Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Cybernetics of Competence and Capability: Revisiting Pask

Enid Mumford noted that the difference between competence and capability lay in the difference between attenuation and amplification between complex systems. Competence involved the attenuation of an environment to fit the acceptable parameters of an individual who had learnt a set number of appropriate responses. Capability involved the production of multiple descriptions of understanding of a complex situation such that a solution to a new situation may be creatively generated rather than retrieved from memory.

Gordon Pask noted that the production of multiple redundant descriptions of a single thing was a fundamental part of the learning conversation. When he clarified his "teach-back" process, he goes much further than Laurillard's simple comparator approach to check if the learner has taught back what they were taught. Pask says (in the "Cybernetics of Human Learning and Performance", (1975))

Teachback goes as follows: the teacher says of the student (or ‘subject’) that the student understands a topic to the extent that he can teach it back to the teacher. This is, understanding is inferred if the student can furnish an explanation of the previously discussed topic and can also explain why he gave that explanation of how he constructed it. The crucial point is that the student’s explanation and the teacher’s explanation need not be, and usually are not, identical. The student invents an explanation of his own and justifies it by an explanation of how he arrived at it (in fact an identical explanation is generally rejected unless the student can give a reason why the teacher’s explanation was particularly good). 

The difference between the teacher's utterances and the student's is critical in the teachback process. Pask goes on to say:

the resilience of a memory will depend upon the number of explanations produced in teachback; for example, that a student impelled to give many explanations will fare better at session 2 than a student required to give only one. He has many ways of reconstructing a concept and this  redundancy will combat the effect of interfering and incompatible learning experiences during the intervening week. 
What this suggests is that redundancy is the principal indicator of learning, not information. In Shannon information theory (which underpinned Pask's thinking), redundancy is the inverse of information: it is the context within which messages are formed. Education is not about the message; it is about the context!

How might this work?

Well, compressing Pask's diagram into the exchanges between teacher and learner, it might be drawn like this:
At the stage of "rigidity", the teacher present many alternative descriptions of what they are trying to convey (this is generally what teachers do!). The learner is only able to reproduce one of the descriptions they are given, if that. Gradually, they acquire greater flexibility to utter more descriptions. Having two descriptions of the same thing is very powerful, and builds towards a generative capacity to create (or guess) other explanations.

Then there comes a stage when the learner is able to respond to the different descriptions of the teacher with effective matching alternative descriptions. At this point, we might say that the learner is competent. 

Finally, the true generative power of the learner's understanding is revealed at the stage where from a simple prompt by the teacher, the learner is able to generate all manner of descriptions - some of which may not have been conceived by the teacher. At this stage, we can say that they are capable, confident and adaptable in their knowledge.

What happens from stage 1 to stage 4 is a gradually awakening to the constraint which lie behind the teacher's generation of their own descriptions. By the end, what the learner has learnt are not facts, but the mechanisms of transduction within the teacher whereby the teacher is able to generate the descriptions and skilled performances that they demonstrate.

If only we'd thought of this when people sent their students off with their dreadful e-portfolio systems, we would have done it all very differently!

Friday, 9 February 2018

When is a musical note a different note?

I've been talking a lot about transduction recently.  Transduction is the process whereby a distinction gets maintained.  In engineering, it is the process of taking one form of energy and turning it into another - like an electric transformer. But the point is it produces a boundary.

The idea of transduction is useful because it turns what we usually think of as fixed 'categories' into processes. So think of a category or a subject.. 'maths', 'geography', 'chair', 'happy', 'ill', etc... Now think of the process which makes that category. It turns out that any category has two sides: a category is a boundary. The process of maintaining it works from both sides of the category. If you want to change a category, you have to change the process.

So you want to change the culture in an organisation? You need to understand where the transduction is happening and 'tweak' it.

Transductions are recursive. One category depends on many many other categories. More to the point, a category is not necessarily something that can be expressed in language. All perception is transduction: to perceive a difference is to experience a transduction.

