Archive for February, 2005

Principles vs. Prescriptions

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

I’m terrible with setting goals (or more accurately, at staying focused on goals I’ve set). While I used to view this weakness with great frustration, I’ve since developed a different view. Most of us have been taught the value of clearly charted paths and goals. We’ve heard stories of a bankrupt business person who sets lofty goals, refuses to waver, and finally realizes his/her dreams.

Yet this isn’t reality. Life and learning do not flow along clearly defined paths. Our needs change, circumstances change, and or skills change. Various common phrases catch the spirit of this learning/life in transition: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”, “Luck is what happens when prepardness meets opportunity”. Behind each statement is the notion of personal preparedness in response to the environment in which we exist. Learning, unlike the notion of goal setting, is an intermingling (a dance) with the dynamics of our personal and work environments. Goal setting says, this is what I will achieve. In essence, it says redefine your environment to meet your desires. Life may work that way sometimes. Usually, our learning is in response to the alterartions in our environment.

If goal setting is too restrictive, what is the option? I don’t have an ideal metaphor, but the concepts of principles/guidelines/frameworks have some merit. Rather than trying to force our way goals, the focus is on creating a structure that is aware of and responsive to the environment around. When I used to spend time training staff in the hospitality field, I found it very challenging to teach “principle thinking”. Staff preferred more rigid barriers. Yet the more specific the training, the less useful it is in other situations. If I teach a staff member steps to handling a guest who is upset with a misplaced reservation, I’ve provided a prescription to a problem, not a framework transferable to other situations. Similarly, goal setting is a personal learning task that functions best according to principles (instead of prescriptions). Some one who sets a goal and achieves it by sheer focus may overlook many other more valuable opportunities.

Right idea in the right context

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

We seem to like “one answer” solutions. This is evidenced by how we attach labels to concepts and ideas, and then from that perspective, attempt to refute or ignore attributes of potentially conflicting notions. Within educational theory, we often assume that constructivism, behaviourism, and cognitivism are competing learning theories trying to solve the same problem. They are not. Each one is a different theory attempting to solve a different problem.

In some circumstances, a cognitivist approach to learning design is valuable. In others, constructivism might be more appropriate. Each theory is valid in certain implementations. The weakness of a theory is noticed when it is applied to a task that the theory was never intended to solve. Similarly, when proponents of a theory use it inappropriately, its effectiveness is diluted.


Tuesday, February 15th, 2005

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Historically, three broad orientations exist:

  • Objectivism – knowledge is external and knowable through experience and sensory perception (empericism) or through rational thought (rationalism)
  • Pragmatism – knowledge is intepreted through a model or internal representation.
  • Interpretivism – knowledge is constructed and internal.

Each model has value. Yet none are useful in all cases. In certain fields, learning/knowledge can be very much external and our learning is successful once we align our internal representation with reality. In other cases, knowledge is an internal, personally constructed “object”.

I recently encountered the concept of memetics as an additional view of knowledge: “A meme is a cognitive or behavioral pattern that can be transmitted from one individual to another one. Since the individual who transmitted the meme will continue to carry it, the transmission can be interpreted as a replication: a copy of the meme is made in the memory of another individual, making him or her into a carrier of the meme.”

Within the field of knowledge management, the holy grail is the ability to take internal (tacit) knowledge and make it external (explicit). This notion partly expresses my frustrations with many theories – wrong application for the wrong task. Often tacit knowledge is transferred viral-like through stories and shared experiences (pragmatic and interpretivist). Procedurally, how to operate a machine is transferred in an objectivist approach. Nothing is all – each for a proper concept and proper implementation.


Monday, February 14th, 2005

How important is unlearning? I’m not even sure that unlearning is the right word to use, but the notion of revisiting and reforming our assumptions is increasingly important. And frustrating. Becoming willing to accept ambiguity in our assumptions requires a core revision on our perception of what it means to know something. Once we know something, we assume that it’s true indefinitely. David P. Ausebel’s theory of subsumption assumes that we continue to revise and rebuild our knowledge structures as new information becomes available. Unlearning is different. Unlearning requires that we regularly tear down our thought schemas and rebuild them based on new information. Our schemas fit into two separate categories – our beliefs and our technical knowledge. Revising belief schemas is slow. When I’m suggesting we tear down and rebuild schemas, I’m referring to those that are technical in nature. I imagine it would be impossible to continually rebuild our belief schema. Personally, I don’t believe I’ve significantly altered my own belief schema more than once or twice in my lifetime. My technical schema (which is probably largely filtered through beliefs) is a different story. I find I’m changing it significantly. Frequently.
John Seely Brown also has some thoughts on unlearning: “Now the problem is that an awful lot of the learning that we need to do is obviously building up this body of knowledge, but even more so the unlearning that we need to do has to do with challenging the tacit. The problem is that most of what we need to do lies in the tacit, most of us can’t easily get a grip on.”

Managing the Connected Organization

Saturday, February 12th, 2005

Valdis Krebs is prominent in practical application of social network analysis to organizations. In
Managing the Connected Organization
he explores how network theory provides value: “In the connected economy, each network actor (individual, team, or organization) is embedded in a larger economic web that affects each participant and, in return, is influenced by that participant. In such a connected system we can no longer focus on the performance of individual actors — we must manage connected assets.”

Learning theories are generally concerned with individuals. Organization theories are obviously concerned with how organizations learn. Most often, they are viewed completely different. Given the interconnectedness of the individual learner and the organization (providing value to each other as each element learns), I believe that one theory of learning can explain both. In my original article on connectivism, my intent was to provide a theory that encompasses both individual and organizational learning. This may take some time to evolve, and will certainly require much more focused research. Strictly as a theory, the dance of individuals and organizations (which results in the creation of a learning ecology) can provide a foundation for how we view any type of learning.

Intuition in learning

Thursday, February 10th, 2005

The linear – “there is a right answer” – approach to learning is challenging in a rapidly changing digital ecology. To be effective as a learner (and participant) in this environment, we acquire different skills and attitudes. One of the most critical is tolerance for ambiguity. It’s important to be able to hold two apparently contrasting viewpoints in suspense while waiting more information. Accepting the “fuzziness” of the moment can be frustrating.

There is often a “right answer”, but that answer is right only to the degree that it adequately represents the underlying information foundation. Once this foundation changes, the answer itself loses some relevance. Being able to recognize that “it’s right for today”, but not necessarily for tomorrow, is important.

In constructing (by constructing I’m referring to a combination of personal meaning making and connecting various fields of information (i.e. nodes in our personal network)) meaning, we often have a vague sense of “something is missing”. When we encounter a network node that illuminates existing understanding, we intuitively recognize its place and value within our existing knowledge structure.