Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Learning

One of the big shocks I got in philosophy was reading Bertrand Russell’s Analysis of Mind.  If you can get through it you come to the startling realization that we are barely conscious at all.  Russell does a thorough job of demystifying how our minds work.

With The Singularity looming a number of films attempt to
imagine what a super-human intelligence would look like.

If you can imagine a being with the mental capacity to be constantly self-aware and conscious you begin to see just how different from us it would be.  We have flashes of self awareness, moments of conscious consideration, but more often than not we fall back on instinct and autonomic processes.  An always on intelligence would never surrender a decision to involuntary reflex, but we do it all the time.  Basic processes aren’t the only thing at stake here.  If you’ve ever found yourself in your driveway but unable to remember the drive home, you’re performing complex mental and physical processes without conscious thought.

That always on, aware intelligence is able to consider and respond in non-reflexive ways to all physical and mental challenges.  Repetition is what we use to manage our limited ability to attend to the world around us.  With sufficient muscle memory from repetitive action we are able to do pretty amazing things with our limited attention spans, but we have to offload cognitive capacity to our muscles and the world around us to achieve it.

The idea that we are dislocated minds that exist metaphysically is one of the last remnants of pre-Enlightenment thinking.  From souls to Descartes’ ghost-in-the-machine, we’ve long cherished the idea that our selves exist beyond the mundane world in which we find ourselves.  But the very idea of a self only happens because it is situated in reality.  Context, rather than self awareness, is what gives us the continuity required to acquire a sense of self.  Your ‘youness’ isn’t a magical property that exists in the ether, it’s a consequence of your mind interacting with the world around you.  The circumstances you find yourself in are created by past action.  People around you treat you as they do because of past action.  What you think of as your mind is actually a series of circumstance that expand beyond your head and through your body into the world around you.

A skilled person recognizes this process and ‘jigs‘ their environment, using their surroundings to support their work.  You see this in everything from a scientist’s lab to a short-order cook’s kitchen, to a teacher’s classroom; they all design their work environment to allow them to do their jobs better (assuming they are good at what they do – jigging an environment to perform well is a sign of mastery).  In extremely performance focused jobs, like professional sports or acting, this jigging takes on talismanic power that look like superstitions to the uninitiated.  Our psychology can be very sensitive to how immediate surroundings support or detract from our performance.  The pre-game ritual of an athlete before a game or the actor before going on stage both reflect this.   Our intelligence leaks out into the world, forming it to our will in order to get ‘our heads on straight’.

I take the concept of jigging my work space very seriously.

Jigging of their environment is a window into student learning.  You can see how thoroughly a student understands a process by how well they manipulate their environment.  The student who can’t find the right tool for the job probably doesn’t understand the job very well.  My father always used to give me a hard time for leaving his workshop in a mess; I get it now.  If you can’t find a tool when you’re in the middle of a complex task you won’t be able to perform the task well.  Your continuity of thought is broken by poor workplace planning.  My father’s assessment of the dirty shop was actually an assessment of my understanding of the craft of the mechanic.

True mastery learning requires an advanced practitioner to
jig their working environment to produce complex work.
This isn’t that.

The stock classroom is a Cartesian throwback to the disassociated minds myth: our minds are magical buckets which we can fill with information.  Of course they aren’t, they are fractured, non-continual biological processes designed to interact with the world around them.  A human mind only blossoms in the presence of an interactive reality.  You have to shed the myth of a Cartesian mind in order to see the absurdity of the typical classroom.

If education is going to adapt to this simple truth it needs to recognize that learning isn’t confined to mental processes.  Even cognitively focused courses of study like mathematics are recognizing that tangible representation improves student learning.  If you teach students like brains in boxes you don’t get very far.

Recognizing tangibles in teaching concepts is only the first part of this incorporation of an accurate philosophy of mind in learning.  The real power comes in creating adaptable learning environments that encourage student control.  If you’re teaching anything sufficiently complicated then allowing students control of their learning environment will only improve their chances of mastery.  If they can’t control their work space (or worse, it’s handed to them complete), they are being robbed of the opportunity to own their learning.  Environmental control also allows teachers a vital insight into how well a student understands the material they are learning.  If a student designs a non-functioning work space it shows you just how far from understanding the basic concepts of what they’re trying to do they are.   It is a common occurrence for the least capable students to walk up to me days before the end of a two week engineering project and tell me they are missing key components to finish it.  This is a valuable insight for both myself and the student into just how ignorant they are.  The worst thing we can do is what we do now:   put students in institutionally designed spaces that demand conformity and tell them to do it in their heads.  A key aspect of mastery learning is recognizing how expertise is rendered in the world around us, and then using that information to assess understanding and improve learning.

