What’s the point of it all?

My colleagues Chris Jones and Gráinne Conole are at a learning design workshop hosted by Peter Goodyear, listening to contrasting talks from John Sweller and Roger Saljo.  Chris tweeted that he didn’t like the Information Processing view:

John Sweller argued “the purpose of education is to get information into long-term memory”. I just don’t buy that at all!

but he’s

Much happier with Roger Saljo’s position “the ability to transform and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs”

I think both are right, in some senses, and both are wrong in others.  It’s a question of what you mean by purpose, and what level of description you’re talking about.  I strongly uspect that you need to get information in to long-term memory in order to gain the ability to transofrm and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs.

This problem of levels of description has a long history: Aristotle argued that there were four sorts of causes of any change: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. (It gets a bit confusing since the Greek word Aristotle was using isn’t quite the same as cause.)  The last two are the ones we’d think of as causes: the efficient cause is what makes a change happen, and the final cause is the purpose.

In more modern times, Systems Thinking embodies these distinctions in the notion of a root definition of a system, which goes “A system to do X by means of Y in order to Z”, and implicit in any definition is the possibility of considering a system one level up or down.

So to come back to education, it could be a system to get information in to long-term memory by means of (something we need to work out) in order to gain the ability to transform and recontextualise in manners that are relevant to local needs.

For me, though, the top-level purpose,  goal, or point of education is to make people better people.

This might well – at several levels of description down – require changes in the bonding between molecules in synapses in their brains, but that’s not (yet) a level of description that’ll help you much as an educator. And focusing on that level of description as your goal could easily distract you from better ways of achieving your aims.  So, for instance, the purpose of a carved wooden table is not chipping away at a block of wood with a chisel.

The focus on making people better people is an important one. It makes it clear that education is a social, political and fundamentally moral enterprise.

The sky is not falling in

Good, well-grounded article by language legend David Crystal in The Guardian this weekend, on texting.  Countering doom-mongers like John Humphrys, who claimed (in the Daily Mail!) to hate texters:

They are destroying [our language]: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.

David Crystal explains that the distinctive SMS orthography (‘txtspk’) found in SMS messages is not new, not restricted to the young, is a small fraction of the text found in SMS messages, and alludes to evidence that it helps rather than hinders language development.

Some people dislike texting. Some are bemused by it. But it is merely the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative and to adapt language to suit the demands of diverse settings. There is no disaster pending. We will not see a new generation of adults growing up unable to write proper English. The language as a whole will not decline. In texting what we are seeing, in a small way, is language in evolution.

It’s great stuff.  I couldn’t help thinking, though, that his argument would have been much stronger without this section:

Sending a message on a mobile phone is not the most natural of ways to communicate. The keypad isn’t linguistically sensible. No one took letter-frequency considerations into account when designing it. For example, key 7 on my mobile contains four symbols, pqrs. It takes four key-presses to access the letter s, and yet s is one of the most frequently occurring letters in English. It is twice as easy to input q, which is one of the least frequently occurring letters.

… which makes me worry he’s never encountered one-tap/predictive text systems (like T9 and iTap), which have been standard on mobile phones for … what, five years or more?  I’d certainly expect that the introduction of predictive text dramatically reduced the usage of the distinctive SMS orthography.

(Edit: Stephen Downes points to it too, linking to a longer discussion by Graham Attwell at Pontydysgu.)

Old art and new media

In her talk on social media, Siân Bayne used two pieces of art to illustrate her points about the Uncanny and Second Life – Masaccio’s C15th fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Max Ernst‘s disturbing C20th The Clothing Of The Bride.  The combination of old(ish) art and new(ish) media seemed very appropriate, and more interesting than the hackneyed images usually used to illustrate that world.

I’ve long thought that my experience of the online world is a lot like Hieronymous Bosch’s C16th Garden of Earthly Delights:

Paradise on one hand, Hell on the other.  And a lot of fun in between.   A lot more detail than you can ever hope to take in.  Many stand-alone seemingly unrelated items, but with intricate inter-relations that it’s hard to extricate, although broad themes emerge quite easily.  An awful lot of stuff directly or indirectly to do with sex and sexuality. Almost endlessly  diverting. And the best fun is had when there is at least a temporary lifting of Authority!