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Alan Kay, Systems, and Textbooks

17 Apr

Alan Kay give a talk called “Is Computing a Liberal Art?” yesterday at the 2012 NITLE Summit. Here I discuss his key idea: that systemic thinking is a liberal art, and I explain a corollary idea, that textbooks suck.

Kay is attuned to how ideas evolve and are instantiated in the culture and the mind. For him a key piece in this process is the relationship between ideas and the categories we have for them; the relationship is this: if you don’t have a category for an idea, it’s very difficult to receive that idea.

Kay says we’re born with 300 or so preexisting categories that the species has evolved to know it needs to think about to survive, and we’re wired to be looking around for thoughts in those categories (food, shelter, pleasure, etc.). But the story of the last few hundred years is that we’ve quickly developed important ideas, which society needs to have to improve and perhaps even to continue to exist, and for which there are no pre-existing, genetically created categories. So there’s an idea-receiving capacity gap.

Education’s job should be, says Kay, to bridge this gap. To help, that is, people form these necessary new idea-receiving categories–teaching them the capacity for ideas–early on in their lives, so that as they grow they are ready to embrace the things we need them to know. Let me say that in a better way: so that as they grow they are ready to know in the ways we need them to know.

Said he, “If you have a new idea come in and education won’t teach people it from birth, you get a pop culture.” Pop culture! A harsh but fair critique of our society. More on that pop culture below.

For now, what are the ideas or categories, or what capacity for ideas should we now be teaching? Kay has one major thought in mind. He wants us to cultivate the ability to conceive of, work with, create, understand, manipulate, tinker with, disrupt, and, generally, appreciate the beauty of systems. This he hails as perhaps the most important of all the liberal arts.

It is the zeitgeist of the last 100 years that everything now appears as a system that was but a piece of a system before–or everything is now multi-dimensional that was linear before—thinking of the body as a system, the environment as a system, economics as systems, computers as systems. It’s why we talk about gamification so much–because a game, or a simulation, thought of as a thing we might create (rather than a thing we only act within), is a visceral example of systems thinking. (If this sounds familiar to readers of this blog, it’s because I’ve written about seeing systems before, in The Age of the Gums, or in Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning, or in Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning, or even in The Conduit Metaphor, for instance. It might be all I write about.)

Seeing systems is an epistemology, a way of knowing, a mindset. As Kay said, “the important stuff I’m talking about is epistemological . . . about looking at systems.” It’s the Flatland story–that we need to train our 2D minds to see in a kind of 3D–and Kay’s genius is that he recognizes we have to bake this ability into the species, through education, as close to birth as possible.

One main point implied here is that we’re not talking about learning to see systems as an end point. Systems thinking is to be conceived of as a platform skill or an increased capacity on top of which we will be able to construct new sorts of ideas and ways of knowing, of more complex natures still. The step beyond seeing a single system is of course the ability to see interacting systems – a kind of meta-systemic thinking – and this is what I think Kay is really interested in, because it’s what he does. At one point he showed a slide of multiple systems–the human body, the environment, the internet, and he said in a kind of aside, “they’re all one system . . .” Compare that to the advanced stages in Bob Kegan’s constructive developmental psychology: “At Kegan’s sixth and final stage . . . there is a dawning awareness of an underlying unity that transcends human and environmental complexity.” (That from Philip Lewis’ work on Kegan, The Discerning Heart: Just happened to read that on the Metro on the way back to the hotel, as I was passing through Arlington National Cemetery).

Kay’s complaint is that higher education does not cultivate the particular epistemology of systemic thinking. We don’t teach integrative ways of knowing; we instead dwell within our disciplines, which dwelling you can see as being trapped within an arbitrarily chosen system. The point is to be able to see connections between the silos. Says Kay, the liberal arts have done a bad job at “adding in epistemology” among the “smokestacks” (i.e. disciplines).

Ok, so we’re not teaching systemic thinking. So what? What happens if you don’t teach people systemic thinking?

