Saturday, January 20, 2007

"pipe more important than contents" revisited

The curriculum, being told what to teach makes some people feel secure. If we had the freedom to choose what to teach, then what would we teach? Freedom is hard.

Here is a connectivist style argument putting the case for change:
If year 12 exams are content based then nobody can blame teachers for focusing on content. That is true but another way to look at it is that students see schools as less relevant each year because the students have little input into what they have to learn.

Some assertions:

1) half life for relevance of any given piece of knowledge is declining
2) informal learning is becoming more important
3) The pipe is more important than the contents
The above quote is based on something I wrote to the South Australian teachers list in January 2006 when I was more supportive (but with some reservations even then) of George Siemen's connectivism theory

An interesting discussion ensued, here are some of the points and counter points that were debated :
  • Students need to obtain a certain level of independent learning skills before they can learn how to use the "pipe"
  • Some content is important, trust me, it's the adult teachers who know this, not the students.
  • Students need guidance about what content is important, guidance about what that content actually means when they study it and guidance about how to apply it
  • One lister expressed anger that his daughter had done a tertiary photography course and had not been taught about focal length.
  • Discovery learning and student centred learning can largely be dismissed as fads, which lack sufficient teacher direction. Course objectives that replaced content with expressions such as "must be able to seek appropriate methods and apply them accordingly" were ridiculed.
  • Teaching learning how to learn skills is important (granted) but content is still very important. We are going backwards wrt science, maths and trade skills in Australia
  • The difficulty of trying to define "fundamental knowledge" and the amount of time that can be wasted in attempting to do that
  • The counter argument that "fundamental knowledge" does change over time but it is still worthwhile spending the time to re-evaluate and define it
So the discussion morphed. The pipe / content slogan was a reasonable way to morph into discussion about the nature of knowledge (not whether content is important, but which content is important?) an evaluation of different learning approaches (since open ended discovery learning doesn't work then what approaches do work?) and the role of the teacher in the classroom (direct guidance versus other approaches).

But the slogan, "The pipe is more important than the contents" doesn't hold any deeper meaning than being a good, provocative discussion starter. The responses I received on the list shows that teachers are looking for hard edged, verifiable theories with exemplars. Although, sometimes, this does reflect conservative attitudes about change from some teachers the responses are nevertheless extremely reasonable.


Miguel Guhlin (@mGuhlin) said...

Bill, you left us hanging. If discovery learning approaches don't work, connectivism (gee, did i get that right or is it connectivist? What's the difference?) is dead before it starts, no matter how wonderful it is for starting a conversation (so is a plastic pink flamingo but how far does that fly?), what do you have to offer us lowly teachers?

I'm lousy at theory, so what are you saying? Curriculum is decided by those in power, teachers follow the scope and sequence, and that's it?

Why mess with the system if you don't have anything better to offer? (nothing personal, just general question).

What about problem-based learning? Doesn't that approach work?

out of his depth and with a healthy skepticism of learning theories,

Unknown said...

I'm starting to think the connectivism theory of learning may be more appropriately applied to adult learners.

Some of the things that seem to be "missing" in the theory are actually there in adult life and professional experience. In fact, that's the thing about adult learners - we don't have to start from the beginning, because we already know stuff. And we don't have to go step by step, cuz we can fill in the blanks. In fact -- we can learn stuff "you" never meant us to learn cuz that's what we wanted to find out.
Siemens' theory resonates with me as both an adult learner and as a 'teacher' of adult learners.

Bill Kerr said...

hi Miguel,

You are trapped in a room and you have to read a very large book to find out how to get out. It's a complicated book. Are you prepared to read the book? (I'm not suggesting that that book is the only one available) Or are you going to wait for someone who professes to be an expert to tell you the answer. In all probability you won't understand the answer unless you read the book.

Bill Kerr said...


"Siemens' theory resonates with me as both an adult learner and as a 'teacher' of adult learners"

I think the "age of connection" is a good metaphor for the new world ushered in by the internet, chaos theory etc.

But if someone announces a new learning theory I'm looking for more than "resonance" or a good metaphor.

