Yet Another Response to Stephen

Stephen calls me out for being mean-spirited and rude: “There’s no call for this sort of condescending and catty response to people who are trying their best to work through some difficult issues.” I think people who know me know that’s not the kind of person I am. In rereading my response I realize that my writing may have come off this way. That wasn’t my intent. My intent was to (1) voice my frustration that academics seem to enjoy problematizing things more than they enjoy trying to help you understand things, and to (2) provide a simple answer that covers the majority of cases, which I contend my definition does. If anyone interpreted today’s post as a personal attack, I’m sincerely sorry.

I won’t respond line-by-line to Stephen’s extraordinarily lengthy post. Just the most salient point. Stephen writes, “The totality of Wiley’s example works only if both questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.”

I very clearly said that I was talking about the overwhelming majority of learning that happens in this world – not all of it. And while it’s true that there are some very privileged people like Stephen and I that converse across timezones and fulfill the other requirements necessary for Stephen’s later problematizations to work, those people and those interactions are in the minority. If you picked a random person out of the 7+ billion alive today and examined their daily communication (in which tiny bits of learning are continuously occurring), the odds are extremely high that “questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.” Even for someone like me, who has a technology-enlarged social circle, many of my daily communications are with my family and close friends, still fulfilling Stephen’s requirements. Using his words, “the totality of Wiley’s example works” in these very, very common circumstances. The overwhelming majority of circumstances, I contend.

Now, clearly, there are more complicated circumstances that necessitate a more complex learning process than a simple question / answer. I also stated this clearly in in my post. As I mentioned there, my thinking along these lines is heavily influenced by Pask’s ideas about conversation (and Shannon’s theory of information, which I didn’t describe in my post). I had no intention of going into my thoughts about this more nuanced and complex process in my original post, and don’t have time to do them justice now.

“People always think they can engineer things for a precise result,” he writes. I agree that this is true for the people who fail to recognize the agency (free will) that exists in every learner. As Reigeluth so cogently remarked, ‘All instructional approaches are probabilistic, not predictive.” Can we structure something that will guarantee that people will learn? I don’t believe so. Can we structure something that will increase the probability that someone will learn? Absolutely. Stephen and George must believe this, too, or they wouldn’t have invented the MOOC.

The main problem for me with Stephen’s argument is captured in his statement, “If you are open to the idea that learning isn’t transfer, isn’t transmission, isn’t even replication…” If you are open to this idea, then (and I’m genuinely asking now, hoping for an answer) why would you ever ask someone a question? If you believe Stephen’s “perfectly reasonable and well-research answer” that “nothing is transferred,” transmitted, or replicated when someone attempts to answer your question, then why would you bother asking? Why would you make a request when you are assured of receiving nothing in return?

6 thoughts on “Yet Another Response to Stephen”

  1. >Why would you make a request when you are assured of receiving nothing in return?

    Yes, well said. And if I may add (tongue-in-cheek) sometimes it is exactly the case that nothing (of value or fact) is in fact received, when one asks a question of some (including some academics and would-be academics).

    So it is my observation that it is not always advisable to ask the question. Especially of those that would obfuscate the answer.

    But of those that would reply to the best of their ability, knowledge, and skill, it is good to ask the question. And in the response, their knowledge becomes yours.

    Transferred, if you will. Communicated, if you prefer….

    ’nuff said…..

  2. “why would you bother asking? Why would you make a request when you are assured of receiving nothing in return?”

    To answer the former, because although you cannot acquire the knowledge of the person responding to your question, you can experience evidence (their answer) which contributes to your understanding of the nature of the problem at hand. Sometimes you get an answer which contributes more to your understanding of the other person instead.

    I would say that a small amount of energy is transferred – in the case of speech, for example, a minute fraction of the energy imparted to the sound waves by the speaker is absorbed by the mechanisms in the ear. The signal is transmitted, but I would have to agree with Stephen that knowledge is not transferred – because it remains in the possession of the originator, and because any knowledge which is formed by the recipient depends on their own context (including whether they are “ready” to hear it, whether any noise disrupts the communication, whether the information received makes any sense given their current train of thought, etc.)

    Although I would argue the latter question is redundant because of my disagreement with Stephen about whether anything at all is transferred, let us assume you will get nothing back. I may well still ask the question if I think it will help the other person to think about the issues – why would I need anything more than that?

  3. > , the odds are extremely high that “questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.”

    The point is not whether or not this is the case in the majority of situations, the point is that it is *needed* and the fact that it is needed is in itself the proof that communication is not ‘transmission’ but something rather more substantially complex.

    > why would you bother asking? Why would you make a request when you are assured of receiving nothing in return?

    Why would I press a button? Why would I walk in a forest? My life consists of a series of interactions with my environment. I don’t expect *any* of it to result in a direct transmission of knowledge. But I continue on the presumption (and it is a presumption) that I can make sense of these experiences for myself, and thus learn how to conduct myself in society and/or whether there is pizza in the fridge.

