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Keeping it complex

November 12th, 2009

I think I have been underestimating how much interest there is in complexity theory and what it might have to say to us in education. Not any more! During my first session of the conference “book club” strand I had planned to explore links between complexity thinking and Rachel and Jane’s book Disciplining and Drafting or 21st Century Learning? (I love this book – a gem on every page). A comment made as an aside by the person who sat down next to me (thanks who-ever you were – I didn’t see your name) decided me to change tack and foreground the complexity ideas rather than the book. Judging by the reaction I’m glad I did. How powerful it can be to take time to play in the world of ideas when we seem to be facing overwhelming practical challenges. So, in the spirit of wider sharing, I thought I’d start a conversation thread about complexity ideas and how they might help us find new ways to at least frame the challenges that face us as we live our “now” in the midst  the whirlwind of social change – and coming changes to our planet as well, but that’s another story!

Because there are so many ideas, I thought we might take a few at a time, so maybe this will become another multi-stranded conversation, much like the Shifting Thinking conference itself.

I’ve found that a good place to start is with the distinction between complex and complicated systems. This was important to the breakthrough thinking about complexity during the second half of last century. It was started by the physical scientists thinking about interactions between and within planetary systems and living organisms. More recently the ideas have been picked up in the social sciences (as in Capra’s book The Hidden Connections which Rachel has discussed in her blogs). I think idea of learning as a complex phenomenon and schools and education systems as complex systems has got important implications for education. Complicated systems are understood as being the sum of their many parts – to know the bits is potentially to know the whole. I see the industrial age model of schooling as a complicated system, in its design, enactment and accountability mechanisms. We can see this in the diagram of the traditional model of the senior secondary school on page 20 of Disciplining and Drafting – the assessment, curriculum, community-input and student-output bits all fit to make a tidy whole.  Complex systems, by contrast are more than the sum of their parts, and we can’t necessarily predict what will emerge as those parts interact. They are messy and have inbuilt uncertainties. Contrast the diagram on page 42 of Disciplining and Drafting – this is already the messy “now” for secondary teachers and the ground is still shifting. With our firm grounding in linear complicated systems thinking it’s no wonder the shifts can sometimes feel alarming and overwhelming.

One important idea from complexity theory is that complex systems adapt and learn as new connections are made and the consequences tested. The multiple emergent possibilities stand in contrast to the typical “if this, then that” logical linear prescriptive reasoning that underpins ideas in complicated systems. When links between things or events are seen as fixed and predictable, it’s so easy to see alternatives as mutually excluding – it will be either this, or that, but never both. This “binary” thinking is so deeply embedded in Western European culture that it’s really hard to escape. But complexity thinking challenges us to replace our either/or way of seeing our options with both/and thinking. Some of us have been trying to do this for a while now and it’s hard – the either/or default is almost a reflex!

A personal example might help illustrate both the point and the dilemma. When I first read Disciplining and Drafting, one of the pleasures for me was seeing some research I’d been a part of discussed by others whose purposes were wider than those of the original research. I am thinking in particular of a project that Karen Vaughan and I completed together called Learning Curves, which tracked the rolling implementation of NCEA in six medium-sized secondary schools, over its first three years. At the end of the first year we were cautiously optimistic that NCEA might achieve one of its stated goals – parity of esteem for different pathways through the senior secondary school, with credits awarded to all genuinely worthwhile learning achievements, regardless of their traditional “academic” status. By the end of the third year what we saw instead was a hardening of the academic/vocational divide, whose consequences are with us still. Through the complicated lens, learning can be one or the other – but never both. Yet many life situations, including but not limited to employment opportunities, require both. There are indications of this tension in the technology curriculum. Some opponents of the recent changes say the subject has become too “intellectualised”. Supporters of the changes say this reflects the nature of contemporary technological work. Thus through a traditional lens learning still has to be “either this or that” with a specific type of future pathway in mind. Through the complex lens our challenge is to find ways to make it “both this and that” and to value the many fruitful learning pathways that are likely to emerge.

There are so many other either/or questions and challenges that I think need to be reframed as both/and explorations but I’m curious about how others see all this. Can we have a conversation about other traditional binaries that we could reframe to help address the education challenges that confront us?  How many can we identify? Which ones should we tackle first and why? How might we go about reframing our choices through a complex lens? Please share your ideas and let’s think together about this.

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Playing with ideas strand

October 28th, 2009

In this Day 2 strand of the Shifting Thinking Conference we will be drawing on both the published ideas of some key educationalists and each others’ ideas as we attempt to think differently about what school could be like.

Session 1: What’s the point of school?

