The what and the why of Ed and Tech

The previous post on this blog characterised the educational theory of connectivism as basically arguing that the most important kind of knowledge is the knowledge of who to ask for help from.

Since then, I happen to have read an intriguing 2011 article from Behavioural and Brain Sciences, written by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. The article makes the persuasive argument that making persuasive arguments (persuasive to other people that is) is the primary function of explicit human thinking. The article argues that explicit deductive reasoning about the behaviour of inanimate objects is secondary to the ability to reason about the motives of humans interacted with, perhaps even a side effect of it.

The justifications for this claim can be summarised by stating that people (if they are neurotypical)-  

  • perform better at reasoning tasks when they are set in argument-based contexts or involve insights into humans’ motivations (such  as the Wason selection task).
  • are subject to individual confirmation bias and group think.
  • anticipate potential arguments against positions that they adopt when reasoning in isolation from others.
  • tend to arrive at conclusions based on the ease of reaching such conclusions by argument more than by the practical effectiveness of the conclusions
  • are capable of reasoning implicitly about inanimate objects with some degree of effectiveness.
  • tend to be more fluent in teleological reasoning than purely analytical reasoning. 

What these collectively imply is that it is not only true that knowledge of who to get help from is the most important kind of knowledge, but that (explicit) knowledge in general is primarily knowledge of how to get help from people (by persuading them to give such help, even if the help involved is simply to accept an argument).  

This argument (referred to hereafter as the argumentative theory of reasoning) seems to have major implications for the teaching of scientific and mathematical ideas. If learners’ reasoning is primarily interpersonal and is less effective when applied to inanimate objects then acquisition of explicit understanding relating to inanimate objects is likely to lag and be distorted to reflect interpersonal understanding.

Implicit learning about inanimate objects need not be affected detrimentally by explicit argumentative reasoning, as implicit knowledge need not be explicitly communicated to a learner. Learners can acquire implicit knowledge through a variety of automatic, implicit learning processes.

Different teaching methods each span a spectrum of implicit and explicit teaching, each with characteristic weightings of implicit and explicit emphasis. Rote learning of symbol manipulations according to given rules, taught using strict behaviourist methods, involves explicit learning mainly in terms of obtaining learners’ explicit compliance in directing attention to some input and producing some output when requested to (Implicit learning from phenomena is dependent on the salience of phenomena to a learner). The understanding of the rules of the symbolic manipulations could be learned implicitly if the rules were sufficiently simple, the examples supplied were sufficiently numerous, and learners’ compliance and attention was sufficiently sustained.  

The degree of learner compliance required for teaching methods like the one mentioned above is of course not realistically obtainable without learners having previously gone through some process, most likely an explicit process, of recognition of and consent to be instructed by some educational authority figure. In other words, in order to be in a viable position to be able to implicitly learn from some teaching source, a learner must to some extent have explicitly agreed with some argument presented by that authority regarding its status as a valid teaching authority.

In the case of mathematics learning, it can be observed that much mathematics teaching has historically displayed tendencies to use explicit authority figures that utilise more implicit methods to inculcate mathematical knowledge (rote learning, algorithmic procedures). When mathematics teaching has attempted to include more explicit learner understanding (such as by discovery/enquiry learning) it is noticeable that teaching styles involved do not so much assume the existence of an authority figure as require an authority figure to be established by explicit negotiations with learners; such negotiations would be expected to subject to argumentative reasoning effects.

Perhaps it is the case that knowledge that needs to explicated to be effectively understood needs to be explicated primarily in order to persuade learners to engage in cognitive processes similar to those that would tend to occur automatically during implicit learning from an accepted teaching authority. This highlights the notion that for learners the ‘how’ of learning cannot be separated from the ‘why’ of it- learning is shaped by learners’ sense of what the learning is for. This kind of goal-orientation distinguishes learning as it is understood here from activity which is more purely process-oriented, which is how play is more often understood (although implicit learning through play is of course possible).

