Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fall of academic fads

Just a quick link to an interesting post over at Gene Expression.  The main idea is recent academic world views have fallen out of favor.  

Fourth, the sudden decline of all the big-shot theories you'd study in a literary theory or critical theory class is certainly behind the recent angst of arts and humanities grad students. Without a big theory, you can't pretend you have specialized training and shouldn't be treated as such -- high school English teachers may be fine with that, but if you're in grad school, that's admitting you failed as an academic. You want a good reputation. Isn't it strange, though, that no replacement theories have filled the void? That's because everyone now understands that the whole thing was a big joke, and aren't going to be suckered again anytime soon. Now the generalizing and biological approaches to the humanities and social sciences are dominant
This leaves one wondering what approaches are emerging as useful?  In the social sciences I agree with the post and expect to see a big rise in partially written slate theories (some biologically determined fitness landscapes). I have a feeling this approach will be hard on many extreme relativists.  It requires comfort with ambiguity mingled with a history of hard science. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Magical Thinking

An interesting post over at The frontal cortex on magical thinking.   Clark has a brief commentary up at his blog.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Evangelizing an emergent God of the complex

I just downloaded quite a few podcasts from Point of Inquiry. I must have been lucky, because Michael Dowd was on the first program. The other 3 or 4 I have listened to haven't been nearly as understanding about their flip positions in the religion / science interface. I did, however, think Dowd captured a nice middle ground.

Dowd's views are solidly naturalistic and evidentiary. He uses religious language (night language), from what I can gather, because its tendrils capture the richness and interconnectedness of morally spandreled ideas. His positions are thoroughly atheistic. This sits him well in the science camp. He can use traditional religious language and yet agree with everything an atheist proposes. In this sense he is very captivating. It gives the fundamentalist minded science camp an opportunity to see the efficiency of the language, and in some ways the rallying power of morally embodied groups.

One thing I like about his interview is that he doesn't just give in to non-overlapping magisteria. To me this has always seemed like a cop out. At the very minimum there are significant evolutionary tendencies towards religion, quasi-religions or supernatural religions. These tendencies have real effects and probably aren't well described with non-mythical, hard scientific language. Certainly our language norms could change, but from what I heard Dowd arguing, it is unlikely that mythic, symbolic and sacred language are going anywhere. We can change the words used, but over time, these will develop similar connotations.

The thing that made me perk up was Dowd's position as an evangelizer for Kauffman's position. One of the things I was wondering about was how effective Kauffman's God of creative complex emergence would sell. After all, the growth of new religious movements is based on much more than a good idea. It is interesting to see a camp developing around an emergent God of the complex.

Michael Dowd's free podcasts

The point of inquiry podcast of Michael Dowd

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Dealing with Circularity Issues

A practical way to deal with circularity issues is through iteration.  J. Willis' popular R2D2 instructional design model  gets lots of attention for its rejection of linear solutions.  There are actually a number of standard conventions for diagraming such processes.

As mentioned iteration is often a good way to work through circularities.  In educational technology for instance, hardware, training and management must be tackled in a seemingly simultaneous manner.  In real life, this tends to be impossible.  There are good reasons why any one of the three items should come first.  The reality is if any one item gets too far ahead of the other two, there are problems.  Training, management and hardware don't have to progress at identical rates, but as soon as one gets too far out of sync with the others, people notice limitations.  The answer is to keep cycling from one component to another.  

For some time, management needs to be seen as the solution.  Some time later, hardware, then training, etc.  The difficulty is this shifting tends to burn out people in organizations.  Human resources are generally designed to implement static solutions.  They can handle cycling, but the frequency has to be carefully managed.  The general way to handle this is to put some sensors into the process that light up as soon as people start sensing limitations.  However such feedback loops are easier said than implemented.  In fact, they tend to grow to require what John Ralston Saul calls heroic leadership.

A good philosophical base from which to approach circularity issues is Charles Sanders Peirce.  Clark has a very good philosophy / religious blog  based around his ideas.  As a pragmatist contemporary with Dewey and William James his ideas fit well with education.  Dewey has been popular with the education crowd for a number of decades, but since the rise of post-modernism, I think Peirce's perspectives are much more timely.


Any substantive educational change runs into tremendous roadblocks. Tyack & Cuban’s book Tinkering Toward Utopia is probably the standard text exploring this issue. Michael Fullan’s work is a justifiably popular series of handbooks on this topic. There are a couple of basic perspectives that emerge with substantive educational change. Here’s the range I view myself operating within.

1. Significant educational change doesn’t stick until a generation dies out. Effort doesn’t really change this. It just mimics the larger changes that are all ready occurring. In effect, you are just keeping up with the progression from early to late adopters.

2. Educational change requires systemic change from all levels of the system. You can’t just change one stakeholder’s views, you have to change the views of all stakeholders. With education’s societal role, this is a big task, and in practice it ends up looking a lot like 1. Expense is justified because the average person seems so easy to tip with just the right sort of push.

3. Educational change is significantly affected by the loose coupling (controls) that exist within it. Teachers are basically autonomous agents. They are mainly affected by their own moral imperatives, not by external direction. As a result change rates are largely dictated by the rate at which teachers re-interpret their own priorities.

4. Educational change is similar to religious change. As such it can be viewed through Stark’s somewhat antiquated lens of rational choice theory, or through the lens of Wilson’s evolutionary based group level selection theories. The latter view is largely the same as 3,. but tackles the usually avoided issue of group dynamics.

