#cck11 Exploring the Validity of Connectionism: Three things

#1 The Nature of Theoretical Standards

All theories are abstractions.  They hope to model concrete aspects of our world, but the abstract and the concrete never coincide.  This is the main point expressed by Jonah Lehler.  In the Wired Article The Mysterious Decline Effect, he says:

One of the philosophy papers that I kept on thinking about while writing the article was Nancy Cartwright’s essay “Do the Laws of Physics State the Facts?” Cartwright used numerous examples from modern physics to argue that there is often a basic trade-off between scientific “truth” and experimental validity, so that the laws that are the most true are also the most useless. “Despite their great explanatory power, these laws [such as gravity] do not describe reality,” Cartwright writes. “Instead, fundamental laws describe highly idealized objects in models.”  The problem, of course, is that experiments don’t test models. They test reality.

This is a pragmatist stance.  Connectivism is not true, but neither is any other theory.  It is a map of reality, but it is not reality.  When seeking pragmatic validity, our quest is to understand how it relates to other theories, as well as where and under what circumstances it can be considered useful.

#2 The Hermeneutic Relational Nature of Knowledge

My previous post discussed the hermeneutics circle, which seems that it might generally be consistent with the connectivist idea that we form new concepts by joining other concepts together in new ways.  A common place we see this is in the practices of designers using white spaces.  Ideas are placed on a wall or whiteboard and moved around in physical space in order to experiment combining these ideas in different and creative ways.  Similar practices are the increased use of mind maps, graphic organizers, and visualization in eduction.  It’s seems that these practices tap into visual cognition abilities, but I think it also implies how our functional cognition is organized.

I don’t think Connectivism’s description of these process is yet fully developed, but I do think it addresses these aspects of cognition better than previous theories.  As visualization practices increase, this aspect will become more important.

#3 The Dynamic Nature of Knowledge Flows

I am coming to believe that there is a sense in which peer interaction with other people helps us to construct useful knowledge.  The nature of how interaction helps us goes beyond general constructivist ideas to ideas that are better reflected in Connectivism.  This idea is also implied in The Pragmatic Web.

In contrast to the Syntactic Web and Semantic Web the Pragmatic Web is not only about form or meaning of information, but about social interaction which brings about e.g. understanding or commitments.

And also consider the Action Language Perspective on which the ideas surrounding the Pragmatic Web are based.

Language/Action Perspective (LAP) is based upon the notion as proposed by Terry Winograd that “expert behavior requires an exquisite sensitivity to context”

I’m thinking that knowledge is dynamic, not static, and that using knowledge entails appropriating it to the needs of oneself and one’s context.  When we tap into knowledge flows, we see knowledge at it’s most dynamic and we are also exposed to how others are appropriating that knowledge for their use.  Knowledge does not flow in a static form, but is constantly evolving.  Hai Zhuge speaks of this nature in scientific knowledge flows.

Scientists have developed many approaches to the static representation of knowledge, and to extracting, discovering, learning, and reasoning about it. However, knowledge is dynamic—it goes through human brains for knowing, invention, propagation, fusion, generalization, and problem solving.  . . .The knowledge flow network implicit in the citation network consists of knowledge flows between nodes that process knowledge, including reasoning, fusing, generalizing, inventing, and problem solving, by authors and co-authors. (Discovery of Knowledge Flow in Science, Communications of the ACM, May 2006/Vol. 49, No. 5)

Once again, connectivism may be better able to represent this aspect of knowing better than previous theories.

#cck11 Hope for Connectivism as a Theory for the Future

These are 3 things I’m thinking about in regards to theory in psychology, education and for evaluating Connectivism as an educational theory that can provide a pathway to the future.

  1. The difference between reducible physical objects and non-reducible psychological properties.
  2. The hermeneutic nature of cognition and theory’s conceptual role in hermeneutically informed science.
  3. Recent criticisms of connectivism as a standalone theory that I think it should be judged within a wider field of educational theory.

Social Action is not Reducible to Individual Behavior: The Complex Emergent Variable Field of Social Science

This continues a previous conversation with Alan Cooper about the nature of theories and educational theories.  See here and here for that conversation.

