Friday, 23 March 2018

Education as Music: Some thoughts on the “Vladivostok Experiment”

I’m in Vladivostok at the moment. I’ve had a long-term relationship with the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) here, which has led to a large-scale educational experiment which is one of the most exciting things I have been involved in. The experiment takes the form of a course which:
  • Is free of any specific curriculum, although it revolves around “systems thinking” 
  • is a conference, concentrated into two weeks rather than spread over 14 weeks 
  • is assessed by patchwork-text and a form of comparative judgement 
  • is driven by conversation 
  • is coordinated with video
  • is oriented around resources or objects 

It’s intended for students in the Management and Economics school to help them prepare for the world of the future, and to help them fill the gaps between their disciplinary knowledge and the skills they will need in the workplace. There will be nearly 300 students involved in it in October. In order to make it all work, we need teachers to be facilitators. 

For many teachers who see themselves as disciplinary experts, this is a challenge, so this week and next I am coordinating some activities with teachers whilst also trying out some of the ideas for the course. Helping me is Sebastian Fiedler from the University of Hamburg, as well as key staff from FEFU. 

 It’s all going rather well… and that leads to the question “What are the design features of this course which are making it work?” I’m slightly uncomfortable with the question, because “design” feels too stiff a term to describe the process that has led to its creation. In many uses of the word “design”, there are intentions which are stated at the outset about “how things will work” and for whatever reason, they never work out like that (think of “learning design”). 

This course feels more like making music together: We do something together, everyone has a good time… nobody quite knows why or exactly what’s happened, but everyone feels changed in some way. Music isn’t really “designed”, but it is “created”. What’s the difference? 

One of the key features of any musical activity is the amount of redundancy that is involved. Music is highly redundant: repetition of rhythm, melody, harmony, etc is its fundamental constitution. Educational design doesn’t “repeat” in the same way – partly because it doesn’t seem rational to do this. But this emphasis on redundancy is important, and particularly relevant for this course in Vladivostok. I came to Vladivostok as a visiting professor three years ago at the invitation of a young Russian academic who I had met through collaborating with Loet Leydesdorff. Her name is Inga Ivanova, and she had made an important contribution to Loet’s work. 

Inga's contribution was to highlight the importance of redundancy in innovation networks, and to suggest ways in which mutual redundancy between different agencies could be calculated. Ever since, I have been fascinated by redundancy in teaching and in music. (Ironically, my trip to Vladivostok came a week after I was made redundant by the University of Bolton – something which, it turned out, was rather a good thing – but it didn’t feel it at the time). Redundancy is a technical term for the production of multiple descriptions of things. I’ve since realised that the process of producing multiple descriptions of the same thing is fundamental to the process of teaching. Human communication relies on the production of redundancy, just as machine communication has to add redundancy in order for signals to overcome noise (as in Shannon’s theory). Good teaching involves saying the same thing in many different ways. Student understanding is expressed through the generation of many descriptions of what is understood. Our assessment processes rarely recognise this. 

Redundancy may be generated in many ways. Conversation among students is a way of doing it.  So a discussion about an object invites many different descriptions of that object. Conversation is a mechanism for the coordination between the many descriptions to establish a shared meaning among a group. In the activities we are doing in Vladivostok, staff either create or are presented with different kinds of object: sometimes it's photos on their phones, other times, its pictures or unusual artifacts. Each time, groups are asked to express descriptions of these objects and coordinate their different descriptions into a coherent narrative. 

There are a number of side-effects of this which are powerfully educational. Firstly, individuals get to know each other better: they discover things about each other which they didn't know before, and this leads to new conversation (for example, two academics in the session yesterday, realised that they had a shared employment history). These conversations continue long after the event.

Secondly, some of the objects they are presented with stimulate curiosity in the conversation which leads to further reading and research: the objects serve to disturb the equilibrium of individuals such that new learning becomes necessary. 

The assessment strategy of Patchwork text provides a mechanism for participants to keep a record of what happens to each individual, how they are changed by things, what new research they do about things. It all seems to work!

Our conventional understanding of education focuses on information - the opposite of redundancy. But it seems to me that redundancy - and its music - may be far more powerful.

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