Essential Tensions

Educational solutions often seem cyclical in nature. Chances are you aren’t imagining things if you think today’s focus on problem based learning looks a lot like the 50’s focus on lab work. A simple way to view this dynamic is in terms of essential tensions.

Essential tension basically means there isn’t a single absolute solution to a problem. Instead there is a dynamical balance that needs to be maintained. A shift to one side of a spectrum needs to be counterbalanced by increased focus on the spandreled roots of what was removed. One of the ideas of essential tension is that freedom lies in the balancing of forces rather than the removal of problems.

Here is a small selection of references I think touch on this idea:
From a religious perspective
-J Bonner Ritchie  on essential tensions between individuals and organizations

From the perspective of organizational evolution
-Willis, R. (2004). A complexity and Darwinian approach to management with failure avoidance as the key tool. In Complexity theory and the management of networks: Proceedings of the workshop on organizational networks as distributed systems of knowledge (P. Andriani & G. Passiante Eds.). Imperial College Press: London. pp. 74-88

From the perspective of knowledge construction
-Impossible knowledge - Haig-Brown, C. (2003). Creating spaces: testimonio, impossible knowledge, and academe. Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(3), 415-433.

-Difficult knowledge  - Pitt, A. & , Britzman, D. (2003). Speculations on qualities of difficult knowledge in teaching and learning: an experiment in psychoanalytic research. Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(6), 755-776.

Cyclical Educational Solutions

Educational initiatives often seem cyclical. Many current initiatives resemble initiatives pushed 30 years ago, and later seen as inadequate. To many, it is ironic that the system has just gotten over those old failures. The problem is, in education, as in religion static solutions aren’t possible.

Educators are generally trying to prepare people for some aspect of life. This is true even of your math teacher. Question them and they will invariably have a reason why learning math is important. Often it has nothing to do with content, but rather about the lessons one learns and enables during the process. A decent portion of any educational initiative involves the maintenance of essential societal tensions. Some universalist versions of religion are similar. Form matters less than inward effects.

Problems occur when proposed balance shifts are envisioned as static solutions. For instance, a generation or two ago, student were expected to personally construct knowledge from a somewhat disjointed set of facts. Students “pieced” together lessons and demonstrated their grasp of the gaps in big summative assignments. Rubrics and details were pretty non-existent. In these tasks the grades were more about whether a student “got it” rather than how well they matched a pre-made set of criteria. Obviously this has problems. It tests whether or not you think the same way as your teacher. The response was movement towards feminist pedagogies: no hidden bars, and heterogeneous scales. Is this a static solution? Certainly not.

Focus on this solution for long enough and implicit culture shifts in this direction. This is not a bad thing. However, any shift comes with its own set of emergent problems. In this case, there are complaints about a loss of personal knowledge construction and criticality. The response is a re-interpretation of old solutions. We see a push toward knowledge construction: this time through social construction rather than individual construction. A good way to look at this process is through the lens of essential tensions.

Bounded Rationality?

I’m still finishing the last few chapters of Kauffman’s reinventing the sacred. In his chapter “Living into Mystery”, Kauffman gives an interesting description of models that deal with overfitted and underfitted expectations. This tied in nicely with one of my all time favorite papers by Willis (2004) that uses the idea of entropy to model the evolution and degradagation cycles of organizations. First let’s take a look at the logic behind Kauffman’s (& Vince Darley’s) model.

The idea is that with a little bit of historical information’s predictive models tend to be fairly simple – say a few Fourier wavelengths. As more historical information accrues, the models get more complex – say a dozen Fourier wavelengths. In this case, increased complexity implies increased precision. Increased precision increases the chances of disconfirming evidence. Models never fully match chaotic reality. This leads to a phase change (my interpretation) where simpler models become more robust.

“This changing pattern of the time series is itself generated by the increasing fragility of ever more precise models. In turn, the models the players build of one another undergo an oscillation between simple, but robust models that yield self consistent behavior for some time – temporary ration expectations that then lead to increasingly complex models, until their increased fragility leads to disconfirmation and a new pattern of behavior of the players, creating the nonstationary behavior.” (Kauffman, 2008, pp. 240)

Willis’ idea is that organizations cycle between scientific management(highly order organizations with low entropy) and chaotic management (weakly ordered organizations with high entropy). Most people would think of these two end points in terms of an overly bureaucratic company that is rigid and inefficient and a grass roots company in touch with its roots, but in need of better structure. Companies cycle between these two states, passing the highly productive complex realm along the way. During de-evolution there is a small, but non-zero chance of complete collapse. Thus companies tend to come and go.

Both these angles illuminate the cycling that is an inherit part of education. I think they also illuminate some people’s entry points into religion. Religion offers robust moral models that can grow in complexity until they require reformation and re-interpretation (de-evolution). The self- introspection religion encourages provides a chance for Willis’ entropy cycling to occur before one extends either side of the cycle too far. I think the difference is that the group adaptive characteristics of religion allows people to enter a stable, faith based, loop of high order and low entropy. Similarly I can envision new atheists in a similar loop on the low order, high entropy side of things. Neither loop really leverages the power that exists on the edge of chaos. In a similar light, people have a hard time stepping far enough away to see the benefits of what Kauffman would consider “bounded rationality” (and by this I don’t mean to imply rationality isn’t useful, only that it has its limits and simpler more robust models can sometimes be better than more precise, complex models).

Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion, Philadelphia: Basic Books.

Willis, R. (2004). A complexity and Darwinian approach to management with failure avoidance as the key tool. In Complexity theory and the management of networks: Proceedings of the workshop on organizational networks as distributed systems of knowledge (P. Andriani & G. Passiante Eds.). Imperial College Press: London.