#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.

Scanning Horizons: The Need for Theory in Practice

I believe that practice requires theory at a greater level than has generally been recognized in the past.  One point of view to substantiate this claim is test validity as I have previously discussed here, here, and here.  Theory is the starting point when discussing substantive and structural aspects of validity.  Also, because theory and measurement constructs are closely related, and because of a unified view of construct validity, theory (and hermeneutics) touches all aspects of validity and measurement.  Consider a practical example from my previous work in disability support services.

I was lucky enough to working for an organization as they were initiating supported employment services for the first time.  I believe the impetus for supported employment was rooted in discrimination.  Many people who were quite capability of holding down a job were forced to work in sheltered workshop settings and they proved to be very successful when given half an opportunity.  However, there was little analysis about what was going on at a deeper theoretical level.  When supported employment began serving cliental with more challenging support needs, the rate of growth and successful decreased.

I now believe that supported employment is about participation in economic activity and providing a level of accommodation that allows full participation by all individuals.  The measures needed are measures of participation, accommodation that are needed, and accommodations delivered.  Instead most descriptions of supported employment are just that, descriptions of what supported employment looks like, not how it functions.  Consider how the Department of Labor defines supported employment:

Supported employment facilitates competitive work in integrated work settings for individuals with the most severe disabilities (i.e. psychiatric, mental retardation, learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury) for whom competitive employment has not traditionally occurred, and who, because of the nature and severity of their disability, need ongoing support services in order to perform their job. Supported employment provides assistance such as job coaches, transportation, assistive technology, specialized job training, and individually tailored supervision.  DOL

This provides a description of what supported employment and supported workers look like, but it does not describe how services function to enable individuals to participate in the economy.

In order to develop a functional understanding of practice, theory is necessary. Once you define things in functional relationships, it’s possible to develop relevant measures and to use experimental methods to get to the bottom of functional relationships and improve the processes involved.