Tag Archives: ideas

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.

The Second Phase of Creation

12 Aug

When you think about doing new things, there are a few phases. Four, by my count. First comes the part where you conceive of the thing to do–call it the idea phase. In the beginning there was the word, etc. Then there’s a phase where you actually do the thing you conceived of. The doing phase, which is number three. These two phases are self-evident I think to most people, and I’m not going talk about them here, although I note they get really interesting as you peer into them (How do you actually get that idea? What is it you’re doing, when you’re doing, anyhow? Is there any thinking happening in there during that doing? Etc.)

Less obvious than these is a post-doing phase, phase four, where you reflect on how the thing went and look for ways to improve before you try it again. This phase is crucial because with it comes the feedback loop that is at the heart of all learning and improvement, and that turns your isolated action into something that can grow in meaning and value indefinitely and form associations with other things and attract people and change them and be changed by them and on and on in wondrous convolutions and permeations of beauty influencing beauty forever. Having a loop is really the only way to (eventually) achieve goodness and approach perfection, in my opinion, contrary to the semi-conscious belief of many that excellence precipitates from nothing with no precedent. That good teachers are born, not made, etc. I am not sure you can be or do absolute good; but you can improve relative to yourself, and you should focus on that.

I could talk a lot more about this reflection or feedback phase, as I love it dearly, but I won’t, because I would rather draw attention to a phase between the idea phase and the doing phase–which makes it phase two–a phase that is in my opinion the least well known, and least respected, and most suspected, but it’s important, and it’s poised for a comeback, and it’s worth thinking about.

In phase two, which is hard to name, you go from idea to endeavor. And to bridge that chasm you do a certain kind of applied abstraction, or practical dreaming, or ethical scheming. A spiritual machination, maybe. You continue the generative feeling of the creative thinking mode that started the whole thing and produced the wondrous idea you’re working with, but you begin to arc that generation towards your actual physical, local, empirically-confirmed environment with its tangible stuff and laws and real people and moods and everything.

First you start by asking my favorite kinds of questions: “OK, about this new idea. If we did this, just what would it look like?” Or, “Imagine we did this–how would it feel?” Etc. The answers usually come in little pieces that you build slowly into a larger picture that becomes clearer and clearer and more palpable and more real.

And as it becomes clearer and clearer, look out. Experience teaches me that this is the place where people start to get nervous. The idea was no threat as long as it was just a crazy idea. But now it’s growing into reality–particularly if you’re doing a good job of answering the “what would it look like” questions–and it’s starting to bump into people’s assumptions about life. It’s amazing how easily the defensive mechanisms are triggered in this regard–as soon as the slightest whiff of palpable novelty is intuited, up go the hackles. Why? Who knows–the imagined thing could change the existing power dynamic, we could be asked to do something we’re not good at, the things we think we care about might suffer, someone might say we’re incompetent, it might take more energy than we currently choose to expend, it might put us out of a job, etc.

Usually you don’t even know what is so threatening about the idea. Often the toes being stepped on are so buried in the sand that the articulated objection spurred by them seems disconnected and comes across as irrational. Did I say sometimes? It might be more than sometimes. I’m not attacking this quality of self-preservation (see Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change for an examination of it and a praise of it and a way to work through it), I’m just noting that this is where it comes in.

In any event, after this nervous and visceral, slightly animalistic reaction (which happens to us all, I might note, me as much as anyone), this part of phase two often salvages itself by what David Perkins calls “bracketing,” or asking people to put aside objections to just float along in the happy land of possibilities for a bit longer. This simple move is surprisingly effective–who wouldn’t ride with Willy Wonka on the boat a bit just to see what happens? It’s also akin to the magical cape of the bullfighter. “I’m not going to argue with you about that thing you think,” you’re saying. “It might be right, who knows. I’m just asking you to imagine this very interesting thing over here . . .” Wave of cape. Bracketing comes in handy: without out you can’t keep going.

Keep going, that is, to the bricolage stage, where another fun thing happens: you start to look for ways to interweave reality and your idea. Outlets to plug your idea into; bits of spare fabric in which to clothe it. You ask “What do we have lying around that might be put to use? What existing knowledge, procedures, resources, ideas, experiences?”

Here to my eternal delight we get to have a Rumpelstiltskin moment and to transform mundane things into nifty things. Nifty because they buttress your new idea. Here we find resources forgotten, ideas never hatched, people’s skills untapped, cheap back-door strategies, etc. And we see how we can put them to use. It’s as if the unappreciated constellations reform themselves into new provocative shapes right on the faded star map and right in front of our eyes. This transmutation, repurposing, reuse, resuscitation, re-constellation of old stuff is just fun–addictive really–it might even be the main reason people ever want to do new things. Why? Maybe because it means the world is generative, restorative, salvageable; that there’s eternal capacity for creativity, growth, development. That we’re not actually after all trapped, doomed, predetermined, constrained, and locked in a pit of inescapable despair. Maybe because if you can re-associate the stuff around you, it means you’re alive. I’m not sure.

Anyhow, the end of phase two is marked by another particular kind of question that I love. This is the classic “What’s the first step?” Or the “What achievable thing can we practically do, now?” Key here for me is the now part–that is, doing that accessible thing right then. There does seem to be a kind of clock ticking. And there is the sense that if you don’t act, that bracket that temporarily held back all the objections to the idea will start to loose structural integrity like Star Trek shields, and will no longer be able to fend off the glittering blob of worry pressing in through the windows and under the doors.

But I won’t follow that thought, because here we are at the end of phase two. Of course once you do something, even just the first accessible step, you’re technically in phase three, doing, which I said I wouldn’t talk about. So ends my blog post: think about this phase the next time you set about doing something new, and see if you can’t see it at play.