Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Reality Conundrum in Education

I ran a short session yesterday on "Uses of Critical Realism in Education" with some Education Masters students. To be honest, I should have changed the title - whilst I think pursuing ontology is  urgently needed in education research, "Critical Realism" has become just another topic on the curriculum rather than a process or a movement. Those kinds of things are best avoided.

The other problem with Critical Realism is the invitation it provides for "teachers of Critical Realism" to talk endlessly about it, bore their students to death, sound pretentious with long words, and so on. I provided a short printed summary of "Why Ontology in Education", and said "I'm not really going to talk about this. But what I want to do is some activities with you which hopefully will disturb your equilibrium sufficiently to make you curious about what's in the leaflet."
So this is what we did. The value of ontology in anything is that it should put you in direct contact with the perceived phenomena, and a shed-load of questions. Behind all the questions is the fundamental question that Bhaskar asks: "Given that such-and-such occurs, what must the world be like?"

So the class is an opportunity to explore phenomena: we did some singing and explored the multiple frequencies in a single sound, we watched David Bohm explain his thoughts on multiple description and perception, and we watched a short series of videos of social dynamics which might be called "learning" from mother-baby relations, very boring university teaching (boredom is really interesting isn't it?!), crows playing with cats, children picking up worms and a string quartet playing Beethoven. I asked "What's going on? Is it different things in each case, or is there a common principle at work?"

I said that the value of Critical Realism for me was not the explanations it provides, or the methods it provides for investigation, but the discussion with those who disagree with it (like some social constructivists). The value of Critical Realism for me was that it took me into a contested place.

My biggest problem in CR is the dogmatism: it appears that Critical Realism is only critical up to a point. One academic put it elegantly a few years ago: "Critical Realism isn't sufficiently critical of the assumed facticity of its own categories". Yes. More simply, I would say "it has an observer problem".

Bohm's message is that there is no single description of any mechanism. There is instead a kind of harmonic coordination between multiple descriptions which is revealed in dialogue. If I say "now, I think this is right", what I am saying is that Bohm's description resonates with a series of other multiple descriptions which are both generated by it, and co-exist with it.

There is no single thing.

I had a quick chat with Tony Lawson at the Realist Workshop in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago. Much of the discussion in Geoff Hodgson's talk was about consensus. I said to Tony "I think we all see things in different ways". His face lit up, and quick as a flash he pointed at me and said "I absolutely agree with you!". We laughed. Although it's a joke possibly at the expense of the "multiplicity view" of someone like Bohm, I suspect this was precisely what Bohm was getting at!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Diabetic Retinopathy and Adaptive Comparative Judgement Grant Success

Very shortly after I started at Liverpool University, I was invited to a meeting with a doctor from the Eye and Vision Science department of the University who was also a surgeon in the hospital. He explained his passionate desire to do something to prevent blindness in China by implementing a proper diabetic retinopathy screening programme. No such programme currently exists, and there is much ignorance about the condition where there are no symptoms (only a retinal scan can reveal problems) and blindness is sudden and irreversible. The scale of the problem is staggering: there are 110 million people with diabetes in China.

Discussions had got as far as thinking that a MOOC might be the thing to do to train people to diagnose the condition by grading retinal scans. I said this probably wouldn't work, and that the real issue was finding an effective way to deal with the complexities of scale of the problem. The challenge of diabetic retinopathy grading is a straight-forward cognitive problem. There are numerous initiatives (including in Liverpool) to use machine learning to do it - but these attempts have limited success. The sensitivity and specificity  of the diagnosis is critical (i.e. ensuring that false positive and false negative results are minimised) - and the machine learning does not always perform well - although it can improve if it is effectively connected to human learning.

The problem of grading is one of assessment on the one hand, and hierarchy on the other. Experts do grading, and experts have to be trained. The scale at which educational assessment now operates has led to a search for new models of assessment and creative uses of technology. Adaptive Comparative Judgement is one of the most interesting. It enlists a large group of assessors to make simple, low-stakes judgements about which of a pair of artefacts (student work) is better. It produces a ranking from which grades can be established. I asked whether grading by an expert could instead be ranking by a group. I suggested that if this was the case, then the complexity of scale of China could be managed by a crowd-based approach using Adaptive Comparative Judgement. Fortunately for me, this idea completely transformed the discussion - particularly in the vision of the doctor leading the project.

An EU bid followed in 2015 which was unsuccessful, but served to stimulate interest across a consortium, and made the connection between the ACJ, Blockchain and xAPI. This year, I joined a group in Liverpool going for a "long-shot" bid to the EPSRC for £1m to develop a training programme based on ACJ, coupled with machine learning and the development of a new low-cost scanning device. The EPSRC had 150 submission to work through and could only fund a handful of projects. It was a long shot.

