Saturday, April 12, 2008

from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind

At learning evolves wiki, I am abandoning traditional classifications of learning theories in favour of this approach: from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind

There is a problem with the conventional categories (such as cognitivism, instructionism / behaviourism, constructivism, connectionist / connectivism, neuroscience) because some (many?) learning theorists bridge more than one category

Example one: cognitivist / constructivist overlap
On this page Bruner is categorised as a cognitivist but moving toward cognitive constructivism - reacting against the mind as "information processor", which obscures the mind as a creator of meanings (Acts of Meaning)

Example two: behaviourist / connectionist overlap:
"Much contemporary work in cognitive science on the set of models known as connectionist or parallel distributed processing (PDP) models seems to share behaviorism's anti-nativism about learning. PDP takes an approach to learning which is response oriented rather than rule-governed and this is because, like behaviorism, it has roots in associationism" (standford uni behaviourist page)

Example three: behaviourist / cognitivist overlap:
Daniel Dennett argues that the law of effect (stimuli which are rewarded tend to be repeated) is fundamental and can be extended to the inner environment, eg. Popperian creatures can preselect from possible behaviours / actions weeding out the truly stupid options before risking them in the harsh world. Dennett calls them Popperian because Popper said this design enhancement "permits our hypotheses to die in our stead". This is Dennett's enhancement of behaviourism. Popperian creatures have an inner environment that can preview and select amongst possible actions. For this to work the inner environment must contain lots of information about the outer environment and its regularities. Not only humans can do this. Mammals, birds, reptiles and fish can all presort behavioural options before acting.

Example four: Response to the challenges to cognitive science
"Thagard (2005) argues that all these challenges can best be met by expanding and supplementing the computational-representational approach, not by abandoning it." (critique of cog science - stanford philosophy page)


from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind
  • never mind = behaviourism
  • structured mind = hard edged representation and computation model (think of the mind as a concept map)
  • messy mind = the modern synthesis which includes some messy partly contradictory ideas such as distributed mind (the mind is distributed from the brain to the environment eg. enactivism), multi modal (kinesthenic, visual are important as well as abstractions, eg. Bruner "doing with images makes symbols"), parallel processing / connectionism / pattern recognition (Churchland's eliminative materialism), neuroscience (the details do matter), behavioural AI (Brooks, behaviourism is not dead), serial processing virtual machine built on top of parallel processing (dennett), evolutionary mind (Pinker, Dennett), anthropological mind (alan kay's non universals)
I need to go through the other learning theories on this page to see if this approach works for all

Later steps in this evolution do not preclude earlier steps, that is part of the mess. Behaviourism is still very valid (responses that are reward tend to be repeated) but limited in its Skinnerian form. Cognitive science remains valid (the mind has structure but its hard to define clearly and a literal serial computing model is a gross oversimplification). The new ideas are best seen as a conservative revolution or a reform of cognitivism, not an overthrow.

There is no clear cut modern synthesis of mind. It is messy. Appreciating the messiness is important in a practical sense because if you just focus on one learning approach then that will not work for everyone (eg. the idea of controlling the transactions of meanings through the use of concept maps is good but may not work for learners who are twitchy, kinesthenic)

See learning evolves for more detail as it develops


Chris said...

Thanks you for the recent post about the messy mind.

This whole argument about is this a learning theory or is it just a pedagogical approach, or which theory is privilege in its ability to inform real educational progress does tend to leave one tired, discouraged, and confused. As a learning species it seems like we are always looking for ways to model the world around us, and to model ourselves in an attempt to understand what is happening in the unseen mind.

I think that there is a beauty your “from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind”. Human endeavors are very complex systems. Why do we think that a single approach, idea, grand theory can unify our view of these processes. The messy mind reminds me of Chaos Theory in science. There has even been some movement to apply this theory to the social sciences, including the study education.

There is a subtle beauty to the idea that learning is this chaotic process, reacting to and using input that leads to these wonderful, complex outcomes.

Bill Kerr said...

hi chris,

thanks for your comment

I suppose there are a whole lot of issues that I and maybe all of us only partially understand (chaos theory is another one) - and that is far better to keep learning about them and keep our minds open rather than opt for premature closure, that one theory is "better" - to acknowledge the messiness, to even celebrate it but to keep learning and to try to clarify it as well, to suspend belief whilst trying to advance our knowledge

I received some other private responses to this post suggesting I look more closely at Minsky, The Emotion Machine (for messiness) and also Eric Kandel, (2007): In Search of Memory - The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (for neuroscience). I've ordered copies of these books.