Tag Archives: culture

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.

Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning

9 Apr

Lately I’ve been saying that you should cultivate learning in your organization as you might manage an ecological resource, like a forest, or any other complex system of high priority (like your computer network or your budget). As if learning were a “cognitive enterprise infrastructure” or worked like a kind of water cycle. But how would you do that, and what would it be like, and how would it be different than what you do when you think of your workplace as a kind of machine that consistently produces material stuff? I am not totally sure, but here I take a guess at nine possible pieces of an ecology of workplace learning.

  1. Cultivate Development, Rather Than Manage Performance. The point is not to manage people’s performances, but rather to get them to develop as much as they can, on the assumption that more highly evolved people do better things. The annual performance review that tracks behaviors against rather limited metrics and has a kind of binary output (wrong or OK) here evolves into something more like a coaching relationship in an experiential context: growth is the focus, not proscription. You look for activities that are motivating to the individual, that are a bit out of their comfort zone, yes, and you expect to support them in iterative cycles of trying things out, reflecting, adapting, and trying them out again. And you might add a variety of unheard-of supports and activities to help people think and reflect and be aware of themselves in a variety of dimensions, drawing on things from personality styles assessments to mentoring relationships to counseling-like activities, such as item 2, below. The trick is that these things, that we kinda do now in a knee-jerk way, away from work, would be more like the work.
  2. Support Cognitive Development. According to the work of Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey (whom I talk about a lot), we evolve through a series of increasingly sophisticated ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us. That is, we can so develop, if given the right environment. And with this increased epistemological sophistication comes a better ability to deal with and thrive in complex environments. One such complex environment is the increasingly global, flat, multi-cultural, resource-starved, post-ideological, environmentally-challenged, a-traditional, scary world of today. To help people be effective in this kind of world requires activities that help us know differently; Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change coaching process is one such structure. Having done it myself, I am amazed by its ability to make you reinvent the way you think about yourself and the world in which you engage; I fairly salivate to try it with a team of colleagues in a workplace. The downside? It’s an intensive, six-month process of bi-weekly meetings, invoking much deep personal questioning; that’s a huge investment. But in an ecology of workplace learning, invest in people is what you do: no rain means no rivers means no seas means no evaporation means no rain, etc.
  3. Assess Development in New Ways. In Higher Education we try to assess student learning, and it’s a challenge. But we don’t even try to assess faculty and staff learning; and the generic workplace doesn’t generally assess staff learning, either. But we should.  To promote development over production, we have see where this development is happening, individually and in teams. Of course it gets tricky: it’s easy to see your behaviors, but how do you see what’s going on behind the behaviors? Fortunately there are new kinds of tools that have potential in this regard: things like the Developmental Testing Service’s reflective judgment assessments, such as their test of managerial decision-making, which asks you to analyze complex, asymmetrical workplace problems, assesses you according to a complex scale of cognitive development rooted in Kurt Fischer’s work, and gives you (you yourself, the test taker!) rich feedback about your strengths and ways in which you can improve, data which feeds right back into the coaching relationship I mention above.
  4. Represent the Learning Ecosystem. If you’re going to try to manage an ecosystem, you need some kind of a representation of it. As the water cycle has its famous circular chart with arrows and the budget has its classic representations in profit/loss statements and balance sheets, so does the learning system have something. I don’t know what it will look like, exactly; but I imagine it will be something like the famous Kellogg Logic Model, which the well-known foundation suggests you use to understand your various high-stakes interventions, and which helps you see programmatic inputs, outputs, assessments, changes. With a key difference: the effect of your ecology isn’t an output external to you, it’s an evolution of your ecology. So a learning logic model would show as its characteristic feature a looping back upon its constantly changing self.
  5. Analyze How We Work; Analyze Our Culture. Part of learning is seeing yourself learn. That may be the single biggest difference between a learning organization and a producing organization: the learning organization sees itself and not just the things it makes. We will need to learn to pay attention not just to the products of our culture but to our culture, not just to the deliverable of the project, but to the way we work together on the project. For that a lot of tools exist already, like various kinds of post-activity group reflection encouraged in psychologically safe spaces, that let anyone share their experiences along the way. But new tools will help: the same sort of analytics thinking that has been transforming everything around us can help transform how we work together: social and network analyses to show us how we engage, corpus-linguistics analyses on the big data of our communications and cultural artifacts; these will help us, too, to see the patterns that make up our togetherness.
  6. Assign Staff to Cultivate Learning. Of course you can’t really have a garden without a gardener. And all the network analysis and group reflection exercises you might want to use won’t be that helpful unless it’s somebody’s job to watch learning in the organization at a meta level: to gather relevant data, assess its meaning, and help the group understand where it’s going. The teacher, if you will, of the organization. This would be a new thing: we’re used to thinking of Chief Information Officers, Chief Information Security Officers, Chief Executive Officers: this would be a Chief Learning Officer. Although of course it needs to be more than one person. And of course everyone has to be involved. But still the CLO might help organize it all. How much of your people resources should you put into learning, CLO and everything else thrown in? I propose 20% as a start. But I suspect it should be more, maybe up to 50%. Maybe 63%.
  7. Find New Ways to Gather and Share Ideas. Which Means Liking Them. One of the most important things in your organization are the ideas in people’s minds. The business world is just beginning to learn that to be relentlessly innovative, they have to gather and tend ideas in new ways, because ideas are the seed of innovation, be these ideas from their staff, their customers, their partners, their competitors. (See my last post for more on this). Part of this idea-tending requires a real cultural change–towards the acceptance and collective cultivation of ideas–and away from the general distrust of all things new that naturally grows up in an organization designed to perform consistently. Let me say that again: we will have to learn to like each other’s ideas.  And treat them, as it were, like a community resource, like, as it were, children. Because without them growing and maturing, we’ll fail. Businesses are starting to do this by building open, inclusive, idea-participation systems called Ideation Engines or Idea Stock Markets that aim to make the ideas in the group transparent and collectively developed. But I suspect you can go a long way without a particularly unique tool (a shared spreadsheet might work as well).
  8. Create Loops and Groups. In my perhaps over-simplified way of thinking, learning comes down to loops (in that feedback and reflection are crucial) and groups (in that learning is social; and in that your co-learners are as important for your learning as your own mind). So I think much of the key work of the Chief Learning Officer and her team will boil down to finding or building, and supporting, new sorts of groups in which people are desirous of learning together, and in adding “loops” to existing processes, to work reflection into the fabric of the organization.
  9. Do Some Old-School Ethnography. I am continually amazed by the complexity and mystery of people and of organizations. And by the fact that all you need to do to begin seeing and unravelling (or ravelling) the mystery is to observe people and ask questions (of course taking notes and writing down the answers). This is the way anthropologists settled on coming to know things as complex and mysterious as entire alien (to them) cultures. Libraries and IT departments have recently begun seeing that ethnography helps them understand the mysterious complexities of cultures alien to them, too (their customers). And it will work for you. On a certain level you can see an ethnographically-inclined research project as a kind of mirror to the people (if its results are shared with the people it studies), a loop at a high level, that both honors people and lets them see what’s going on. I think a lot about the emphasis in the popular Reggio Emilia model on the artful documentation of what the learners are doing; an ethnographic approach to your own organization is like that.