Friday, April 5, 2013

Socks, Complexity, and the Included Middle in MOOCs

In Chapter 5 of his book Manifesto of Transdisciplinary, Nicolescu says that the logic of the excluded middle applies mostly to simple situations while the logic of the included middle applies to complexity and complex situations. I think that Nicolescu's observation has implications for the Cynefin framework and for MOOCs. I'll explore these implications by defining simplicity, complexity, and the included middle in ways conducive to my argument.

Let's start with simplicity and complexity within the Cynefin framework of Dave Snowden. Wikipedia says that:
The Cynefin framework has five domains. The first four domains are:
  1. Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense - Categorise - Respond and we can apply best practice. 
  2. Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense - Analyze - Respond and we can apply good practice. 
  3. Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe - Sense - Respond and we can sense emergent practice. 
  4. Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act - Sense - Respond and we can discover novel practice. 
The fifth domain is Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision.
I use a sock drawer explanation of the Cynefin framework. A simple sock drawer is a closed system of clean, homogenously coupled socks arranged neatly in a highly specific order: dress socks on the left and casual/sport socks on the right. Each of those categories is then sorted by colors (left to right: dress > black, grey, blue, brown, green and casual/sport > white, black, team colors. Everyone can readily see the relationships here and intuitively knows that this is the best arrangement for socks, and if I can maintain this order, then the task of choosing socks is simple, even on a dark morning (if you detect a tinge of sarcasm, then you have a sense of my opinion of the simple domain).

A complicated sock drawer is also a closed system of clean, homogenously coupled socks arranged in matched pairs by color and use, but also by fabric types, without labels. This drawer domain demands analysis and expertise, and often requires my wife's input as I cannot reliably distinguish cotton from rayon from blends. A complicated drawer messes up my wife's morning.

A complex sock drawer is an open system of clean, heterogenously coupled socks, including one or more unidentified men's socks that are not my size or style. Such a sock drawer suggests connections to and interactions with emerging practices beyond the strict confines of the drawer, the closed system. Choosing socks from this drawer requires an aesthetic sensibility and prayer, and it messes up my whole day.

A chaotic sock drawer is an open system of uncoupled socks—some clean, some not—men's and women's underwear, credit card receipts, spare change, and electronic gear, all in no discernable order. Both its contents and its interactions with the ecosystem are totally unpredictable. I have no way to choose a pair of clean socks, and this drawer messes up my whole professional and personal life and challenges my sense of myself and my wife.

It seems to me that much of human activity, both work and play, is an effort to move Life from the chaotic/complex domains into the simple/complicated domains (though I think lawyers work hard to move Life from the simple to the complicated domain, but that's another post). We can see why. A simple sock drawer reduces the aggravation in our lives and renders simple and mindless a task that most of us do not want to spend much energy on. Almost all factory processes depend on rendering complicated or complex tasks into the simple domain so that even an idiot can perform them. Indeed too much intelligence, curiosity, or humor is usually an impediment to good factory processes.

For the rest of this discussion and for the ease of reference, I will conflate the closed simple and complicated domains into the simple and the open complex and chaotic domains into the complex. A person's relationship with the simple domain goes far, for me, toward explaining that person's orientation toward life. A fundamentalist, for instance, will insist that the order of their sock drawer is ordained by the gods or the founding fathers and must be unerringly maintained at the risk of eternal damnation and ruin. A conservative will insist that they've always arranged their sock drawers this way, they see no reason to change it now, and they won't change it unless everyone else changes and proves that the new order is substantially better. A progressive will grow tired of the old arrangement and will try new arrangements to see if they work better, even if they don't. Free spirits will keep no particular order of socks. Perverse people will create an orderly sock drawer and then violate it. Kind people will organize your sock drawer for you. A holy person will organize your sock drawer in the way you want. A mean person will mess up your sock drawer. A tyrant will force everyone to keep their socks in the same order. In the U.S., Democrats will say you can buy only organically grown, fair trade socks, but you may pair them as you like. Republicans will say you can buy any socks you like, but you must pair them in prescribed ways.

You get the idea. It seems to me that, likewise, much of education is an attempt to move knowledge from the open, complex domain to the closed, simple domain, and it's easy to see why this is so. Only knowledge in the simple domain can be easily packaged for easy transfer from teacher/expert to student. (AN UNCOMFORTABLE ASIDE: I'm always amazed by the otherwise liberal faculty who become fundamentalists and fascists about the contents and arrangements of their own disciplines, their own little sock drawer. They will go to war over who belongs in the canon of World Literature or whether or not Pluto is a planet).

The problem with the simple domain for me is that almost all of Life belongs to the complex domain, and it requires much energy to force any aspect of Life into the simple. It requires even more energy to keep a chunk of Life in the simple domain. To add a second metaphor, think of a highway as a process of wrenching a strip of complex terrain into the simple domain for human use. The highway forces the complex texture of the land into a regular, flat, smooth surface. The highway absolutely remembers the pathway to a destination. It has a specific starting point and ending point. It has regular, reliable signs. Cars pass each other safely at 60 miles an hour because they stay on their own sides and follow the simple, explicit rules. This is a pre-eminently useful and beneficial use of the simple domain, and no one would sensibly argue for complex highway systems. Still, though a few highways have endured thousands of years, though seldom in their totality and never without some kind of maintenance, most highways will revert to the complex domain within a few years or decades after they are abandoned by humans. Complexity always wins out over the simple domain. Simple is hard to achieve, and I don't think it is ever completely stable. If it were, then we would all be fascists and fundamentalists. Nothing else would make sense.

