Thursday, 2 February 2017

Multiple (redundant) Descriptions of the World: A Lesson for Teachers

Gregory Bateson's final book, Angels Fear, contains some fascinating details in his thinking which still require some unpicking. I was drawn back to it (it has been sitting on my shelf for many years now) by a wonderful paper by Peter Harries Jones on Bateson's concept of "bio-entropy" (see What caught my eye is the extent to which Bateson expands on his idea of "multiple description" which he first dealt with in Mind and Nature, and clearly aligns this to aesthetic experience, metaphor and redundancy. I'm particularly interested in the redundancy aspect, having just collaborated on a paper on redundancy with Loet Leydesdorff.

So here's Bateson being very clear that our science is really a science of description:
"When we study the biological world, what we are doing is studying multiple events of communication. In this communicating about commuinication, we are particularly interested in describing injunctions or commands - messages that might be said to have causal effect in the functioning in the biological world - and in the system of premises which underlies all messages and makes them coherent. [...] Having noted that the communicative fabric of the living world is ordered, pervasive, and determinant even to the point where one might say of it, this is what men have meant by God, we move ahead in the effort to describe its regularities with some trepidation, looking both for patterns and gaps in the weave.
Biologists looking at the natural world create their descriptions, for even their most objective recorded data are artifacts of human perception and selection. A description can never resemble the thing described - above all, the description can never be the thing described." (Angels Fear, p151)
He summarises his position later on:

  1. The data of the scientist studying biological phenomena are created by him. They are descriptions of descriptions, forms of forms.
  2. At the same time, message material, descriptions, injunctions, and forms (call them what you will) are already immanent in the biological phenomena. This it is to be internally organised, alive.
  3. All forms, descriptions, etc - including those immanent in the organisms - are like language. They are discontinuous and distortive.
  4. The forms are totally necessary if we are to understand both the freedoms and the rigidities of living systems. They are to the total process as the axle is to the wheel. By restricting the motion and preventing its movement in other planes, the axle gives the wheel a smoothness in moving in the chosen plane.
This last point is incredibly important for teachers to understand. The operative word in point 4 is "understand". Understanding is gained by apprehending forms, or patterns - or constraints. In education we ask "what are the constraints bearing upon this student? How can we overcome them?" How do we go about learning about the learner's constraint? We apply constraint. We say "do this activity" or "read this" or "let's play a game" or even "do this test". These are crude constraints but with their application, the constraints of the learner become clearer. We will then adjust the constraints we choose to apply next. 

Bateson makes the connection between constraint and redundancy, and moreover he makes the connection between the multiple descriptions of the world and the redundancy between descriptions. Our many descriptions overlap. It is in the overlap that we understand constraint. So the activities chosen by a teacher present new descriptions (often of what the learner already knows) which overlap in particular ways. To specify an activity, to recommend a text, to give a judgement - all these are additional descriptions to those which comprise the learner's understanding. The teacher's skill is knowing how to mix these new descriptions: it is in understanding the degree of redundancy between them and the learner, and observing the new constraints that are revealed. 

The golden rule of teaching is that constraint is the path by which constraint is understood. 

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