That's useful when we think about music. To differentiate one note from another is to experience a transduction. What does that tell us about how transduction actually works? Well, to distinguish one note from another depends partly on there being multiple descriptions of a note. A note is never a simple thing: it is a multiplicity of frequencies to start with, which give it a timbre or colour. It also has a beginning and an end, it has a volume, and so on. A note is different from a silence. So a single note is perhaps a kind of transduction between a silence and the note. Since a silence also has multiple descriptions (silence has many qualities), a note is the difference between one set of multiple descriptions of something and another set of multiple descriptions of something.

If we were to compare one note with another note, then some descriptions between one note and another note might be the same - they might have the same volume for example. But they might have different frequencies, or they might have different timbres. 'Another' note is a change in the arrangement of multiple descriptions. That is what the transduction does: it shifts from one set of descriptions to another.

What about detecting that a note is "the same" note as another? That's an interesting transduction. To say that it is "the same" is to still detect that it is "different", but it is different in a way where the boundary between one and the other produces a new category of "the same".

A new category? Ah! A new transduction!


Thursday, 25 January 2018

A Statement Issued by the University concerning the attendance at the Presidents' Club Event by their Vice Chancellor

The University can confirm that its President & Vice Chancellor, Professor Screwtape DL, attended The Presidents’ Club Charity Dinner event held at The Dorchester Hotel, London on Thursday, 18 January 2018. Professor Screwtape DL has never previously attended any event held by The Presidents’ Club and is not a member (he prefers to work "by proxy"). His attendance was arranged under the  guise of an "invited guest" to a charity fundraising dinner. He likes to look good. More specifically, he was a guest of one of the University's key business sponsors who hosted and personally paid for the table with their soul.

Professor Screwtape DL has confirmed that he was approached whilst dining and served drinks by several hostess staff allocated to his area of the dining room. Co-incidentally he now (in hindsight, shitting himself) recognises one of those staff who spoke to him as being the undercover reporter now identifying herself as Maddison MarriageProfessor Screwtape DL recalls expressing at the time (to the woman now known as Maddison Marriage) that both personally and also in the current context (in 2018, particularly post the Harvey Weinstein allegations) he was uncomfortable with the totally unexpected influx of hostess staff and certain auction lots. The undercover reporter has confirmed subsequently to a fellow journalist and Editor, that Professor Screwtape DL ‘looked pretty shocked’ on twigging that she might possibly be a journalist.

Professor Screwtape DL has further confirmed that another member of the hostess staff also served him a drink whilst he was dining and when he asked her what she thought of the event, she similarly indicated to him that she was uneasy with the event. She stated that she was particularly nervous about descriptions she had been given of the ‘after party’ which she had heard from other hostess staff who had worked at the event in previous years. This prompted Professor Screwtape DL to seek out and speak with one of the event staff team leaders, expressing his concern that if any press were present at the event, his career would be over. Professor Screwtape DL cast a blind eye on the assaults subsequently alleged in the press and he chose to leave as soon as was politely possible at the end of the charity auction after he fulfilled his role to convert a number of key influential individuals to Satanism as required of him when he attends such public events.

Professor Screwtape DL has confirmed that he did not and, more importantly, chose not to participate in the post dinner ‘after party’ which he had been unaware of when he accepted the invitation to the black tie dinner, and he returned to his family who were with him in London.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Psychodynamic pathologies

The ultimate purpose of higher learning is individuation - that wholeness of being which is the essential component of wisdom. The deep problem with this is that individuation is ontological, not epistemological. It is not about knowledge. It is about being. Modern universities are all about knowledge, and pay scant regard to ontology/being/experience/etc.

In many prestigious universities, the most powerful departments are medical or related in some other way to the life sciences. There are many professors within those departments whose achievements in academic life relate to their acquisition of large amounts of knowledge. These disciplines are dominated by epistemology: "higher learning" becomes equated with "knowing stuff" rather than anything ontological. It could be argued that medicine has never really been a discipline of higher learning - despite the fact that it was present in the academy since the beginning (although in earlier times, it had more of an ontological basis than it does now).

