Thursday, 30 April 2015

How can we design learning? A Phenomenological Perspective...

Given that human beings are very diverse, complex and their reactions unpredictable, it is perhaps surprising that the design of learning is generally considered possible, or that we consider good learning designs to have causal bearing upon good learning experiences. Partly, the emphasis on learning design is the result of industrialisation of education where attempts have been made to codify the unique efforts of individual teachers into technological forms which attempt to guarantee educational results independently of the presence of those teachers. At its most basic level, this takes the form of shared educational resources. However, the relationship between the shared educational resource which forms a common coordinating environment for teaching, and the communicative experience of engaging in that environment is poorly understood. There is an assumption of the instrumentality of the educational resource with little inspection of real experience.

Close inspection of real experience of lectures reveals much about the relationship between a common environment and individual inner life. For example, in a boring lecture, students will look at each other; they will have some insight into the inner world of each other. At some moments, the acknowledgement of a wry grin may trigger something more disruptive when they realise they are not alone. Schoolchildren are particularly adept at this: the excitement of the expression of a shared identity in the face of an oppressive force arises from awareness of the inner life of other people; it is the root of political expression. Although from the passage below Alfred Schutz attended better lectures than I have, he grasps something important about the experience of education:
“In listening to a lecturer [...] we seem to participate immediately in the development of his stream of thought. But – and this point is obviously a decisive one – our attitude in doing so is quite different from that we adopt in turning to our own stream of thought by reflection. We catch the other’s thought in its vivid presence and not modo preterito; this is, we are it as a “now” and not as a “just now”. The other’s speech and our listening are experienced as a vivid simultaneity. Now he starts a new sentence, he attaches word to word; we do not know how the sentence will end, and before its end we are uncertain what it means. The next sentence joins the first, paragraph follows paragraph; now he has expressed a thought and passes to another, and the whole is a lecture among other lectures and so on. It depends on  circumstances how far we want to follow the development of his thought. But as long as we do so we participate in the immediate present of the other’s thought.”

This dissection of experience in education is important. Wouldn't it be valuable to perform a similar dissection of our engagement with Facebook or Twitter? There would appear to be significant differences in the degree of interpersonal concern. For Schutz, other people, and the experience of other people in a shared environment is fundamental to our own personhood:
“we could not be persons for others, even not for ourselves, if we could not find with the others a common environment as the counterpart of the intentional interconnectedness of our conscious lives. This common environment is established by comprehension, which in turn, is founded upon the fact that the subjects reciprocally motivate one another in their spiritual activities.” (On phenomenology and social relations, p165)

Extending Husserl’s phenomenology of the “Life world” he articulates the finer details of interpersonal relations, from the consciousness of 'contemporaries' - people who live at the same time as us, but who are remote from us - to consciousness of face-to-face relations. In all cases, he argues:
“It appears that all possible communication presupposes a mutual tuning-in relationship between the communicator and the addressee of the communication. This relationship is established by the reciprocal sharing of the other’s flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together, by experiencing this togetherness as a “we”. Only within this experience does the other’s conduct become meaningful to the partner tuned in on him – that is, the other’s body and its movements can be and are interpreted as a field of expression of events within his inner life.” (p 216)

Given this phenomenological complexity, how is it possible for us to design educational experiences? With much effort having been expended in attempts to technologically design learning (mostly unsatisfactorily), together with attempts to industrialise the design of learning experiences driven by the marketisation of education, why is it so much faith is placed in something so deep and problematic? Universities now employ heads of “student experience” whose aim of ensuring good student experiences typically reduced to an aim of producing satisfactory results to student experience surveys (quite a different thing!). Yet there are some circumstances where the design of an experience may indeed produce results which are reliable across a range of different stakeholders. How do we make sense of this?

How might we design learning experiences?

Designing learning is planned action. Schutz quotes Dewey in arguing that: 
“in our daily life we are largely preoccupied with the next step. Men stop and think only when the sequence of doing is interrupted, and the disjunction in the form of a problem forces them to stop and rehearse alternative ways – over, around or through – which their past experience in collision  with this problem suggest.”  
But there is something important in this planned action which is often missed by the champions of learning design. This is the fact that the execution of a plan leaves space and flexibility for the actions of individuals on the ground:
“Like all other anticipations, the rehearsed future action also has gaps which only the performance of the act will fill in. Therefore the actor will only retrospectively see whether his project stood the test or proved a failure…”

All teachers have some idea of the experience of their learners: if not of individual apprehension and ability, they possess knowledge of the organisational and institutional situation that learners find themselves in. It is with this organisational situation that they intervene. The common objects of the classroom situation are not just the physical artefacts like textbooks, interactive whiteboards, chairs and desks, but also the implicit rules, rights and obligations of the educational setting: these are all codified expectations. Designing for learning means intervening in this situation such that the claims a teacher might make about the purpose, scope, context and content of a learning design will be acknowledged (and hopefully supported) by those subject to it. Measurement of the learning experience is a measurement of the extent to which those attending a lesson designed in such a way upholds the propositions put to them by their teacher. Poor learning experiences are, in this sense, mis-communications: the teacher's assertions about scope, purpose, context and content are not upheld by the students.

Teachers make declarations about their subject’s content, about the university procedures for assessment, about the rules of the class and the form of lectures, practical tasks and assignments. Teachers know that common constraints operate on their learners: they all, usually, want to pass the course; they all know that assignments have to be done on time to a satisfactory standard, and so on. Educational convention dictates expectations in learners that (for example) lessons start on time, that they will receive feedback from their work. What is the experience to be subject to these declarations? What is the experience of making them?

“Learning Experience” has become subject to the target-driven culture of education. The irony of the “Learning Experience” target is that it purports to be an index of the phenomenology of learning experience, whilst blinding itself to the phenomenology of targets. The phenomenology of targets, however, is an important element in the pathology of institutions, as increasingly functionalist orientations have arisen in social policy. Methodological approaches for gathering ‘evidence’ about “learning experience” targets (including the National Student Survey) themselves have an experience, whilst the purpose of establishing such targets is to ‘improve’ experiences. Does this mean anything more than an improvement according to the recorded view about experience analysed with an approved methodology?

It is unclear exactly what improvement to the learning experience means. Schutz's emphasis on the common environment provides a clue that those codified aspects of education which are common provide at least a starting point for the coordination of experiences. Lectures that start on time, engaging activities, clear textbooks, transparent marking criteria are all aspects of a common environment: they are codifications of expectation. The mistake we risk making is to assume that learning experiences simply depend on this codification (because it is measurable), rather than seeing such regularities as simply the starting point for authentic educational interactions. However, the pressures of increasing commodification will make that mistake ever more attractive.

