Friday, June 20, 2008

letter from George Siemens

I wrote this comment about George Siemens at Mark Nichols blog:
I agree that George is a nice guy, he encouraged me as a critic, but feel he had done us a disservice by prematurely producing a new theory of learning before doing the hard hards of integrating the other, older theories - which I believe makes connectivism superfluous. I see that as another aspect of the attention economy
George has replied at Mark's blog with this letter quoted in full below. I'm just putting this on my own table for now as something I ought to respond too at some point, not sure when, due to other commitments. I encourage others interested in connectivism and web2.0 / learning2.0 theory to study the full discussion especially between Mark and George starting here, Solid Thinking: a challengable position on learning2.0 and the incumbent

Great to see some substantial debate on learning theory, going deeper than what normally happens in the blogosphere, thanks to Mark and George.

Hi Bill,

As I've stated numerous times, I appreciate your viewpoints. I've learned much through our previous discussions. Our interactions has helped me to personally define my own perspectives and viewpoints. I hope you'll have time (or interest) to participate in the upcoming Connectivism and Connective Knowledge online course we're offering in fall:

One of the more consistent claims you have directed at connectivism is that a) it addresses what is already addressed by existing theories and b) that I haven't done my homework with regard to other theories and have prematurely offered a counter perspective.

As much as this may shock you, I disagree on both accounts :). First, I don't think existing address what happens in a networked world (I'm less interested in "connectivism" surviving as a concept than I am in educators rethinking teaching and learning in a world where we interact in significantly different ways with information and each other...I've posited connectivism and one notion, others have suggested networked learning more broadly (particularly de laat, Koper, CR Jones), Brown suggestions "navigationism", and Cormier more recently offers rhizomatic knowledge). My premise is still largely unchanged, though I personally wish I would have used different language in my initial post as sections have become a distraction to the real issue. I believe that our ability to access, create, disseminate, co-create, alter, and multi-create (i.e. in different media - sorry I don't have a better word) information substantially alters learning. My logic is really quite simple: information is the foundation of knowledge and learning. When we do different things with information, the systems built on information, namely knowledge and learning, require some degree of rethinking. Perhaps the rethinking is on level with what Mark suggests - i.e. subsume new tools and processes into existing models of education. Or perhaps the required rethinking is more radical (as I would suggest).

Regardless of approach, we can glean much from existing theories of learning - namely the situatedness, sociability, and contextual dimensions of learning. Can we draw from the work of theorists such as Vygotsky, Bruner, Dewey, Papert, Leont'v, Wenger, Lave, Piaget, Engestrom, and others? Of course we can. But by drawing on their work and by integrating disparate thoughts and ideas about distributed cognition, activity theory, tool-mediated interactions, social networks, etc., we end up with something new. And, I choose to call this connectivism :).

Your second point stems partly from what I addressed above (though your criticism here is slightly moderated from what you have previously offered in that I created a theory without being aware of existing theories). This is a frighteningly obvious thing to say, but we have not reached the end of theorizing about learning. We are very much at the beginning. Disciplines that have hundreds, even thousands of years of discourse(philosophy and religion come readily to mind), have created a rich knowledge base where divergent and integrative ideas have been put forward. If one doesn't like Plato, they can have Kant. Or if Descartes is not to your liking, go with Nietzsche. In educational theory we have a shallow brand of thought, easily categorized into three broad streams (with corresponding epistemological roots): behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism. As the edtech field matures, I suspect we'll continue to see a diversification of thought about learning theory.

Does one theory have to be declared "the winner"? Maybe personally (i.e. each person selects the theory and world view that resonates with their thinking - as Mark has done by declaring social constructivism as his preferred view of learning). But I don't think we can have one theory for the entire school system and for all learners. As always, context is king.

Beyond these few simple comments, I have written about these concepts at length in other forums (of which you are aware), so I suspect there is limited value in simply repeating my previous claims.

As always, Bill, a pleasure chatting :).


I went back and quickly reread some of my old blog and wiki commentaries about connectivism as a starting point to update my thoughts. The following still seem relevant to me at this point:

which radical discontinuity?

"pipe more important than the contents" revisited

A CHALLENGE TO CONNECTIVISM (connectivism conference presentation)

UPDATE (21st June, 2008):

After reading all of George's comments I've left this comment at Mark's blog:
Theories of learning ought to be thought about in terms of learning *something*. That something is sometimes learning about learning theories but to be authentic (fair dinkum) I think there should be some element in there of children learning about their world. One feeling I have about George's writing here (and earlier when I read quite a lot of George, including most of his book) is the tendency to cite lots of authors and their ideas but IMO it lacks the nitty gritty of a real practice to theory spiral

By contrast when I read Minsky he talks about kids learning to build with blocks; Piaget talks about children changing their knowledge structures over time about the amount poured from one glass of water to another of different shape; Papert always includes anecdotes about his experiences with children and his own learning, etc. These authors theorise a lot as well but they convey their message through the full theory / practice spiral

The point that Mark has raised with regard to the scope of web2.0 / learning2.0 / connectivism is what I call slow, deep thinking. Do they help in that regard?

Leigh mentioned, and is working with, Konrad Glogowski who I feel has deeply addressed the question of children learning how to write well using a combination of blogging and Vygotskian ideas. eg. it takes 18 months of developing an environment of trust for creative writing to emerge.

Although learning theories can address any or all types of learning I think we also need ways to identify which knowledge is more important --> something which I believe was not done in the initial formulation of the connectivism theory. Everyone here seems to agree that slow, deep thinking is important but that can be easily forgotten in the hurly burly of School. I've read articles about powerful learning which fail to identify why it is powerful. (does world of warcraft really lead to powerful learning, what are our criteria?) So what knowledge is important or powerful? How do we identify that in a way that is more significant than just someone's opinion? For me that question has been best answered in fairly obscure references by alan kay about non-universals.

From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, he presented two lists, the first were universals, the things that all human cultures have in common. This list included things like:

* language
* communication
* fantasies
* stories
* tools and art
* superstition
* religion and magic
* play and games
* differences over similarities
* quick reactions to patterns
* vendetta, and more

He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:

* reading and writing
* deductive abstract mathematics
* model based science
* equal rights
* democracy
* perspective drawing
* theory of harmony
* similarities over differences
* slow deep thinking
* agriculture
* legal systems

I think a good test of a modern learning theory is its ability to address the non universal list - and connectivism or web2.0 or learning2.0 doesn't throw much light at all in that direction. I think that some other theorists at least do address those issues, eg. Papert, Vygotsky

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