreed definition. Yet in the dreary world of educational research, so many academics insist at some point in defending their educational innovation with some kind of statement about what learning is. What they imply by such a statement is what learning isn't - and what learning isn't is the particular practice in education that they don't like, as opposed to the one that they "sell". How can they possibly know?

The fact that we think we have some idea of what learning is is important. It impacts on our educational practice. I once asked a friend (who is a leading education academic) my favourite question, "Why is education so crap?" and he said "bad theory". But that raises the question as to what a good theory might look like. Since we can say nothing defensible about what learning is, how could we establish any ground for good theory?

Theory generates expectations. Bohm pointed out that the word theoria has the same root as "theatre". Theory, he says, is a "theatre of the mind" - where our expectations about what might happen play out. But whilst it might be impossible to agree a single "play", it might be possible to agree on the logical principles upon which all our different plays are constructed. There is, after all, a logic to the plays of Shakespeare, to the politics of Machiavelli, to the music of Bach or the military tactics of Julius Caesar.

To be more precise, there is "logic" in the sense that we learn about on philosophy and mathematics courses. It belongs to the classical world of Aristotle. It involves principles like the law of the excluded middle. This logic is also the logic which underpins the way in which we think about computers and technology, and in turn it drives our thinking about social organisation, big data, statistics, metrics and so on.

But the logic of nature is not this. It works differently. The logic of Shakespeare, Bach, Machiavelli and even Caesar embraces contradiction. Only recently have such logics been explored, partly through the discovery of logical principles in nature (quantum mechanics and biology) which appear to similarly embrace them. At the moment, I am exploring the logic of Stephane Lupasco (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St%C3%A9phane_Lupasco) and the work of Joseph Brenner, whose 'Logic in Reality' presents itself as a new way forwards in logical thinking which might be able to express a deeper logic which might unite aesthetics, biology, quantum mechanics with learning.

So whilst we might not (and cannot) agree about what learning is, we can unpick the logic upon which our propositions about learning are formed. Doing this is to tunnel under the foundations of our current mad discourse in education. It's a strategy for reformulating an approach to education which acknowledges learning as metaphysical whilst embracing it within a transformed scientific approach.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas TV and the Entropy Pump

I had a nice family Christmas with everybody being together. This year, it was noticeable that we didn't watch TV. There were a couple of moments where someone said "What's on telly?", and after perusing the available 100+ channels, we concluded that the answer was "nothing"! When I think back to our childhood when my brothers, sister and I had opened our presents, we inevitably settled down to watch the TV, and usually, there'd be something on that we could all watch (even if we didn't fully agree). Then there were 4 channels to choose from, and the programming between those channels was carefully planned so as to gain the best possible audience.

The other striking things about modern TV is the sheer complexity of turning the thing on. Ever since satellite broadcasting we have had to work out which remote control to use, how to get to the programme guide, and so on. We used to simply turn the thing on and that was it. The business of choosing something from 100 plus channels has become the process of watching: and it has become a process where eventually (after about 10 minutes of deflation) we decide there is nothing to watch. Then someone says "What about Netflix? or iPlayer?", and round we go again...

Technology adds to the available options for doing things. The uncertainty involved in choosing anything, as a result, increases. Another way of looking at this increase in uncertainty is to say it is an increase in disorder, or entropy. More technologically driven choice increases entropy: it is an entropy pump.

Entropy pumps are useful for controlling people. Where totalitarian regimes used to ensure through propaganda that everybody got the official message, now social control can be effected by ensuring that there is so much noise, nobody gets any message! When the entropy pump is focused on a family group deciding about what to do with their time, then it results in a pointless 10 or 15 minute activity of arguing about nothing, and in the end deciding to do something else (whilst still feeling disappointed that somehow they must be missing something). When the entropy pump is focused on the individual, the result is different.

What limits the family discussion is a balancing of the chaos presented by the TV with a collective awareness of each other and an exploration of other possibilities for communication. When we retreat into our mobile devices, we are faced with another kind of entropy pump... but we seem to get hooked on it rather like a drug! Why is this?

An increase in entropy in the environment leads to a search for identity of the system that finds itself in that environment. When the device we are using is both the source of entropy, and presents itself as the means of finding identity, preserving one's sense of self, then the relation between the individual and the device will be addictive. Even by writing this blog, this is what is happening in me: I am defining or reinforcing my identity in the face of the electronic noise around me.

All systems exhibit this behaviour in the face of the increasing complexification produced by technology. The most dangerous responses are by traditional institutions as they engage in all kinds of pathological measures to try and keep their structures stable. In some cases (government, media companies), the command "generate more entropy!" is given.

What we do as individuals to defend ourselves against this is a critical question. It has, I suspect, a simple solution: we need to look at each other. Christmas is such an interesting time because, for all its faults and distractions, we cannot avoid doing that!



