Wednesday, March 2, 2011

#CCK11: Mapping the Complexity of Knowledge

I spent some of the afternoon trying to create some images that captured my sense of how knowledge and, thus, learning are complex activities. I'd like to share them, though I'm already dissatisfied with them. Still …

I started trying to map my knowledge about Connectivism in Figure 1. Those of you in CCK11 will immediately recognize a heavy debt to Stephen Downes' illustration about the meaning of Paris.

Figure 1: My Concept of Connectivism
My understanding of Connectivism is represented by the six-pointed star in the middle of the image and is surrounded by people and resources that have contributed in some way to my understanding. My understanding is not one thing, even though the six-pointed star seems to suggest that it is. Rather, it is the dynamic pattern created by the retro-interactions of various people, some of whom know about Connectivism and some who don't, the CCK11 MOOC, readings, some of which are about Connectivism and some which are not, conversations, and my own critical analysis. No one of these things is sufficient to explain my concept of Connectivism; however, all of them are necessary.

It is easy for me to see in this image how just my understanding alone at this level is a complex activity: understanding is the emergence of an idea from the interplay of various patterns of meaning to create a new pattern which takes on intelligibility and a stable core even as it continues to develop and grow in meaning from the center out and even shifts its center from time to time as drastic new patterns occur. In other words, as I keep listening and talking, reading and writing, drawing and thinking, the six-sided star of my understanding of Connectivism defines itself from the core outward, gains its own identity and presence, and begins to interact with the other patterned elements in its field, affecting and being affected, or to use the term of Morin: retro-interactions.
Figure 2: Our Understandings of Connectivism

Complex, yes, but really only just the beginning. If I add the concepts of others—for instance, those of you in CCK11, represented by U1 and U2—then you can see how each of your understandings of Connectivism (represented by the four- and five-pointed stars) starts to interact with my own understanding, and the image becomes even more complex.

What immediately impresses me is that none of us can have exactly the same knowledge of Connectivism. We all come at the concept from different angles and with different concepts, different neural pathways, different understandings of teaching and learning, different emotional fields, different connections to others and to other resources. This seems so obvious as almost to be not worth saying, yet our educational system is predicated on all students learning the same things, at the same time, through the same lessons, and monitored by the same tests. This assumption of standardization is simply wrong. Consider U2's understanding of Connectivism in Figure 3.
Figure 3: U2's Understanding of Connectivism 

It looks nothing like my own understanding. Indeed, there is only an overlap where U2 and I share somewhat similar patterns and some common resources, but both U2 and I have lots of patterns, people, and resources that contribute to our understandings that don't directly contribute to each other. U2 and I cannot possibly have the same understanding.

How can we communicate, then? Well, as near as I can see, communication lies on the borders between the miraculous and the impossible, and the best that U2 and I can manage is a functionally similar understanding. We cannot share an exact understanding. There is no chunk of knowledge that we can both swallow mentally and then say, "Yup, you've got it! Exactly!" The best we can do is to continue in dialogue (in all its various manifestations) until we both create functionally similar patterns of knowledge that allow us to say, "Yeah, that's pretty much what I mean."

Then as if this wasn't complex enough, I'm reminded what Sporns says about the various layers of networks: "Networks span multiple spatial scales, from the microscale of individual cells and synapses to the macroscale of cognitive systems and embodied organisms. … In multiscale systems, levels do not operate in isolation—instead, patterns at each level critically depend on processes unfolding on both lower and higher levels" (2). Thus, within my own mind, a similar complex network of patterns is churning and emerging, and this level affects the churning and emergence of knowledge at the wider level of the MOOC, and in turn, the MOOC level is affected by the wider discussions of education, chaos, complexity, and so forth. These wider discussion are themselves part of a larger ecosystem of discussion about society, politics, and economics, which are themselves elements within language and thought throughout the Ages. And on, and on. Worlds within worlds, patterns within patterns, all self-similar at each scale. All dynamic within their own scales and adding to the dynamism of all the enclosed and enclosing scales.

Finally, if I really wanted to capture a sense of this complexity, then I would have made a movie that captured all these patterns at all the various levels growing, fading, clarifying, and fragmenting as they interacted with elements in their own scale and with the other scales. I don't know if I have the technical talent to create that movie, but I definitely don't have the time just now. Maybe later. It'll be impressive, I think.


  1. Hi Keith,
    I like your images, and I share your wish to put them all into motion (I mentioned in an early post on my blog at that it would be cool to do so in a Hans Roslng kind of way--shape-shifting points over time). I always appreciate your willingness to dig deep, too. Here, I especially appreciate your parsing out "understanding" in a useful way. Authoritative pronouncements (Connectivism Is A So Therefore B Is True) always have the effect of irking me, so I like the genuine questioning you always bring to these subjects.


  2. Keith:

    Your description and images ring very true and speak to the complex nature of learning and in many cases the misguided nature of traditional learning structures. I definitely agree that it is impossible for two learners [you and U1] to have exactly the same understanding of something [like connectivism for example] because of the myriad of different influencing factors. However, is it not possible for two learners to negotiate some common understandings within a topic or discipline without compromising our individual and very fluid understanding of the whole. Not that a complete understanding is possible.


  3. Thanks for the comments, and I apologize for not responding sooner.

    LeahGrrl, you identify precisely the kind of picture I'm looking for when you mention Hans Rosling's shape shifting graphs. As I mention in a later post, a free online tool called SpicyNodes allows for a bit more dynamism in building maps (there are similar other tools out there, so explore). The problem with SpicyNodes, however, is that it still remains two-dimensional, and I'm looking for a four-dimensional tool: one that allows me to create and move through a three-dimensional space over time. If you know of that tool, please send it to me. :-)

    And Stu, you anticipate exactly the primary issue for us and our knowledge: how "to negotiate some common understandings within a topic or discipline without compromising our individual and very fluid understanding of the whole." Negotiate is a wonderful word for this process, which I borrow from Edgar Morin's work On Complexity, in which he proposes a dialogic principle (a negotiation) that engages any individual not only with other people, but with her entire ecosystem. I like very much the idea of negotiating with the Universe. So far, we seem to have arrived at enough shared understanding to keep us both functioning. :-)