Higher Education – is it worth it? Valuing Action over Thinking

George Siemens prompted these ideas when he asked the question: Higher Education – is it worth it? To answer this question, it is time to move to another metaphor.  From the idea of education creating a difference of thought to a difference of action.

This question was originally prompted by Peter Thiel (PayPal)  suggestion that people drop out of school and start companies.  George backgrounds his ideas by contrasting 2 thoughts:

The higher education model is antediluvian, it is no longer aligned with the information and knowledge ecology in which it exists (see Reinventing Knowledge and Reconstructing the University for more detail on this line of thinking). The fatal logic in education-abolisher’s, like Thiel, thinking is that a broken system is an unneeded system. Higher education needs to change. It needs to be more effective, more flexible, more cost-effective, more equitable (in terms of access), and aligned with the knowledge structures and spaces of today’s society. However, as Edgar Morin states (.pdf) the purpose of education is to prepare each individual for “the vital combat for lucidity”. Thiel’s model doesn’t achieve this. When we learn, we are not only fulfilling a responsibility to ourselves but to society and to the future. This learning need not be formal, but it needs to be broad, diverse, and non-utilitarian…i.e. not learning only to achieve a task or get a job but learning in order to increase our capacity for greater future options (or, for that matter, to become a better person).

I disagree with Morin, who’s first statement is:

The purpose of education is to transmit knowledge. . .

This puts us into Ann Sfard’s two metaphors of learning, the Acquisition and Participation Metaphors.  Sfard’s metaphoric analysis does not go sufficiently deep for this discussion.  The acquisition metaphor must assume that knowledge is stored in memory to be drawn upon and adapted to the context (transferred) when needed.  I have to research this more, but I don’t think cognitive psychology supports this aspect.  The acquisition metaphor still has some use, but this severely limits that use.

The  participation metaphor is based on Situated Learning Theory, which is based on Vygotsky’s idea of activity as the primary unit of analysis.  (Wittgenstein’s thoughts also support this view.)  Community participation is usually the location of that activity, but activity is the psychological and education unit to which attention should be paid.  Most of the criticisms Sfard makes of the participation metaphor do not hold up if you properly place activity at the center of that analysis.

Morin’s “combat for lucidity” happens in communicative actions.  Even in soliloquy, we posit an “Other” to which our active  is directed.  This is why my first response to George was to Quote Evans & Mackey in this comment to his blog post:

I would like to see universities organize around greater flexibility in learning communities so this (college vs. entrepreneurial activity) does not become an either or question. I noted Terry Evan and Julie Mackey’s article in IRRODL’s Special Issue on Connectivism

where they say:

(The) insular view of community, bounded by course curriculum and timelines, is problematic for professional learning and highlights a tension between the underlying philosophical stance and the pedagogies adopted by universities. A central tenet of sociocultural epistemologies is that learning is vitally situated within the context of its development and that “understanding and experience are in constant interaction” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 51). As Lave and Wenger (1991) describe in their theory of social practice, there is a “relational interdependency of agent and world, activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing” (p. 1).

Higher Education needs to be re-structured so that it is imbedded to support our ongoing activities.  This fits with social-cultural, situated and connectivist perspectives, it fits with Hagel, Brown and Davison’s Pull metaphor of learning and it is not against Thiel’s idea at least from a learning theory perspective.  And ultimately, this question cannot be answered without referencing a theory about how we learn.  Why must you study than do instead of studying and doing as an integrated activity.

Again I am left with the impression that Higher Educations past is based on developing an educated class; creating a class distinction.  Morin’s lucidity was not practiced except in activity and that activity was valued by the educated class.  The value of education and lucidity of thought was the separation it created from the rest of the population, a difference that disappears as more and more of the population becomes educated.  If you want that distinction now you’ll need Harvard, Yale or Stanford, and maybe even not than.

How will Higher Education create value, how will it become worth it?

To answer this question, it is time to move to another metaphor.  From the idea of education creating a difference of thought to a difference of action.

