Friday, August 1, 2014

Educational Research: At the Heart of Things

In a 2008 article entitled Complexity as a theory of education, Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara discuss the unique qualities of educational research, especially in light of complexity theory, suggesting to me that complexity plays a unique and insistent role in educational research. Complexity has been on my mind for a few years now, especially in its metaphorical expression as a rhizome and specifically as a way to approach the Rhizo14 auto-ethnography, so I want to map Davis and Sumara's ideas to rhizomatic thinking in Rhizo14.

Davis and Sumara begin by noting the appropriateness of complexity thought for educational research. Both are relatively young and emerging systems of thought and they share some common approaches to the study of reality.

First, both complexity and educational theories approach systems that learn. Davis and Sumara say, "Brains, social collectives, bodies of knowledge, and so on can all become broader, more nuanced, capable of more diverse possibilities." I'm sorry that Davis and Sumara seem to limit learning to higher order life systems with sophisticated neuronal structures such as brains, as it seems to me that almost all scales of the universe are capable of becoming broader, more nuanced, capable of more diverse possibilities. For instance, the antibodies and antigens that help make up my innate immune system learn to recognize and defeat new attacks on my body, and as far as I know, they learn this without benefit of a brain. Of course, the pathogens attacking me also learn how to get around my innate defenses and any medicine that I might add to the mix. I don't think bacteria have brains either. So for me, learning is one of the fundamental processes of reality as entities at all scales exchange not only energy and matter, but also information and organization, in order to adapt to and thrive within their environments. Learning theories go to the heart of everything and every theory. Thus, educational theory should be informing all other theories, from sociology and psychology down to chemistry and physics, rather than always pulling its frameworks from those other theories. Educational theory is not derivative, it is generative. Down to the core.

Still, Rhizo14 certainly meets Davis and Sumara's concept of a learning system, and their implied definition of learning might guide investigation of Rhizo14: did Rhizo14 learn, becoming broader, more nuanced, and capable of more diverse possibilities? If not, why not? If so, why and how? Did Rhizo14 exchange information and organization within itself and with its environment? If so, how and why? If not, why not? What values emerged from this exchange? What was the new, emergent information? What was the new, emergent organization? What are the salient characteristics and values of this emergent information and organization?

The term emergent leads to another shared characteristic of complexity and educational theories: emergence. Davis and Sumara say, "each of these phenomena is emergent—that is, each arises in the interactions of many sub-components or agents, whose actions are in turn enabled and constrained by similarly dynamic contexts." Learning has always been an emergent event, but courses such as Rhizo14 make emergence explicit and attempt to ride the emergent wave, assuming that emergence is the source of broader, more nuanced, more diverse possibilities.

Emergence is certainly relevant to the study of a cMOOC such as Rhizo14. The course arose in the interactions of many sub-components or agents, whose actions [were] in turn enabled and constrained by similarly dynamic contexts. Any study of Rhizo14 must be constantly aware of the sub-components and agents that embodied the course and must be aware that each of those sub-components and agents are themselves emergent entities informed by yet another scale of sub-components and agents, all the way down to the core, and learning takes place on each scale and between scales. In other words, information and organization is exchanged in circularly causal loops within a scale and across scales. Learning is unbelievably complex, and while any particular study of learning will out of cognitive necessity focus on a particular human scale (usually an individual or a social group), it must acknowledge that its particular scale is not discrete, but is an integral part of scales within it and without it. Any processes on one scale are fully understandable only in context.

And this brings me to another objection to Davis and Sumara's treatment of complexity: a failure to recognize the transcendent. Perhaps Davis and Sumara are too influenced by the very reductionistic sciences that they are trying to move beyond, but they seem to me trapped just here. Davis and Sumara can see emergence coming up from the core in the sub-components and agents, but they don't recognize in this article the scales above us, the transcendent scales. Western culture has a strong bias—scientific, social, and religious—toward seeing humanity as the highest expression of either nature or the gods. We regularly hear that the human brain is the most highly advanced, most complex structure in the Universe. Being scientific these days, we've traded the soul for the human brain, but the effect is about the same: humans are the pinnacle of creation, the apple of Nature's eye, blessed above all else. What a profound failure of imagination and insight!

Many spiritual traditions, but also complexity science itself, suggest the limitation of this point of view. With ever better tools, science has continued to push out the immanent and transcendent scales of reality: inward/downward to vibrating strings and outward/upward to multi-verses. Just when we think we've hit rock bottom or soared to the absolute ends of the Universe, we find more layers. We humans are somewhere in the middle. Not insignificant, but not so important either, and our normal, unsupported vision is limited to a very narrow scale, a very narrow band of the light spectrum. We don't see the infra-red or the ultra-violet, so we think it isn't there, but it is. Complexity thought says that any scale of reality depends both on the scales below/within it and the scales above/without it. And there are always scales beyond. There is always a transcendent.

Now I do think that it is somehow easier for us, in the West especially, to see the scales below/within us, but this may just be our reductionistic habits and heightened sense of importance over the past few centuries. Still, educational studies must be conscious of and allow for the influences of scales beyond the individual learner or the group learners. The enclosing ecosystem always pulls the emerging learner or group into shapes and processes that it might not otherwise assume, and of course, the ecosystem is then affected itself by the emergence of this new structure within. Imagine a new and beneficial organ emerging in your body to provide some new capability. The organ cannot take any shape it chooses, but must find its shape and place with the existing body, which must rearrange itself to benefit from the new organ. The local causality of the new organ is not enough to explain it. We must include the circular and global causalities also at work.

There is always a higher body, and if cMOOCs such as Rhizo14 are beneficial, affording us new capabilities, then they will shape themselves within existing systems while changing the shapes of those systems. They will exchange information and organization with a transcendent scale of reality. Thus, Rhizo14 should ask what local causes were at work within Rhizo14 to make it behave as it did, but also what circular causalities were at work among the various scales and what global causalities pulled Rhizo14 into its emergent shapes. For instance, a number of Rhizo14 participants wanted to discuss Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome and how it informs our thinking about education, but that conversation was short-circuited and other conversations emerged. This was certainly not caused simply by any local decision, though local decisions can be identified; rather, it was a pull, a global cause, that emerged from the group and transcended any individual decision or cause. How did that work? How does that work? Leaders in the group emerge. How? Why? In short, there are wonderful dynamics at play in a cMOOC such as Rhizo14 that can only be accounted for by reference to scales beyond the individual or even the group. Of course, that pushes into the fog, the noise, enclosing us. It's a bit akin to a single neuron in a human brain trying to understand the consciousness that emerges on a scale several levels beyond it. It may not even know that it is a part of consciousness. We likely don't know what entities we are part of on the scales beyond us, either, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be open to those scales and recognize their influences on us.

I'll explore more of Davis and Sumara again.