The premise that the activity of learning is bound up with the goals of learning is illustrated by Meyer & Lands’ idea of threshold concepts. Threshold concepts are those which are markedly transformative, troublesome, irreversible, integrative, bounded, discursive, reconstitutive and liminal. A very obvious threshold concept is that of phonetic spelling. Once phonetic spelling is learned by someone, from that point on in their lives, what were once a collection of arbitrary shapes are automatically converted by an automatic process into inner speech. Once a learner can spell, they have a degree of literacy that permits their learning to develop along drastically different lines to what could have existed without such literacy.

Because a threshold concept is transformative, that concept changes how a learner views their learning. Because a threshold concept is irreversible, that concept brings about a permanent change in a learner. Because a threshold concept is reconstitutive, that concept brings about changes in how a learner sees them self.  

In the life of a mature adult, the temporal density of threshold concept learning is low compared to that of a child; more thresholds are crossed earlier in life than later. Adult consciousness is far removed from childhood’s comparative crush of no-turning-back learning events that do so much to set the shape of the future. From the child’s point of view it is understandable that they feel inclined to stand their ground for the worldview that they currently occupy and only open its development to those who have been able to convince them that they are trustworthy to do so.

If the ‘how’ of learning cannot be separated from the ‘why’ of it, then the processes of education cannot be separated from the goals of education. In the education systems that currently exist- systems that were designed in and developed throughout the twentieth century, the goals in question are twofold: firstly to maintain and consolidate centralised control of the system, and secondly to maximise the efficiency of the system. While increasing efficiency ought to generally be a good thing, it is not necessarily the best thing to prioritise. The Modern Learners movement agenda makes the point that “Doing things right is efficiency. Doing the right thing is effectiveness.” Nevertheless, central control (which takes for granted that it is directing people to do the right thing) and maximum efficiency are the core goals of Taylorist ‘scientific’ management theory applied to education (discussed in an earlier post). 

Since I first formally trained in teaching, I recognised that the most important factor affecting educational practice was the role of examining and awarding bodies (although I stress that this was not even once explicitly mentioned in my training). Examining and awarding bodies are responsible for certification of qualifications, of defining what knowledge is and is not included in such qualifications, and what are and are not valid forms of assessing such knowledge. These bodies ultimately define the goals of educational practice. Because these bodies define the goals of educational practice, they cannot help but define the methods of educational practice. 

EdTech presents learners with two opportunities that are ultimately very different but superficially quite similar, in that both opportunities relate to increased choice for learners regarding their learning.

One opportunity is that given by increasing learners’ freedom regarding the educational paths that they take.


Three different educational paths

Another opportunity is that given by increasing learners’ freedom regarding the educational goals that they set.


Several different educational goals

What should be apparent from the difference between the path freedom condition and the goal freedom is that if an end goal is fixed, a learners’ motive to take indirect paths to that end goal cannot avoid being interpreted as an inefficiency inherent to a learner. The educational process cannot in turn avoid interpreting its purpose as developing ways to reduce such learner inefficiencies. The educational processes attempts at making learners more efficient may well consent to meet learners where they are rather than where the process deems that they ideally should be, but the process will nevertheless act so as to incentivise learners to take direct, efficient paths towards goals defined by the process rather than the learners. The freedom offered to learners to select learning paths is offered in bad faith, as a kind of learner self-diagnostic of error for the process to calculate how to correct rather than as an expression of any sort of valid learner preference. Reflecting on this offer made in bad faith, I find myself recalling the assertion made by Noam Chomsky that, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” Allowing learners to debate among themselves how to achieve a goal may well be an effective means of deflecting them from asking questions about the desirability of that goal.