#cck11 – The Role of Theory in the Human and Learning Sciences

This post is in response to Alan in the cck discussion forum, Learning Theories in CCK11.  It has mostly to do with how theories in learning and the human sciences differ from the natural or physical sciences.

I believe Alan’s assertions are right, that in terms of practice, theory in the social and human sciences plays a very different role than in the physical sciences. But, explaining this is getting me into the intellectual deep end of the pool – so, I’m going to fall back on the thoughts of others, specifically John Shotter, from his book: Cultural Politics of Everyday Life (1993, University of Toronto Press).

(W)e say our theories are true theories if the predictions we derive from them match  or ‘picture’ the outcomes of the processes we study.  So, although we can bring off some quite spectacular results in the sciences, it is just in terms of such results, not the whole structure of a theory . . .  Our knowledge, as Quine (1953)* said later, “is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges”. (Shotter p.74)

Two points: (1) This assertion is debatable, and although the social and the hard sciences share the problem space laid out here,  you can also say that this argument is superfluous in the hard sciences in terms of everyday normal scientific activity.  (2) But from the social or human sciences, this type of problem is much more of an issue.  In my experience, Skinner’s behavioral methods, while successful in the predictive sense, were most unsatisfying because of how dissimilar it was to normal experience.  In a sense, behavioral methods did not match with the complexity of experiential life, nor did they respond to what seemed to be most pressing in an ethical sense.

(T)he human sciences now appear to be increasingly irrelevant to our times,  to the pressing social issues of the day.  For they are quintessentially products of a moment in the history of the West, the Modern Age (Foucault, 1970), that is now passing, if not already over. (Shotter, p.1)

(A)s we begin to confront the others in the world around us as genuine others who possess an otherness worthy of our interest and respect (unlike the indistinguishable atoms in a natural science), so our ways of knowing must begin (and have begun) to diversify.  Now we need to know the nature of the backgrounds, the different forms of life from which our different ways of knowing emerge.  . . . It is to do with the fact that we have failed to grasp not only what it is that we must theorize here, but what the task of theory in this sphere is like.  Indeed as Taylor (1987:477) remarks: “We cannot turn the background from which we think into an object for us.  The task of reason has to be conceived quite differently.”  It must now be seen “as including – alongside the familiar forms of the enlightenment – a new department, whose excellence consists in our being able to articulate the background of our lives perspicuously” (Taylor, 1987: 480-1)** (Shotter, pp.2-3)

So what is the background of which he speaks.  Much of it is shared and social, such as how we use language, common social practices, shared ways of understanding and the openness of everyday life that allows us to find joint ways of creatively working together.  To a great extent, I believe that making satisfactory progress in psychology was stymied by (1) jumping to empirical explanations before adequate description had been achieved (in the behavioral period) and (2) by ascribing behavior to individual mental processes before adequate description (in the cognitive period).  In the first case the wrongly held assumption was that empirical predictive findings would lead to correct theory without having an underlying framework to organize our empirical facts.  In the second case, the wrongly held assumption was that all behavior was caused by cognition, when much behavior emerges out things like people interacting, social norms, common practices, socially based habits and the like.  In the first case facts cannot lead us to theory.  In the second case theory cannot organize our facts unless theory and facts operate in an emergent dialectical fashion, each shaping the other.  Speaking further of relationships, Shotter states:

(T)he unsatisfactory state of ‘theory’ in the understanding of what a personal relationship ‘is’, does not arise out of a continual failure to formulate ‘the correct’ theory, but that it arises out of a failure to understand what ‘theory’ in this area should be like.  . . . we can perhaps see that theory in the natural sciences and theory in the understanding and study of personal relationships must differ fundamentally (p. 184).

Shotter goes on to assert that theory in fact plays a very different role in something like the study of relationships.

(F)or we do not want ot predict (or control) behavior but to see the ‘connections’ between things, thus to understand what in the circumstances we ought to do (p. 185).

*Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

**Overcoming Epsitomology. In K. Baynes, J Bohman & T. McCarthy (eds) After Philosophy; End or Transformation? Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

There Is No Learning without Doing

Learning is doing as doing is learning.  The primary biological purpose of neurological activity is found in how it is associated with motor activity in ways that allow an organism to couple with its environment through movement (Maturana, H.R. & Varela,1992).  The problem with many educational activities is in how they over emphasize representation and under emphasize the activity that is the true target of learning.  Most classroom activities focus on manipulating symbols and leads to the recall of these symbolic representations.  Problems occur in the gap frequently seen between representations and an inability ability to act based on those representations.  What is needed instead is a holistic approach that creates a new portfolio of actions to replace an old portfolio (Zeleny, 2008).  The outcome of learning activities, the test of learning if you will, should be the performance of new activities not the recall of representations.  Zeleny gives an example of this type of thinking through his assessment approach to strategy.  Strategy is not found in plans and statements.  It is found in the action a company takes.  If you want to know what a company’s strategy is, look at the actions they take and the structure of those actions.  Do not look at what they say.  Talking does not convey their strategy, acting does.

Workplace learning is moving beyond the classroom to a holistic approach to performance improvement.  Emphasizing learning transfer is not going to significantly help performance unless it can recognize that learning is about doing, not in grasping representations of doing.  Real learning is not learning about doing, it is learn to do.  Classroom training may occupy a small part of any program, but most training and performance support must focus on the location where actions are performed and focus what is actually needed to support doing.


Zeleny, M. (2008). Strategy and strategic action in the global era: overcoming the knowing-doing gap International Journal of Technology Management, 43, 64-75.

Maturana, H.R. & Varela, F.J. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge: THe Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications Inc.

Support for Connectivism, with a Hope and a Small Critique

1. Why I differ from Kerr and support a distinctive theory of connectivism.

I will start by expressing another perspective on my comment that artifacts (like technologically enabled networks) reflect back on and change the practitioners who use them.  Vygotsky’s daughter, Gina, made the following statement regarding the dialectic her father perceived between theory and practice.  

“He made science with his hands.  Vygotsky’s theory was fruitful because it arose from the demands of practice, and practice was fruitful because it was grounded in deeply considered theory” (Remedial and Special Ed Vol 20, p.330-332)

Discussions surrounding the googlization or the dumbing down of people, information overload and the depth of thought in blog entries; all these issues indicate that networks are changing people practices and are asking us to adapt and change as humans.  This reality expresses the demands of practice from which learning theories must lead and to which constructivism must adapt.  I see the possibility of connectivism making this adaption.

My hope for the continued development of connectivism

I believe that connectivism will reflect the demands of practice discussed above, although I have not seen evidence that it is doing this yet, and I think there is room for growth.  My hope is that a sense of mind, a core constructivist principle, will be maintained as history shows this is an important perspective.  Let me start with a historical account of learning theory adapted from Bruner’s Acts of Meaning (1990).  He, like William James, considers psychology to be a science of the mind.  Both William James and Wilhelm Wundt (referring here to Wundts book Volkerpsychologie, not his work in physiological psychology) advocated for a non-reductionist study of mind, but progress in this direction was averted by the behaviorists with their grounding in positivist objectivism.  Jerome Burner participated in the cognitive revolution with the goal of reintroducing mind to psychology.  He recounts how a focus on computation again moved mind to the background, bringing back many of the same limitations that caused behaviorism to wain.  If was this caused a shift to constructivism.

In believe that connectivism can best continue by extending constructivist principles into new challenges, new practices, and new theoretical understandings.  But, there is ample opportunity to focus to much on nodes and information to the neglect of mind once again.  If that happens, history will repeat itself again with a turn from connectivism, back to some form of constructivism.  Some day neurology or philosophical associationism may progress to the point that a science of the mind will no longer be needed.  Some people in Wundt’s day believed that, but I believe that even today, that day is still very far in the future.

A small critique of some graphics

The use of some matrix type graphics is not always meaningful to me.  In many cases a dichotomy is drawn that over simplifies and covers nuanced differences.  In the case of learning theories a concept map may be more informative to show historical development as well as concept breaks and similarities.  This is a small matter with primarily a pedagogical goal for addressing people who are not well grounded in the history of learning theory.