Facilitator: Ally Bull

This session will involve taking some of the key ideas from Guy Claxton’s latest book, “What’s the point of school?” and thinking and talking about what the implications of these ideas are. What are the implications if we see education as building our learning muscles, rather than filling our minds with important stuff?

Session 2: Keeping it complex

Facilitator: Rose Hipkins

This session will make space to think critically about the deep ideas that underpin the familiar structures and practices of school. We’ll explore different metaphors for organising schools and learning, including those introduced in Disciplining and Drafting or 21 Century Learning? (Bolstad and Gilbert, 2008).

UPDATE: Read Rose Hipkins’ post-conference blog about this session

Session 3: Shifting thinking through literary engagement

Facilitators: Sue McDowall and Juliet Twist

Acts of reading deeply, like the acts of cultivating, nurturing, and tending that are part of gardening, generate knowledge that transcends the acts themselves (Sumara, 2002, xiii).

Come prepared to talk about a book (fiction or non-fiction) that has shifted your thinking and to hear about one that has shifted ours: Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight (Sumara, 2002) – a book that explores the transformative potential of literary engagement.

Sumara, D. (2002). Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Manwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Session 4: The book club with a difference

Facilitator: Rose Hipkins

Come to this session ready to talk to a partner about a book that’s shifted your thinking. (Bring the book with you if you can). Let’s think and talk about how the ideas in these books connect with each other.

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Look, I drew a picture of you!

July 17th, 2009

(Yes, that’s right…I’m talking to you!)
Actually, I should say I drew a picture of us.

See? You, and me, and everyone else – we’re all represented in my diagram of the shiftingthinking community.

The Power Law Distribution

I drew this after reading Here Comes Everybody: The power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. The book has influenced my thinking A LOT recently and I reckon I’ll probably write a few more blogpostings based on its ideas. In this posting I just want to share just one of these ideas, because I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately (No, don’t look over your shoulder, I’m still talking to Y-O-U ), and I want to show you exactly how you fit into this shiftingthinking community.

The curve in this diagram represents something called a “Power Law Distribution”, which I learned about in Here Comes Everybody. The vertical axis represents the number of comments posted on shiftingthinking, and the horizontal axis represents all of us, lined up in left to right order from the highest frequency to the lowest frequency of postings. What this curve shows is that the most frequent contributor (in this case, me) posts many times more often than the next most frequent contributors, and those people post many times more often than the next most frequent, and so on, and then we have this l-o-o-o-oong tail of people who contribute just a tiny little bit – let’s say, one comment or posting.  (Then there’s the folks who we sometimes call “lurkers”, who read shiftingthinking but haven’t posted comments – I’ll get back to them later…)

So what, I hear you ask? Is there a point to all this? Well I’m glad you asked, because there is, and here is the EXCITING bit. According to Shirky, this same distribution pattern is found in all kinds of social media. Wikipedia is a good example: Although anyone can edit wikipedia pages, it turns out that there are a tiny percentage of people who make hundreds or thousands of edits each, and thousands and millions of people who only ever make say, one or two edits (and millions more who simply read wikipedia entries without ever making a single edit). So if you graph wikipedia contributions, you’ll get an even more extreme version of this same curve.

The power law distribution is also called The Pareto principle or the “80-20 rule” which basically says that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So this distribution shape isn’t just limited to social media – it appears in all kinds of social phenomenon.

The cool thing – and the point of this posting -  is when we start to ask ourselves what value we get out of the collective contributions of all 100 percent of the contributors. In the business world, the 80-20 principle suggests that organisations should focus on the 20 percent (of people, activities, projects etc) that contribute 80 percent of the “productivity”. The “costs” of carrying that long tail, which tends to generate proportionally less, can be hard for an organisation to carry. But if you lop off the long tail, you lose out on all those potential contributions that, when added to the collective, could add up to something really great.

Is this youThe nice thing about social media is that there is really no “cost” involved in encouraging as many people as possible to contribute. By opening up wikipedia to everyone to edit, “we” (the users of Wikipedia) benefit from everyone’s contribution. Whether someone contributes thousands of edits, or only one, each adds value to the collective whole. It’s the same thing with shiftingthinking!

I’d like to end this posting with a couple of shout-outs. First to the members of our “long tail”. Guys, thank you. We love that you’ve stopped by and taken a moment to add your contribution to the shiftingthinking community.

Or is THIS you? (CC) http://www.flickr.com/photos/madflowr/3346345770/

Or is THIS you? (CC) www.flickr.com/photos/madflowr/3346345770

Second, to the “lurkers” – you know who you are. I want you to know that you’re welcome here too. I think I’m going to call you “foragers” from now on though. (I like to picture you as adorable little hedgehogs – shyly nosing around the edges of our community, nibbling surreptitiously from the cat’s dish, drinking water from the puddles of our drain-pipes, but leaving no trace of your presence). We promise not to shine a bright spotlight on you – but maybe just think about joining our long tail every once in a while? We’ll be here waiting, with a nice cup of tea and a gingernut biscuit.

