CCK08 Week 6-7: Complexity, Connection and Learning

snowden's ontologies of systems
I‘m a week behind in my weekly Friday writing about the connectivism MOOC, but last week’s subject was complexity, which is interesting, so I’ll post about it now and then skip a week.I’ve written a lot about complexity here, so just to recap for the uninitiated:

  • systems/processes/networks tend to be simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, or some combination thereof
  • simple and complicated systems/processes/networks are ‘ordered’; it is possible (and in simple systems/processes/networks, easy) to identify all the variables, do cause and effect analysis, and predict outcomes in such environments — the process for making toast is simple, while the process for making a toaster is complicated
  • complex and chaotic systems/processes/networks are ‘unordered’; it is not possible to identify all the variables, or determine cause and effect between them, or predict outcomes — the process by which all people in your community decide what to have for breakfast (including perhaps toast) is complex
  • while most human management methodologies (the way we parent, the way we teach/learn, the way we communicate information, the way we run organizations, etc.) are designed for simple or complicated ‘problems’,┬ámost social and ecological systems/processes/networks are complex; as a result, most of these methodologies are highly dysfunctional, and become more so as the number of people they try to ‘manage’ increases

This dysfunction, in an increasingly globalized world, has reached catastrophic proportions. Our health, education, security, social ‘service’ and justice systems now mostly make things worse for their ‘customers’ (hence 9/11 and the ‘response’ to Katrina). Most businesses have become unmanageable (hence Enron and the recent market meltdown caused by the fact no one understands what is going on in financial markets). We are incapable of responding to new complex crises (like global warming, and the global nihilism that leads to arbitrary acts of desperation).

We keep trying to treat all these complex problems as is they were merely complicated, so we have Sarbanes-Oxley, a massively complicated checklist methodology that is useless to deal with the complexity that led to Enron. We have the monstrous and completely inept bureaucracy of ‘Homeland Security’ with its millions of arbitrary and staggeringly complicated ‘measures’ that cannot begin to address the complexity of human rage against oppression and suffering. I could go on and talk about our health ‘care’ systems, our criminal justice systems, our emergency preparedness systems, our anti-poverty systems, our regulatory systems, and more, but you get the idea: Complicated ‘solution’ applied to complex problem = dysfunction, worse than no solution at all.

If you want another example of this, take a look what happens when traffic signals go out. If you have police on ‘point duty’ they will make the resulting traffic problem much worse. But if you leave it up to the drivers to self-organize, you will probably have minimal disruption, and may even have less congestion than the ‘complicated’ traffic signals produce normally. And if you leave the signals out of order long enough, people will ‘learn’ to self-manage the intersections better and better over time. Here’s how well an uncontrolled intersection works in India. People are actually pretty good at handling complexity if you don’t force them to use complicated solutions. What looks like chaos is merely complexity.

So how does this apply to learning, which is what this course is all about?

Well, for a start, our education system attempts to impose order (in a very complicated way) on a complex system (a large number of young learners). Instead of allowing them to learn, it attempts to ‘teach’ them in a highly controlled and inflexible way. It also prescribes ‘curricula’ which attempt to tell people in what order, and using what tools, processes and media, they should ‘learn’. The result is that learners are brainwashed to believe there is only one correct ‘order’ to learn things in, and that they need to be ‘taught’ in order to learn. As a result (from lack of self-confidence and lack of practice), they lose the innate capacity to learn, the ability to decide what to learn, and the ability to decide how best to learn things. The complicated system makes the situation much worse.

A complex approach to education would provide only the minimal amount of structure to encourage the recapture of these lost capacities. Eventually every learner would decide what was important to learn, and self-direct the way and pace they learned it. More importantly, they would learn by being shown, by observing, by exploring, by enquiry, by discovering, and by doing/practicing, not by being told. That means the whole community would have to become partners in the learning experience. The benefit would be that the learner would acquire much deeper capacities much faster, and be more able and more willing to give back much more to the community from which she learned. This is the essence of ‘unschooling’ (as contrasted to ‘home schooling’, which often merely moves the same dysfunctional processes from the school environment to the home environment).

The challenge with doing this is the disconnectivity of our current society. We may be electronically connected, but these connections are no substitute for face-to-face, patient connection to allow the learner to observe, practice, and ask questions. Our modern society is highly fragmented into frenetic ‘families’ and ‘organizations’ that are restricted (insofar as learning is concerned) to ‘members’, and whose organizations value and restrict work to that which is immediately and measurably ‘profitable’ and ‘productive’. The natural, ideal learning environment consists of small, open enterprises within open communities, that embrace and respond to the learning needs of everyone in those communities.

Online ‘communities’ I think realize this, which is why they attempt, with varying and usually limited success, to replicate the tribal, open community environment. But until our civilization collapses (which is likely, from the sheer weight of all these dysfunctional systems and their unintended consequences) such ‘relocalization’ of education is unlikely.

Perhaps we could do some experiments, though. What if we got some (open-minded) schools to partner with their communities and with local libraries, museums, business associations, unschoolers and universities to allow pilot groups of students to direct their own education for one year, with the ‘guarantee’ of a passing ‘grade’ so they could return to the regular school program if they chose to after that time. What do you think would happen?

I was part of such an experiment, with a group from my high school nearly 40 years ago. We won all the scholarships, even though we wne to no classes. It was a smash success. Why wasn’t it continued? Perhaps it threatened the existing system too much. Perhaps it produced, in us, liberated self-learners who could never be forced back into any of the systems that our civilization nowdepends on.

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4 Responses to CCK08 Week 6-7: Complexity, Connection and Learning

  1. Hello Dave,Fine and sharp post, thank you.I always suggested that Knowledge management ais not ‘managing the knowledge’, but ‘managing in times and era of knowledge’which is managing in a complex environment, which requires new attitude towards learning.I believe your conclusions in regard of your past high school success are quite right. You challenged the education ‘system’ that did not know and was aware that this challenge was a challenge at all…

  2. Daisy Bond says:

    Perhaps it produced, in us, liberated self-learners who could never be forced back into any of the systems that our civilization now depends on. YES! That exactly. I’m drafting a post on this for next week right now.This is what happened to me and my friends, I think, at our high school that did a limited level of “alternative” education. Once the kid figures out she is a person you can’t expect her to sit back down and shut back up like a machine. Not without a fight, anyway.

  3. conan says:

    Hi Dave, there was a TED talk on the subject of self-education in India – the video shows children teaching themselves and each other how to use a computer, it’s at http://blog.ted.com/2008/08/sugata_mitra_fr.php … same principles, the children learn and discover together, their knowledge sharing is self-organised, there is no adult intervention beyond installing the computer.It looks like education, like romance, is one of those things that works best when you don’t try …

  4. This is a really wonderfully summary of the Cynefin Framework and how it applies in an educational context. Thanks. You’ve really helped me get my head around this.

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