  4. Well, the conversation continues, and it appears I spoke too soon when I declined to speak more about transferring knowledge. I didn’t define what I meant by transfer, and I should have, especially in light of Downes’ comments on the subject.

    I said earlier that I do believe in the transfer of information from person to person, and I stand by that, but only if I clarify what I mean by transfer. I agree with Downes that nothing—that is: no thing—is transferred from mind to mind. There is no little nugget or chunk of knowledge that leaves one mind, moves through any information channel, and is deposited in roughly the same neural space and pattern in another mind. We speak as if that happens, but as Downes says, it is a fiction, a shorthand—a sometimes convenient, expedient fiction, but ultimately a misleading fiction. In common, everyday language, we can get away with speaking of the transfer of knowledge, but when we are speaking about epistemology, then we should be more precise. Yesterday, I was not precise in my use of the term transfer, and I apologize for that. I know better.

    What did I mean by transfer of knowledge? I meant a process more like Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of decalcomania, which is a process by which a pattern in one place is echoed in another place. This is similar to a chameleon echoing the colors of its surroundings. Nothing is transferred from the color of a leaf to the chameleon’s skin. Indeed, the green color composed by the interaction of light and chlorophyll in the leaf is composed of the interaction of light and chromatophores in the chameleon’s skin (I just googled that bit about chromatophores). Our cognitive structures—which are centered in our brains but extend out beyond our bodies through other pathways and onto other substrates—have an amazing ability to echo or mimic structures in the world and then to manipulate, analyze, recombine, and otherwise think critically and creatively about those structures and feed them back into the ecosystem, adding to the system’s overall complexity and richness. This is the process I meant when I spoke of the transfer of knowledge: we transfer knowledge the way a chameleon transfers the color green or red and various shapes. We have an amazing consciousness that can echo and manipulate structures in our environment for our entertainment, edification, and survival.

    I do not know exactly how this transfer or echoing occurs, but the best physical description I know of is in Olaf Sporn’s book The Networks of the Brain. I highly recommend it. I think you will find that his highly technical description of the physiological systems that form the substrate for cognition agrees much with Downes view: no transfer in any mechanical use of that term.

  5. I’m kind of conflicted about all this. Now you know I love you, and Stephen, (and Dave), and I especially love your online exchanges/fights/wrestling matches, but I do worry that this kind of fine hair splitting/navel gazing is ultimately unproductive and offputting. In your last post you said of a comment it was “the reason normal people hate academics.” I sometimes feel that these very detailed arguments (see also which CC license to use) may also be a reason. Yet I do also understand that if you are deeply engaged in a subject you have to really gnaw at a small issue sometimes in order to work stuff through. But if you make recourse to the type of learning 99% of the population partake in, then by the same token that 99% don’t give a baboon’s bottom for some of the fine distinctions about MOOCs you make. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make them, as they won’t be the people who read your blog.
    So, you see my confusion – these arguments are kind of essential and yet are also reminiscent of the Monty Python People’s Front of Judea internal squabbling.

  6. Martin, I don’t think these issues are fine-hair splitting. They represent, from my perspective, the major philosophical divides in 21st century education. The divides are:

    – commercial vs non-commercial? What is the role of the private for-profit sector in learning? Is open education the the final full flourishing of public education, or is it the end of it?

    – directed learning vs self-directed learning (or, instructivism or constructivism; or, formal vs informal; or, control learning vs free learning) – or to put it another way – does the education system serve the interests of the providers, or of the learners?

    These are not easy issues. They are hard issues, and it is not always clear on what grounds they will be decided. That’s why David’s arguments and mine appear to hang on a hair – nobody is sure what argument (if any) will break the debate open.

    It’s also difficult because neither perspective is an absolute. In a strict sense, as Richard Hall said the other day, there are no public and private sectors – it’s all a blend, so the issue is really in how to manage that blend. And similarly, both the interests of providers (aka society (and to some (undetermined) extent the private sector) and the interests of learners must come into play. But how?

    And these issues have eminently practical consequences. I cannot overemphasize how large the stakes are.

    Brian Lamb today summarized what’s at stake with the first set of issues. The potential for the private sector to usurp education, the way Rupert Murdoch has usurped journalism, is too great to be ignored.

    And this plays directly into the second issue. Education can at the drop of a hat become propaganda unless there are safeguards in place, but as the banking crisis has show we are as a society all too liable to be conned into giving up our safeguards.

    There are days – most days, I fear – when I believe that David Wiley doesn’t see these issues the way I see them, doesn’t even see these as the dividing lines at all. That was the purpose of our day-long debate, to try to at least come to an understanding about what the issues are.

    I see him as too naive, trusting in the good intent of the corporations and the private sector, not realizing that when the economy collapses and the environment degrades completely, that he along with the rest of us will be thrown under the bus, grist in the mill as the wealthy and powerful close ranks and save only themselves.

    And I suspect he sees me as too cynical, too sceptical, too willing to believe in the corrective role of government, too willing to believe people can steer themselves through and out of crisis.

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