**PS. I know time is a big factor making it hard to add comments. We’re still looking into other ways you can signal your presence without having to think too long and hard or compose the “perfect” comment – watch this space!

Shirky, C. (2008) Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. Penguin: New York.

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The Hidden Connections (Capra)

July 3rd, 2009
Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

When you read a book by Fritjof Capra, you’re getting value for money. Though Capra is a physicist by training, his interests and knowledge span an enormous range of disciplines, and he is enviably well-connected; his friends and colleagues include leading thinkers from many fields, and his books draw together threads from fields as diverse as biochemistry, management theory, economics, cognitive science, feminism, design, and agroecology.

I just said he “draws together threads from areas as diverse as”… but as the title of his book The Hidden Connections (2002, Doubleday) suggests, perhaps our big mistake as a species is in continuing to think that these areas are all diverse, different, and disconnected, rather than recognising the persistent patterns, relationships, and connections between them. The aim of this book is (p. 216): “to develop a conceptual framework that integrates the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life; a framework that enables us to adopt a systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time”. (These critical issues are, of course, all grounded in issues of sustainability).

For the purpose of this blogthread, I was interested in how Capra’s book could help develop my thinking about what it means to be a “self-generating network for knowledge building, learning, and change” (as part of our future focussed issues project).

In the first few chapters, Capra begins to develop a systems-level way of describing “life”. Since I majored in biological science, I was immediately hooked in by the way he begins by looking at contemporary theories about how life got started. How on Earth did something as complex as a cell come into being? You’ll have to read for yourself to find out, but a key idea from this section is that, with the emergence of metabolism comes the ability of a cell (which is in fact a tiny network) to become self-generating, or “autopoeitic” (from autopoeisis –self-making1). That’s because (pp.9-10) “the function of each component in this network is to transform or replace other components, so that the entire network continually generates itself….[the living network undergoes] continual structural changes while preserving their weblike patterns of organisation.” Cells are also “open systems” materially and energetically. While the cell continually replaces, fixes, changes, and regenerates itself, stuff has to come into the system (food), and stuff has to go out (waste). This leads Capra to discuss the theory of “dissipative structures2” – defined as “an open system that maintains itself in a state far from equilibrium, yet is nevertheless stable: the same overall structure is maintained in spite of an ongoing flow and change of components”.

(p.13) The dynamics of these dissipative structures specifically include the spontaneous emergence of new forms of order. When the flow of energy increases, the system may encounter a point of instability, known as a “bifurcation point”, at which it can branch off into an entirely new state where new structures and new forms of order may emerge.

In short, what we are talking about here is emergence, “the creation of novelty that is often qualitatively different from the phenomena out of which it emerged” (p.117)
I’m now going to skip ahead past the section of the book where Capra applies these ideas to understanding the nature of mind, consciousness, and learning. (Though these are actually some of my favourite chapters). Where I wanted to get to in this posting was Capra’s ideas about how these concepts and ways of thinking apply to social reality – and in particular, to social networks and human organisations. In chapter 3 he talks about the role of communication as an essential part of the metabolism of social networks:

(p.83) These networks of communication are self-generating. Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself – it is autopoeitic. As communications recur in multiple feedback loops, they produce a shared system of beliefs, explanations, and values – a common context of meaning – that is continually sustained by further communications. Through this shared context of meaning individuals acquire identities as members of the social network, and in this way the network generates its own boundary. It is not a physical boundary but a boundary of expectations, of confidentiality and loyalty, which is continually maintained and renegotiated by the network itself”

I’ll skip ahead again and bypass the chapters where he discusses how social networks, through communication, create culture and a “shared body of knowledge – including information, ideas, and skills – that shapes the culture’s distinctive way of life in addition to its values and beliefs”. (p. 87), and how knowledge can’t be treated as an entity independent of people and their social context…. (Though again, these are fascinating chapters). I want to get back to this idea of emergence.

In chapter 4 he talks about how emergence happens in human organisations. He argues that emergence often occurs at “critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops”.

(p.117) “In a human organization, the event triggering the process of emergence may be an offhand comment, which may not even seem important to the person who made it but is meaningful to some people in a community of practice. Because it is meaningful to them, they choose to be disturbed and circulate the information rapidly through the organization’s networks. As it circulates through various feedback loops, the information may get amplified and expanded, even to such an extent that the organization can no longer absorb it in its present state. When that happens, a point of instability has been reached. The system….is forced to abandon some of its structures, behaviours, or beliefs. The result is a state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt; and out of that chaotic state a new form of order, organized around new meaning, emerges. The new order was not desgned by any individual but emerged as a result of the organization’s collective creativity.”