Monday, 27 April 2015

"When there is a breakdown in any relationship involving two parties who themselves have responsibilities to others who rely upon them, all efforts should be made to protect the reliant individuals from involvement in the breakdown" #wearedamo

I agree with Jon Elster that Hans Christian Anderson was one of the world's great sociologists. Contained within his stories are archetypes which continually recur. One of the most regular recurrences is of the "Emperor's New Clothes" Anderson, however, didn't write the version of the story that closed along the following lines:

"To the little boy, it was quite obvious that the Emperor was naked. His could hardly contain his excitement! 'The Emperor's got no clothes on!' he shouted, tugging at the coat tails of the courtiers. They looked down on him in horror - of course, they all knew the Emperor had no clothes on, but they were afraid to say anything. The  little boy persisted. The Emperor heard him. Now the Emperor knew full well he was naked. He rather enjoyed the sport of parading naked and making everyone terrified of saying anything about it. The last thing he needed was some pesky kid causing a disruption and drawing attention to the obvious fact. He thought about it briefly and decided that the best thing to do was to get his henchmen to remove the child. Everybody else would be too frightened to do anything or say anything. As the child was being dragged away his cries stirred something in the crowd. They knew that what the child was saying was true. They felt ashamed of their own fear. Indeed, they saw themselves to be as naked as the Emperor. 'Enough!' shouted an adult in the crowd. The henchmen looked around to see who spoke. 'Enough!' came a shout from another part of the crowd. Suddenly, the atmosphere began to change as distant shouts of 'Enough' got louder. With the shout of 'The kid's right - Of course he's naked!', everyone started to laugh. Nevertheless, the child was dragged away, raising the temperature further.
For the Emperor, this was a problem. Fear was melting away. News spread to neighbouring towns: "Come and see the naked emperor!" screamed the headlines. People started to laugh. But the Emperor's close coterie remained loyal, batting away suggestions that the Emperor was at all naked. They released a statement defending the silencing of the little boy in a bid to appease his distraught parents: "When there is a breakdown in any relationship involving two parties who themselves have responsibilities to others who rely upon them, all efforts should be made to protect the reliant individuals from involvement in the breakdown" "What the hell does that mean?" said the crowd. "I think it a bit like their line last year after the notorious scandal about the great 'Screwdriver thief': 'When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.'
The Emperor's task was now clear. How could he put fear back into a situation so that he could once more parade about the town with no clothes on? The Emperor had one more trick up his sleeve: the Establishment! He called upon the town Bishop, the Baker and the Law-Maker, all of whom were close associates. Between them, they conjured up new laws, new prayers and some granary loaves. "Let's give these people something to really chew on!" They said, laughing an evil laugh. The laws made the people work harder; the opiate prayers made them forget their troubles; and the bread filled their mouths so full they couldn't speak any more. Everyone forgot everything. The problem went away. And once more, the Emperor could walk in the town in his birthday suit." 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Alfred Schutz and Music

I found a wonderful introduction to a paper about Schutz and Music with reference to Leonardo's Paragone by Emanuel Winternitz (see "The Role of Music in Leonardo's Paragone"). I've written about Schutz's "Making Music Together" (1975) before (see - it is, I think, the finest paper on the experience of music I have ever come across. But more importantly, it serves to highlight the fundamental importance of a musical intelligence in Schutz's social theorising more generally. I didn't know about Schutz's musicianship until reading this. At the moment I am re-writing the chapter of my book on phenomenology (it came out rather garbled the first time), and I find myself making much more use of Schutz: he's such an important figure because he straddles the phenomenological world of Husserl with the sociological world of Weber.

The question I'm dealing with is about the experience of education and the experience of learning. Schutz's interest in face-to-face communication vs remote communication (what he calls "indirect social relationships") and the importance of what he calls 'polythetic understanding' - which is central to his music theory - is also of fundamental significance in learning - and particularly learning technology. Video, for example, provides us with a medium where there remains a polythetic aspect of experience similar to musical experience. I often video my supervision sessions with PhD students, screen-capturing doodles, notes, corrections, etc. I know that this technique is of great value to them because to replay something like this is to replay the flow of time in the relationship. It is a capture of polythetic understanding.

Introduction to The Role of Music in Leonardo's Paragone by Emanuel Winternitz
Alfred Schutz was profoundly musical, and a study such as the present one on Leonardo's Paragone would, no doubt, have led to one of those long, nocturnal discussions which we used to have through forty years in Vienna and then in New York. We first met as students of law at the University of Vienna in 1918, but it was music which really brought us together. We ran into each other on the steps leading to the standing room section high up under the roof of the Vienna Opera House, both of us duly equipped with the score of the "Entführung aus dem Serail"
Schutz had a broad and intense knowledge of German and French literature, and he had his favorites among painters: he could become ecstatic before a Giovanni Bellini "Pieta" or Rembrandt's "Jewish Bride", but his beloved art was music. Even in his student days, his knowledge of the theory and history of music would have done honor to any musicologist. His interests and his tastes were catholic, and reached from Pachelbel and Heinrich Schütz to Alban Berg's "Wozzeck". He knew by heart J.S. Bach's Passions, most of his Cantatas and the Goldberg Variations; he was equally at home with Mozart's Masses and operas and the chamber music of Brahms. One of his special idols was Gluck; he knew every page of the standard treatises by Spitta, Schweizer, Chrysander, Jahn-Albert and Thayer. He played the piano with little technique, but the form and emotional content were magically conjured up by his enthusiasm., We played four-hand music throughout all the years of our friendship, and though we often squabbled over Brahm's triplets or Bruckner's hemioles, his shining face and radiant pleasure and our ensuring arguments belong to my dearest memories. We often discussed the experience provided by music and analysed the nature of flow, succession and time and their relation to Bergsons's duree, and the musical structure as a model of the role and function of memory as creator of form and flux.
Alfred Schutz's concern with the phenomenon of music deeply influenced his philosophy. It will be a task for his philosopher friends to explore the connection and to continue his work.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Living Lines, Tippett's music and the #wearedamo Protest

I find that moments of crisis are often accompanied by a mental soundtrack. I have peculiar musical tastes, I certainly have a crisis at the moment, and my soundtrack is the later music of Michael Tippett. Tippett's music is music of political defiance, of energy, drive, optimism and struggle. There is, it has only recently occurred to me (I have been thinking about this music for over 25 years!), a particular property that creates these qualities: it is a fundamental melodic (usually scalic) line which is punctuated by extraneous elements, twiddles, outlying notes, that give the line life. Tippett's musical line exhibits the same dynamics identified in Terry Deacon's information theory: it has an orthograde tendency in the melody itself (on its own it would lose energy, become dull) - this produces entropy; but working against it is a contragrade tendency, introducing variety, and consequently countering the entropy (feeding information, in fact). Tippett always believed in the connection between music and politics, and I think in this aspect of his language, he makes a connection between the fundamental properties of the human spirit and the content of sound.

I was thinking about this as I chatted to student protesters outside my university who are giving up every lunchtime to wave placards in support of the reinstatement of one of their teachers and his wife who were summarily dismissed with no evidence of wrongdoing (see That's the human spirit! And it is probably the most profound educational act that these students will undertake; the thing they will remember with most passion. Education is, after all, about doing things that matter. You can sign their petition here:

But to come back to the music: I think this kind of passion and determination has a line. What is moving and important about these protests is that despite the fact one can feel quite silly waving banners accusing University managers of things which I won't repeat here, the embarrassment is overridden by a sense of common purpose, humanity, conviviality, justice, coordination and determination. It happens spontaneously when people feel strongly enough about things. Tippett would have been there (he went to prison for his beliefs!).