There is an interesting Freudian distinction to be made between those academics who are possessed with an "epistemic bias" and those possessed with an "ontological bias". It lies in the relation in the psyche of the individual in the dynamics between id, ego and superego. An obsession with "correct facts" is really domination of the ego by a rigid superego. Dreams and fantasies are repressed, kept away from conscious intellectual life. Formal Aristotelian logic keeps things in check: the superego says "you've got to do it like this, or it's wrong". Pedantry, lack of critique, conservatism, are all negative side-effects of this. Rigour, planning, organisation, delivery are all virtues. Richard Dawkins, together with politicians like Michael Gove, typify this.

The academic with ontological bias is sceptical and imaginative with knowledge. Most famous intellectuals fall into this camp, although it's usually balanced with something which ensures things actually get done. But it is because they have an ontological bias that they are celebrated. It is because of the dynamic relationship between the superego and the id that they are creative and do new world-changing things. David Hume, Paul Feyerabend, David Bohm, William Blake, Jean Piaget are among good examples.  Insight, creativity, openness and spontaneity are virtues. There is the risk that lack of focus could result in failure to deliver.

Universities today are more favourable to the "epistemically biased" academic. This is partly because management of universities has turned into a branch of politics where the skills of dreary politicians like Gove become useful in the University management too. Universities must 'produce' like factories, and this is the domain of the superego.

The problem is that while the hold of the superego over the ego destroys their own creativity, they then occupy positions of power where they amplify this ego-rigidity and inflict it on others. A psychodynamic pathology in one individual becomes  a psychodynamic pathology in the institution.

The warning is that this can happen anywhere today, in any institution - however prestigious. Prestige itself becomes the ruling superego, and if its measurement is seen to be the result of rule-following, rigour and "doing it properly", then the superego's grip on the institutional life will be tightened. This is precisely what happened (and continues to happen) in Bolton. It is a psychodynamic pathology.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Psychodynamics, Creativity and Mental Health

Anton Ehrenzweig is, I'm sure, right to identify the distinction between the Freudian primary and secondary process as fundamental to creativity. Freud, in articulating the dynamics of psychic processes, needs to invent terminology for the "force" of emotion in instinctive behaviour. "Cathexis" is the word he and Breuer used to describe emotional energy. In "Beyond the Pleasure Principle", Freud has this to say about the primary and secondary processes.

I described the type of process found in the unconscious as the 'primary' psychical process, in contradistinction to the 'secondary' process which is the one obtaining in our normal waking life. Since all instinctual impulses have the unconscious systems as their point of impact, it is hardly an innovation to say that they obey the primary process. [...] it is easy to identify the primary psychical process with Breuer's freely mobile cathexis and the secondary process with changes in his bound or tonic cathexis. If so, it would be the task of the higher state of the mental apparatus to bind the instinctual excitation reaching the primary process. A failure to effect this binding would provoke a disturbance analogous to a traumatic neurosis; and only after this binding has been accomplished would it be possible for the dominance of the pleasure principle (and its modification, the reality principle) to proceed unhindered.

He's basically saying that untrammelled emotional energy leads to madness. In section VII, he says
We have found one of the earliest and most important functions of the mental apparatus is to bind the instinctual impulses which impinge on it, to replace the primary process prevailing in them by the secondary process and convert their freely mobile cathectic energy into a mainly quiescent (tonic) cathexis. 
Ehrenzweig's insight is to see that this process is fundamentally the same as the act of creation, but that its a continual process of binding-up the primary process and disintegration of the secondary process. Furthermore he identifies how this process relates directly to pedagogical techniques for teaching creativity. Devices for artistic production function to disintegrate the material of the secondary process (over which the Superego has a powerful grip) and send it back into the primary swamp. Those same devices give new form to the process of binding the primary process as new things are brought into consciousness.

Freud and Ehrenzweig suggest that if this stops working mental illness follows. Most particularly, if the Superego's grip on the primary process is so strong and unshakeable that nothing can lead to the fragmentation of its binding, then repression will result. Freud says "The essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious". The psychotherapeutic approach is to bring out repressed instincts into contact with the conscious mind. It's like jump-starting a motor which has stopped working.

