The #blimage challenge

blimageI saw this on my Twitter feed this week; “lf you don’t know where you are going you’ll end up someplace else.” (Yogi Berra) And so what? What if somewhere else is better than where you were going? And how much more might you learn on the way there? Travel broadens the mind, they say but your mind has to be open to being changed.

I had an interesting conversation with some language colleagues recently about this. We were in Spain, all recipients of a scholarship to study Spanish at Salamanca University. Our discussion was about how speaking a language helped to understand the culture of the country and the people. We all spoke at least one other language than our own and we had all travelled widely. Some of us had lived in other countries and we reflected that we all had the  “travel bug”. We wondered what prompts people to travel the world and to live in different countries. We do it to learn more about the world we live in , to learn about the people who inhabit our world, to learn about the history of the countries and how it has shaped the culture, the landscape, and the people . For adventure, for new experiences, to make friends , to meet new people.
robot woman looking at mirror imageblack and white drawing of torso of victorian woman  on top of an old fashioned cash register. Holding her head in her handsRobot high fiving a man wearing casual clothes in a  run down part of a city
On the plane from NZ to Madrid l watched two films which dealt with the idea of Artificial Intelligence – Chappie and Ex Machina. Just recently I read “For want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal which, like the films raises some fascinating questions about identity and how we learn about who we are and our place in the world.
How is knowledge given to the “machine” or robot? Where does the intelligence come from?  Whose intelligence is it? Can it “learn” or does it just acquire information or facts. Is it able to attach meaning to the information? Just like an online translation service the output is only as good as what has been input. The words are there but the nuances of the language are missing.
We can learn about the world from books, from the internet, we can “see” the world through the millions of photos , videos and TV documentaries and we can learn about cultures and people. But travel offers the chance to touch and feel and smell and taste and hear.  How do you transfer those tangible aspects of knowledge to a machine? These are the things that give understanding and compassion to knowledge.  Those two films and the book dwell on that idea of humanity. A sense of belonging to the world, of having your place in the world, interacting with people , the culture and the environment.

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible” said Frank Zappa. So as those of us with travel lust stand looking out across the ocean planning our next adventure we have to be careful not to just “collect ” experiences like souvenirs. We mustn’t allow information to be simply stored in our database. We need to go out of our way, deviate from the norm, go off the beaten track, immerse ourselves and be open to having our perceptions challenged. To truly learn we have to connect with people and touch, feel, see, smell and taste and we must let those experiences inform who we are and make a difference to our lives.

Is school toxic to learning?

whirlpool editLast Thursday I went to a lecture by Guy Claxton at the University of Waikato entitled,

“Topsy Turvy Education: The Challenge of Embodied Cognition”.

To be honest, I didn’t really know what the title meant.  I mean, what is “embodied cognition”?
However, I have read and enjoyed the ideas in Claxton’s book “New kinds of Smart“, and was interested in hearing what he had to say.  He is an easy person to listen to, softly spoken, but clear, fluent and engaging.  He seems down to earth and he speaks knowledgeably and convincingly.  A small, discrete venue helped – there were maybe 40 people at most in the lecture theatre in the Education Faculty building – and so the discussion after his talk was dynamic and uninhibited.

The thrust of his idea is, put very simplistically,  that there is a disjunct between school and the real world.  That school does not prepare its learners for life beyond the four limiting walls of the classroom, that we are not equipping our children to be “lifelong learners”.  That in school we still follow a Victorian, industrial model of education that focuses on content,  learning “about” stuff, and that there is a natural order in which content should be “learned” (“elementitis”).  The brain or the mind is seen in isolation from the body, the senses, our environment, our experiences, our culture, and we assess “intelligence” by how effectively students regurgitate content and disembodied “knowledge”.  Claxton suggested that “Teaching is toxic for Learning” – I can’t quite remember who he referenced that quote to, but he referred to Sugata Mitra who said,

The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.

victorian education

Claxton talked about “Interoceptive awareness“,  the idea of neural connectedness, that the body is the brain, and that intelligence is dependent on more than just knowledge.  

One of my favourite ideas was that of thoughts “unfurling” or “welling up” –  they don’t just happen, they arrive as a gradual unfurling like a leaf.  Emotions trigger responses, thoughts and ideas take time whilst we get on with other, often mundane, repetitive things.  Then ideas or solutions to problems may pop into our heads “out of the blue” – like a bud bursting into flower. In reality, the process has actually been happening for a while but that “pop” is the culmination of the thought process – see Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.

I also liked the idea that the skin is a constant site of trading, it is not a boundary – our knowledge is not something that can be picked up and put down somewhere else because it is part of our experiences which help shape what our knowledge is and who we are. Our knowledge is also dependent on the people we interact with, the ideas we interconnect with, the places we live and work and play.  A great analogy was that “You can’t take a whirlpool home in a bucket” – it might look like an object but it is dependent on its situation, it is a part of things that are happening around it and they are a part of it – the repercussions, reactions, sparking of ideas bouncing around like a pinball game.

This made me wonder, as I was writing up my notes, whether knowledge can be taken home or into an examination hall? Or, if knowledge is connected with so much else, if it is contextual, experiential, dependent on understanding and if our understanding of concepts is dependent on the interconnections with our experiences, our culture, our senses, with how we percieve the world to be and with our instincts …  where does that leave teachers who “impart knowledge”?  

My notes are somewhat erratic but I have endeavoured, at least, to put them into some order.  If you want to read more and access the links to the many references Guy suggested, here are my Evernotes