The assumption that examining and awarding bodies are the best placed agents for determining the goals of education is a questionable assumption. Originally, examining and awarding bodies (EABs) consisted of a mixture of senior university academics and government educational policy planners. Such people were assumed to best understand the requirements of national economies for various skills within the paradigm of economic management by quasi-Keynesian government and central bank planning in conjunction with high status professional organisations. The shift towards neoliberal preference for free markets working in conjunction with business managerial culture and increased automation of professional roles has seriously undermined this assumption. EABs have not faded into irrelevance however- they have taken a more active (albeit indirect) role in curriculum planning. While academics and politicians still play roles in EABs, their influence has increasingly tended to be ceded to corporations that produce educational resources and assessments. Incidentally (co-incidentally?), in the USA, undergraduate textbook prices increased by 1,041% between 1977 and 2015. Also, according to Lazarin Overtesting Report from 2014, “Our analysis found that students take as many as 20 standardised assessments per year and an average of 10 tests in grades 3-8.” If educational processes are guided according to the principle of maximisation of learning activities that can be measured then it will be measurement that tends to be maximised rather than learning.  

It is perhaps surprising that employers’ organisations do not play a larger role in EABs. Most formal education is provided for vocational purposes, and education that is not for some vocational purpose has no obvious need to enforce certification standards.

Ed Tech’s more optimism-inducing opportunity is to give learners more freedom regarding their learning goals. I will be delivering a presentation on this subject later this month at the TechXLR8 event in London, where I will be stressing the importance of self-organising learning networks’ capacity to create their own learning objectives. If the argumentative reasoning theory is accepted, then part of how such self-organisation is possible is due to the members of such networks engagement in convincing each other of the usefulness of the networks’ objectives. Groups of learners mutually reinforce each others’ commitment to the pursuit of common learning goals.

An important part of the presentation will relate to how goal generating learning networks can assess the learning of their members without recourse to standardised testing. This indirectly refers to a proposal outlined in the post EdTech’s disputed politicosocioeconomics for the devising of learning tools that are ‘pedagogically open’. The meaning of pedagogical openness was only hinted at in that post, but can now be expanded upon here. 

Open pedagogy is an approach to learning content generation which has no arbitrary limits placed upon the learning contents’ end goals (it would be explicitly transdisciplinary). Such content is necessarily independent of the knowledge and assessment structures developed by various EABs. Pedagogically open learning content connects to all other pedagogically open learning content (but not all connections are equally weighted). The underlying principle of such openness is rather well described by this Foundation For Critical Thinking video

Members of learning networks can collaboratively engage in the production of open learning content webs (OLCWs). An OLCW would be like a cross between a very large, detailed and intricate mind-map and a gamified version of Wikipedia. Map entries are pieces of knowledge content that can be defined and added by any network user.

OLCW users have a score, which can be increased by adding examples of content that are consistent with the definitions of existing entries (consistency is judged by a community vote, where voters’ votes are weighted by their scores. Diminishing returns are awarded for repeated examples added to any particular entry). Users can increase their scores more substantially by having their suggestions for links between map entries approved by community vote (and by having other users link to entries that they have made).

Successfully adding linkages imply that the adder has navigated the map well enough to have some understanding of the linkage structure or possesses some sort of independent equivalent representation that makes it possible for them to deduce the map’s linkage structure. For a learner to be assessed by the community as having knowledge of the map, that learner must validly add something to the map. 

Validation of examples and links is ultimately dependent on community votes but before voting there is opportunity for users to discuss with each other whether or not to validate. Discussions of this kind would prompt argumentative reasoning that should improve users’ reasoning about the examples and links being validation checked.

In the post where I floated the idea of open pedagogy I also raised the idea of educator-developers who would generate open pedagogy systems. Since then I have learned the word ‘intrapreneur‘. An intrapreneur is an employee of a large organisation who innovates like an entrepreneur within that organisation. Active users (those that contribute as well as view) of OLCWs would be members of a large organisation that were continually innovating to improve that organisation. If an OLCW was monetised so that there were charges for accessing some of its content, then its active users could receive discounts for use by contributing, and make a profit if they contributed sufficiently. Ideally an OLCW would be a platform cooperative belonging to its active users or perhaps shared between them and various employers of the OLCW’s users.  




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