NOTES

Bertrand Russell, On Mind
Finishing off Descartes’ ghosts
Rene Descartes, ghost in the machine
If we can’t have souls, we can have magical, metaphysical minds!
Matt Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head
A modern dismantling of Enlightenment ideology that has run wild
I recently attended Stratford’s Possible Worlds.  
It plays on a conceit that you see in a lot of drama (Jacob’s LadderInceptionThe Matrix), that we would be incapable of realizing that the world around us isn’t real.  This conceit trivializes reality and sends us back into that superstitious state of magical minds.

I’d argue that our existence actually precedes and produces our intelligence.  We wouldn’t be what we are if we were brains in boxes being fed information; reality defines our intelligence.  I had a lot of trouble getting into Possible Worlds because it used science and tech babble to lead the audience through a fractured dreamscape, depending on our belief in magical minds to suspend our disbelief.

How We’ve Situated Ourselves

I’m wrapping up Matt Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and it’s leaving a lot of questions around education.


Throughout the book Crawford questions the hyper-individualized nature of our post-enlightenment selves.  He does it in the context of skilled manual labour, which does a lot to refute the ideal ‘generic/flexible intelligence’ we all value nowadays.  Skills situated in real-world demands are immune to academic flights of fantasy.

Below are some quotes I’m ruminating on:


“…manufactured experiences promise to save us from confrontations with a world that resists our will.”

Anyone teaching modern teens feels the strain of trying to haul them out of the digital trance they prefer.  I teach computers and this is acute, like trying to teach pyromaniacs how to be firemen.  Many of my students are incapable of seeing the machines they are supposed to be learning about as anything other than entertainment.  Computers are a digital window into a world where you can always be capable and rewards are continuous and timely.

The proliferation of fairly terrible flash games on the internet indicates that many students would rather exist in digital Pavlovian response environments than deal with the pesky real world.  The game play is so bad that I’m astonished anyone plays them, but play them they do, for hours at a time.  Crawford has a section on machine gambling that strikes startling (and terrifying) similarities with how I see students playing these digital games (most of which are thinly veiled advertisements).

Between an isolated and hyper-intensified (almost sacred) sense of self, and the nature of digital economics, people are immersed in a society that has quantified and actively seeks their attention for monetary gain.  Crawford describes this as the enlightenment ideal of a free self taken to bizarre extremes – but these extremes feed nicely into the neo-liberal/globalized digital economy we’ve created for ourselves.

Distraction is seen as a problem of technology, but it is actually one of political economy: “in a culture saturated with technologies for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others.”

Hack the future – or be used by it. Digital technology has
evolved into the shiny gateway to an attention economy
that is as relentless as a casino in catching eyeballs..

Worries about digital-distraction have long been tied to education and technology, but Crawford does a good job of uncovering the economic foundations of that problem.  My concern has always been that poor implementation of educational technology simply feeds students into this harvester.

If we’re delivering a single branded approach to educational technology, we aren’t teaching fluency so much as dependence.  This is why technology multi-nationals are so willing to ‘work with education’.  With students already walking into class having been digitally branded on a personal level, education has jumped on the bandwagon by following student trends (kid’s love ipads!) rather than pedagogical imperative.  If we’re going to recover students’ ability to navigate (rather be navigated by) the digital economy they are immersed in, we can’t be driven by the same processes.

If the only point of education is to put more bricks in the wall, then we should just keep on doing what we’re doing.  If we want to teach students to survive in a voracious economy that sees their attention as a commodity then we need to teach them what the technology is and how it works.  Open source software and un-locked, non-brand specific hardware would be a good place to start, but you’re not going to see lots of ads for it.


“the advent of hyperpalatable mental stimuli… raises the question of whether the ascetic spirit required for education has a chance.  The content of our education forms us, through the application of cultivated powers of concentration to studies that aren’t immediately gratifying.  We therefore had to wonder whether the diversity of human possibilities was being collapsed into a mental monoculture – one that can more easily be harvested by mechanized means.”