Tell me what you have got from Siemens theory beyond the resonance, in a nitty gritty sense.

Anonymous said...

I don't understood what connectivism is intended to explain that isn't already addressed by other learning theories.

Are you familiar with Karl Popper's thinking on the difference between scientific and non-scientific theories?

I'm a bit out of my depth here, but I'm curious to see how this discussion develops. I'm reading with interest.

Bill Kerr said...

hi doug,

George Siemens claim is that we have entered a new stage of technological induced knowledge explosion and a knowledge overflow from the individual into the external network. And that a new learning theory, connectivism, which is focused on these external networked connections is required; that the older learning theories don't adddress this.

I would argue that we've always had strong learning connections between our cognition, our perceptions and our environment. Vygotsky's scaffolding for example implies such connections between the inside and outside. Other learning theories, eg. Papert's constructionism, connect the internal to the external too, eg. Papert's idea of an "object to think with" such as logo or LEGO. But George I think would argue that the balance to what is "outside" the individual has now changed so dramatically that a new theory is required.

Thanks for interesting link about Popper's critique of Marxism. I will need to think about that before replying. I've just created a Popper stub on the wiki for now and hope to get back to it soon.

Miguel Guhlin (@mGuhlin) said...

Nifty wiki, Bill. Certainly a model for others to follow who are presenting! I'll keep reading. WHat is daunting about such a wiki is that only a few folks may want to contribute...because they don't feel they know enough to. Have you found that to be true? Are you the principal architect?
I'm reading it now and will continue.

In regards to learning theories, we all have frameworks/schema/worldviews to work from. I've become comfortable in mine, even though I can't name it exactly. It involves students and teachers who are emotionally engaged to do work that empowers them, that gives them the freedom to explore new concepts and share that process with others.

However, one of the problems with that is that it doesn't seem to be enough. The work that's being done could be anything, so the world of facts and information is there to explore. Problem-based learning engages folks in problems that are related to the curriculum, but if the curriculum isn't worthwhile (lacks the authority, or Society's stamp of approval), then the "pipe" becomes more important, doesn't it?

"Kids, in the course of our lives, we have to learn certain content to pass Year 12 exams. But, the reason we're learning it isn't because it will help you pass those exams. We're learning it because there are certain problems that we can solve, and that content is critical to resolving those problems."
to continue...
"Even though the content we're working with may be obsolete, how you learn is as important as what you learn. That's why we're going to be using various technologies in class. Even so, everything you learn today is dated and old. Even what you do at night is dated and old. But the attitude you bring to learning old things as if they were new, using old technologies with the understanding they will be replaced, is invaluable."

So, while we might argue that there are no exemplars, that best practices don't help us aspire to greatness, the fact is, if we get bogged down in them, of course not. I like this story:

A man was staring at the moon. Someone else came up and asked, what are you staring at? The man pointed to the moon with his finger. The other looked at the finger, and said, "What's so great about your finger?"
(paraphrased horribly).

Having fun and hoping you won't ban me from commenting (wink),



Anonymous said...

In Radical Constructivism, von Glasersfeld quoted Popper: “For instrumental purposes of practical application a theory may continue to be used even after its refutation, within the limits of its applicability...” (I don't know where he got the quote, but my notes reference p22 of von Glasersfeld's book.) He calls this an "instrumentalist" view, which "replaces the notion of Truth with the notion of viability." As a practitioner, this kind of validity criteria holds pragmatic appeal. It's a kind of seat-of-the pants test that I can apply to suggestions and intuitions as I try to pick and choose from various courses of action in the classroom. I'm willing to embrace a variety of theoretcial viewpoints if I can see their usefulness for explaining and predicting phenomena.

The idea that there has been a "knowledge overflow," as you mentioned, has already been addressed in Hutchins' idea of distributed cognition, it seems to me. Hutchins' book, Cognition in the Wild, blends anthropology and cognitive science perspectives to look at ship navigation as a cognitive phenomenon that occurs within distributed technological environments. From the Amazon Editorial Review: "Introducing Navy life and work on the bridge, Hutchins makes a clear distinction between the cognitive properties of an individual and the cognitive properties of a system....After comparing modern Western navigation with the method practiced in Micronesia, Hutchins explores the computational and cognitive properties of systems that are larger than an individual. He then turns to an analysis of learning or change in the organization of cognitive systems at several scales."

