Requisite variety and the handling of uncertainty as an invitation to dance with the world

As I wrote in my previous post, I am currently working on designing a series of interventions that should support learners in developing openness. For quite some time I have done a bit of thinking in order to understand how to approach this task, which in the end is eminently practical.

One big issue that I have encountered is that we have ambiguous feelings towards uncertainty. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we hate it. So, I started thinking, if there is, say, “bad” uncertainty, which is clearly distinct from “good” uncertainty. For example, I would like to have a stable job. In that department of my life I prefer certainty. But in other departments, I’d prefer uncertainty. For example, I can hardly submit myself to situations in which everything is already decided. No freedom, no room for exploration. So, what’s the deal?

As I started reflecting on uncertainty, I came up, though, with a different perspective. Or, better, I started entertaining the idea that perhaps the problem lies in the fact that we simply lack the proper “tools” to face uncertainty. And that causes us to withdraw or refrain from facing uncertainty. In other words, we may see uncertainty as something “bad”, simply because we lack the possibility to leverage on it. (Interestingly, Taleb stressed that it’s the way in which we are exposed to uncertainty that can be said to be good or bad.)

The example I came up with in my previous post is the following: imagine that you are told to write down your thoughts regarding the film that you watched yesterday. But then you are told that you cannot delete anything that you have written down. So, everything will stay. You cannot delete words, you cannot rearrange paragraphs, you cannot edit your text, etc.. Now, imagine that this is part of an assignment. So, your text will be actually assessed by somebody else. Starting to feel anxious?

Imagine now that you are told that this is all a prank. You can actually edit your text and take the time you need to do so. Imagine also that you are told that you are not going to be assessed. Most likely, the pressure you have previously experience will simply go off. What a relief! Now you can focus on sharing thoughts and impressions about the film.

What I want to point out with this example is that the way we react to uncertainty might be related, as I noted before, to the “tools” that we have to handle it. I use the word “tools” in a loosely sense. This, though, is not enough. It’s not enough to say that we need proper tools to deal with uncertainty. We need to characterize them.

One way to do that is to turn to the cybernetic concept of variety. Variety can de defined in relation to the number of possible states of a system. When we look at this definition heuristically, we may say that variety has to deal with, say, the number of possibilities that we may need to entertain before we can make up our mind. Typically, when we write a text, we have to deal with a series of decisions: which words to use, how to organize the text, the kind of plot we would like to present, etc.. If you are not a native speaker, that also means that you have to face the uncertainty related to possible language mistakes. Should I use “on” or “of” here? I am not sure. These sorts of things.

Now, lucky us, when we compose a text, we can actually edit the text, as we write it. And it’s not just about the words to use. Interestingly enough, writing helps us clarify our thoughts. So, as we write, our thoughts get materialized externally. Once we have them literally before our eyes, we may have the chance to further them and /or amend them.

The important to point to make now is this:  we are in the position to decide over the different options and then leverage on uncertainty, precisely because we have a “tool” that allows us – and this is the crucial insight – to entertain the different possibilities that are cropping up. In other words, we don’t need to pick up the first words that come to our mind. And we just don’t need to transfer our thoughts onto paper without any roundabout or turnaround.

We may say that the sort of “approach” or “system” that we are using has, to go back to cybernetics, requisite variety. What does that mean? That means that the “system” or “approach” we are deploying allows us to contemplate or entertain the possibilities that are cropping up before our eyes. Incidentally, the number of possibilities become a “measure” of the complexity of the activity we are involved in. The more complex an activity is, the more possibilities we may need to contemplate before we make up our mind. Requisite variety is predicated on the “approach” or “system” that we use to handle uncertainty.  Also, requisite variety characterizes a “system” that is basically able to match the amount of variety of the situation we are in. In other words, the system we are using allows us to absorb variety. In plain English that means that we can face uncertainty.

Another term that we can use in relation to facing uncertainty is amplification. The tool that we are using to absorb variety amplifies our ability to face uncertainty. Interestingly, we can also turn the whole thing upside down by saying that, if we make use of tools that amplify our ability to absorb variety, then we will be able to leverage uncertainty* (this deals with research and science. I will come back to this point in the future). And this leads us to the last point.