Student directed learning: the kind of thinking
being embraced by Ontario’s education leaders
at this summer’s conference.  This kind of nonsense
ignores how education has worked for millennia.

The “ascetic spirit” of education is long dead.  If it isn’t fun and engaging, it isn’t a correct lesson plan according to modern educational thinking.  Students treat marks as a score, demanding them immediately and ignoring feed-back.  There is no delayed gratification in modern education.  Teachers have to justify (up front) any teaching – it can never lead toward a goal that is out of sight.  Where ever possible we are asked to be as transparent and immediately gratifying as possible.  The more forward-thinking, extreme view is that teachers are no longer needed at all.  In an information rich world (conveniently delivered on closed platforms by multi-nationals), students can learn on their own with no direction.  All you need is an I.T. guy to keep everyone connected.

If we’re producing generic-intelligence graduates that are able to work anywhere for minimum wage with no real expertise other than a can-do attitude, then we’re doing a great job.  Crawford’s focus on skilled labour neatly sidesteps the ideal of the liberally educated university student who can’t do anything but is ready for everything (as long as it doesn’t involve reality).  Reality makes demands on skilled trades that most academics find beneath them.

The danger in digital technology exists in its ability to latch onto and modify our very plastic thinking processes.  A skilled-trades approach to understanding digital technology can elevate us from being users to being architects.  Nick Carr does a good job of criticizing this in The Shallows.  Crawford goes further by explaining that technology isn’t the issue, it’s the cannibalistic economics that drive it that we should be protecting students from.

By pulling back the curtain and revealing the machinery that feeds this relentless economy we enable students to dictate the terms of their digital experience.  What happens instead is that we present digital technology as if it’s just another educational tool, which allows the underlying economy to seep into education unseen, feeding students into a mechanism that wants to commodify their very thoughts.

Neurology: Is it the car, or the car and driver?

We had board PD today (a 3 hour lecture).  It was a presentation on neurology in learning and layered curriculum by Kathie Nunley.  I’m generally a fan of a nuanced scientific approach to human activity (as opposed to a simplistic approach to things that usually support buying something).  Dr. Nunley’s neurological approach to education offered a number of insights to what we’re doing wrong.  If we don’t consider biological imperatives in learning we will never be as efficient as we might be.


There was a moment where I came to the end of neurological approach and the ‘ol philosophy degree kicked in.  Nunley had a slide stressing the importance of the appearance of choice in learning.  She stressed how engaging it is for students when they feel like they can choose their learning.

My knee jerk response was that this was manipulation, which led me down a metaphysical rabbit hole.

Neuroscience, because it’s looking at the brain, comes dangerously close to itemizing our sentience.  It also tends to reduce multi-dimensional complexity into simplistic linearity.  This idea that the appearance of choice would prompt more efficient learning would encourage any right minded teacher to manipulate their students into thinking they have learning choice in order to harness better retention.  No right minded teacher should be manipulating anyone into anything.

An analogy immediately came to mind.  Is neuroscience the car or the car and driver?  On a neuroscientific level our minds are very complex mechanical devices.  Our actions are driven by a brain developed from millennia of evolution.  There is no free-will, only complex autonomous reaction.  If that is what we are, you should have no trouble manipulating these processes to get a desired result, especially if it’s a good end.  School systems should treat the people in them like cogs in a machine, because that’s all they are.

If neurology is the study of the car then we can make immediate and scientifically informed choices that will improve its maintenance and operation.  As Nunley suggested in her presentation, dietary and developmental principles can be applied to maximize the functionality of our brains.  If neurology is the study of the car and driver then there is nothing else to consider.  In addition to the spiritual considerations that a number of people would find difficult to swallow, concepts like ethics or metaphysical ideals beyond the immediately knowable world of science (like honesty) may be ignored.  Neurology is the rational tool that justifies treating people like machines because that is all they are.

One of the reasons I like teaching technology is because students don’t get to work in imaginary value structures.  Those would be places where the science of neurology reigns supreme, where the teacher should manipulate students to lead them to success.  It’s where a 60% means you’ve done enough.  In the world of hands-on experience 60% is as useful as a zero.  If you don’t believe me have 60% of your next brake job done and see how that goes.

