A Tidal Response

Last week my post Does it Scale? was featured on Doug Belshaw & Dai Barnes’ excellent podcast – TIDE. Honestly it was a surprising pleasure to hear my name get mentioned and listen to some deeper analysis of what I’d written as I pottered around the kitchen. The episode featured two guests, Greg McVerry and Ian O’Byrne, so my piece was commented on by four people – plus some additional commentary from Laura Hilliger’s newsletter.

It’s been a little while since I’ve been on the end of a critique like this – and it was a unique experience to listen to it done via podcast. I was interested to hear the quite different interpretations of that particular post. While I don’t think anyone disagreed with the overarching point, there seemed to be a few points that raised some concerns. I thought I would address a couple of these as part of a dialogue that seems to be spanning multiple medias and mediums. This post is a reply to what’s been said and aims to continues the conversation. To be clear – I don’t disagree with what anyone has said, but I want to address a couple of points in order to clarify my intent and present the other side of the discussion 🙂 .

Limitations and Potential

Doug mentions Laura Hilliger’s newsletter in which she took issue with a particular section. I wrote

“Human’s have limits. We can only be so fast, so strong, so big, so small, so smart. We are finite creatures. We have biological, physical, mental and neurological limitations. We have to choose how we operate within those constraints.”

to which Laura responded:

which I wildly disagree with. Our bodies are anti-fragile, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our minds are too. I agree that “everything has to scale” and “we need MOAR” are myths that are suck-all for learning. Automating education, as Dai puts it, doesn’t work. Equally insidious these attitudes are contributing to the the destruction of the planet. I agree that learning is human, but not that it is finite or that the stuff we can learn is finite. No, no. Learning, growth, development for a human is an endless and never-ending journey. If we’re going to be a broken record on the topic of “scale”, let’s start talking about how we scale the “economy of care”.

What I’d like to comment on here is the interpretation of the word “learning”. In my original post my intention was to describe and attach these ideas to the concept of learning as a process – the how of learning, not the what. The post aimed to discuss learning as a process – not the stuff we learn, nor the technology we may utilise to do it, nor the system through which we use for access.

Another point I do want to discuss here is something that Laura and Ian raise as well – the idea of the finite human – as it seems to have hit a nerve.

In many ways I agree with Laura, that “learning, growth, development for a human is an endless and never-ending journey” – specifically as it applies to our potential and the plasticity of the human mind. The proof is that humans are the most supremely adaptable species on the planet, able to adjust and change to massive changes in climate, culture and environment. I agree with Doug that it’s at this point that Laura and I might just be talking past each other, because while I agree that we have virtually incalculable potential to do things, the reality is that we still have limits. This is the (unfortunate?) reality of the universe we live in and the dimensions we inhabit. Growth is not infinite, there’s often scope for a lot of it, but as with the planet, at some point it begins to swallow up and affect other things.

It’s not comfortable for many people to accept this point of view as it flies in the face of embedded cultural ideas that we can be and do anything – but the reality is that we can’t. We all have physical and mental limitations, and that’s before we move on to the social and economic ones. It is important to note that these limitations do not affect our potential – we can certainly be and do almost anything we want – but only if we are granted the right opportunities and are prepared to work at it.

And to sacrifice. As a creature with hard physical and mental limits in order, we need to recognise that to improve and live up to our potential we have to sacrifice certain aspects of our mental and physical selves.

We specialise and devote more of our limited resources to specific areas. In order to know more about one area we sacrifice learning in another. In order to be a faster runner we remain an awful swimmer. We can do a bit of everything or concentrate on just a few – we can’t do both. Those that transcend to another level of consciousness as Ian puts it, do so by sacrificing vast amounts of knowledge (by exclusion and focus) and experience (science, food, travel and family come to mind). Humans have limitless potential to be who and what they want – but they are limited by what they are able to do. Infinite growth is impossible. Can you go beyond the limits of where you are? Of course, but it’s through sacrifice.

Education isn’t Learning

The other point I want to make is that Education isn’t learning. Greg goes on to make the point that we have scaled up learning at a number of points in time – the printing press and the web are two examples. But I argue that those elements aren’t really learning per se nor are they related to learning as a process. As technologies they augment our human abilities to transfer information, open up new avenues for what we can learn and have pushed us to the brink of how much information we can actually store in our heads – but have they actually changed the process of learning? Making content available is not learning. It can assist the process of learning, in particular the process of teaching and instructing – but you can’t conflate content nor access with learning. The underlying practices of learning and the neurological underpinnings have remain unchanged. And the things we know about how people learn best haven’t changed – authenticity, discussion, engagement, individual attention. We’ve scaled up the system around learning – this thing we call Education – but how much have we really changed or scaled when it comes to learning? A MOOC may have 100,000 participants – but are they learning differently? Has their learning actually been scaled up or is scale being applied to the provision of certain aspects of an education? Are those participating actually learning in different ways?

Technology Changes Things

With all that said – technology tends to change things. In many ways technology allows us to augment our human limitations and to push beyond. A forklift allows one person to pick up and move a load that would normally be too heavy for one person – overcoming the limits of strength as applied to the human. Digital technology has massive potential for us to augment some of our limitations when it comes to learning but, as per the original post, current efforts are all focused on this idea of scale. Of making education available to as many people as possible at the lowest cost, not on doing much to improve the learning process. Ed-tech is being led down a certain path and shaped in a certain way that is based on industrial process and not on the human aspects to improve the process of learning.

That’s why I’m here – because I’m not interested in scale, I’m interested in learning. I think technology can change, can improve, can transform learning – and pursuing that change is a goal worth my time and effort. At the end of the day it will be worth it if we can improve someones learning in order for them to reach their potential – however limitless that maybe.

PS – A Lament for Blogs

I was keen to add something to this discussion but it may not have happened. I don’t know if another podcast has ever discussed my work – I was lucky that I listen to TIDE on a regular basis. I didn’t know Laura had commented on it either. It’s times like this that I miss blogging and it’s associated technologies – in particular pingbacks and comments. I see why blogging was so powerful and why so many people lament the lack of it – because through blogs you could create and follow a thread across sites and platforms… something that’s much harder to do today!

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