This doesn't necessarily refute connectivism as a theoretical construct. But I wonder whether the ground has already been covered. I'm by no means an expert here. I read Hutchins' book, and found it helpful as a way to think about the classroom as a system. Is Connectivism theory the same as Distributed Cognition theory? I'm wondering. I haven't seen enough discussion about Connectivism to be able to understand where it fits, and my analytical powers aren't sufficient to penetrate the issues.

Bill Kerr said...

hi miguel,

Thanks for reading the wiki. I'm the main writer and tony forster has been helping too. I agree that it is daunting but a worthwhile challenge. I've been surprised at how interesting learning theory can be once you get into it. Maybe edu-bloggers can help each other with learning theory and come to understand it in a critical sense. One fun part of it is coming to realise how many amazing and diverse thinkers have already grappled with this. That gives me an encouraging feeling, that some very insightful people have made the effort to think about it and communicate to the rest of us. In one sense learning theory is popular.

Thanks also for sharing your "frameworks/schema/worldviews" and a reflection about them. I think what you describe is in general how we all (meaning most teachers, including myself) operate. All we can do is the best we can do with the resources we have in systems that are far or perhaps very far from perfect. The moon and the finger story is often what it feels like.

Through developing the wiki and dialogues such as this I think the goal for it has been clarified to something like: Can learning theory make a difference? Can we narrow the gap between the best research into what we discover about the human mind and how quickly that is put into practice at the classroom level?

Does that sound worthwhile? It would be nice to get the wording right for the overall goal. I've just added it to the home page.

Bill Kerr said...

hi doug,

I share your view that, until something better comes along, we should cherry pick the best perspectives and practices out of a variety of learning theories. I said this in an earlier blog, there is no unified learning theory

I haven't read Hutchins' book, Cognition in the Wild and Distributed Cognition is a new one that I'll add to the wiki. However, there is extensive reference to Hutchins in my current favourite book about cognition, Being There, by Andy Clark. I've written a lot about embodied active cognition on the wiki and most of that comes from Andy Clark. I'm planning to add some more information about Hutchins there today (out of Clark's book, sections 4.3 is already there from before; 9.4 will be there soon I hope), which I've just read, prompted by your comment.

What you are asking is very close to what I am saying:

That there are already learning theories that address the distribution of knowledge from the mind to the environment. These include embodied active cognition, activity theory and as you say, distributed cognition (new one for me). Vygotsky seems central to all of this.

George is saying that the new situation (knowledge overflow, far too much for the individual to handle, the new importance of external networks arising from the internet and other new technologies) requires a new learning theory.

I am arguing that the new technologies have not created a radical discontinuity in how humans deal with learning and knowledge from the internal (consciousness) to the external (networked environment) because the work of Hutchins about navigation, and others, shows that explanations of this sort of learning predates the internet. Of course the recent explosion of the read / write web does change a lot of things but IMV these changes do not require the creation of a new learning theory, given that existing theories have the internal / external issue well covered.

So I think George's theory is sort of on the right track but is poorly done because he didn't look closely at the full richness of existing theory before creating a new one. I see other problems as well, particularly too much use of generalisations and no adherence to a theory / practice spiral of knowledge development. So, in that respect the already existing theories are better IMO.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you that "explanations of this sort of learning predates the internet," if that's what connectivism is all about. I figured I was missing something in it, and therefore couldn't appreciate it's necessity.

Any theory gains traction as more and more people subscribe to it, put it to use, and discuss it. A "new" custom internet theory may be too specialized to tell us anything important about people, or the internet, since it focuses on a specific set of environmental conditions, so to speak.

This discussion, the conference, and the wiki are important steps in illuminating any promises or shortcomings that connectivism holds for teachers and researchers. Interesting stuff, and I appreciate your effort to explore it - not a small undertaking.