Saturday, February 17, 2007

it isn't immediately obvious

Marvin Minsky said the trick is that there is no trick. "There is no single secret, magic trick to learning; we simply have to learn a large society of different ways to learn". So we need to study a wide variety of learning theories to learn about the wide variety of tricks that different people use to learn. It's a lot of work and takes some time. Much (all?) of this is contextual as represented in theories like multiple intelligences or experiences of teaching ADHD or Asperger's syndrome students. What works for one may not work for another. There is no general theory of learning just as there is no general theory of intelligence. Logical abstraction is a useful but limited tool. So, because learning theories are fuzzy, slippable, embodied and situated things and not sharp, hard edged purely logical things they do require a lot of study to understand them. It doesn't begin or end with study of learning theory. There is philosophy, history, evolution, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and more.

It's not always immediately obvious how these complicated ideas do impact on ourselves and our students at the nitty gritty day to day level. For some of the time we are flying blind and the theory can muddle your mind. But eventually the study and self learning does impact and sometimes in deep but again, hard to explain, ways. A good learner / teacher needs lots of tricks not just a few tricks. Because the trick is that there is no single trick.

What are the benefits? We improve on our currently limited or poorly understood (and sometimes harmful) ideas of what it might mean to achieve a fuller, richer human potential for both ourselves and others. We expand our curiosity with each new learning quirk we discover, in ourselves and others. We improve our sense of confidence and control over what is happening in our lives.

Study of learning theory authors the sort of person you become

I've added the above to the home page of the learning evolves wiki

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

infantilisation plus psychotherapy

Reviews of "Where have all the intellectuals gone?" by Frank Furedi

I read all the reviews but haven't read the book.

Furedi is arguing that we languish in an anti intellectual cultural malaise and the main reason for this is the politics of inclusion. From the Terry Eagleton review:
Furedi, interestingly, does not see market forces or the growth of professionalism as the chief villains in this sorry story. For him, the main factor is the politics of inclusion, which in his view belittles the capacities of the very people it purports to serve. It implies in its pessimistic way that excellence and popular participation are bound to be opposites
There was no mention of the blogosphere which seems to me to be the new breeding ground for radical contrarian intellectuals.

My general feeling is that post modernism is on the decline. When people meet in forums they just talk about the issues and try to figure things out, in practice they forget the weird notion that truth doesn't really exist. Yes, there is ongoing philosophical war against the notion of truth but I don't see it as being all that successful. Whenever someone really tries to get at the truth they do attract a lot of positive attention.

Kelly Jane Torrance points out that the actual content of ideas is still rather important. Something worth remembering at a time when some people are claiming that connection is far more important than content:
One cannot even rely on the supposed guardians of culture to, well, guard it any longer. "There is a new breed of university managers, museum and gallery directors, and 'knowledge' entrepreneurs who regard the content of culture and ideas with indifference," Furedi notes. "Their concern is to use culture to achieve an objective that is quite separate from its inner content."
The risk free society idea is a real problem. Parents want their children to be safe so this taps into a real fear. The media taps into this fear consistently and successfully, eg. by promoting moral panic about pedophiles and bullying on the internet. This seems to be a consistent theme in Furedi's writings if you look at his other titles: Politics of Fear, Culture of Fear, Therapy Culture and Paranoid Parenting.

Treating everyone, including adults, like children is part of this. Dumbing down. I liked this part from Theodore Dalrymple's review:
Our current cultural policies are therefore a cross between infantilisation and psychotherapy: infantilisation to ensure that nothing is beyond the grasp of anyone, and psychotherapy to make everyone feel good about himself
Roger Scruton says that the strength of the book is that it draws connections between a number of social phenomenon: the decline of truth seeking, the retreat from risk taking, hostility towards science and the dumbing down of school curriculum. It's useful to point out the synergystic effects of this combination

Some of the reviews say that Furedi attacks the notion of making things relevant as contributing to the dumbing down process. I think the reality is that people will only tackle hard issues when they find them relevant.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

which radical discontinuity?

I've uploaded my oral presentation to the connectivism conference here. To follow along download the mp3 and slides. Thanks to Leigh Blackall for recording and editing this. There were some interruptions due to my connection being lost a few times, which was unfortunate, but didn't spoil things too much. The chat went ahead fine without me there! I've since been checking my broadband speed and have found out that it varies enormously from test to test - need to work out how to dialogue about this with my ISP effectively.

