Tuesday, September 22, 2009

One hand clapping: when you should and shouldn't share ideas

Why is so much educational 'theory' so damn touchy feely? I hate that. Educationalists continually talk about knowledge being 'negotiated' or 'co-constructed' and about fostering learning 'communities' and so on. All of which, I'm sure, makes sense from the point of view of learning; I for one am glad that we have moved away from the hostile 'drill and practice' approach that democratised learning to the extent that it even ignores differences between species. (More than this, in fact, as it some of the Behaviorist models for learning were based on animals in a different biological order in the case of rats, a different biological class in the case of pigeons, and even a different phylum in the case of the sea slug Aplysia. Sadly there were no comparisons from a different kingdom, though mushroom learning might have been interesting.)

So there's nothing inherently objectionable about the ideas, but something seems to happen when the ideas get taken up and disseminated by the university learning and learning teaching contingent. Somehow it all becomes a bit happy clappy: take up thy tambourine and teach (or more likely 'support learning' as teaching as seen as being all a bit too Aplysia).

From this new touchy-feely view of learning students are always motivated to learn, they are perfectly happy to cooperate with one another and any observed failings is simply due a failure of the educators to present the information in the correct way (there are shades here of the Nuremberg funnel which I always seem to be banging on about). I'm currently embroiled in the early stages of writing an A-level textbook and I'm amazed at the way that the pedagogic devices -- you know the kind of thing, interim summaries, critical thinking questions and the like -- seem to be valued more highly that the content of the book, you know what the book is actually supposed to be about. I guess this isn't too surprising as it is easier to market a book simply by listing all of the devices it contains (including websites, multiple choice question banks and, doubtless soon, Twitter feeds) rather than on how it reads. This is probably also partly to do with the fact that students don't choose the books, the tutor does, and the tutor won't have read the book so the longer the list of features and the more labour saving they are with respect to the tutor's time, the more likely the book is to be chosen.

Weird but true.

Here's a quote from none other than Thomas Jefferson on education which seems to me to sum up this happy-clappy educational philosophy.

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

It's certainly a nice idea. The implication is that sharing ideas is a non-zero activity. If I have an apple and I give it to you, I no longer have the apple the number of apples is fixed. Information, however, is different, as you share them the idea proliferates. This crucial difference could well underlie the belief that the sharing of ideas is less problematical than the sharing of apples (or other finite resources) making learning communities not only possible but likely.

The question is, however, whether Jefferson is correct. Here are two reasons why he might not be.

First, ideas and information are usually tied to resources. If I share the location of my favourite blackberry patch I do not lose the information but I may well lose the blackberries. Second, and perhaps more importantly, when I give you an idea I am not just donating information but also the time and effort that has gone into acquiring that. This is fine so long as you give me ideas (or you pay me as is done with professional teachers). But would Jefferson repeatedly give away ideas? Would he permit people indefinitely lighting their tapers at his? Or would he eventually say 'FFS light your own taper you lazy........".

Here's the point, all information is tied to resources in one of the above two ways then information sharing is susceptible to the free rider problem which will lead to a wariness of sharing information. This is, of course, entirely theoretical, is there any data to support this? Well there is certainly data showing that people often soft-pedal in apparently cooperative environments (so-called social loafing) but more needs to be done in what I think is an important area. People will share ideas, of course, at the moment I am sharing ideas. One big reason why people will share ideas is if they own them, the are my ideas rather than just ideas that I happen to be in possession of. have. People seem to love sharing their opinions and experiences (witness Twitter) possibly because it increases status and prestige. Your sharing you ideas can also influence people such that they start acting in ways that change the world in ways are concordant with your interests. Essentially you seize partial control of their nervous system in order that they work for you. A good test of this is Jefferson himself. He shared his ideas with others and gained massive prestige and influence and doubtless changed the world to fit his own vision. The fact that we quote and venerate his ideas nearly 200 years after his death is testament to the power of those ideas. This is the hidden payoff of sharing.

I was going to finish off with a cool little idea which specifies in some detail what factors lead to sharing and which do not, but I have decided that it is so cool that I want to keep it to myself for a while. I mean, I though of it, and I don't want you to steal it.


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