Teaching technology means I get to take students inured to reality after years of ‘learning’ in a school system and put them in close proximity to what is rather than what we wish.  Their discomfort is obvious.  They respond with comments like, “it didn’t work, but I tried real hard.  Do I get an A?”  No, you don’t, and reality is unimpressed with your intellectual resilience and general work ethic.  Thank goodness human value structures don’t decide everything. 

Fortunately, and despite our best efforts, we don’t live in a reality based on human value structures.  The large, unknowable universe that surrounds us makes itself felt constantly.   The tiny portion of reality we feel like we have a grip on because of science is only a gross approximation; mathematics and human ideas that roughly simulate reality enough to make crude use of it.  Science thinks in terms or breakthroughs and mastery, but neither actually happens.  Neuroscience offers us some useful insight into how brains function, but it is still far from understanding our minds; the driver is still safely out of their hands.

I tend toward moral absolutism.  One of the reasons I find science so agreeable is because it attempts to tell no lies, but in the case of neuroscience it seems to make some assumptions on how much it thinks it knows about being human.  Brains aren’t all we are, even though we use them as a lens to make sense of the world.

I’m going to take many of the suggestions around how to best maintain and maximize brain efficiency from this PD, but I’m not surrendering morality in the process.  If I’m going to give a student a choice it’s going to be a genuine choice because I believe those are superior to the appearance of choice.  In ways not immediately measurable I know that treating students and the subject I teach honestly creates the kind of fecundity that science is still having trouble quantifying.

Do What You’re Paid For: the distance between the mediocrity of work and the goals of education

The majority seem to follow the science.

The Weather Network had an interesting poll today.  The American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that later start times for adolescents would allow them to function better with their funky circadian rhythms.

It’s a fact of our biology that our sleep patterns change during adolescence.  Being a teacher I’ve been aware of this for a long time because my job isn’t to punish students but rather to develop their best expression of skill and ability.

The comments on this poll are your typical internet nonsense.  It makes me wonder how most people think (or don’t).  The most vocal opponents (a minority in this poll) seem to think school should be about forcing students into alignment with adult expectations, however mediocre, biology be damned.

Some pretty nasty assumptions in these acerbic comments…


Is school about ‘commitment, dedication’ and the benefits you get from these values?  Of course it is, but it is also seeking your best work.  Unlike the ‘adult’ world where showing up and doing what you’re paid for is the expectation, school is (should be?) about excellence.  I don’t want a forced effort and I’m not looking for a pass, though many of my students are.  I wonder where they learn those values?

There are jobs and companies that do embrace excellence, but they are a minority.  If you’re working for a pay cheque (and the vast majority are), you’re an advocate of the show up on time-do what you’re paid for-and-grow up school of adulthood.  For a lot of students school is the last place where they are encouraged to seek their best effort.  The rest of their lives are spent venting their spleen and dragging everyone down on internet comment forums.

Top performance isn’t only a matter of effort.  I hear a lot of students tell me, “I’ll put in an effort in senior years and get the grades I need to get into university.”  They get to grade 12 and suddenly realize what squandering years of foundational skill building really costs.  I have that Incompetence poster up in my class.  It’s not meant to be cruel, it’s meant to remind students that I’m not there to waste their time or hold them in room for a certain amount of time (like most jobs they’ll have when they graduate).  I’m looking for optimal skills building for each student (they’re all different).

One of the reasons so many people enjoy watching professional sports is because you’re seeing people performing at their very best.  A pro athlete isn’t just putting in an effort, they are maximizing their anatomy with diet, sleep and hours upon hours of training and practice.  You’re seeing their excellence as the tip of a massive iceberg of commitment.  The doing of unpalatable things isn’t the point, excellence is, and you don’t reach it by ignoring basic facts of biology.

I worked in private business for fifteen years before I became a teacher.  With very few exceptions, work involved being there on time and doing what you’re told.  When I attempted to display initiative it was considered difficult to manage.  One of the reasons I became a teacher is because I have the professional latitude to produce my best work.  I don’t just work to a clock, I work to a higher goal.  Rather than aim students at the lowered expectations of the working world, perhaps it’s time to embrace excellence.

A few months ago I read an interesting article on the conflict between capitalism (read: neo-liberal devaluation of human capital) and education systems.  These Weather Network poll responses are firmly in that neo-liberal mindset of reduced human capital.  You’re a cog in the machine: do what you’re told, be consistent, show up on time… if that’s what education becomes then we truly are lost.