(all the presentations - George Siemens, Will Richardson, Diana Oblinger, Bill Kerr, Stephen Downes, Terry Anderson - are available from the Manitoba moodle site, here)

I structured my presentation so that there were breaks and time for questions and passing the microphone around and some of this did happen

Here's an after the event elaboration on one slide from my talk:


I'd like to look at the notion of radical discontinuity, that there is radical discontinuity happening in some domains but possible not in others:

1. New tools, web apps. YES, there are hundreds / thousands of new web apps coming on line all of the time

2. New learning environments – augmented conversation, communication and collaboration. YES, you can obtain a lot of excellent advice about how to integrate a new web app into your teaching situation by searching around blogs of educators.

3. New curriculum. NOT YET? I give the example of Greg Whitby's new school in Sydney
where, to quote from the linked article:
"I get the feeling that curriculum reform - and getting that to work in a more or less traditional curriculum framework - hasn't been addressed as deeply as the other aspects of the project (space, time, built environment, "web2.0"). You can't change everything else and keep an old curriculum"
Probably need to talk about this one more. Tony Forster I think would argue that VELS is a new curriculum framework which emphasises more about process skills and less about specific content. One big problem I see with this argument is that we don't currently have either the infrastructure (eg. one laptop per child) or sufficient teachers with the required skills to deliver such a curriculum to everyone. Nothing like it. Until this happens this new curriculum is really just a piece of paper.

4. New epistemology, a new nature of knowledge. What I argued in my presentation was a few of things.

First, most of what we need (not all) has already been brilliantly provided by past learning theories. I tried to summarise this with two big ideas from the past, which cover a lot of ground:
  • Papert's idea of "objects to think with", such as the logo programming language for starters
  • Vygotsky's idea that we use language to author our own self development
Second, even though these ideas are great everything keeps moving and nothing stays still. Learning theory evolves. But I think the new territory which George Siemens connectivism and Stephen Downes connective knowledge seeks to claim has either already been claimed by others or has been better done by others. Theories of distributed cognition are not new and the direction being mapped by Stephen Downes, which emerged more clearly from the forum discussion, is not good IMHO.

I've started a new page on the wiki about What is knowledge? It was very encouraging that educators wanted to grapple with this fundamental question in the chat room

5. New political awareness. I think that's needed, that a lot of the blockage is at that level. I like this slogan:
"The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet" - William Gibson
I see distribution as mainly a political issue, who is stopping the future from being distributed?

Friday, February 09, 2007

the politicisation of education

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has just launched another attack on school curriculums, claiming some contain "incomprehensible sludge"
Only months after Education Minister Julie Bishop infamously claimed school curriculums were "straight from Chairman Mao", the Prime Minister used yesterday's launch of conservative education consultant Kevin Donnelly's book, Dumbing Down, to lob another salvo in the schools' culture wars
- Howard attacks 'fad' schooling
I have to agree that SACSA is incomprehensible sludge and just about a total waste of teachers time

Education is becoming very politicised and clearly Howard sees votes in it in the next election

I know plenty of science teachers who want to stand up the front and teach hard science and are frustrated at attempts to soften the curriculum, to make it more fun. They see this as "watering down"

This back to basics approach feeds off a sort of fuzzy progressivism. For example, read this post, Let Loose the Racoons: Student Engagement Yesterday and Today and the comments at arti's blog. In response to arti's critique of bureaucratic waffle about "engagement", "rich and authentic”, "student inquiry" and "authentic contexts" there was raised in the comments other approaches to science education that were innovative and which did work.

I don't agree with back to basics as promoted by PM Howard because it reinforces an instructionist approach to teaching which just doesn't work very well because it is clueless about how people learn.

On the other hand, I know other teachers, usually on the humanities side, who are making heroic attempts to introduce life long learning skills into their classrooms, for example, by focusing on the 16 Habits of Mind. I think these approaches are great and need to be explored further. And they need to be extended more into science and maths education in ways that work.

New, innovative approaches are complicated and don't always work the first time around. Sure, teachers who are trying them out ought to be accountable in some way. But then they also ought to be encouraged and not intimidated by our bellicose PM on the campaign trail.

Somewhere in between the back to basics movement and the fuzzy, poorly thought out discovery learning there are ways in which students can be engaged with rigour. It's what Papert called "hard fun" in the logo days (still a great concept) and it's what those who blog about education today are trying to figure out.