Well, it looks like it wasn't such a long-shot after all! I suppose what this is making me think is that thinking remains the most important thing in universities. Universities need thinkers, not people who are going to tow a corporate line. The disaster of managerialism and marketisation have done their best to turn many universities (I think particularly of my former institution, Bolton) into fiefdoms where thinkers are sacrificed like heretics of the "corporate religion".

A powerful and simple idea can go a long way. 

Monday, 20 November 2017

Technology, Objects and Dialogue: Using technology to keep things simple

Technology usually makes things complicated... Over the last couple of weeks, the power of simplicity in education has impressed itself upon me.

First up, I organised a conference on "healing organisations" (see http://healingorganisations2017.org) for the Metaphorum group - a research group formed around the work of Stafford Beer. Beer warned about the "Homo Faber" mode of being where innovation is seen as the answer to problems. During the conference, there were a number of "innovative" approaches to the problems of health which were suggested: each innovation would ultimately lead to increased complexity. In other words, it would feed the pathology from which the innovation attempted to escape. This kind of positive feedback is symptomatic of the "iatrogenic disease" (healer-induced sickness) which Illich (and John Seddon, who spoke at the conference) warn about. Education suffers from its own disease of complexification through innovation.

The conference was organised over three days, with day 1 focused on critique ("what's wrong with the system?" - there was a lot of that); day 2 on possible solutions to address problems; and day 3 focused on conversation. For both days 2 and 3 I asked presenters to do activities with delegates rather than simply talk. The best presentations did precisely this. Day 3 was particularly great - we sat in a circle and explained the meaning of various objects which we had brought to the conference (I asked people to bring an object which illustrated their understanding of "healing organisations").

For a while now, I've been interested in how objects illuminate the understanding of the individual talking about them. Since conversations (con-versare - "to turn together") depends on our understanding of each other, objects are a powerful prop to self-revealing. The conversation was visceral, and the revealing of one another was in some cases deeply emotional. There were tears.

Maturana said (in a conference at Asilomar in 2012) that "What we learn, we learn about each other". It is a beautiful summary of things which he has said before - but never so clearly. I don't think he's ever written it down! But it's right.

We learn maths... we learn about a maths teacher or somebody else who does maths. We learn the piano, we learn about a pianist (or a number of them). We learn sociology, we learn about other sociologists.... and so on.

The key to teaching and learning is self-revealing of the teacher. This self-revealing is usually accompanied by objects. Bad teachers will hide behind their powerpoints. Good ones will reveal who they are as people through them. Such teachers embrace a critical principle: that any object is subject to multiple descriptions. There are always many possible interpretations.

A teacher may generate many possible descriptions of an object: "you can think about quadratic equations like this... or like this... or alternatively...". Equally, they may invite descriptions of others: "what do you think?". The point is that the truth of any object - whether a body of knowledge or skilled performance is that it is a multiplicity of different descriptions. To understand is to acquire the capacity to generate multiple descriptions. Teaching is a performance of understanding.

Last Thursday, I led a session at the Ragged University on Objects, Perception and Communication (see https://www.raggeduniversity.co.uk/2017/11/08/16th-nov-2017-objects-perception-and-communication-by-mark-johnson/). It was, in many ways, the same idea as the conference. I asked people to take a photograph of something in the room which revealed something about themselves. We sat in a circle and presented our photographs to each other. Then I illustrated the point about multiple description with music. Using a real-time spectrum analyzer, I showed how a single note is a patterned multiplicity of frequencies like this:

I think this patterned multiplicity is what occurs in the communicating around objects. In illuminating the understanding of each individual, they create the conditions for a "resonant polyphony" of alternative descriptions. Quite simply, we get to know each other better. I followed the singing with Augusto Boal's human statue exercise - another example of objects where people are the objects. Multiplicity of description can be investigated in many ways - with many descriptions!

Now I'm planning something bigger with the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia (Vladivostok). We are developing a course in "Global Scientific Dialogue" drawing on the ideas of David Bohm. 300 students in the University will participate in it next year. This is a radical experiment - and weirdly, something that could possibly only happen on the other side of the planet where the pathologies of EU/US education are less marked. In the 60s, we went to California to do new cool things. Now I think it's 10 hours flying the other way... (actually, it's 13 to Vladivostok).

