Sunday, March 08, 2009


Arthur Battram's excellent Navigating Complexity has this little gem from Sheila Harri-Augustin:
Learning operates on the edge of chaos, somewhere between a stable system of order and an unstable system of disorder!It is here that personal meaning...gets constructed. At the two extremes of behaviour of all systems, order and chaos pervades. Between these two extremes, at the edge of chaos, one finds complexity!
So the edge of chaos is where the action is - take the original sense of chaos as chasm and we get a sense of standing on the edge of an abyss - comfort zone, perhaps, in the vernacular.

I can relate to this aspect of learning - a far cry from the received wisdom of learning as a process of filling memory with data and algorithms.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt from how we all learn languages: first, we all learn our mother language in broadly the same way - we are motivated to communicate, we have a constant example to fall back on, we are placed in an environment where we must learn, we take considerable time to master the first few words, we have a patient mentor who never teaches us but rather encourages us, but once we have the basics then we learn rapidly thereafter, and finally we are taught our language ... at which point most of us struggle again as we over-analyse it and super-impose the rules of syntax and grammar on our otherwise free-flowing natural ability to resonate with our peers.

We then learn a new or second language very differently as we all respond variably to the range of learning environments on offer - most people excel by being imbued in the culture from which the new language has developed, learning the language through every day tasks and contacts, but we can supplement this with a range of audio and visual aids, the reading of literature and telling of stories, but very rarely will you see anyone make a bee-line for a text book or dictionary and start to learn through that route.

One observation I would make from this is that the breakthrough in learning often comes when we ourselves can articulate what we have learnt by talking about it - once we can explain it to a third person we find we finally understand it ourselves, until then it remains a mystery. For this reason, media skills training has often been more successful at helping people understand their business than at actually giving them the skills to go in front of the media (and frankly media skills training should be about how to avoid going in front of the media if at all possible, ideally by running away very fast!).

But is learning chaotic?

I am not sure as I think this is to confuse chaos and variability. If chaotic, then it could be argued that there is no such thing as a poor learning experience, just unlucky ones ... but I can think of several occasions when poorly prepared sessions have resulted in very little appetite for learning and the inevitable outcomes from that. I think there are rules such as those that help us understand the attention span of an audience, and also I think that socially our expectation of the learning experience grows and develops through the influence of the various media we bring into our homes. Once you have encountered a lesson using a smart board that can take you into the confines of St Peters in Rome, sing with the monks in Taize, visit the Adoration of the Magi in the Louvre, answer interacttive questions on the design of a Norman church, and make a short film all in the same 30 minute lesson, then it is hard to return to the days of board and chalk.

This is not chaos at work, perhaps, but progress in the form of a growing expectation from those who want to learn? I mean, powerpoint is a bit old-fashioned nowadays for example, but for a period of 12 months, if you had it and noone else did, you ruled the learning world.

How do I learn? Through play, practice and conversation mainly but above all ... by having FUN.

Anonymous said...

Arie de Geus once spoke of how we develop a Memory of the Future - that we learn through constant practice in our minds eye as we dream in our sleep, and in the process we develop the ability to respond immediately to future situations without the need to rehearse them.

I am uncertain of the evidence for this theory, but am strangely attracted to the thought that we have an infinite number of memories of situations we have dreamt up that we can call on at a moments notice.

As the ball comes in from the wing, we dont stop and consider trajectory, speed, angle, direction ... we run in and head the ball. And if we have talent and have practised enough, we then have acquired the skill to adjust our forehead and the height and the angle of our approach to ensure the ball sails towards the top left hand corner for that sensational goal that (you guessed it) we have dreamt about each night for a decade.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that across a whole range of ‘teaching’ and ‘training’ methods we’ve got the message the wrong way round for generations. You have only to think back to the people who truly managed to motivate you to learn in the past – whether parents, friends or school and college teachers. The process they unlocked always depended for its effectiveness on motive and motivation; and it must have relied on curiosity and the question. It also gained its strength in large part from serendipity – the fact that for enjoyable learning to happen you have to create a myriad of opportunities for something to happen, and out of that ‘chaos’ magic happens which was probably not part of the plan.

This is why the world wide web is such a strong but destabilizing tool; it brings to your screen ideas and capabilities which are not controlled by your elders and betters (except for a degree of necessary censorship to protect the as-yet vulnerable – and even then I suspect that we are too protective for misguided reasons; the old line from the imagined Victorian nanny – find out what the children are doing and tell them to stop – has been the attitude of the censor through the ages.) So leaving that to one side our task is, first, to create opportunities for enthusiasm, and only secondly, to be available to listen and to provide supporting material and the occasional wise touch on the steering wheel.

How this creative chaos could be tolerated in the classroom is a difficult question. Some learners need more structured surroundings than others; some like to create their own environment. I think of the way our daughters spent hours in their own rooms in their teens – doing what? Homework? Reading? Daydreaming? Thinking their own thoughts? Who cares – it worked. Maybe we could find a way of using, say, the MBTI tool to identify the learning method preferences people would select if they had the option – and then create the surroundings accordingly.

I’ve always said that the best engineers have imagination as a key strength, and no doubt this is more widely true. I tend to quote Thoreau: ‘You have built your castles in the air – good – that is where they should be; now put the foundations under them.’

Anonymous said...

Good points Tony. Re the poor learning experience, perhaps a poorly prepared session simply cuts us off from one source of learning but opens up others. And maybe its our expectations that then go on to shut these down as well through frustration and annoyance.
My son is currently learning next to no Spanish from his dysfunctional teacher. But he's learnt a huge amount about challenging authority, dealing with difficult adults and pro-active, as supposed to spoon-fed learning. And this, as you may imagine, has felt like the edge of chaos at times!