The quote above inspires me as I think about the shift to 21st century thinking about learning and education. I think about Jennifer’s posting . I think right now we are in the state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt. But I’m looking forward to the bit where a new form of order emerges from our collective creativity!

There’s a lot more in this book which I won’t discuss here – maybe in a future posting – but suffice to say that it’s given me a whole new bunch of new concepts to think with, regarding “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”. I wonder what you make of it?

Capra, Fritjof (2002) The Hidden Connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

1 Capra credits the term “autopoesis” to biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (p.10)
2 Ilya Prigogone and his collaborators developed the theory of dissipative structures (p.13)

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Books that have shifted m(y)our thinking (Part 2)

May 18th, 2009

I’m still really hoping that we’re going to get more folks sharing and commenting on books that have provoked and shifted their thinking – as I requested here.

But as a quick addendum to my original posting on this topic:

On my recent travels, I had opportunity to peruse through a SkyMall catalogue on one of my international flights. If you’ve never seen a SkyMall catalogue, they are packed full of ideas, inventions, and gadgets which you never realised you needed (or wanted) until you see them.  One particular innovation grabbed my attention: a service called Getabstract Biz Book Summaries

In brief, this is a service for busy businesspeople, wherein the good people at Getabstract find and read the “best” books in business, and supply clients with  “a crisp, clear five-page summary you can read in less than 10 minutes. The perfect length to deliver the book’s main ideas, and packed full of relevant insights.”

Imagine if there was such a service for busy educators! Would this be a good thing? Might it actually excite people enough about certain books that they want to go and read the whole thing?

Of course, clients of Getabstract pay good money to receive these summaries.  But in a way, they are just a more quality-controlled version of what you can get for free – for example, by reading user reviews on Amazon.com.

Maybe (my hope of hopes), shiftingthinking can be a more modest source of this kind of “potted summaries” service for people interested in 21st century thinking about learning. Since no-one’s getting paid to review books, however, this means we have to treat our webspace more like a digital commons.

In other words, you ought to give back as much as you receive!

Friends, consider this your call to words.


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Books that have shifted m(y)our thinking

April 5th, 2009

Years ago at NZCER we used to have lunchtime forums every now and again where we’d each talk about books we’d read, and why we liked them. It was awesome, and a great way to find out about titles you hadn’t heard of (also: knowing that they had been pre-read by a colleague meant there was a filtering-out of dross!)

Like many of my colleagues, I tend to get quite excited when I read something interesting. I go around telling people about it and recommending they read it too “so we can discuss it!”.  I’ve picked up a few really interesting non-fiction books in the last six months that I’ve been “pushing” others to read. One is Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. There’s so many ideas packed into this book that it’s hard to condense into a short summary – but in short, Shirky’s book is one of those great books that provokes us to do a whole lot of re-thinking about the nature of society in the 21st century, specifically, due to the impacts of networked technologies. (I’ve passed the book on to a team member, otherwise I’d grab it and try to put together a few notes for you here).

What I like about authors like Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell (author of some other favourite books of mine: The Tipping Point and Blink, plus Outliers which I haven’t read yet) is the way they carry you along through a page-turning blend of stories and theory. These are the kinds of books that “shift my thinking” and help me to suddenly look at familiar problems and situations in new ways. (For example, we’ve used a few ideas from Shirky’s book in our recent shiftingthinking.org development team meetings, to help us figure out what we want this site to do, and how we can engage other people  in working through and developing ideas in this space about learning and education in the 21st century).

Another book, Everything bad is good for you, by Steven Johnson, gave me a whole bunch of ideas about how our minds engage with popular culture – and these ideas are sitting subversively beneath my comment on Jim’s blog here. (Read his response here)**.

As a educational researcher I spend a lot of time reading “education” books and articles, and while this is obviously really important, I think that the most interesting ideas I’ve picked up from books tend to come from authors writing in other fields, like those I’ve mentioned above – because when I read them, I have to think really hard about “well, what does all this mean for education”? I’ve had some really interesting discussions over the years with various teachers and principals (and other researchers, of course) who also like reading and sharing good books, so I know there are others out there just waiting for the chance to share THEIR recommended reads so we can discuss them.

So – what have you read that’s provoked your thinking? What were its implications for thinking about education in the 21st century? What questions did it raise in your mind? Finally, where can we get a copy so we can also read it and discuss it with you here? Please post your comments!!

**As an aside, Steven Johnson’s book also made me feel totally legitimized for my lifetime’s dedication to watching television.

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