So what do I mean about 'lines'? Here's a typical Tippett accompaniment from his opera "King Priam":

There are two things to say about this. Firstly, one can identify a scalic line nested within outlying notes. In this particular case, there are one or two possibilities, but basically it could be:
The second point is to ask about what the other notes are doing. One of the things they are doing is providing a regular semiquaver rhythm. This is a kind of rhythmic redundancy which creates the expectation of drive and momentum. But above that regular rhythmic redundancy, there is irregularity in the patterns that are surrounding the scalic notes, and this is a particular feature that is very noticeable in much of Tippett's music from the early (and beautiful) concerto for double string orchestra, and the first string quartet, onwards. What is this irregularity doing? It is introducing surprise, or in other words, it is introducing something which counteracts the otherwise formless regularity of the rhythm and the scales. What would the music be like if it only consisted of the red circled notes played in a regular semiquaver rhythm? Boring! Played without a semiquaver rhythm? Even more boring! What is that boringness? It is entropy. What stops it being boring? The injection of irregularity and surprise. 

Maybe I am stretching things too far to say that this is precisely the same dynamic as the dynamics of protest. But there does appear to be an othograde and a contragrade force. The orthograde force in the regularity and redundancy; the contragrade in the surprises. Put together it takes on life, energy, drive.

More importantly, the experience of the music can instil energy and drive in the listener. Tippett's neglected opera "The Ice Break" received a remarkable revival a couple of weeks ago by Birmingham opera in an abandoned warehouse in Birmingham city centre. (see a fantastic review here: The opera is about political dissent and the human condition, and features race riots and shootings with the kind of Jungian references that one would expect from Tippett. The audience was part of the crowd: we found ourselves marshalled around by police carrying semi-automatic rifles as someone standing next to you would start to sing, whilst you witness somebody else getting mugged. The experience was thrilling because the injustice - although made up - hits you in the face. The human spirit reacts in the only way it knows how. Tippett had a fascination with the Jacobean Masque partly because the audience in the 17th century became part of the drama, and that 17th century spirit was a core part of Birminham opera's production (it couldn't possibly have worked in Covent Garden!)

In the world of Universities, the lines are obscure: it is difficult to tell where the drama is, who the actors are, who the spectators are. Education is fragmented, disparate and confusing: there are orthograde and contragrade forces at work but there is seldom a chance to get a feel for the dynamic of the whole thing. When circumstances arise where everyone comes together and collectively says "NO!" it is a special moment. It's the identification of a line and the determination of purpose.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Powerful Conversation of Supervision

I had a great supervision today with a PhD student who is researching home-studio music composition/production. This is a difficult topic (PhDs are not meant to be easy!), because it opens onto a rich territory of largely phenomenological inquiry about the creative process generally, and the musical creative process in particular and the relationship with technology. My own experience of technology in music making (albeit a very different genre) is that technology very often gets in the way: the functionalist determination of pressing buttons, clicking menus and so on somehow obscures what matters in the creative process (I have another PhD student who is looking at precisely this aspect of creativity and the way that artists are exploring ways of subverting the functionalism of technology). Indeed, the functionalist determination of technological usage generally obscures what matters: technology is behind the cancer of functionalism and its related managerialism in institutions and governments.

My student is very bright, reads a lot, thinks even more and listens to music all the time: he is full of ideas. But he complains of a kind of 'stagnation': a feeling of being overwhelmed by the complexity of his thoughts. I know a few PhD supervisors who don't think about things very deeply, but who basically steer students through the 'game' of the PhD: this approach seeks to attenuate complex thought and channel productivity in a narrow functional way. I've always objected to this: I was (and am still) like my PhD student: full of rich and complex ideas. I was lucky to supervised at the University of Bolton by somebody who was equally complex: there was no need to attenuate anything - the conversations were fertile, encouraging, and I simply started to write (most importantly on this blog!). I dread to think what would have happened to me at a lesser University!

There's a cybernetic law for what I am describing: it's called Ashby's law of Requisite Variety. Basically, Ross Ashby realised that a complex system can only be controlled by a system of equal or greater complexity. He built a machine called the 'homeostat' to prove it. Education, unfortunately, is very good at attenuating complexity through force of power ("don't think about it, just do what you're told!") - but this is oppressive: it produces what Heinz von Foerster calls a 'trivial machine'.

In a recent discussion with Loet Leydesdorff, we talked about stagnation. Loet is interested in stagnation in the economy. He argues that moments of stagnation are the most important for growth because it is where the most 'redundant' ideas are produced - that is what might be termed 'hidden options' for development. We discussed the importance of Universities in producing 'hidden options': universities are society's generators of redundancy (that phrase has a peculiar ring to me at the moment!!). But there is an obvious problem: there is plenty of economic stagnation at the moment, whilst the approach of government is to remove redundancy in favour of efficiency. That is, the very source of economic growth - hidden options - are suppressed with an increasingly functionalist programme of bureaucratising society such that the function of every individual is determined in terms of the demands of every other individual, with nothing to waste.

The irony is that the generators of redundancy - the Universities - are suffering precisely this fate. Education is being functionalised; there is simply no space to think, and there are no jobs for thinkers.

Stagnation is important because it is something that builds up over time and seeks some kind of release. How can a surfeit of complex ideas release itself? By Ashby's Law, it must find another surfeit of complex ideas! In a University, this shouldn't be difficult. But of course, if Universities remove their thinkers, and they create timetables where every moment of the day is spoken for in terms of functional delivery, and they exhaust people with bureaucracy, then it can be difficult to make connections. Worse still is that, like bad supervisors, they will instil a mentality which seeks to attenuate (or oppress) complexity of thought. The result will be sickness.

It's nice that my PhD student expressed his relief in talking to me, and we made great progress (thanks to Alfred Schutz - once again, thanks to Loet for that!) But this has made me think about the "relief" and the power of our conversation. As educators, we believe we can change peoples' lives by talking to them. This isn't an unfounded belief: we know it to be true given the right circumstances. Universities ought to provide the right circumstances! But what's in a powerful conversation?

I think it is in this business of a matching complexity of ideas. I find myself asking difficult questions: "What do you mean by 'ownership'? What do you mean by culture?". These expose the variety and complexity of thinking. Some of this complexity I recognise because I've been there myself. I also can make suggestions about what to do because I dealt with it myself (not to say my solution was the best or only one!), but at least I have my own map. And with my map, I also have some resources: theories, arguments, books to read, pieces of music, Schutz, etc.

All of this makes me think about Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. I've never been entirely comfortable with it because it's rather woolly, coming very late in his short career. However, there may be a more technical way of expressing it in terms of interacting redundancies (I'm exploring this at the moment). Part of it though is what I learnt from my music professor Ian Kemp: you know you are teaching well when you learn more from your students than they do from you!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

An Unfolding Greek Drama

To be subject to political machinations can be very confusing, distressing and disorientating. In such circumstances, ancient stories are powerful. They contain the archetypal redundancies of history: the human regularities which appear to be universal. The one I'm most concerned with at the moment is King Priam and his son Paris.