Implicitly, what I have been arguing all along this post is that we withdraw from uncertainty – we don’t want to face it – when we basically lack the proper “tools” to contemplate the different possibilities that are cropping up. And that is responsible for the  uneasiness we feel in those circumstances. That is, we lack tools that would amplify our ability to absorb the variety generated by having different options.

Now, what can we say about our thirst for uncertainty? Why is it that uncertainty is good? Or, better, why is it better to face uncertainty?

One way to put it is that uncertainty exposes us to the world. Or, better, uncertainty can be compared to an invitation to dance with the world. It implies, in other words, entering in a dialogue with something that is larger than us and that therefore can bring us to another level of existence.

*I screenrecorded the whole process of composing this blogpost. The whole video was more than 1 hour long. So, I had to shorten it by speeding it up.

 

 

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Uncertainty and variety: And how to intervene to support openness

I am currently working on the design of a number of interventions that should (in theory) help learners face uncertainty and develop openness. Specifically, the interventions are meant to help two categories of learners, namely, high school students and adult learners, which basically include anybody.

One crucial insight that I am trying to operationalize is that there is some kind of isomorphism between uncertainty and variety. In other words, they map onto each other. Let’s make an example.

Now I am writing this text. But the text that you are reading now is not the same as the one that I have been actually writing. The text that you are reading is basically the final outcome of a process, in which I sorted out a number of things. Essentially, I made a number of decisions concerning how to express my thoughts in written language. Such decisions were not obvious. I had to make up my mind. Besides, this remained all hidden to you. Here is a snapshot of that process captured by a screen recording application (I have speeded it up):

 

While there are good reasons to spare the reader from showing the whole process , deleting words or even an entire paragraph, rearranging the text or editing part of it, etc. are all fundamental tools for the writer to handle the uncertainties concerning what to write and how to write it.

Now, why is it that the uncertainties are resolved (or potentially so)?

This is where variety comes into place. The idea is that, when we start writing, we are facing a number of options. We have the thoughts that we want to express. We have different ways to express them in written form. And we also have the recombinatorial effect due to the fact that, when some thoughts get captured in written form, they may generate new thoughts, which, in turn, should be captured in written form. And so on and on. The process can go on endlessly. A lot of variety!

As variety goes up, uncertainty increases. Should I go for this or that? Should I choose this or that?

One crucial insight coming from Cybernetics, chiefly, from W. Ross Ashby, is that variety can be either repressed (attenuated) or absorbed. If we repress it, we are losing something, which might be relevant or useful. If we don’t repress it, we need to absorb it somehow. The same happens with uncertainty. To simplify, if we are not sure whether we should do this or that, we either repress uncertainty ignoring that there are two options. Or we face it. In the first case we are not really dealing with uncertainty. We are just sweeping it under the carpet. It will come back soon. Conversely, facing uncertainty implies that we have some sort of “device” or “method” that allows us to absorb the different options and then resolve our uncertainties.

If we go back to the example, the fact that I can delete words, edit the text, rearrange paragraphs, and so on and on, allows me to face uncertainty. Which means we mop up uncertainty. We have some sort of “device” that eventually allows us to absorb the variety of choices we are facing.  I try this, then I try that, etc. I tinker with this and tinker with that. In the end a conversation. We compare what is written over there and what we would like to express. Subsequently, by sensing differences and similarities and then operating on them we get to the final text, that is, when we have made up our mind. At least temporarily. (No text is really finished).

So, if uncertainty is isomorphic to variety, intervening to help learners deal with their uncertainties means that the intervention should provide some kind of tools that would then amplify learners’ ability to absorb variety.

 

 

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Affordance and why the use of tools is rooted in perception

During the last week I had the chance to discuss a few interesting issues with my colleague Wilson Otchie, who is doing his PhD with my other colleague Margus Pedaste here at the University of Tartu. The topic is use of social media in high school.

The conversations revolved around technology use and the notion of affordance, and they helped me clarify a few important issues and brought me back to one big passion of mine, which is the notion of affordance and ecological psychology. Affordance is a very delicate issue. So delicate that I’ve often felt that I just have to give up on any attempt to employ it in my research.

The notion of affordance is a neologism that was introduced by James Gibson. And originally it was meant to stress the mutuality between an organism – any organism – and its environment. it is, in other words, an ecological perspective on the way in which cognition works. To me the notion of affordance is of great help in understanding how we form partnerships with our tools. Let me try to develop this.

