Thursday, 29 March 2018

Constructivism and Truth in Vladivostok

It is a privilege for an academic in educational technology to be given the opportunity to create and implement a large-scale pedagogical transformation. Every academic has some idea of how education should or should not be conducted. Every academic has some kind of theory as to how teaching and learning works, and they act on those theories every day in their teaching – even if they are not directly conscious of it. But a large-scale intervention which makes new demands of many other teachers, and which impacts 300 students at once is of a different order. Inevitably this means one academic’s theory about teaching overrides the others. I have been privileged at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia, because that one academic is me.

One of the more intense discussions I have been having here has been about constructivism. Sebastian Fiedler accompanied me here. He and I have known each other for a long time, and are both advocates of Personal Learning Environments. Unusually for educational technologists, Seb knows his systems theory, and has a deep grasp of constructivist views on education.

There is a strand of constructivist thinking which verges on relativism, and which is particularly antithetical to any privileged position or to the notion of “truth”. In essence, everything is a speech act which coordinates with other speech acts to produce a dynamic that creates the phenomena we see as “real” or “true” in the world. Given such a view, what is the justification for saying that one academic’s theory about education should be trusted to such an extent that it dominates the practices of everyone else – even if that theoretical position asserts the prominence of conversation, cooperation, and activity? What is the justification for saying that “constructivism is true”?

What we have done in Vladivostok has been successful beyond anything I hoped for. It really has been an extraordinary experience. This picture below, drawn by one of the teachers sums things up... But there is an essential tension here – does this mean that I am “right” in my theory and approach? And it may be too early to say. We have been working with 30 teachers over the last two weeks, not 300 students (that is to come). I could still be wrong – but it’s looking less likely. 

Another aspect to this question is that it is not just cybernetic constructivism which has guided these interventions, but consideration of current scientific inquiry – particularly in physics and biology. It's these fields - particularly physics - which I have gained most inspiration from in my two years at the University of Liverpool (thank you Peter Rowlands!). 

Education as a discourse lends itself to a constructivist interpretation more readily than the physical sciences. Of course, “gravity” as a concept is a construct… but its phenomena produce regularities which appear powerful enough to convince us of their reality. So when we consider phenomena and issues from physics – for example, in the remarkable experiments which seem to mimic de-Broglie/Bohm’s “pilot-waves” in quantum mechanics (, or to consider cellular dynamics from the context of Torday’s theory of ambiguity-related self-organisation (which is also Bohm-inspired), or to consider issues of symmetry in both physics and biology, there’s a more fundamental question to ask. It’s not just whether our approach to education is wrong; it’s whether our approach to science is wrong. It is to ask about the possibility of a cosmology which connects education to physics - which is pretty much what Bohm argued for. If the physics experiments show he might be right about "hidden variables" (which is hotly disputed among physicists who tend to hold to the Copenhagen interpretation), he may also be right about symmetry and dialogue ( Peter Rowlands has been saying similar things (although he's not a fan of hidden variables): but there's something in the air...

At the root of this is the obsession universities have had with “teaching and learning”. It may seem heretical to say this, but I think the “teaching and learning” obsession is a grave mistake, dictated by the turning of education into a commodity. Universities are really about scientific inquiry. They are about looking at the world and asking questions, not about looking at “subjects” and passing modules. We need dialogue in its deepest sense, not "teaching and learning". 

I don’t think this is a relativized “opinion” about education which can be contrasted with any other; it is a different level of discussion, to which most education academics are oblivious. It is to say that the boundary between education and science is itself a construct – and one which we could do well by dismantling.

Not all constructs are equal. They exist in strata – much like quanta of energy in the atom. One level of discussion is not the same as its meta-level. Playing a game is not the same as having a discussion about playing a game. The surprising thing is that stratification is entirely consistent with constructivist theory – Gregory Bateson is its principal exponent. When constructivism accepts the stratification of itself, it starts to feel like realism. But constructivism, like any discourse, can find itself stuck at a particular level and lose sight of the meta-level. I think this is basically what’s happened to constructivist thought and cybernetics over the last 30 years: it’s got flabby. I have been very privileged in Vladivostok to explore a corrective.

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