Thursday, 21 December 2017

Marion Milner's "The Human Problem in Schools"

Marion Milner was a psychotherapist who, in 1938, undertook a research project on the nature of schooling by studying a girls school which was part of the Girls' Public Day School Trust which had been established in 1872. Milner focused on a range of dimensions of schooling including:

  1. The physical conditions
  2. Arrangement of the Time Table
  3. Teaching Methods
  4. Mental Health of Teachers
  5. Intelligence and Vocational training
as well as a programme of dissemination of findings (what Milner calls "lecturing to parents and staff"). 

She captured in note form the difficulties faced by various members of staff. For example, 

Difficulty in form mistress in getting to know her form when very often she does not teach them all. Thinks that children are not putting in their share of the work, they don't really work in class. 'We try so hard to make it amusing but certainly when they leave no one is going to do that' [...] Thinks the children are spoonfed. Thinks that fatigue partly due to fact that 'if you let up attention for a minute, you've lost them'.
Problem of change of regime when a form passes up to another form mistress with different methods of discipline... transition from strict disciplinarian to one who believes in independence, resulting period of apparent unruliness[...] Children take so long to settle down nowadays...
For the children, she created a questionnaire in which she asked what might be improved about their experience. She captured a list of "miscellaneous worries" which are fascinating:

  • When people are cross
  • Telling lies
  • Being the eldest in the class and the least brilliant
  • Quarrels
  • Feels her worries are too ridiculous to mention
  • Life generally
  • Losing things
  • Making younger sister go to bed when told to
  • Being late
  • If she's forgotten to do something she promised to do
  • Gets very depressed
  • Suffering in the world
  • Worries over trifles
She then tabulated these responses:


One of the big innovations in schooling at the time was the emergence of the intelligence test. Milner appears to support this, although she does document the thoughts and feelings of both staff and students towards it. One child said she didn't like it: "it's ridiculous and I don't believe in psychology and I know a girl who got ill through it", or another who said "it tired my brain too much" (p.62)

Milner conducted a series of deeper interviews with the girls. One of the techniques used was what Milner describes  as a postcard sorting technique:
A set of about 40 picture postcards was prepared, showing different kinds of people in a variety of different situations. When each girl came for her interview it was explained it was explained that a study was being made of the 'different kinds of things people are interested in' and she was asked if she would sort the cards into three piles, according to whether she would 'like to be one of the people in the picture, or hate to be, or not mind either way'. When she had done this she was asked to go through the 'likes' pile and the 'dislikes' pile and say why she had placed each card in that particular pile. (p.79)
In more detailed questioning, children were asked about their day-dreaming. One child, described by her teachers as having an "antagonistic attitude in class, indolence and lack of ambition" reported her day-dreams like this:

In bed I imagine I am diving in the Olympic Games, and doing extraordinary fancy dives absolutely perfectly. In school I imagine I am taking a Gym class. When listening to the wireless I wonder what it would be like to act, or sing into a microphone, or perhaps sometimes I feel I am broadcasting myself.
 Another child, reported as being aloof, has a different set of daydreams.
I imagine I am far away in some unknown land, I fancy it may be Utopia. The fountains play and in their spray there forms a cottage smallest of the small, I always think. The oak beams after many years have warped and now are bent and in the crevices grow moss of all shadses. This place, once a home, is now an empty field.
The roses, pink and white have spread over the doorway so that I cannot enter in. I know what is inside because through the lattice windows lovely visions play across my mind. The house is mine, I say, no one shall even know what I see in there! I shall always remember how a tall Poppy bnowed down to me and said, "It is yours for ever". This is one of my thoughts that comes to me when I am tired. I call it the Home of the Unknown. 
Milner points out that the contrast between these two descriptions as demonstrating "emotional assertiveness" in the first and a lack of interest in domination or successful performance in the second. She relates this to Jungian ideas of extroversion and introversion.

Milner then looked at ways of 'dispersing anxiety', using Jungian categories of sensation, intellect, intuition and emotion, she specifically focused on "finding a social function" and "dispersing anxiety through creative work" as two practical avenues the emotions could be dealt with. She also considered the environment for the growth of the individual, including:

  • The nature of the parents' interests
  • Amount of change in the environment
  • Opportunities available for the multi-level solution of conflict
  • Companionship of equals
  • Amount of emotional stress in relationship with adults (p189)
There's some stuff in Milner's book which is of its time, and to us would seem quite offensive. For example, her solution to reducing fatigue for the staff is to recognise "the intellectual limitations of the non-academic child"! However, she also supports "abolition of numerical marking", and comments that (in 1938!) "several parents mentioned, quite incidentally, that it is a recognized practice for girls to help each other over the telephone while doing their preparation"

She also comments that 
"much of the time now spent in exhortation is fruitless; and that the same amount of time given to the attempt to understand what is happening would, very often, make it possible for difficult girls to become co-operative rather than passively or actively resistant. It seems also to be true that very often it is not necessary to do anything; the implicit change in relationship that results when the adult is sympathetically aware of the child's difficulties is in itself sufficient."