Why Bohm? Well, he knew about multiplicity of description. This is very powerful:





Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Information and Syncretism: from Floridi to Piaget

Luciano Floridi has appealed for an "ethics of information" (he has written a book about it: http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/books/the-ethics-of-information/). His basic argument is that since we all live in an "information environment", information ethics should be seen as a variety of environmental ethics. So putting out "wrong" information onto social media is like dumping mercury into a river. I wouldn't be surprised if Floridi has been consulted with regard to the UK's stance on Russian hacking (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41983091). But whatever the Russians (plus quite a few others) have been doing on social media, I think there's a ontological error in Floridi's argument. Information is not mercury: unlike mercury, information's effects depend on the beliefs of those receiving it.

Among the central presuppositions of belief in society today is a view of logic which upholds the principle of the "excluded middle": either the statement "it is raining" is true, or the statement "it is not raining" is true. Both statements cannot be true. What this means is that a collection of statements which are taken to be true or false can be taken together to leave the impression of an indisputable fact. By virtue of this principle, the more facts which can be brought to bear to support other statements, the more "objective" or "scientific" the conclusions drawn from their combination.  For example, the demand for "evidence" in social science is rather like this: the demand for more statements whose truth or falsehood can be established to more precisely identify the truth or falsehood of a more complex statement.

Some medieval philosophers puzzled over the excluded middle because this aspect of Aristotelian logic did not fit their theology. It occurred to John Duns Scotus that something could conceivably be true and false at the same time. He called his principle "synchronic contingency": Antonie Vos has brilliantly explored this (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-John-Duns-Scotus/dp/0748624627) - personally I am indebted to Prof. Dino Buzetti for drawing my attention to it. What's so fascinating about this is that in Quantum Mechanics, exactly the same principle has a name: super-position. Scotus saw synchronic contingency as a co-existing dimension to what he saw as Aristotle's "diachronic contingency" - which is where something may be true and one moment and false at the next, but never both at the same time.

In the world of synchronic contingency, information looks very different. I think it also looks much more like our deeper human creative processes and spirit.

In my reading of Ehrenzweig's Hidden Order of Art, I've been struck by the emphasis that he places on another theological word: syncretism. Actually, Ehrenzweig cites Piaget as the originator of the use of the word in a scientific context:

Piaget has given currency to the term "syncretistic" vision as the distinctive quality of children's vision and of child art. Syncretism also involves the concept of undifferentiation. Around the eighth year of life a drastic change sets in in children's art, at least in Western civilization. Whilst the infant experiments boldly with form and colour in representing all sorts of objects, the older child begins to analyse these shapes by matching them against the art of the adult which he finds in magazines, books and pictures. He usually finds his own work deficient. His work becomes duller in colour, more anxious in draughtmanship. Much of the earlier vigour is lost. Art education seems helpless to stop this rot. What has happened is that the child's vision has ceased to be total and syncretistic and has become analytic instead. (p6)


In theology, syncretism refers to the holding of many contradictory ideas at the same time. Ehrenzweig argues that the creative process is precisely a process of holding many contradictory ideas at the same time. When he talks about dedifferentiation (see my previous post) he is describing the process of blurring the boundaries between true and false so that something new may be brought into being.

Our problem with "information" - whether its in big data, learning analytics, or the stock market - is that we don't consider the creative potential of a syncretic approach to it whereby such machine generated information could be a powerful spur to more authentic creativity. Instead, we uphold the excluded middle, and seek "triangulation" between different "truths" and "falsehoods". It is because we are so bound to this that our social media networks have become so vulnerable to "wrong" information - whether it's placed there intentionally or by mistake.

The world of creativity and the wold of "data" feel very different. One enlivens the soul and warms the heart. The other tightens the stomach muscles and ties us in knots - both as individuals and as a global society! Syncretism is the difference between the artistic mode and the analytic: the distrust of syncretism is the root of the pathologies of management and government.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Ehrenzweig on Objects and Creativity: Symmetry and Entropy at the heart of the heart

Objects are important in education. Institutions sometimes seem to believe that objects are the things which they "sell": the learning content, notes, powerpoints and other media... the manufactured products of education, contact with which it is sometimes believed produces learning.

Constructivists might deny the importance of objects, but the concreteness of a cool video or a text book is hard to deny: "this is a great video!" we say. Others lose sight of the fact that it is the making of such an utterance which is the beginning of where the learning which is intrinsic to human coordination happens. Like anything of fascination or beauty, the expression of emotion, feeling, intellect or curiosity is a fundamental human reaction which is communally shared. In the art gallery, we gaze at pictures often together. In the concert hall, we all have emotional experiences which somehow in the silence and ritual of the place, we manage to convey to others, in the cinema we gasp together as somebody escapes imminent death, and so on. Today, media objects get shared online: the common expression of feeling happens diachronically (sequentially) rather than synchronically... but it still happens. "A cool game! What's your score?", and so on.