Knowledge has an even shorter shelf-life than roads do, especially these days. Yesterday's knowledge is no longer a smooth road to effective and appropriate action in the world. Today, we must constantly map and re-map what we know about the world and how to behave in it. It isn't easy being a fundamentalist these days. You have to ignore so much, become so blind, to maintain the internal consistency of your beliefs and your logic. You have to ignore so much evidence to continue to believe that the Sun rises and circles the Earth each day. Mind you: there is some evidence for just that point of view (go out some morning, and watch the Sun rise), but the evidence for the Earth circling the Sun is overwhelming, if you will shift your point of view and look. Fundamentalists refuse to do that.

And this brings me to Lupasco and Nicolescu's logic of the included middle. Basically, this law is a response to the reality revealed by quantum physics which regularly ignores Aristotle's laws of classical logic:

  1. Law of Identity: A is A.
  2. Law of Non-Contradiction: A is not non-A.
  3. Law of Excluded Middle: There is no middle ground that is both A and non-A.

For millennia, this logic seemed as eternal and as right as the universe until we learned that light, for instance, can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. It was like learning that the Sun does not circle the Earth and having to change all our ways of thinking and knowing. Lupasco's Law of the Included Middle says that there is a middle ground that is both A and non-A, and as Nicolescu insists, Lupasco demonstrated that this logic was rigorous, internally consistent, and empirically verifiable. Nicolescu added to this Law of the Included Middle ideas about the different levels of Reality and Perception, and all of a sudden we gained a reliable way of knowing the world that maps to things we had divined and intuited earlier, but couldn't quite say. As Nicolescu points out in his Manifesto, a simple road follows classical logic: it has two sides (A and non-A, left and right) and there is no middle ground that is both A and non-A. We know which side is ours, and we violate the distinction between left and right at our peril and the peril of others. But this clear distinction between left and right holds only at the flat, untextured level of everyday traffic, and if we shift our point of view outward to the cosmic level or inward to the atomic level, then we readily see that the contradictions disappear. There is a middle ground where left is right and right is left. Or perhaps it's better to say that from a different level of Reality, left and right no longer make sense and cease to be a contradiction.

We've always intuitively known that a shift in point of view to a new level could obviate contradictions at another level—that's what therapy, conversions, and paradigm shifts are all about—but fundamentalists (political and scientific as well as religious) have always tried to flatten Reality into a single, simple domain like road kill on a highway. If you can never transcend the flat surface of the highway, then left is always left, right is always right, and there is no middle ground, no fifty shades of gray. But if you accept that Reality is complex, with different textures, different laws, different logics working across different levels and scales, then you can see the Included Middle. You see that right is right and left is wrong works only at a certain level and in a narrow place and time. The logic and utility of that simple level can be most valuable, but we should not allow that value and utility to trap us at that level. To return to my sock drawer analogy, the order in my drawer is very useful to me, but I should not be trapped by that utility. No drawer is sufficiently large to accommodate and account for all socks, and if it were, it wouldn't be useful to me. To extend this to education, I should not present my sock drawer (or my view of British Romanticism or physics or whatever) as the only way to do socks.

And this brings me at long last to MOOCs and their connection to Cynefin and the Included Middle. The traditional class built around a single teacher/expert almost of necessity encourages a single, simple view of Reality (British Romanticism or physics, for instance). Even if the enlightened teacher works against this tendency, students will tend to venerate the teaching and preaching and flatten other expert opinions into simple contradictions to be ignored or discounted. This is so especially if the teacher is a great person. In the early 1980s, I had the great fortune to study under Nobel prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, and though he was himself an incredibly rich and complex artist with a complex view of Reality, his voice was so strong and convincing that we students took his sayings as gospel. For a while, all literature for me was Singerian, and I inhabited a delightful, but simple domain. I don't regret the experience at all, but even a mind as rich, intricate, and complex as Singer's is not sufficient to account for all of reality, not even the literary reality. We have all had other, lesser teachers who were tyrants in one way or another, both benevolent and not, intent upon forcing a simple view of biology or business on their students.

A connectivist MOOC, on the other hand, provides an ideal platform for a complex exploration of the Included Middle. Even if a given MOOC starts with a specific content, agenda, and exposition by facilitators, its open nature mandates that participants rip, mix, and burn, or in the more accurate words of Dave Cormier:

  1. orient,
  2. declare,
  3. network,
  4. cluster, and
  5. focus.

MOOCs are one of the best platforms that I know of for moving education from the simple domain to the complex domain, a place that I find much more engaging and rewarding. This is not to say that all MOOCs embrace the complex, as many xMOOCs have demonstrated. Still, I am convinced that connectivist MOOCs will persist and will show all of us how, in the long run, complex education takes us farther than simple education. More and more of simple education (the multiplication tables, for instance) is being moved to our machines, and I do not see this trend changing, regardless of our personal views about it. Machines are teaching the simple and they are even removing the need for learning the simple (I really don't know that we will still be teaching children their multiplication tables 30 years from now). I think the complex domain is the future of education, especially higher education, and MOOCs are one of the most concrete steps toward that future.

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