Essentially, any activity that we undertake is always mediated by the use of something that is over there in our environment. In educational technology we focus on teaching and learning. So, the tools are used in that kind of context. Now, when we use a tool either for teaching or learning something, we enter in a relationship with that tool so that it becomes something fully integrated into what I am doing or trying to do. Polanyi calls this process “transposition of meaning“. This is fundamental, because, once we have started using a tool, the tool itself contributes to the process of meaning making as much as our knowledge, experience and, most of all, intentions. And it does that tacitly. Which also means that it becomes part of our tacit knowledge. It’s a little bit like lighting up a lamp. We don’t see the lamp. We see what the lamp allows us to see. So, once we have started using a piece of technology, we become blind to it. Precisely like with the lamp. I repeat it once again: we don’t see the lamp. We see what the lamp enlights

Now, because of this tacit dimension, we can’t just check how the tool works hoping to get some kind of insight. If we tried to do that, we would just see how we should operate it, which is something that should not be mistaken for its use (see my previous post and video on this). The only thing to do is to investigate how the partnership is formed. That is, how we enter in a relationship with our tool. That’s the fundamental step to take. At least theoretically.

Affordance helps us here. When we are using a tool (and not merely operating it), depending on our intentions, knowledge, experience, as well as the situation we are in, some affordances pop out. The process whereby we detect affordances is rooted into perception. We see them. We have, in other words, direct access. Here affordances are enablers. They enable us to realize certain values rather than other in the very situation we are in. It is worth noting, though that affordances are not to be mistaken for functionalities or properties of the tool we are using. That belongs to the operational level. Affordances are action-possibilities that emerge, when, to stick to Polanyi’s terminology, the transposition of meaning takes place. In the analogy with the lamp, affordances emerge when the light is turned on – when the partnership with the tool has formed. When we have started using it as an extension of our body, Polanyi would add.

I think that clarifying all this is important to avoid some sort of naive conceptions of the relationship with our tools. First, that our tools are merely instruments that externally interact with ourselves. No, they interact internally and consequently shaping our actions from the inside. Secondly, that the meaningful use of tools is something that we primarily tell or declare and that therefore can be found, say, in theory. No, meaningful use is rooted in our perception. It is something that we accomplish through doing.

 

 

 

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A few terminological issues concerning educational technology

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Technology education, educational technology and the education system

In the second part of August I have been involved in two major events here at the University of Tartu. One was the on-site session of our Master’s programme in Educational Technology – two weeks of intense study with our new master students. And the other was our summer school on “Educational change in times of rapid technological innovation”. Eventually, there were roughly 40 people involved – teaching staff members included, and some 20 countries represented. These were two weeks where we had the chance to converse about education and technology, and try out a few gadgets in a rather convivial way. I will write more extensively about these 15 days. As for now I’d just like to point out a few bunch of ideas that came to my mind during this period.

It seems to me that, when we are dealing with the issue of technology in education, there are at least four levels of analysis that we should take into consideration. I list them here:

  • understanding how different technologies work;
  • operating them;
  • using them;
  • the role of institutional arrangements as another type of tool.

The first level covers everything that concerns what we may call “technology education”. This level contains, in other words, all “how” questions related to the very technologies we are using – our tools. Questions such as “how does a computer work?” or “how fiber optic cables transport information?”, etc.. , go into this category.

The second level of analysis pertains to how we operate our tools. The main difference is that operating a tool already involves interaction. So, at the very basic level, operating a tool means essentially being able to turn on and off a device. But it may also mean that we are familiar with the features of an application. For example, being able to use a webcam during a video call. Or record a video call and save it to one’s computer.

Operating a tool tells us how we should interact with a tool, but it does not tell us how we should use it. I believe that the distinction between using something and operating something is fundamental here. And the reason is that using a device is something more than merely operating it. So, I may be able to know how to post an article to facebook, but I may not know how to use a facebook post in one of my sociology classes where I talk about Max Weber. What is then the difference between operating something and using it? The short answer is that the difference lies in the fact that the use of something is always given in a certain context. Our tools don’t fall from above, but they are already involved in a dense network of meanings – culture, in other words. For example, when the television came about, it seemed to be natural to record a teacher speaking and send the recording to those schools that could not always have a teacher coming over because of their location (see the case of Samoa Islands).  More in general, what usually happens is that a piece of technology does not change the way we practice something (e.g. teaching or learning). It is simply recruited to do the same very things that people are used to. We saw this phenomenon in more recent times with Moocs.