What happens in these human reactions? I think the answer is simple: we understand something more about each other. Maturana made the point that "what we learn, we learn about each other". Yes, that's it. I will refine this: "What we learn, we learn about the symmetry that exists between us". Why is learning about each other important? Simply because we cannot communicate successfully unless we do know more about each other. The better we know each other, the more effective our social coordination will be. I took two friends visiting from Russia to see the "The Death of Stalin" this week. It was a case in point - as we revealed much about ourselves in our different responses to the film.

Alfred Schutz calls this revealing process "inter-subjectivity", and Talcott Parsons (and later Niklas Luhmann) calls it "double contingency". Despite Parsons's and Schutz's disagreemnents, there is a core principle at work, but an important difference in how they understand it. In double contingency, we communicate because we have some idea of who we are communicating with, how they will respond to our utterances, and so on. Parsons is different from Schutz in that he emphasises the importance of selection of communications (what we mean to say) and the selection of utterance (how we choose to say it). Luhmann developed this further.

I've been re-reading Anton Ehrenzweig's "The Hidden Order of Art" recently (after nearly 20 years). What an amazing book! Ehrenzweig is interested in artistic communication, and he believes that artistic creation does not emerge out of selection.  Ehrenzweig draws his inspiration from the Freudian concept of the primary process - the undifferentiated formless state of consciousness from which conscious experience (distinctions) emerge. He introduces a concept called dedifferentiation where "the ego scatters and represses surface imagery" in creative acts. He also draws on Paul Klee's distinction between two kinds of attention, one on the figure and the other on the ground. Ehrenzweig argues:

What is common to all examples of dedifferentiation is their freedom from having to make a choice. Whilst the conscious gestalt principle enforces the selection of a definite gestalt as a figure, the multi-dimensional attention of which Paul Klee speaks can embrace both figure and ground. Whilst vertical attention has to select a single melody, horizontal attention can comprise all polyphonic voices without choosing between them. Undifferentiated perception can grasp in a single undivided act of comprehension data that to conscious perception would be incompatible. 

I'm interested in this from a more technical perspective - which is certainly not how I would have read it 20 years ago. From a technical perspective, the central issues is the symmetry of relations. Whilst the perception of figure - or rather the identification of the distinction between figure and ground - is an epiphenomenon, there are symmetries in deeper mechanisms which underpin perception which might become better known to us.  Parsons and Luhmann took the epiphenomenon as the phenomenon. But if we think like them, we lose all creativity (and in the process, we risk our humanity). This is however, not to put anyone off from engaging with their ideas: they are powerful - but they flatten the symmetry.

Schutz, on the other hand is much closer. His "pure we-relation" - where human beings communicate face-to-face - is a different kind of coordination which is not based on selection. Ehrenzweig calls the alternative to selection, syncretism - but that, I think, is another word for symmetry. Symmetry emerges in the space between multiple descriptions of things. It emerges in the space between my understanding (and my descriptions of my understanding) and your understanding. It emerges in the ways that a melody, a harmony, a timbre, or a rhythm all draw out the same form.

Sometimes, different descriptions adopt similar patterns. Sometimes the change in their complexities coincides: for example, at the end of a piece of music, final chords eliminate rhythmic complexity, tonal complexity too disappears with the repetition of a tonic chord, alongside the melody which now emphasises a single note. Then, everything is silent. Another way of putting this is that the change in entropy of different descriptions coincides; their relative entropy increases. Now imagine a rich and busy counterpoint: ideas are thrown from one voice to another, different things are happening. There is a rich interplay between the entropies of description.

Ehrenzweig's mode of thinking is fundamentally musical: syncretism happens across the diachronic domain of counterpoint, and the synchronic domain of harmony. Schutz, also a musician, also thought about social relations musically. The syncretic is the same as the coordination of Schutz's "pure we-relation": it is a recognition of symmetrical relations.

The more we engage with objects, the more we reveal ourselves to others, and the more we recognise the symmetry the lies between us.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Illich and the Experts: Whose fake news do you want?

With so much concern about truth and falsehoods in social media, and the role of Universities in defending knowledge or fighting fake news (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41902914), the defence of the "experts" by Universities should be seen for what it is: a defence of existing hierarchy.

