Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Joining the dots

In his book, Reinventing the Sacred, Stuart Kauffman talks about complexity and emergence, and uses an interesting example I think can be used to examine how we learn and construct knowledge. So here goes....

Imagine you have a large collection of buttons and some thread. You choose two buttons at random and join them together with the thread, choose another two buttons, and so on. At each time step, count the maximum number of buttons that are connected together. Apparently this number initially grows slowly, but at some point in the process there is a sudden explosion when a lot of buttons are connected together.

Now let's replace buttons with discrete areas of knowledge, key ideas or skills, facts or statements about reality etc. The thread represents logical connections, theories, narratives etc. Unlike the above illustration, we already have preconceived ideas of some of these connections, others we discover with intent, and some are a matter of serendipity. We can think of the buttons as websites, pre-linked by threads through hyperlinks, though not necessarily linked in our minds before hand. To get old school, there are scientific papers with references or books with quotes, allusions, footnotes, etc.

So when it comes to life long learning, we want to continue to make connections, joining the buttons together into an every complexifying (sic) understanding of the world. Connections hit us as we follow up that reference, that weblink and so on. However, in a world of ever increasing complexity and need (global warming, socially connected online etc) it seems to me that picking up widely disparate buttons (or seemingly so) and trying to stitch them together is a good thing! Why not read literature and science, economics and environment. Life is not and should not be compartmentalised, neither should our knowledge. New and interesting connects, to say nothing of useful ones could be made.

This makes me reflect upon the goal of learning. Is it just picking up useful knowledge and skills for a career? That will certainly influence the buttons we seek to join up, or indeed whether we ever really want to or succeed in joining them together to construct a meaningful worldview. It seems to me that knowledge and skills are never enough without right attitude, or becoming virtuous knowers who build a view of life, knowledge and vocation (as opposed to career) that helps us to become better people who are more enriched and better citizens who enrich others.

As for teaching or guiding learners in the classroom, we sometimes draw connections first and then demonstrate them or get students to examine the world for themselves to look for connections - hopefully guiding them towards those that are right and away from those that are wrong (I'm thinking particularly of science here but I suspect there are other areas where this is also true - in some universally shared areas of morality), and sometimes joining them in discovering new connections.

So, read widely, listen and watch broadly and make as many connections as possible. You may be surprised by what emerges.

3 comments:

willa Ryerson said...

Good afternoon,
I liked the button analogy, as a life long learner i do believe we are to "choose buttons" that will make us better citizens. I liked the way you brought morality into the picture. I'm struggling with post humanism. If the future is going to be man/machine connectedness where lies the soul? Will hybrid humans even care. This is a terrifying thought. Any insight would be appreciated. Willa

Mick Pope said...

Hi Willa, I saw this comment a while ago and have been ruminating on it. I'll do a bit more reading and post soon. Cheers, Mick...

rogeriowasilewski said...

Mr. Pope, I so love your text and this button analogy touched me so deeply, especially when U said: " It seems to me that knowledge and skills are never enough WITHOUT RIGHT ATTITUDE, or becoming virtuous knowers who build a view of life, knowledge and vocation (as opposed to career) that helps us to become better people who are more enriched and better citizens who enrich others." I work so hard to be concise on things that really matter to me, not only as a cultural learner, but also as a human being. As an educator, my mission is to instill the belief in my students that they can achieve anything that they wish for. One of the most important teaching aids is the cooperative learning/teaching. I can't do anything without people....and I so love people around me...sharing what they can to make us all better!