Then, Kay says, you’re allowing them to be stuck in whatever system they happen to be in, without thinking of it as a system. What happens when you’re stuck in a system? You don’t understand the world and yourself and others as existing in constant development, as being in process; you think you are a fixed essence or part within a system (instead of a system influencing systems) and you inadvertently trap yourself in a kind of tautological loop where you can only think about things you’re thinking about and do the things you do and you thus limit yourself to a kind of non-nutritive regurgitation of factoids, or the robotic meaningless actions of an automaton, or what Kay calls living in a pop culture. He sees this problem in higher education, where even faculty, experts in their own fields, are uneducated, in the sense that they can make no meta-connections among the fields, such that (as he said) hardly anyone exists who can understand the breadth of thought in a magnum cross-functional opus like the Principia Mathematica. And yet our future will be built on such integrative meta-connections as Newton’s.

By way of conclusion, I’ll now tell you why textbooks suck, according to Kay. A downside of being epistemologically limited to thinking within a system is that you overemphasize the importance of the content and facts as that system orders them. If you’re a teacher, you limit your students to processing bits according to a pre-ordained structure, to being a program, if you will, instead of learning to write a program. It would be better to use the system itself as the information students act upon when they construct their knowledge, and to find a way to get students to build new systems and even systems of systems. We teach students vocabulary within one set of grammatical rules, with the rules as the endpoint, say, but if we were disciples of Kay we would allow students to make grammars of grammars and languages of languages, with spirals of increasing complexity of thought looping into infinity and no endpoint in sight. That’s the order of consciousness Kay is after. Most textbooks, however, are on the stuck-within-the-system and vocab-and-grammar level. Which is why they draw Kay’s ire.


You are an Adulterated Oyster

13 Apr

I have been thinking again about academic support staff and what they should do in a time of systemic academic change. I offer you here 3 thoughts and 2 pragmatic suggestions.

Thought 1: Let’s move beyond the “interface,” the “factory,” and “established services.”

It’s hard to be an interface between a library / IT organization and an academic community nowadays, because both of these population pools are changing so much. You need stability to be a good interface; so we need a better concept. Another concept worth replacing is this idea that you are part of an hierarchical organization, or a “factory,” of work. Work with stovepipes and managers and top-down direction and a fixed suite of long-established services–all this assumes the people at the top know best what to do and that decisions made in the past still hold true. I think increasingly important today is what the people on the ground know about the moment in the moment. A factory by its nature is not particularly adaptable to the world around it (witness the hulks of brick buildings remaining from the Industrial Revolution), and you need adaptability in a time of change. So let’s drop the factory idea, too.

Thought 2: You are the community knowing itself.

If you’re not an interface, part of a factory, or a part of the provision of fixed, prefabricated services, what are you? I think you are the means by which the community knows itself. It can’t know what it needs until it knows who it is. We can’t help it unless we know who it is and what it needs. So help it figure it out. You are an organizer, an observer, an ethnograph, an epistemological vector (to quote myself) and you reflect back to the community what you hear, learn, see, think, do, discover, create. This is legitimate work. We’re growing and changing as a society, and we’re learning how to do things differently. A key thing about learning is that you watch yourself doing it. Academic support staff can be the way that that particular kind of necessary reflexivity happens in our community. It’s hard, it’s rewarding, it’s hard to explain, it’s a calling.

Thought 3: Think of yourself as an Adulterated Oyster.

What would be a good replacement concept for the factory or the interface? Well how about this. Think of yourself as an oyster with a kind of intake and output. But you don’t take in dirty water and give back purified water, you take in information about what the community is doing and needing, you take little actions designed to test out hypotheses and model solutions, and you give back information to help people know themselves and their options better. So you’re slightly adulterated–your goal is not just to filter the estuary but to engender a feedback loop that perhaps moves the estuary towards a certain channel (the channel of learning, you might say).

Pragmatic Idea 1: Publish your plan.

Instead of secret goals on a hidden performance review, why not write your own plan for yourself, publish it to the community, report on it. Say “here’s what I see happening, here’s what I think needs doing, and here’s what I plan to do.” Invite feedback. Let it be a plan that draws like an oyster from the community and like an adulterated oyster, reflects back meaning, improves.

To do this, have knowing and reporting activities in your plan. Tell the world how you will come to know it. But also make it a priority to tell people what you learn.

Also, aspire and grow. Oh, please, please, put your dreams in your plan. It is perhaps the height of professionalism (not the opposite) to use your intuition about what you’re good at and what you like to do to inform your activities.  And, plan in your plan to grow. Remaining static should not be allowed. If you’re not changing yourself as you’re changing the world around you, there’s probably a problem.