Ivan Illich was on to this in the 1970s - particularly in his book "Disabling Professions":

The Age of Professions will be remembered as the time when politics withered, when voters guided by professors entrusted to technocrats the power to legislate needs, the authority to decide who needed what, and a monopoly over the means by which those needs should be met. It will be remembered as the Age of Schooling, when people for one third of their lives were trained to accumulate needs on prescription and for the other two-thirds were clients of prestigious pushers who managed their habits. It will be remembered as the age when recreational travel meant a packaged gawk at strangers, and intimacy meant training by Masters and Johnson; when formed opinion was replay of last night's talk-show, and voting, an endorsement to the salesman for more of the same.
Illich's recipe is to overturn the hierarchy. We need to think about what that means for "experts", and particularly the difference between the "declared experts" by institutions (who are often merely the product of institutional management - "professor" has become a synonym for "manager"), and "intellectual authority", which is something different: the community elder who has read more, thought more, and often is more uncertain and open in their thinking than anyone else.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Education is simple. Why have we made it so complex?

I've been taking stock of the range of things that I've been doing as part of my role as an educational technologist. Much of it involves struggles with software to do things which the institution believes are necessary in modern education. So there are technologies for assessment, technologies for analysis, technologies for content delivery and so on. Each of them can (and does) go wrong, and each of them demands considerable labour in keeping the system going. From an educational perspective, none of them are particularly effective.

Learning itself is an inter-human activity which involves conversation. Without conversation, there is little learning - a fact which I have to keep reminding those who believe somehow that "content" will "deliver" learning. The only real value of content (Powerpoints, videos, etc) is that it illuminates the understanding in another human being, and that might be the precursor to a conversation. However, if we believe content to be some kind of magical "learning producer", it creates all sorts of chaos and complexity in its production: huge amounts of time are invested in creating sexy animations, vast resources put into audio and video post-production, and whilst what results looks pretty, it inevitably represents the understanding of a committee - not the easiest thing to have a conversation with!

Content, then, is a path to complexification. But it is not the only one.

What inevitably makes content complexify is that it is inherently hierarchical. It is the joint product of expertise and quality audit: the first a result of the academic status machine which manufactures "professors" (who are not always representative of intellectual authority), and the other, a function of the university's bureaucracy. These two functions are related.

The university hierarchy is both a mechanism for apportioning blame for things that might go wrong (like all hierarchies), and a mechanism for dividing knowledge. One of the principal barriers to inter-disciplinary working is the negotiation as to who is responsible (i.e. who can be blamed) for which bit. The quality processes of the university, which are another arm of the hierarchy, uphold these structures. With technology, the university has reinforced its mechanism.

Now there is a curious thing about communication in hierarchies. Hierarchies have "lines of command" - even in their loosest form. These are channels for communicating simple messages from top to bottom: "assessments must be marked by....", "the timetable is published...", etc. These are not conversations, although they might be the cause of conversations further down the system. Sometimes education exploits this for learning: the command "your assignment is to..." is the cause of conversation among students. In these conversations students will often learn about each other. They won't necessarily learn about the teacher, whose utterance might only be "your assignment is to..."

By virtue of the hierarchical structures the teacher find herself in, the conversational utterarances are sometimes restricted to particular forms of delivery: lectures, seminars, assessments, etc. The teacher's position is upheld by compliance with the institution's rules, not the learner needs (although the institution pretends that it represents the learners' needs, it does nothing of the sort - it represents its own needs!).

This all gets incredibly complex. How could it be simpler?

The alternative to hierarchy is either heterarchy (many leaders) or anarchy (no leaders). Both I believe are preferable. In order to achieve them, we have to deal with the twin structural problem: on the one hand, expertise and the status mechanism which gives rise to it; and on the other hand, the institutionalised apportionment of blame and the carving up of knowledge to fit institutional structures.

This is not to say that we ignore intellectual authority. If anything, it is to say that intellectual authority is privileged over the baubles of job title. Intellectual authorities are the elders in the community. They are the source of the best questions; the best guides towards a conversation. But they offer an articulation of uncertainty, not answers: "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," as Yeats put it.

Technology today gives us new lines of communication. We haven't yet learnt how to reorganise our social structures to exploit them; we have instead reinforced our social structures with stupid uses of technology. I'm increasingly convinced that hierarchies persist because of impoverishment in communication, and hierarchies exacerbate this impoverishment. Technology gives human beings new ways of coordinating themselves with richer channels of communication. This is what we should be doing. At its heart are the communicative principles of redundancy which characterise the inner workings of the brain: what Warren McCulloch called "the redundancy of potential command". He also coined the term heterarchy.

Education would simple in a heterarchy.