The creative imagination of the artist uses various techniques for challenging the Superego's dominance. Starting from a distorted surface is one, of which serialism in music is a simple example.

I've been experimenting with improvisation using fragments of notated music - in this case Bach and a bit of Schubert. I feel that if I was freely improvising with no boundaries, what comes out tends to follow set patterns - things which I am thinking, cliches which are imposed on my own subconscious by my superego. The results are a bit flat. But with the disruption of a "broken surface" of musical extracts, I've found that I become more creative and inventive. It's an interesting experience...


But there's a level at which maybe Freud misses something. There's something about history - about the fact that it's Bach that I use to manipulate. This leads us to Jung's theory...

In "The concept of the Collective Unconscious", Jung writes:

In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical  psyche (even if we tack on the person unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals.  This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychical contents. 
I've always been attracted to Jung. Now perhaps he's saying the same thing as David Bohm - that somewhere, there is an "implicate order" - some kind of fundamental origin in the symmetry of the universe. And Bohm also notes that through music, we come into direct contact with it (see  http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/david-bohm-on-music.html)

Thursday, 18 January 2018

An Educational Techno-Utopia

Last week, one of my favourite sociologists, Christian Smith, published an angry piece in the Chronical of Higher Education entitled "Higher Education is Drowning in BS" (see https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Education-Is-Drowning/242195). I've been fascinated by Smith's work for some time (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/ethics-good-society-and-technology.htmlhttp://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/explaining-explaining-and-knowledge.htmlhttp://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/critical-realism-and-cybernetics.html), and there are two things that strike me on reading his Chronical piece.
  • First, it is no ordinary rant from any ordinary academic: this is someone who is an authority on human experience.
  • Second, I doubt that the senior management of his institution have read his work or have anything like the high opinion I and many others have of him. Some of those senior managers will call themselves "professor" and consider themselves to be intellectual authorities (since this is what "professor" denotes). In reality they will simply have been ambitious enough to acquire the title of highest academic rank without having to have read or thought that much.

There are some serious qualitative distinctions that need to be made and which are becoming blurred. Smith says it in his piece:

BS is universities hijacked by the relentless pursuit of money and prestige, including chasing rankings that they know are deeply flawed, at the expense of genuine educational excellence (to be distinguished from the vacuous "excellence" peddled by recruitment and "advancement" offices in every run-of-the-mill university).
For me personally, I have this disaster coupled with a very bright 18-year old daughter who is adamant she doesn't want another "three years of school" - and that is pretty much how all universities have become. So the bright kids are starting to desert the academy. The intellectual authorities in the institutions (the ones who know their way around the library), have either retired or have "had enough". What hope is there?

Among the many factors which have fed this decline, confusion over what "educational experience" is is high on the list of culprits. Because of the sheer difficulty in examining experience, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the only reliable methods are "by proxy" - questionnaires, surveys, etc. Yet these things do nothing  to measure experience. As Roger Brown says, University is an "experience good". That means "you can't know it until you've experienced it" (after having parted with £9250). That's an experience in itself!

In truth, Universities do their best not to be honest about the experience of university. Everyone knows that photographs of smiling students are a lie. Universities never tell you what it's like to struggle to get assignments done (or even, exactly what assessed work will be expected) or be bored rigid in a lecture. Why don't they publish their assessments up-front and let students decide when they feel they are ready? Because that wouldn't be in the commercial interests of the institution, even if it clearly is in the interest of the students.

In Dennis Potter's play from the 1980s, Blind Lazarus, a dead man's experience is available for others to enjoy (or at least experience too). Might technology deliver something like this to us one day?

I'm beginning to wonder if its not impossible. I've been doing some experiments analysing the dimensions of real-time experience as a kind of "counterpoint". At the moment it takes a lot of processing power to produce a map of the interplay of different domains of experience (visual, auditory, haptic, kinaesthetic, proprioceptive, etc). But as with any data processing, it will get quicker to the point of becoming instant. That would change things.