Priam's wife Hecuba, when pregnant with Paris, had a dream which was interpreted by Aesacus as a warning that the not-yet-born Paris would lead to Troy's destruction and Priam's death. Priam was advised to kill the child. However, on the birth of the child, neither Priam nor Hecuba could bring themselves to do it, instead entrusting the chief herdsman to kill the child instead. The herdsman, Aegelus, left Paris to die on Mount Ida, but when the child survived after several days, decided to spare his life. At this moment, Priam and Troy's fate was sealed.

Paris's elopement with Helen is no doubt metaphorical. The irrationality of the passions sets in motion terrible events whose uncontrolled and grim inevitability is simply a force of nature. Here is where fiction meets the everyday reality. Paris is Priam's weakness, and Paris's weakness is not only Priam's downfall, but Petroclus (Achilles's lover), Achilles himself, Hector (Priam's elder and most beloved son) and Paris. Who will kill who? Well, we almost know in advance before it all kicks off: it has an inevitability to it. Hector kills Petroclus (who was fighting dressed as Achilles); Achilles kills Hector; Paris kills Achilles; Philoctetes kills Paris; and Priam dies at the hand  of Achilles's son, Neoptolemus. Troy is destroyed.

Was this Priam's fault? Should he have killed his son? Like the apparently benign despot, Paris is no obvious threat at any point. Yet it is the insidious effects of his actions and particularly his passions which cause the tragedy. Once he takes fancy to Helen, there is nothing to be done.

Passion does this. With so many stories in the press at the moment about powerful individuals abusing their privilege causing lifelong trauma for victims and eventual meltdown for the perpetrators there is plenty of testimony to the way single events trigger the creation of tissues of lies which are gradually knitted together causing increasingly irrational actions. This draws in not just themselves but many other people who (they believe) can protect them. Paris's behaviour incurs Menelaus's wrath, which draws in (eventually) not only the rest of Troy, but the deceit of Patroclus and Achilles's bloody revenge. Eventually it all gets top-heavy, everything topples over: today, the equivalent of the Trojan destruction would probably be senior people ending up in prison. It seems that there is nothing to be done; events have to run their course: powerful individuals will always protect themselves and anybody who attempts a premature unmasking will be dealt with ruthlessly. But it rarely ends well: which is, perhaps, a sign of hope.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Fisher King

An age of austerity harks back to Arthurian legend where the wounded Fisher King reigns and renders the fertile land barren - the same wasteland that Eliot wrote about (we've seen this before many times). What is his problem? He has to guard the Holy Grail - but he has an injured penis! Obviously in Arthurian legend, that is a reference to his fertility, but equally one might read it as a psychological flaw, a lack of creativity, a sexual problem, and so on. For this reason, the Fisher King becomes the emblem of the ruthless businessman or woman (no reason why a Fisher King should not be a woman - think of Mrs Thatcher!) whose ruthlessness in preserving their wealth (the Grail) is merely the result of rigidity or a lack of flexibility, creativity and insight brought about through their injury. The Fisher King is nothing but predictable - he can only catch fish. Whilst it is tempting to blame his lack of flexibility and creativity for the ensuing decline of the kingdom (which is inevitable), the important point to remember is the critical injury: to put it crudely, the problem is in the trousers! The king needs healing...

I first came across the Fisher King whilst studying Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage at University. King Fisher, as he is called in that opera, is nasty piece of work. A small-minded businessman who has no time for magic, rituals or any other kind of nonsense (as he would see it) practised by the youths and elders in the forest, although he does have his personal clairvoyant to keep the mysterious forces at bay. His daughter Jennifer is in the forest about to marry Mark - something King Fisher is determined to stop. Mark and Jennifer  pursue opposite personal journeys into darkness and light (part of a Jungian individuation process), whilst King Fisher brings his clairvoyant, Sosostris (this is straight from Eliot), to find out what has happened to Jennifer. Frustrated with her response, King Fisher attempts to unmask Sosostris. At the moment he touches her, she turns into a lotus flower (this rather confused audiences at the premier!), with Mark and Jennifer embracing as Shiva-Shakti in its middle. Enraged, King Fisher attempts to shoot Mark, but upon Mark's glance at him has a heart attack and dies. The death of King Fisher is a bit of a departure from the Fisher King legend, but the metaphor for Tippett is that this is a transformation which carries healing power for everyone as the kingly power moves from King Fisher to Mark. In Wagner's Parsifal it is a bit more straight-forward. In legend, it is Percival who is the knight who is finally able to heal the Fisher King. Wagner changed the spelling but the plot is the same, although in his version, the King loses his powers upon being healed.

The message in all of this is clear though: wounded kings are a problem. The cure lies in magic and mystery, in unmasking, in breaking the spell. Tippett believed art itself was the best cure for a society suffering a wounded king. I suspect he was right.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Education and Information: a stab at an introduction...

I've nearly finished my book! Although the book is about "education and information", it's really about a way of looking at everything that's going at the moment in education. It's clearly a very bad time in education where there is a disconnect between the managerial messiahs (some of them simply bad people!) running our institutions, exhausted teaching staff, and alienated students whose increasing debt pays for it all. The question is how to get analytical purchase on it all.

There are a few concepts which provide analytical purchase as indices into social activities. For example, the study of the concept of ‘capital’ provides insight into the social processes of exchange that constitute most of economics. “Information” is a similar concept to capital: it provides aspects which are measurable, whilst inviting the kind of deeper ontological investigation and critique that Marx and others conducted on capital. Technological development has contributed to the measurement, investigation and awareness of information becoming an object of public consciousness through the revelations of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden and concerns over the uneven relationship between information and polity. Yet the social activities upon which the concept of information (and its related concepts of "knowledge" and "meaning") has the strongest bearing are those of education. So my book is about exploring this relationship in the context of Higher Education and the society that constitutes it.

This is a stab at an introduction...