Pragmatic Idea 2: Create your own advisory committee.

Think of yourself as the executive director of yourself and report to a board of trustees. Identify community members who will sit on your committee, listen to and confirm your view of the world and its problems, ratify your proposed interventions, and speak on your behalf when you get in trouble. Have students. Have faculty. Maybe you can invite your boss, maybe not! It’s like your personal learning community. Just thinking about doing this seems to completely change people’s perspective from a kind of head-down, trudging-along attitude to a chin-up, looking-around-yourself perspective. Imagine if we all were on each other’s advisory committees? That would be neat.


11 Jan

Gardner Campbell talked at our school recently, and a comment he made resonated with me. “See those books,” he said, pointing to shelves of books nearby (it was in the library), “we see that as a conversation.” By “we” he meant the teachers, staff, grown-ups, etc., listening to him talk. His point: that it is our job to get students to do the same–to see the wall of books–learning, scholarship, life–as a conversation. As a multi-dimensional interchange that’s part information and part relationship. As an interaction between people, vibrant, living, committed, engaged people. As something they can and ought to be involved in. As something that can benefit from their involvement. Not as some limited, flat, inscrutable, mysterious, dusty, impenetrable, boring facade of emptiness.

This might be part of the idea behind the slow sea change we sense in undergraduate education–shifting toward student-centered learning, active learning, engaged students, “authentic” learning, experiential learning, experiments, on-site activities, road trips, real research–all things that help students see the world of learning and research as a place they can engage with people.

David Lewis, on a recent visit, said something similar. Students aren’t that motivated to understand research as a complex social activity, when our assignments call for finding, say, five credible sources. That’s an assignment that calls for a list of discrete things. (I.e. a flat wall of book spines). But we need students to enter into the world of information sharing and learning that generated those five items. Into the conversation. Some other kind of assignment is needed.

And some other kind of representation. Fortunately the ways computers can represent complex stuff may come to our rescue. For example, Daniel McFarland and Eric Klopfer in a recent article in Teachers College Record suggest we need a new interface for searching the scholarly literature. Unlike the existing search tools, which return flat and impenetrable (my words) lists of information resources, McFarland and Klopfer call for something that shows the information resource in the context of the people using it, representing relationships and networks and thought-structures. Some cross between the information object we know so well and a map of people talking to each other. With rankings and trends.

The future looks very interesting.

By way of concluding on a random thought: this substitution of discrete things for the more complex idea of things-in-use-by-people might help explain why IT shops and Libraries have always seemed to be a tad isolated from the communities they serve. We’ve focused on the thing, the list, the tool, and we haven’t really taken the time to understand the thing as an integrated part of a community in conversation. We just might need to get our own selves into the conversation along with the students.

The Age of the Gums

15 Nov

Perhaps the most salient fallacy of the modern day is to substitute a limited piece of a system for a system. In the era of networked stuff, everyone everywhere is discovering that everything is a complex dynamic system. Networks of multiple, self-organizing nodes which inform each other and improve each other and through which changes percolate in unpredictable ways. Yet it seems we still like to latch on, through laziness or despair or impatience or I don’t know what, to metaphors, concepts, ideas that are linear and limited in scope, and they lead us to wipe out the beauty of a wonderfully inclusive and democratic and healthy ecosystem and set up in its place a comparatively barren and mechanical causal power relationship.

The classroom, for instance. It’s turning out to be a complex social network where you need to spend careful time including the students as nodes and contributors to and creators of the verdant learning, rather than a sterile operating room in which a hyper-tuned cause (teacher) has a surgical effect (knowledge insertion) on an inert thing (student). Because otherwise you won’t help students figure out how to engage in the world, where it seems they have actually always been and will continue always to be nodes in a complex social learning network. But the idea coheres in many other domains. The Environment. Healthcare. Politics.

I call it thinking about the teeth when what you need to encourage, say, is a mouth. You focus on the teeth and you ignore the gums. Why? Because it’s easy to conceive of a nice, hard, concrete, discrete tooth, which acts in a very direct and visceral way upon a piece of inert matter. Also a tooth is pretty. But gums, what the heck are these? Mushy, touchy, grabby, complex geometries poking up over here and tapering off over there, requiring the regular painstaking care of flossing, doing the invisible and unflattering work of connecting teeth and protecting their vulnerable parts 24/7.