First, start with an example of the development of communication between mother and child (From Vygotsky, need reference) .  The child randomly grasps for an object, but the mother interprets this as intended communication to obtain the object.  Overtime, the mother helps the child formulate efficient communicative actions by presenting objects and interacting with the child to refine the resulting communicative acts.  This demonstrates the social genesis and nature of communicative action.  Neurology is not the only foundation of action.  Communicative action also functions at a higher social level. You will never see the complete neurological correlates of social behavior because it involves the neurology and practices of other people.   Social action is not reducible to individual behavior.

This is also just one example that shows why the variable fields social and educational research are so diverse.  Natural science is able with some success to reduce experiments to a narrow field of variables, but in ways that are not available to social sciences.  This does not mean that education and social science research is not possible or valid.  It is just that it cannot operate within the same standards for validity as natural science research.  Validity is an integrative evaluative judgement of the degree of support for research.  Standards cannot be established a-priori, but must fit a situated holistic understanding of the method, intentions and variable field in which the research is operating.

Digging Deeper: The Hermeneutics of Psychology and Education

But during the 60s (Paul) Ricoeur concluded that properly to study human reality one had to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation. For hermeneutics, whatever is intelligible is accessible to us in and through language and all deployments of language call for interpretation.  Paul Ricoeur Entry in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

First Aspects of Hermeneutics: Our Horizon, Our Prejudice and Our Ability to Change

Our field of interpretation is often referred to, through a vision metaphor, as our horizon.  This horizon represents our field of experience.  The object we interpret stands in this field and we compare and contrast it to our experiential field to make our interpretations.  It is both our horizon and the basis of our prejudice, the preconceptions that we bring to any interpretive task.  These preconception are the horizon with which we see or interpret any subject or object.  Our horizons are not static, but are ever changing.  They change in the process of fusing different horizons.  The primary work of interpretation to take something alien and interact with it in a way to expand our context of meaning.  What first appears alien can later be understood as a function of our initial perspective or prejudice.  (Note – Prejudice in this usage is about all preconceptions not just bigotry)

Second Aspect of Hermeneutics: The Dialectic Between Part and Whole

The hermeneutic circle expresses the central idea that interpreting any text (or experience) is by reference to the whole, whether it be a body of texts, a discipline or the whole of one’s experience.  In turn, one’s experience (our horizon) is made up of other experiences and texts.  No idea, project or theory can be understood by itself, but only in reference to other ideas, theories and projects.  While this does presupposes no ultimate or final interpretation, is does not preclude the ability to make judgements about the validity of interpretations.

The Hermeneutics of Theory

Theory, like any concept, cannot be understood except as a reference to a wider conceptual field.  This mean convergent and divergent differences with other theories as well as it’s position relative to broader intellectual movements and by considering lower level concepts that can be juxtaposed and compared with the concepts of other theories.  Therefore, evaluating the validity of connectivism involves (1) situating it within broader intellectual movements, (2) by comparing it’s structure and concepts to the structure and concepts of other theories, and (3) by evaluating conceptual parts of the theory for comprehensiveness and consistency.

How do reviews of Connectivism fit within this evaluation framework and what theories and movements would I consider relevant for evaluating Connectivism.  I’ll leave those questions for future posts.  I am looking for the pragmatic ability to peer into the future.  This is the future question posed by John Hagel at Edge Perspective:

(H)ow do we embed teams in increasingly rich platforms that will scale by encouraging the formation of  more and more teams. How do we then motivate and help these teams to connect with and learn from each other? What would these platforms look like?  . . . a pathway that is pragmatic and provides short-term value while also building the foundations for much more powerful long-term learning and performance improvement.

This is the next killer app. for education.  How do we create knowledge flows, the pragmatic web, the places that bring everyone together in increasingly empowering ways?  I don’t think that existing theories can foot that bill.  And we can’t wait 25 years for traditional theoretical development pathways to work their magic.  This is the hope I have for this Connectivism journey.

An update on my view of Connectivism (CCK08)

During my last post I realized that I needed to update my view on this theory.  Constructivism is a sound theory on human learning except for one thing, it really didn’t change practice all that much.  Its central insight (especially in the Vygotskian version) is that learning and knowledge are social, but that insight changed very little in educational practice where it should have turned practice on its head.  I have come to believe that this is because there was no adequate model of social learning.  Even Vygotskian ideas like the ZPD (zone of proximal development) limits the social model to teacher to student or peer to peer interactions.  Connectivism provides an adequate social model as a wide network.  This is a true social model that shows how learning is expanded by expanding one’s network.