It's hard in this contested and increasingly politicised environment to be heard. The real progressives will have to speak up!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

distributing the future

Thinking about the slogans on the School 2.0 site and systematically writing down and categoring my own slogans (my categories are significantly different to School 2.0) is causing me to change my presentation to the connectivism conference. My current presentation is too academic and theoretical. Learning theory is important but I need to restrict what I say here to what I have learnt in a nitty gritty way, my current zone of proximal development. I want teachers to become more like activists, not more like academics.

The important point is this: The radical transition that we are now in the process of going through is mainly about power and the challenge to exisiting hierarchies that control School education. This is also reflected in the media with their moral panic about the risks to children on the internet.

I like this quote from William Gibson: "The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet"

That has a "web2.0" flavour but it also has a timeless flavour. The future is always here and not distributed yet. Many of the slogans below go way back, eg. to the time of Nietzsche (1844-1900). Rebellion against hierarchy and slow to adapt authority has been with us for a very long time. Distributing the future involves understanding the past.

I think what is happening now is the transformation from a niche community of "edubloggers" (a term which I think is self restricting) into a political movement. That is what is required to distribute the future. That needs to be spelt out and grasped. If we don't become political then we will remain confined to a niche, where (some) benevolent School administrations give our students permission to participate in the rich potential offered by new technologies.

Papert's theories of learning hit a political wall a few years ago. School won that battle. Now Vygotsky's theories about language have teamed up with modern technology like blogs and once again there is political repression, censorship and restriction on the child's right to communicate and explore modern technologies.

The struggle continues but this time the protest movement is bigger and far more organised.

FREEDOM / CHOICE / RIGHTS / INEQUALITY (structural inequality)

one laptop per child (Negroponte)
Elaboration: If the third world can have one laptop per child then why can't the first and second worlds? (Bill Kerr)

support the rights of the child to explore new technology
Elaboration: The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice. (Article 13, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)


a risk free society is very dangerous (Bill Kerr)

learn to be free (pinched from Christopher Harvey's old blog but he taken it down now)

"All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth" Nietzsche

The fear of what might go wrong can't stop us from doing what is right – Chris Lehmann


"One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star" Nietzsche


search is the opposite of sit and listen

Look it Up or Die.- Chris Long
Elaboration: "It's old skool but sometimes remind me to look it up. Or die.

"But don't stop there. Don't pat yourself on the back quite yet. I may be pretty quick on the Google or the Wikipedia, but I have no idea how to make sense of what I'm finding. That's your job.

"Back in the day, if it was in a book, you taught me how to write down some copyright details on a note card. But things got funny on the way to the Internet forum. Facts don't just come in books anymore, and I need more than copyright details to help me make sense.

"Are you teaching me to think? Or just to take notes?

"And one day when you're nowhere to be found and I got a kid with a fever and he's vomiting and its 3am and I got 15 minutes to figure this crazy thing out, I got Google. And I need to know NOW what will keep my kid alive and what will instead send us over the edge.

"Can you do that? 'Cause that's one part of my future and I won't have time for index cards."


"The doer alone learneth" Nietzsche

"The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw" Nietzsche


Education is like being taken to the world's greatest restaurant and being fed the menu – Murray Gell Mann


Isn't a mobile phone a learning device?

Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born – Alan Kay


eat your own dogfood (open source slogan (?), not certain of origin)

"we use language to author ourselves, assisted by many co-authors as we grow up" (Daniel Dennett, Kinds of Minds, Ch.5)

What we want to teach we must become


"On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow" Nietzsche

"Our treasure lies in the beehive of our knowledge. We are perpetually on the way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind" Nietzsche

"What is a man so made the he can understand number and what is a number so made that a man can understand it" - Warren McCulloch

"There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy" Nietzsche

"You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist" Nietzsche

"From being to becoming" - Ilya Prigogine

... when you are able to change the nature of representation and argumentation, those who learn these new ways will wind up to be qualitatively different and better thinkers – Marshall McLuhan


"If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's then we rob them of tomorrow" - John Dewey

"The future and its enemies" – Virginia Postrel (book title)

"Small pieces loosely joined" - David Weinberger (book title)

the best way to predict the future is to invent it (or, the best way to predict the future is to prevent it ) - Alan Kay

"Playing Small Does Not Serve the World."-- Your Brain is Your Brand.- Chris Long
Elaboration: "Your Brain is Your Brand.