The book has three central aims. The first is to attempt to answer the question “Why is higher education confusing?” Politicians and some educational managers are seldom allowed to admit education to be confusing: education ministers can only present confidence in their mastery of education issues of the day with half an eye on what they can get away with saying as they seek to progress to their next ministerial appointment; managers wish to avoid the pitfalls of the quality audit! Yet education is confusing. I present no attempt to explain education. But I do attempt to explain why educational thought is tangled and how it is that even the most closely argued attempts to explain it cannot escape the tangle. My attempt (I hope) can at least suggest approaches to the task of untangling some of it.
The second aim concerns dealing with what might be seen as a culprit for education becoming more confusing in the last 15 years or so: the explosion of computer technology. After centuries of relative stability in its practices produced by institutional cloistering, computer technology (particularly the Web) began to dismantle the cloister. The bare human dimensions of the educational institution became exposed providing opportunities to academics who examined technology’s relation to the University to experiment and think about what was happening. I was one of these people, and benefited from the curious academic career of an ‘e-learning specialist’, funded by government projects to explore the potential of technology in education. This period, lasting just over 10 years, produced plenty of opportunities (and some lucrative academic positions) for gurus and “champions” of “E-learning” who argued that education would be transformed, learners liberated, and inequality of opportunity defeated by access to information. There has been a transformation, but the idealism of the gurus has been proved to be empty. Other changes have been profound – most notably the rise of technocratic management of institutions on the back of the apparent flexibility that technology affords. Technology has brought a dramatic shift in the organisation of institutions, and in the ways decisions are made within them, the way educational managers regard the purpose of education, fundamentally brought about through a shift in the relationship between information and decision. Consequently there has been a transformation in the relationship between education and society, learning and economy, status, politics and wealth.
The third aim is to present the study of information in its relation to education as the scientific focus of a research programme into modern higher education. Education’s relationship to information has been debated as long as practices of education have fluctuated between those which are mechanical and (by implication) universal from those which are human and particular. Simplistic views of information regard it as fundamentally mechanical, such as in the satirical presentations of the “Nuremberg Funnel”. Yet the contemporary debate about information is much richer, reflecting the fact that despite its ubiquitous usage, the word information is used in to refer to many different things: not only information in statistics, graphs and textbooks, but information in DNA, information and truth, information in physics (particularly the debate over information in the universe), right through to information in theology (God as information). Where is the coherence in this concept? As more than one academic of information science has articulated, there is no coherent theory. In presenting the question of information at the heart of education, I both argue that a coherent theory of information cannot exist without a theory of education, whilst the study of information presents a path of research into producing a coherent theory of education.
My ultimate focus is on information’s relationship to human organisation, ethics and social emancipation. The way educational institutions are organised, the way decisions are taken within them, the way their relationship to society is determined by government, the way economies work, and the way individuals learn and develop are not separable concerns. The education/information issue runs through the whole piece. At a time when educational institutions are becoming increasingly managerial, the costs of education rising, scholarship threatened, the gap between rich and poor growing at ever more vertiginous rates, and the individual debt burden of education rising with it, something appears to be out-of-balance in society: something is wrong in our political ecology. My conclusions points towards the relationship between information and decision-making and the need for the monitoring of political ecology in the same way that we have become increasingly aware of our environmental ecology. In fact, the two issues of politics and environment are related: care of the planet and care of citizens are both dependent on effective decision-making in the light of information. Issues of learning and education are inevitably tied up with this.
Untying the knots
The book begins in the middle of the ‘tangle’ of education and gradually works outwards. There is sense that education always begins ‘in the middle’: whether we are subject to it or we are writing about it, there is an ‘origin’ of which we are only vaguely aware (but tell stories about); and there is a ‘future’ of which we dream. In writing this book, I can look behind me to my childhood and my own education. I, like everybody else, deeply mattered to other people in the past (parents, teachers and friends). They worried about my development in ways similar to the way we worry about the development of the future generation. Like all commentators on education, my concern is for the development of the next generation (just as our parents worried about our generation), the unfolding political crisis (is it really that different from the various crises that obsessed our parents but of which we were only vaguely aware?). The ‘topic’ of education is a network of concern.
Middles are generally confusing, complex and tangled. In the university, curricula, teaching methods, timetables, technologies, bureaucracy, quality assurance, assessments, certificates, discourses, journals, rankings, citations and knowledge are all in the mix. What’s it all about? How much of it actually matters? Once again, this is contested, although the rise of ‘marketisation’ of universities has brought new orthodoxies which have become almost universal in the sector internationally: the acquisition by graduates of a ‘good’ job is hailed as the underlying objective of university education, and the benefiting from a ‘graduate premium’ in lifelong salary. However, the argument is thin: some kids without qualifications don’t get good jobs; but equally some kids with qualifications don’t get good jobs either (and have hefty student loans to pay-off). The marketization orthodoxy has obscured older reasons for the importance of Universities: their role in exploring the ‘hidden options’ of a society; their role in maintaining knowledge; their role in upholding a society’s hopes that the world might become a better place; their role in upholding the principle of free thinking and speech.
Inspection of institutional practice reveals a dominance of bureaucracy. This is as old as the institutions themselves. Today we have the setting of learning outcomes, the conduct of examination boards, quality assurance, student appeals, through to the approval of new courses, funding of initiatives and the careers of ambitious (and somewhat overpaid) Vice-Chancellors and senior managers. What matters about all of this? If the universities disappeared tomorrow, what would the world be like? The defenders of Universities would worry about the absence of higher learning and the preservation of knowledge seen as vital to civil society. But ask them to define Higher Learning, and once more we find a contested domain. Universities offer courses in medicine, philosophy, music, computer games, special effects, business, law, engineering, chemistry, physics and parapsychology. Do they all represent ‘higher learning’? If so, what is the common denominator? If not, which ones do, which ones don’t, and what’s the difference? Add to this the fact that whatever higher learning is present, it is wrapped in the bureaucracy, learning outcomes, assessment boards, certificates and graduation ceremonies of the institution to such a point that it is hard to separate the experience of having ones’ mind expanded (or not) with the mind-shrinking procedures and hurdles that have to be negotiated. It seems that “learning” and “education” are not the same, although they are frequently (and possibly deliberately) confused. The confusion manifests in the paraphernalia of education masquerading as an indicator of higher learning: ticked learning outcomes, quality inspections, student surveys and assessment boards are manifestations of education indicating that ‘learning’ is proceeding according to the bureaucratic scheme. Alienated students and disaffected staff may well say something different were they not afraid to speak out for fear of jeopardising their hard-won qualification or losing their jobs.
I want to spell this out to shed some light on how my book proceeds to unpick this complexity. I need to use a metaphor to explain this, so I begin with a tangled knot of thread. When I think about education, this is how it feels: I follow trains of thought which develop and cross others, and eventually find it difficult to remind myself where I started. I have met no educational thinker who does not suffer this fate at some level. When dealing with a knotted tangle, the first task is to understand the causes for the strands being tangled: each section of the strand might represent different aspects of thinking, activities, material artefacts, institutional structures and so on. They appear to interweave with each other causing knots:
It is possible to trace the line in its passage from left to right and back again. From one point on the line to another there is some kind of transformation that takes place. Let’s say that each line passing from left to right or from right to left represents a transformation in thought: as if one might be thinking about the distinction between “Education” and “Learning” at the beginning, and end up thinking about the role of government at the other end. By the time we have reached the “role of government”, the strand is bending back on itself and is now transforming into a question about how (and whether) higher learning matters in society.
My approach is to analyse the transitions along the thread, identifying the points at which one way of thinking transforms into another and in so doing produces the knots which create confusion. In order to do this, one has to have a meta-perspective of the ways of thinking about education. My intention is that greater consciousness about the ways in which educational thought proceeds, so there is greater awareness of where one way of thinking turns into another. So in the diagram below, I show my meta-perspective examining the transition between two points on the thread. Such a perspective might be considered to be a ‘synoptic’ view of the transition:

But what is a ‘way of thinking’? At a most basic political level in the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ there appear distinct approaches to thinking about the world which reflect in the dispositions and arguments presented by people. Philosophers, whilst also politically divided, have divided themselves into different camps for centuries: followers of ‘idealists’ like Descartes, Hume, Kant and Hegel situate themselves in opposition to ‘realists’ like Plato, Aquinas or Marx. Sometimes these distinctions became tied to national identities: German idealism, British empiricism, and so on. In the 20th century, discourse divides between the ango-american ‘analytical’ philosphy, which privileged logic and mathematics building on the work of Frege, Wittgenstein, Quine and others, whilst ‘continental’ philosophy draws from the tradition of phenomenology and existentialism  focusing on consciousness represented by in work of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre. Some schools of thought have not only been national, but institutionally-focused: the Frankfurt school of critical theory, with the leading figures of Adorno, Habermas, Horkheimer, and others building on the work of Marx. Whilst labels are convenient attenuators of the nuances of positions, there are real distinctions in ways of thinking.
In recent years, a kind of meta-philosophy has attempted to bridge the gap between different ways of thinking. Meta-philosophical attempts usually take the form of one way of thinking embracing the qualities and nuances of other ways of thinking. For example, in Bhaskar’s Critical Realism analytical approaches and phenomenological approaches are marshalled under the guise of a fundamentally Marxist and critical orientation. In Chapter 2, I consider this approach in detail, partly because it represents an attempt to think about social reality which is at once illustrative of the critical perspective, whilst also being practically useful in terms of its methodological implications. At the root of Chapter 2, I argue that ethics underpin ontological thinking about education: that to know the essential nature of something is to know what is right. Critical thinking concerns the nature of the material basis of education and the causal connections that are attributed to people who engage with it. This introduces conflicts in ontological position: basically – what do you think the world is like? However, there is a point that this kind of thinking breaks down since it leaves out the experiential nature of learning.
A similar attempt to bridge the gap between different perspectives, and one which is almost diametrically opposed to Bhaskar’s is that proposed by Alain Badiou and a small group of contemporary philosophers called ‘Speculative Realists’. Badiou, like Bhaskar, believes that the gap between different ways of thinking entails deep ontological critical thinking. However, his ontology is different, and this leads him to see coherence oriented in the rational apprehension of mathematical structures. This is an approach deeply connected to the phenomenological inquiry of Husserl, himself a mathematician, as it attempts to draw out distinctions between conscious existence and the events which surround it. I address the concerns of the phenomenological path in Chapter 3.
Beyond the philosophical characterisation of different ways of thinking, I have been influenced by Burrell and Morgan’s seminal contribution to Management Studies in their “Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis”.  My book follows a similar scheme to Burrell and Morgan, although my orientation is specifically on education I can only recommend the reader to consult their work for a more detailed and comprehensive coverage of different ways of thinking than I aim to present here. My excuse for my own lack of comprehensive coverage is that whilst Burrell and Morgan’s purpose was to sketch out their ‘paradigms’ of thought (four of them) typically used in organisational analysis, they were at least facing a discourse which has roughly oriented itself towards different paradigms. The education discourse does not. Instead the education discourse exhibits a kind of paradigm schizophrenia where is continually changes in orientation (hence the tangles). It is the schizophrenic dynamics which concern me here.
In Burrell and Morgan’s work the ‘functionalist’ paradigm receives far more attention because it has dominated management and organisational thinking. Similarly, it has dominated thinking in education – and particularly within the application of technology to education. I devote two chapters to functionalism. These chapters reflect the ideals of those who have attempted to solve deep educational problems through interventions of technology and systems. Cybernetics, the branch of knowledge concerned with systemic organisation, dominates this thinking. Chapter 4 deals with the cybernetic thinking that underpinned the development of learning technologies, learning theories, theories of social organisation and theories of institutional management. Whilst cybernetic thinking is seen to be out of fashion, the analysis of information is very much in vogue. Chapter 5 deals specifically with a subset of this: the theory of information. This latter domain occupies central importance today as computer technologies has harnessed vast amounts of information rendering powerful ‘intelligent’ behaviours which we increasingly depend on a regular basis, from increasingly sophisticated search algorithms, data mining, automatic translation, voice recognition all the way through to the possibility of mind reading. Many ‘positive’ logical explanations of education have been aired. These tend to talk of mechanisms of learning of one sort or another. Negative logic examines the context and focuses on the possibility of new kinds of analysis which help to bridge the gap between experience, politics and technology. Each new exciting development carries with it ethical concerns about privacy, power, liberty and identity with governments and technology corporations vying with each other in a battle between innovation and social control.
Thus my synoptic view of the passage of thinking from one moment to the next is a consideration of the ways in which one way of thinking changes into the next. The broad conflicts and struggles between different ways of thinking are outlined in Chapter 1 and this frames Part 1 of the book.
Part 2 draws out strands from the middle. Whilst individual learners and teachers are caught in a tangle of different motivations and forces pulling them in different directions, there is nevertheless a rationale behind the educational decisions that are taken. For each individual in education there is some goal that is rationally defended which acts as a point of focus for people moving through the crazy bureaucracy of education. This focusing forwards is not a limit of origin (as we had in Chapter 1’s synoptic view of transitions), but a limit of perceived destination or goal. The rational justification for entering education is as limiting as the shifts in understanding that cause thinking to be tangled. This, as Heidegger noted, is v a condition of thought. Chapter 6 questions what it is to think rationally about education at all. Questioning the role of rationality in educational thinking entails a consideration of the rationalism that underpins the thinking of learners entering education, their hopes for the future and the ways in which they believe education will help them achieve their dreams, and the hopes for a hopes for a rational account of the way educational thinking becomes tangled are well-founded. Beginning with the different conceptions of rational decision-making, I explore the extent to which the available models of rational action account for educational actions and behaviours. The central question concerns the role of emotion in rational behaviour and the role of emotion in learning. Deep down, I argue that this question concerns the nature of those things which people become most passionate about: their values. Can a rational account for values be produced? Can values be explained? Chapter 6 ends with a consideration of the relationship between values, explanations and the social conditions for the agreement about causes. What kind of social context is required for discussion and agreement to take place? In particular, what is the role of information in the process of establishing an agreement? And what do agreements tell us about information? The question of rationality gradually opens up a question about the social institutions whose purpose is the exploration of values: universities. In delimiting rationality, Chapter 6 looks a bit like:

n Chapter 7 deals with the material origins of different ways of thinking. Thus, the materiality of Chapter 7 may be seen as a limiting factor on Chapter 1: it is a limit on the way that different ways of thinking might be perceived. Information is conveyed through physical artefacts and through these artefacts and their information, humans coordinate themselves through making decisions. Most of what is characterised as “educational development” manifests itself in material form in some way: new technologies, textbooks, schemes of work, policies, and so on. New objects within the education system are the stimulus for attempts to interpret them, ascribe meanings, and coordinate expectations. In Chapter 7 the issue of the materiality of information, the institution and the learning environment is addressed. Central to this concern for material things is a more hidden dimension: that of the implicit evolutionary dynamics of material. Not only are textbooks, webpages, maps and lecture theatres material and causal in the education process, but with regard to improving that process, so those material artefacts are imagined to ‘evolve’ so as to produce an enhanced material environment (and presumably ‘better’ learning). Chapter 7 considers materiality in the context of this implicit evolutionary mindset. What processes are called upon to ‘improve’ practice or resources or technologies? How do the evolutionary dynamics relate to the broader social dynamics and power relations in education?
With materiality at its origin, and rationality and values driving the focus of educational activity, there remains a central unasked question: why is it that we are driven to acquire knowledge? Without the inner drive of individuals to push the frontiers of knowledge, it is unlikely that universities would exist. Moreover, whatever rational plans of action one might have, there is a deeper drive for truth and knowledge, and the University has been the place within which to pursue this. Chapter 8 asks what is ‘Higher learning’? This, I argue, is a question which underpins the pursuit of rational inquiry: it acts as a limit on the concepts of rationality articulated in Chapter 6. I begin with the variety of definitions of higher learning that have appeared over the years. All of these tend to delimit the question such that their responses are too narrow in focus in order to account for the richness of practice that goes on in the University. In particular, few definitions of Higher Learning would acknowledge any kind of practice in new universities which widen participation to University learning as ‘higher learning’: definitions tend to be elitist. Building on the arguments of Chapter 6, I suggest that Higher Learning has something to do with values. Pursuing the arguments of Chapter 7, I argue that values relate in some way to the material conditions of existence. Returning to the themes of Part 1, I articulate an ecological and dialectical picture of Higher Learning as the interaction of ways of thought within a material and social context that is created to nurture the dialectic. In essence, this is to merge the structural and organisational aspects of Universities with the activities of learning which go on inside them. Furthermore, pursuing this analysis allows for some useful distinctions between higher learning and schooling, and the position of the university in relation to politics and socioeconomic life. With this positioning, a symmetry of the organisation of chapters in the book arises: With this basic symmetry, there remains the task of considering the whole dynamics from material origins to rationality and the quest for knowledge. The fundamental question that emerges is one of human action, and that this concerns socio-economic behaviour. Starting with the economics of the Austrian school, since this branch of economics is most concerned with information and its relation to human action, Chapter 9 considers the nature of information as it is understood by this school, which entails a deeper consideration of learning. Consequently, the argument of Chapter 9, beginning with education and moving to economics, then moves back from economics towards education. Economic questions become questions about how to organise higher learning in society; how to engender individual and collective hope in society. Whilst the “education industry” appears now as a major industry in its own right, the questions this raises are fundamental concerning the role of political systems and the nature of educational provision. To what extent is the emerging debate about higher education a problem of economics? How does an economics oriented around information (as in the Austrian school, but also in the post-Keynesian work of Stiglitz) relate to processes of learning and education?
A socio-economic perspective is limited in practical life by the way that decisions are made and the ways that the big question “what do we want from education?” is asked. There have been many attempts in the past to polemicize education. Limiting the economic debate is a political debate. However, this is a political debate which is characterised by powerful polemic with little effect on policy. In Chapter 10, I consider why some of the most powerful contributers to this polemic have not seen their ideas have much effect beyond the confines of University education departments. Of particular interest is the work of Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. Formal education, believed by Illich to be ‘unfeasible’ seems to be increasing its stranglehold on society. At the same time, the conception of education that Freire abhorred – the “banking” conception of knowledge – appears to be the dominant form of our understanding of learning, having enlisted the support of increased testing, competency criteria, international league tables and so on. Why has this happened? What was wrong with the critique that it merely won admirers without having any political bite?
Chapter 10 suggests an answer to this question lies in both Freire and Illich misunderstanding the importance and nature of information. As a result, no coherent research programme in education could be founded on their ideas which could hold in one grasp both the scientific understanding of teaching practice, a coherent understanding of institutional organization and management, and the role of government in education. Without a methodological focus for their arguments, Freire and Illich could both be sidelined by a managerial elite in charge of institutions and governments who could dictate a separation between learning and management, exploiting general confusion in educational thinking, to their own advantage of control over the education system. In Chapter 10, my suggestion is for a connection to be made between the scientific study of information dynamics to be applied to the political ecologies which characterise the education system. I argue that that the approach to educational management and governance needs to monitor its own political ecologies as a way of maintaining environments which nurture higher learning. With this message, which is of course somewhat provisory, the book completes its structure which now looks like:

Why Information?
At the heart of my intention is to present “Education and Information” as inseparable aspects on the study of ecologies of relationships. Possibly the greatest difficulty I have in this is that “Information” is a topic that will be largely unfamiliar to education researchers. Information, by whatever definition we might adhere to (and there are lots of them) concerns the stuff that exists between things: Information is relational. Whilst education research will tend to focus on aspects of competency development (for example, literacy or numeracy development), or policy, or curriculum, or employability, studies draw their data from individual experience, individual competence, test scores, responses to questionnaires, etc. Never is the question asked “What is an individual in education?”, or more precisely (to borrow Christian Smith’s book that I quote in Chapter 1) “What is a Person?” The difficulty of seeing individuals subject to education as entwined in deep causal mechanisms of matter and communication present methodological problems that the popular methodologies of education research (particularly varieties of interpretivism which are most common) are poorly equipped to unpick. More recent approaches to sociomateriality, whilst acknowledging the difficulties, appear to present little more than re-heated postmodernism which lacks any kind of analytical bite.
Information grants analytical purchase on relationships. However, application of mathematical information theory such as Shannon’s formulae or Bayesian conditional probability represent functionalist and one-dimensional perspectives focused on individual performance. These perspectives have recently come to represent a significant realm in the governance of education. Algorithms that pick over citation statistics, learner engagement, institutional ranking, or teacher performance  have real effects on the decisions of research funding committees and institutional recruitment processes as well as being directly deployed in journal rankings, institutional esteem indicators, teacher performance data and other statistics. However, there remains a disconnect between what the  equations report, the decisions that result from their application, the meaning behind specific information sets, and the deeper definition of ‘information’ and its relation to decision in the first place.
Information is a contested domain much in the same way as education. The word “information” gets used in many ways. For example, Shannon’s theory of information concerns the transmission of messages between machines over a medium, and provides a range of mathematical measures which have transformed the technological infrastructure we are surrounded by, from transmission and compression to cryptography. Information is used within economics as an indicator of the constraints within which economic decisions are made. Information is used in a negative way too: misinformation is regarded by Dretske and Floridi as not being information at all, where both argue that information has an in-built orientation towards truth. Information is often used to refer to the DNA molecule where the complex processes of epigenesis unfold, leading some commentators to distinguish ‘forming’ information from Shannon’s mathematical concept. Information is also used to refer to semiotic processes of communication between cells, and processes of meaning communication leading to a separate distinction of ‘semantic information’. Information is also taken as a fundamental building block of the universe. Typically characterised as ‘Information ontology’, some physicists talk of an “It from Bit” ontology in cosmology, where information supervenes on matter. This has also led to theological speculation about the relationship between information and “logos”, particularly in the light of the first sentence of St. John’s Gospel. There is no coherent theoy.
Attempts to build a theory of information flounder when its relational character is lost (which is always). More often than not, information theories emerge as theories of agency. My argument in this book is that in order to maintain the relationality of information, it needs to be considered in the context of activities which too are relational: thus he coincidence of “information” with “education”, since education is relational. Information brings with it the possibility of analytical purchase on educational processes. Mathematical characterisations of relationships in the calculation of mutual information, entropy and so on can provide new ways of exploring relations in the light of the practices in education. Clarity about the relational character and the techniques for measuring it is important: it is not uncommon to hear that educational processes are described as processes of ‘transferring information’. Diagrams of ”learning” typically involve lines and boxes, where the lines represent ‘flows’ of information. In one way or another, there is an outside which affects an inside. What is transferred exactly?
In typical everyday educational experience, we might talk of:
  • Information transferred in facts and figures within textbooks
  • Information transferred in body language of learners and teachers
  • Information transferred in skilled performances in tests
  • Information transferred in the protocols of educational institutions
  • Information transferred in educational policy directives and audit of their compliance
The connection between information, communication and relationship is apparent in each case. With regard to analytical purchase relationships, there are the Shannon formulae which are, as I discuss in Chapter 5, fundamentally about ‘surprise’, and the Bayesian formulae which can be useful for adapting automatic communication systems to anticipate surprises. Surprise is an important concept because surprise often leads to human action: either a knee-jerk reaction which is largely instinctive, or a more considered approach. Analytical approaches tend to be only applied to a delimited set of cases within the education system, to the exclusion of other cases where they might be equally applicable. For example, ‘Learning Analytics’ involves the application of formulae to the performance data of learners, but where the information of the teacher-learner relationship is seen as separable from the information of the institution-teacher relationship, or the government-institution relationship. This doesn’t make sense: the proper investigation of information in education is necessarily holistic, embracing all levels of the system. Each information-analytic approach itself produces information, and this information then produces “surprises” at other levels of the system resulting in human action. In the production of information follow power relations, fear and potential for exploitation.
To say that the manifestations of education processes, care and concern, the transference of skilled-performances and the paraphernalia of the educational institution, its governance, policies, technologies of management and organisation are all characterised by information is to say that they are characterised by relationships where relationships result in decisions. Information acts as a constraint upon human decision, much in the same way as the material environment constrains action. This, however, is to regard information as something not in the foreground, but in the background. Information is the ‘dark matter’ of education.
Throughout this book, I argue for a negative view of information. I present an argument oriented towards education that is in agreement with Terry Deacon who has identifies information with ‘absence’. The cybernetic anthropologist Gregory Bateson got there first: in a correspondence with John Lilly about his Dolphin research, argued “What I have tried to do is to turn information theory upside down to make what the engineers call “redundancy” [coding syntax ] but I call “pattern” into the primary phenomenon”. I furthermore agree with the statistical ecologist Robert Ulanowicz that “In that sense, it can truly be said that the most important contribution that information theory makes to science is not information”
Think about it. However much time we are surprised by things in education, so much more is repetition and ritual. Whether it is rote-learning or Latin verbs, obsessive thoughts on difficult topics, assessment of the meaning of practices in action research, or the analysis of a game of cricket, the balance between repetition and surprise is necessarily asymmetrical.  What appears true of mental processes is also true of institutional organisation. A recent attempt in my university to “streamline” examination boards (where decisions are made about student marks) was defended with the argument that “so much time academics have circular discussions and that this is a waste”. Yet it seems that circular repetitive discussion is the very essence of academia! Finally, at a higher level still, the ‘eternal return’ of educational ideas at a political level also demonstrates redundancy.
It is with this awareness of redundancy and information that I make the connection to ecology and politics. This is a departure from those information theorists who have been content to derive grandiose theories of information from core principals (I address these in Chapter 5), including Luciano Floridi and Terry Deacon. What concerns me here is the connection between information, meaning and mattering.  
Information might be best thought of as an ontological path of inquiry. To ask fundamental questions about information is to ask fundamental questions about the way the world is.
A Note about the Genesis of this Book
In discussions with Oleg Liber, who introduced me to some of the central cybernetic ideas presented in this book, my original intention was to call this book “Educational Cybernetics”. At one point, cybernetic thinking, although considered ‘old fashioned’ and much misunderstood (“is that about robots?”) and generally unknown in the academic community appeared to me to be a powerful “bite out of the tree of knowledge” as Gregory Bateson claimed. Bateson’s work, in particular, has indeed remained powerful for me.  But today, the only cybernetic thinker to really have had a coherent impact on the social sciences is Niklass Luhmann: a fact which some cyberneticians find distressing, although there is much to recommend in Luhmann’s work. Even Bateson, who’s aphorisms are quoted everywhere, failed to make a concerted inroad into any social science discipline: perhaps only Family Therapy can claim a distinct Batesonian inheritance; even in anthropology (Bateson always considered himself an anthropologist) his work tends to form a background to Margaret Mead’s.
Over the years, I have had a love-hate relationship with cybernetics. Cybernetics always seemed slightly facile to me, its descriptions of the world seeming to side-step the major controversies of philosophy. However, I admired the breadth of the cybernetic ambition: the fundamental drive towards a coherent and defensible holism – providing one is sensitive enough to avoid the risks of evangelism or fundamentalism! I found a deeper (for which, you might read “more difficult” – which is not always the same as ‘better’) philosophical alternative to cybernetics in Roy Bhaskar’s Critical Realism which similarly emphasised mechanisms, was critical of cybernetic's constructivism, but which had similar grandiose claims on the nature of the world. For an academic, being caught between geniuses who advocate apparently similar but discordant positions is a constructive place to be. In trying to identify where I stood between these discourses, a third element emerged in my thinking which effectively articulated a critical view of both positions.  This arose from a combination of engaging with the alternative description of reality presented by Alain Badiou, which threw the certainties of the Critical Realists (and their dogmatism) into doubt, together which the acknowledgement of broader critical view of organization, management and information represented through the Information Systems community and the Critical Management Studies community.
The result is that the book is now called “Education and Information”, not “Educational cybernetics”, and with the specifically cybernetic content restricted to Chapters 4, 5 and 10. I think this is a better title, but I have one or two regrets about not saying more about “Educational Cybernetics”, since my work in educational technology has taken place within an “Institute for Educational Cybernetics” at the University of Bolton. First of all, I want to be clear that Cybernetics, wonderful though it is, is not only functionalist, but typifies a blindness to the political implications of its ideas which compromises its attempts to be critical about itself and its adherents. These are deficiencies which were evident to critical theorists from the early inception of the discipline (see for example, Erich Fromm and Max Horkheimer). However, and this isn't simply to split hairs, “Educational Cybernetics” is NOT cybernetics. Educational Cybernetics is fundamentally about human relations because education is about human relations: those are by their nature political relationships made up of real people. More to the point, it seems obvious to me that education is an art of steering relationships. The metaphor at the root of cybernetics is “steering” (Kybernetes = the Steersman).
So I abandoned the title “Educational Cybernetics” for reasons of clarity for the majority of readers. I will still defend “Educational Cybernetics” as being the deep topic at the root of the critical study of “Information and Education”.