So, at a general level of abstraction, we may say that using a tool always happens in a specific context. In other words, it is situated. Therefore, we cannot talk about the use of a tool in abstraction, that is, without making an explicit reference to the context of a practice (what a practice is, I’d leave it to another post). So, for example, the so-called “features” of an application are something that we operate, but their actual meaning only becomes clear in their actual use. Yes, Facebook allows me to post an article or a learning material. But what is the actual meaning of posting an article in the very context of my practice as a teacher? That’s the sort of question that educational technology should care about.

I am now coming to the last point. If we understand that the use of a tool always happens in a specific context, then we should also turn our attention to another type of tool – a tool sui generis – which are our institutional arrangements – the education system, in short. That’s also part of educational technology. How can we talk about innovation in education without discussing merit and demerit of the broader institutional system with all its components (the curriculum, etc.). This is also part of the context I am talking about. Very often the main barrier to innovation in education is..the education system itself, how it is structured, the very goals that we have set, etc… So, what we see is that it might be the case that technology simply allows us to do more efficiently what should not do in the first place.

 

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Puzzlement, understanding, conversations and (re-)contextualizing

What has become clearer and clear is the idea that understanding is an activity in which we do one thing: (re-)contextualizing. In other words, understanding means putting something into context. And that is essentially conversational. We need to be in dialogue with something or somebody.

During a talk about educational data (I talked about here), I showed this image asking what it was:

Screenshot (119).png

Indeed, people recognized that there was a carpet (on the left). And there was a footprint of a shoe. But in general they were just puzzled.

Next, I showed this picture asking again the same question:

Screenshot (120).png

This time the people in audience were able to understand that the first picture was a picture of a gym. And that the blue thingy next to the carpet was a mattress. And yet they were still puzzled. What did I want to know from them?

After that I showed a third picture with a small animation, in which the image of a guy was popping out:

Screenshot (121).png

Only then, things started getting a bit clearer. There is a gym. On the floor there are mattresses, which people, when passing by, are not supposed to step on. They should walk along this narrow black carpet. Bingo!

One way of describing this sort of experiment of mine is this: essentially, my audience was puzzled, because they were not able to contextualize the information provided in the first picture. Or, to be more precise:  they were not able to select an interpretative frame in the light of which to describe the first picture. 

What I did afterwards was essentially to cue them. To cue means essentially to suggest or hint at something. But what is that I suggested? And how did that happen?

One way to put it is to say that I was hinting at the interpretative frame, which would allow them to contextualize the picture. It is important to stress that I was, as I said, hinting, alluding, suggesting. In other words, I was not telling them directly “use this frame”. That would have been giving them the answer. What I was doing was to progressively giving off some pieces of information – clues, which I assumed they would be able to account for by using the right frame. I was in other words helping them put the picture into context. At least, a possible context. Or, to put it another way (pun intended), I was enabling them to select/identify an interpretative frame. It is important to stress this, because very often we tend to think that problems are solved by simply adding “data” or “information”, when in fact data is useless, if we are not able to connect it to an interpretative frame. Such connection is vital.

As I mentioned before, the idea is that the identification, selection or even the creation of an interpretative frame is the product of a conversational situation. That is, a situation in which one is in dialogue with something or somebody else. In the example presented above, what I was doing was precisely to engage my audience in a conversation. In the conversation, it is worth noting, the two partners (my audience and myself) are essentially exchanging something that gets modified every time that it goes from one end to the other. So, I asked a question, I got back a few answers, which then triggered a response from my side, which, in turn, triggered a reaction from the other side, and so on and on.  In doing so we were building on each other’s response. This can be described precisely as an activity in which contextualization and re-contextualization naturally occur.

I said that I was cuing the audience of my talk. But they also were cuing me. Meaning that the responses that they were giving me were clues as to what they had understood so far. I wanted to walk them to a particular place. And I needed to know where they were at every passage – are you following me?. 