"Marianne Williamson wasn't being cheap with words. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. Or that we're simply being measured by small dreams.

"You've got one choice. Play big or stay home. Serve the world or be forgotten.

"Ultimately, you've got your heart and your brain. Both can serve. One will do so when nobody is watching. The other is your brain. It needs attention. Give it fuel. Make it stand out. Be the brand that makes a difference.
The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet - William Gibson


The crux of creativity is variations on a theme – Douglas Hofstadter

Most creativity is a transition from one context into another where things are more surprising. There’s an element of surprise, and especially in science, there is often laughter that goes along with the “Aha.” Art also has this element. Our job is to remind us that there are more contexts than the one that we’re in—the one that we think is reality - Alan Kay


... you can never regulate goodness or excellence because goodness and excellence comes from the hearts and minds of people within the system - Tom Sobol

Best practice is a limiting concept – Greg Whitby


"I don't know who discovered water but it wasn't a fish" - Marshall McLuhan

Thursday, February 01, 2007

slogans that resonate

Steve Hargadon has created a School 2.0 wiki. On the wiki there is a School 2.0 Manifesto which consists of a series of one line thought provoking statements, with links to further elaboration.

I added some one liners in a comment to Christopher Sessums blog, who is supporting this effort. Here are my one liners, with some elaborations (I hope to do more elaborations later):
  • one laptop per child
Elaboration: If the third world can have one laptop per child then why can't the first and second worlds?
  • search is the opposite of sit and listen
  • support the rights of the child to explore new technology
Elaboration: The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice. (Article 13, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)
  • a risk free society is very dangerous
  • learn to be free (pinched from Chrisopher Harvey's old blog but he taken it down now)
  • isn't a mobile phone a learning device?
  • who should define the curriculum? (this last one is too broad)
  • eat your own dogfood
I'd like to do a bit more critical analysis of the slogans at Steve's wiki, from the perspective of whether connectivism is sufficient as a theory or viewpoint to incorporate them all. Analysing the slogans that have been thrown up might be a good way to figure out the current "spirit of our age"

I just spent some time going through the slogans and trying to understand the thinking behind them.

One big theme is freedom talk, with the related ideas of tearing down existing school walls and escaping to the rich (often digital) landscape outside, of opening wide, providing far more choice and being transparent in what we do (dot points 4-11).

Although it is true that we are more connected than ever before in our history there is nothing new about the ideas being promoted here. Many educational reformers have long promoted the idea that School is a form of gaol and radical reform has long been on their agenda. However, the fact we are now far more connected, communicating and collaborating, does make it more possible to realise this dream.

Another theme which is repeated over an over is the importance of conversation. This is sometimes connected to the idea that questions are more important than answers.

Again, there is nothing new about this. For example, one of Papert's principles of mathetics was that "a good conversation promotes learning". All learning theories that try to put direct instruction into the background (and there are many of them) highlight the importance of conversation. Once again a great idea that is not new.

Christian Long's slogans are more complicated and I would need to spend more time with them to understand what he is getting at. Sorry, this is a bit rushed.

A theme which for some reason surprised me in Christopher Sessums slogans (which were more sequential than some of the others) was about keeping all stakeholders informed and supported, followed by the suggestion that schools fear public and open disclosure, that schools might be broken and hiding it. Read his whole blog to do it justice.

Here are some of the slogans which I either liked or which intrigued me:
  • The fear of what might go wrong can't stop us from doing what is right
  • What we want to teach we must become (this reminded me of "eat your own dogfood" which I have used before)
  • You can regulate the worst of abuses out of a system, but you can never regulate goodness or excellence because goodness and excellence comes from the hearts and minds of people within the system - Tom Sobol
  • We participate, therefore we are - John Seely Brown
  • When rules of usage are top-down and policy driven they disenfranchise users. Rules that regulate usage should be decided by users themselves who then self-manage their activity.
  • Many schools operate out of fear of their constituencies and stakeholders. Many schools are afraid what the public would say if they knew what was going on inside.
I need to do some more thinking about this but it seems clear to me that the connection metaphor does not really cut the hard stuff. How to overcome the risk free society mentality? What do you do when those privileged by the current system resist? How to bring out the best in people? Will teachers lead the change or will it happen from outside of schools, or by a student underground, or some sort of combination? Will the change be incremental or sudden, a reform or a revolution? These are complex social and political questions requiring analysis. Connection as a metaphor is too simple.