The image works for the college campus, too, where the teeth–visible, conceivable, powerful, discrete entities–are the easily known, papable things–say, faculty as John Housman in The Paper Chase, or pillared buildings, or capstone courses, or research grants, but the gums are all over the place, complex, sometimes visible and sometimes not, unobserved, toiling away. What are they? Probably not on the tour. Various support services. Work groups. Meetings. Co-curricular exercises. Faculty as advisors, mentors, friends, late-night graders, vulnerable learners. Places people take a step back and look around them. Two people sharing an idea over lunch. Things that connect. Things that protect. Things that sense trouble. People.

When you think about a complex system and its health and happiness and nodiness (if you will), you probably end up spending more energy on things like gums and making sure they work. Otherwise there’s no system. What does this mean for us in Libraries and IT and Higher Education? I’m not sure. Maybe it means we should set aside our fancy plans, and strategies, and programs, and get gummy, bust out our feelers and start moving around like crabs, meeting people, touching stuff, making connections, looking for trouble, sniffing out ideas, looking back at ourselves, connecting trouble to trouble-fixers, connecting ideas to idea-doers, protecting the teeth we’ve got, looking for missing teeth to replace. Who knows? If it works, it could mark the beginning of something great.  Like the Age of the Gums.

The Conduit Metaphor

13 Oct

Kurt Fischer noted (in passing, at a Mind, Brain, Education Institute) that the Conduit Metaphor of Learning is defunct. This is the idea that education is essentially a kind of pipe whereby knowledge travels from the mouth or mind of a more- to a less-learned person. That the learner is a receptacle to be filled with knowledge. Learning, it ends up, is actually much more complex. And knowledge is apparently not a paper package of data tied with string moving across the meat counter. Which is just as well, because the Conduit Metaphor taken to the extreme leads to students thinking of the “product” of their learning as a purchasable thing, like a refrigerator, and the instructor as a functionary, and they (the students) as having no role in the construction of the refrigerator, whereas in reality they must fabricate their own compressor.

The Conduit Metaphor also governs how IT and library staff interact with our communities. It’s ready to be replaced there, too.

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

The Conduit Metaphor might be OK in a static world. But the world is not that. If there was ever an age when people were willing to be pigeon-holed, it isn’t now. If there was ever a time you should be feverishly looking for ways to build community with your academic community, to be seen as people engaged in learning, it is now. Now is when your library and IT staff should use every opportunity they can to learn about how to be relevant and meaningful in the digital age. The conduit doesn’t help us do this, and so we must emerge from the conduit.

What does service in the post-conduit age look like? Efficient online help tickets? Artificial intelligence-based answering machines instead of staff? Probably not.

Here’s what I predict: we’ll wade in among the people and become them, engaging in the definition and resolution of problems that are unconduitable, because unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political. Our service provision will be indistinguishable from the normal activities of our community. We will flit happily among those teaching, learning, and doing research.

There won’t be a community over there and a service organization over here and a box office window in between with the sliding door seemingly always either closed or about to close. There will just be a community.

A few thoughts by way of postscript. I suspect some base fear is behind all this desire to protect ourselves from the community. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous and pernicious slippery-slope fear of being overrun by a horde of ravenous users, checking out all the books! or asking for more help than we can give!, making us work too much! (For my part, I say let your users overrun you. It means you’re meaningful.) The great gift of the bureaucratic mentality is to milk the Conduit Metaphor of Service Provision almost infinitely to stave off users from disrupting the administrator with their needs. One can even reason oneself right into wishing for what I call the “Administrator’s Dream,” which is–a sad Holy Grail–to find a way to provide a service to no users. The other day I heard it said that library staff love more the book on the shelf than the book in the users’ hand (I really don’t think this is true, but if it were, it would be an example of the Conduit Metaphor taken to a pathological extreme–the Closed Conduit).

About Research and Instruction

23 Sep

Research and Instruction, the two pillars of the university!