There could be no hiding of experience. One person could know another's consciousness. Would we still talk? probably - but it would change. I don't think capitalism would survive this innovation, let alone universities. But it would usher in a completely new era of learning and communicating. We would have tools to amplify the tuning-in to one another that is essential to communication. Assessment and certification would disappear as trust (which is what those things are about) becomes an explicit pattern of consciousness. Would we still lie? Maybe - but equally, we would know that we do it, and understand it better in others.

This isn't as far away as I once thought. It is really the flip-side of AI and machine learning. Those tools (AI) contribute to objects which transform themselves, presenting automatically generated multiple descriptions of themselves to the consciousness of individuals. Individual experience, contextualises these automatic multiple descriptions, and situates them within the many other multiple descriptions which comprise the context of conscious life.

I doubt Christian Smith will be able to look into the crystal ball like this - he is, after all, longing for the disappeared old academy. But here we see a new academy. It's not a hierarchy of professors and managers, but a heterarchy of intersubjective insight.

Learning and teaching will take care of itself.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Learning Analytics, Surveillance and Conversation

In the noisy discourse that surrounds learning analytics, there are some basic points which are worth stating clearly:
  1. Learning Analytics, like any “data analysis” is basically counting: complex equations which promise profound insights are in the end doing nothing other than counting. 
  2. Human beings determine what is to be counted and what isn’t, and within what boundaries one thing said to be the same (and counted as the same) as another thing. 
  3. Learning analytics takes a log of records – usually records of user transactions – and re-represents it in different ways.
  4. The computer automates the process of producing multiple representations of the same thing: these can be visual (graphs) or tabular 
  5. Decisions are facilitated when one or many of the representations automatically generated by the computer coincides with some human’s expectation. 
  6. If this doesn’t happen, then doubt is cast over the quality of the analysis or the data.
  7. Learning analytic services typically examine logs for multiple users from a position of privilege not available to any individual user. 
  8. Human expectations of the behaviour of these users is based on bias surrounding those aspects of individual experience that a person in privilege will have: typically this will be knowledge of the staff ("the students have had a miserable experience because teacher x is crap")
  9. Often such high-level services exist on a server into which data from all users is aggregated with little understanding by users as to what might be gleaned from it. 
  10. The essential relationship in learning analytics is between automatically generated descriptions and human understanding.  
  11. Data analytic tools like Tableau, R, Python, etc all provide functionality for programmatically manipulating data in rows and columns and performing functions on those rows and columns. Behind the complexity of the code, this is basically spreadsheet manipulation. It is the principal means whereby different descriptions are created. 

So the real question about learning analytics is a question about automatically-generated multiple descriptions of the data, and how those multiple descriptions influence decision-making. 

Of course, decisions made from good data will not necessarily be good decisions, nor are decisions made with bad data necessarily bad. What matters is the relationship between the expectations of the human being and the variety of description they are presented with. 

In teaching, communication, art, biology or poetry, multiple descriptions of things contribute to the making of meaning. Poets assemble various descriptions to convey ideas which don't have concrete words. Composers create counterpoint in sound. When we discuss things, we express different understandings of the same thing. And teaching is the art of expressing a concept in many different ways. What if some of these ways are generated by machines?

AI tools like automatic translaters or adaptive web pages are rich and powerful objects for humans to talk about. As such tools adapt in response to user input, people talking about those tools understand more about each other. Each transformation reveals something new about the people having a discussion. 

This is important when we consider analytic tools. The richness of the ability to generate multiple descriptions means that there is variety in the different descriptions that might be created by different people. The value of such tools lies in the conversations that might be had around them. 

With the emphasis on conversation, there is no reason why analytic tools should be cloud-based. There is no reason why surveillance is necessary. They could be personal tools, locally-installed instead. Their simple job is to process log files relating to one user or another. Through using them in conversation, individuals can understand each other's understanding better. They should be used intersubjectively.

Recently I've been doing some experiments with personally-oriented analytical tools which transform spreadsheet logs of activity into different forms. The value in the exercise is the conversation. 

Whatever we do with technology, it is always the conversation that counts!