Tuesday, October 10, 2006

the network is not god

I've said some positive things about George Siemen's new connectivism theory in the past (pipe more important than the contents) but this time around I'm disappointed.

My summary of an earlier interview of George by Teemu Arina was:
I agree with the general thesis that the pipe, being connected, is becoming more important than the content. I agree that the half life of knowledge is declining and that more and more learning is informal. These changes are corroding schools. Students are different from before and bored with lecture mode. Nevertheless, I'd see the theory of connectivism as sitting alongside the other learning theories, not taking their place.
It seems that others have asked George to think about how connectivism "connects" to constructivism and this has led to this analysis, Constructivism versus Connectivism. George leads off with this:
Constructivism, as a model of learning, holds the duality of much promise, and much frustration. On the one hand, it breaks from the structured models of learning that dominated the first half of the last century, giving voice to the "softer" elements of learning (educators often understand this intuitively - we see the lack of direct connection between what we lecture about and what our students actually learn). On the other hand, constructivism has not been well-defined. It can essentially mean anything to anyone. It's an idea without boundaries, a philosophy without root. This vague definition results in everything being labeled as constructivism (see these six paradigms). If anything, my experience with constructivism places it more in the domain of a teaching philosophy, and less in the domain of a theory (consider these attributes of constructivism). [Emphasis added]
This is too vague, creating a situation where George does not have to do much work in either integrating or refuting constructivism because, after all, it doesn't mean anything. Although it is true that some constructivists are philosophical idealists (that meanings constructed inside the head do not necessarily reflect real things in the external world) it is still quite possible to use a common sense, down to earth interpretation of constructivism. Two points from Piaget stand out:
  • Children build or construct their own intellectual structures
  • Children build on what they know. Piaget's term for children's continual balancing of existing cognitive structures with new experiences is equilibration.
George continues:
Several individuals have provided excellent guidance in suggesting that I don't try and position connectivism as a replacement for established learning theories (i.e. constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism). I'm generally supportive of integral thinking, and agree with a matrix posted by Derek Wenmoth on online learning (including a continuum of learning theories).
George doesn't follow his own advice here. From his article I get a strong feeling that he hasn't read much about constructivism or tried to implement it in practice or even thought much about it. I'm critical of this arrogant attitude, developing a "brand new" learning theory in a vacuum, but without doing the hard work of analysing the good and bad points of existing theories. Theoretical progress does not work that way.

George again:
Constructivism, for me, fails on two levels: 1) it is not capable of functioning in rapid knowledge growth environments, as it doesn't account for learning that happens in networks and 2) constructivism is a "sometimes" learning habit (we are always connecting, but we only construct in certain situations).
As a critique this doesn't amount to much. It is just assertion. George has discovered that the network is good, the dominant paradigm of our new age. Network good. Construction not so good. But there is no actual argument here.

Constructivism, as with other learning theories, assumes that learning happens in our head. In fairness, various flavours of constructivism acknowledge the importance of the social context in which the learning happens, and that learners learn from each other. The act of learning itself is still perceived to be in the head of the individual. Most learning needs today are becoming too complex to be addressed in "our heads". We need to rely on a network of people (and increasingly, technology) to store, access, and retrieve knowledge and motivate its use. The network itself becomes the learning. This is critical today; the rapid development of knowledge means that we need to find new ways of learning and staying current. We cannot increase our capacity for learning ad infinitum. We must begin to conceive learning as socially networked and enhanced by technology (it’s a symbiosis of people and technology that forms our learning networks). We need to acknowledge our learning context not only as an enabler of learning, but as a participant of the learning itself. [Emphasis added]
In what way am I being perverse to claim that learning still happens inside our head? Richard Dawkins once said that there is such a thing as becoming so open minded that your brains fall out. George seems to be falling into a similar trap, becoming so enamoured with the power of the network, to the point of denying the importance of the individual and the learning that occurs inside "our heads". These thoughts of mine were gathered from various sources, synthesised in my head and then put onto the network. I agree that the network is far more important than it used to be but that we need to do more work in figuring out the correct balance between the learning that occurs inside and outside individuals and at the boundary structures. Radical individualism, the role of a single individual disagreeing, going against the tide is still as important as ever. How do we explain this by network learning theory, aka connectivism? At this point I looked up some quotes from the digital maoism debate and decided not to use them. As far as I am aware I made that decison in my head.

George continues:
Constructivism is complex. Let your mind wander a bit: My learning is a function of previous life experience, the people around me, the actual environment in which I function, my previous learning experiences (both emotional and cognitive), the nature of group relationships (socially-based), etc. When new information enters the space, I (according to constructivism) construct knowledge of its meaning/relevance against the backdrop of the above mentioned factors. But I can't simply construct - because, to use the molecule metaphor of learning objects (or microcontent), many of the elements that comprise the base of my knowledge come previously constructed (by a discipline, the teacher, the article, etc.). For example, the elements that comprise a new idea come "chunked". I don't construct that entire concept or idea. Instead, I connect it with existing knowledge. If anything, the learning suggested by constructivism is actually in the deconstruction of these packaged elements into smaller pieces of knowledge. A simple example: if someone teaches me the skills of critical thinking, I will largely acquire the elements in "pre-constructed" formats. I will acknowledge that I need to question and validate knowledge sources for authenticity (a concept which can take a lifetime to integrate into practice and habits, and even then I'll still make mistakes). I don't construct anything to make use of this at a basic level. I simply adopt it and try and interrogate new information. My actual learning happens when I deconstruct the knowledge itself (getting deeper into the full meaning of the notion of "validating"). We don't always construct. We are often much more passive in our learning. We read an article and we link it to our existing understanding. We subscribe to a newsletter (or magazine)...we attend certain conferences...we dialogue with certain people/communities. In the end, much of our learning is a connection-forming process (the conduit, not content, is what is king) where we add new elements that augment our capacity to know more. We rely on Google, libraries, friends, social bookmarks/tags, etc. to serve as our personal learning network (we store the knowledge external to ourselves). When we need something, we go to our network (know-where is more important than know-how or know-what)...or we expand our network. In the end, the constant act of connecting in order to stay current is a much more reflective model of learning than constructivism.
The language not used in this long quote illustrates George's paucity of knowledge of some of the main theoreticians and practitioners of constructivism / constructionism. For instance these words are not used: equilibration, assimilation, accomodation (Piaget), constructionism (with a T, Papert), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Society of Mind (Minsky)

The idea that the process of deconstruction is some sort of refutation of constructivism is ridiculous. As stated above constructivism is the view that "children build or construct their own intellectual structures." This of course includes intellectual structures that are used for deconstruction. Minsky describes this as reformulating (Society of Mind, 12.2). AI theoreticians have important things to say about learning

I still think that George has come up with some important ideas and insights about learning and the importance of networks in the way we view the world today. However, it simple is not good enough to reject the heritage of constuctivism and for that matter, behaviourism (dennett's creatures, behavourism and the inner environment) in the superficial manner that has been attempted in his Constructivism versus Connectivism analysis

Finally, there are some thoughtful comments on George's blog that have not been responded to.

1 comment:

Guy Jean said...

In what way am I being perverse to claim that learning still happens inside our head? Richard Dawkins once said that there is such a thing as becoming so open minded that your brains fall out.
Nice. I've had a problem with this, too, since I first read George's classic article.