Well, you might say research is a pillar only inasmuch as it leads to scholarship (since the point is to share). Ok. And then you might say there’s another pillar: service. OK, doing good is definitely a pillar.  For the purposes of this post, though, please allow me to focus arbitrarily on the first two pillars, because otherwise my thing about their definitions doesn’t work.

I’ve noticed a slight difference in what the words research and instruction mean to library staff, generally speaking, and what they mean to the non-library-employed academic.  Research has come to mean, over time, for library staff, it seems to me, primarily those aspects of research that we have traditionally supported. That is to say, helping you discover the fruits of other peoples’ research.  Helping you evaluate the fruits of other peoples’ research.  Helping you show which of your ideas are yours and which are the fruits of other peoples’ research.

And instruction means to us, generally, the instruction that library staff provide. Which is traditionally related closely to the areas of research that we support (see paragraph above). That is, we talk a lot about Finding. Evaluating. Citing. Maybe mostly Finding.

What does research mean outside of the library?  Well, you can define it as well as I, but I’ll try: research is what you do when you want to add to the collective knowledge of the world (how was that?). It’s a whole gamut of fun from mixing chemicals to interviewing people to thumbing through wonderfully crinkled old letters; done standing in a lab or crouching in a field or reclining in the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet next to the Panthéon, in Henri Bergson’s own armchair, gazing across the desk at a portrait of the philosopher’s mother.  It used to be paper-based, analog.  Amazing amounts of digital data and data visualization tools and books that read each other are making us rethink a lot of it.  Still, a lot of it does involve finding, evaluating, and citing articles. But there’s more to it than that.

What does instruction mean outside of the library?  Helping people learn. How? Yes. In groups, singly, in class, and out of class, in scenes that evoke the Paper Chase, in scenes that look like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Using every communicative mode possible. In an minute, in an hour, over a week, for a semester, for four years, for fourteen years! And in every conceivable subject and melange thereof. It’s pedagogy. It’s learn-agogy (if you will). It used to be about lectures. Increasing it’s also about learners pressing themselves out of a rough ball of clay and whispering over themselves the magic word, as Rabbi Loew did the Golem. It used to be all in person. Now it’s online, too. It used to be 10AM – 2PM Monday – Thursday. That’s changing. You get where I am going with this.

Here’s my point: now is a great time for those of us in the library and IT professionals to release whatever restrictive definitions we can.  But in particular we should embrace the non-library definitions of research and instruction.

Because why?  Because we still want to support those pillars, but the pillars will change. The way people gather unto themselves knowledge and the way people help people learn — these things are become a gurgling cauldron under the all-pervasive influence of, primarily, information technology and, secondarily, cultural behaviors unleashed by information technology.

People around us will be rethinking research and instruction. Library and IT staff should be in on the conversation, as members of the community, primarily, and, secondarily, as people who think their job IS, specifically, to support these things. Hard to be in the conversation if you use words differently than your collocutors. Also, hard to be open to new ways of doing things if your very language seals you in like tupperware.

Fear of Not Knowing

1 Sep

It helps if you don’t need to know everything.

In the olden days I think we library and IT staff were better able to convince ourselves that we knew most of what we needed to.  So when we talked to our customers, we were fairly sure we would have a meaningful answer for them.  There was comfort and stasis in that.  It’s easier to engage customers if you think you’ll subsequently know how to help them.

Now we are faced with a lot of change.  Information is changing.  The amount of information is changing.  The formats information comes in are changing.  The people who get to create information are changing.  The way we use information is changing.  The way we create information is changing.  The way we communicate is changing.  The ways we teach, learn, & produce scholarship (activities that involve information and communication) are changing.  The structure of the academic enterprise seems to be changing.

In this context it’s hard to feel like you know everything you need to know.   AND it’s perhaps more imperative than ever that we engage our people in conversations–about what they are doing, what they need, whether we’re helpful or not–and in collaborations–learning together, with pilots, informal study groups, conversations–to help figure out bit by bit what our activities will be and our institutions look like in the digital age.

The emphasis shifts from knowing answers in advance to knowing how to work with people just in time.  To not just find answers but to construct or create how we teach, learn, and produce scholarship today and tomorrow.  You can’t really know everything, but you can partner with people.  You can release yourself from the obligation to be omniscient but you should replace that obligation with the need to be omni-collaborative.