Admittedly, the whole thing was not open-ended. I wanted the example to have a specific meaning. It had to serve a certain purpose. Yet, the whole conversation – like any other conversation – was characterized by a certain degree of uncertainty, which is constitutive of this contextualizing and re-contextualizing I have just mentioned. While I knew what I wanted them to get to, I could only guess from the clues they gave off whether they were following me or not. As I said before, I could only assume what kind of clues would work. The guessing is a product of contextualization. The uncertainty here is vital, because when contextualizing I am going beyond what I know. In other words, it’s generative and therefore it can be otherwise.

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Conversations, distributing cognition, tinkering and convivial learning

I’d like to spend a few more words on a couple of passages that one can find in David Bohm’s book On Dialogue.  At the very beginning of the book he clarifies the nature of the matter. In a dialogue,

when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical.

Then, he concludes,

when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood.

Seeing this “difference” is key to conversation. It is precisely what allows us to move forward.

This point is clarified, when Bohm extends the idea of conversing to inanimate objects. In doing so he asks a simple question about the work of artists.

Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing
outward” something that is already formed inside of him?

To Bohm it cannot be the case that the artist simply implements an idea that is already formed inside of him. And he explains why.

what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action.

Bohm stresses that, as the artist pushes something outward, something else comes about outside of him, which then gets back to him in a different form. The crucial insight that Bohm provides is that the artist perceives a difference between what is yet to be articulated inside of him and what has been already taking shape outside of him, which offers now some kind of scaffolding structure. Interestingly, such scaffolding structure is temporary. It will last until the next move, which, in turn, will pull it down to erect a new one. And so on and on.

A wonderful example is provided by this video documenting the making of One vision, one the greatest hits of a certain band called Queen.

 

In this segment we have a perfect representation of what conversing means:

One says something, the other objects, which forces the other to put forward an alternative. In some other cases, they finish each other’s line.

This back and forth has something in common with tinkering, which can be described precisely as perceiving the differences that in subsequent iterations become generative of something new (a song or a lyric).  It is capable of generating something new, precisely because we tinker with the perceived difference(s) – something that kind of stands out, that even may confuse or irritate us. As I explained in this blog, there is always a chance element, which is nothing but this something that gets back to us over which we literally have no control, that may may even surprise us. If we had it, we would not need to act. We would simply be content with what we have.

The example that Bohm makes is about the kind of work done by artists. But essentially this is a universal feature that holds water for any kind of medium that we are using, any kind of “tool”, be it pen&paper, technologies (including AI) and even language itself, etc. As soon as we start using a tool – any kind of tool, this very dynamic is potentially there. Incidentally, this means that the very act of distributing cognition is a conversational one, because what is established is precisely a conversation between us and the tool(s), which only then acquires a meaning. The conversing and the distributing are coupled together.

This that I am describing has very important consequences for learning (and education). Learning shares something crucial with the case that Bohm describes. To develop understanding – be that on nature, our machines, languages, society, culture or the human being, the learner is precisely like the artist who pushes outwards something in the hope that something will happen as a result – in the case of learning, I believe, it’s understanding. What is crucial then – what enables learning – is that the learner senses or perceives differences and similarities between what is out there and what is growing, say, “within himself” this understanding. That can only happen, when the learner participates in a conversational situation, which can involve a teacher, peers, teacher and peers, or/and all the above plus the tools. Sometimes the conversation can actually take place between the learner and a tool,which may come in the form of a book, a blog post, a search on the net, a discussion on social media, a podcast, etc.. The list is potentially as endless as our ability to establish conversational situations out of our will to learn. Indeed, in conversational situations the teacher may be at the same time the partner in a conversation. Or the person who actually helps the learner sense or perceive differences in the exchange. I would qualify that as a pedagogical act.

It is worth stressing that, if differences cannot be perceived and therefore used as a springboard for furthering the back-and-forth that I described above, then learning becomes some kind of indoctrination (for lack of a better term). This does not mean, though, that conversing implies giving up on what one thinks. This misconception has pressed us to think that, lecturers should not lecture any more. That would be imposing their own view. Actually, it’s the other way around: we can truly converse, if we share our opinions – no matter how incomplete or groundless they are, precisely because in a conversational situation they just provide the temporary scaffold to manipulate this sort of “prima materia”. For example, what the lecturer says can be used by the student(s) as a springboard rather than as a piece of content to be poured into his mind.

So, more in general, when conversational situations are established, learning can become convivial, which I define in opposition and opposite to learning as indoctrination. 

 

 

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