In this lecture I begin to address what I think are some of the most interesting ideas we can encounter when it comes to schooling and education. They are probably the ideas that have the potential to offer the most significant changes in how we think about teaching and learning. The challenge is that in some ways the ideas seem so foreign that they can be difficult to hang on to. I am asking you to suspend much of what we have been taught to think about the reality of teaching. These are ideas that deal with knowledge and reality.
I have to mention before I begin that a couple of you who have taken ED 610 Adult Learning with me will recognize some of these ideas. Your load will be lightened.
Anyway, let’s jump in.
Learning and Reality
Smith says learning is natural and easy. What can this mean?
Scenario One: Imagine, you have a loved-one with Alzheimers living in a memory care facility. Your loved one can no longer remember things. One of the care providers says, “We have been trying to try to teach your loved one to play chess. But s/he seems to find it very difficult to learn.” How would you respond? Perhaps you would respond by saying: “Why would you be talking about learning? To talk about learning chess for someone without the ability to remember doesn’t even make sense. Learning is memory.”
Scenario Two: Imagine, someone comes up with ‘the great idea’ to teach people to follow the scent of someone who has disappeared (like dogs are able to do). How would you respond? Perhaps you would respond by saying: “We don’t have the physical capacity to smell as acutely as dogs. We can’t learn that. To talk about learning in that way doesn’t make sense.”
Smith says learning is natural and easy. How can this be? Does it have something to do with context?
We know that context confers meaning–or at least allows lived experiences to be intelligible in particular ways. So perhaps when Smith says learning is natural and easy we should consider what context would be required to make learning natural and easy. Furthermore, we could contrast this with contexts that seem to make learning unnatural and difficult. Well, given that we have read Smith’s contrast between the Classic and Official Theories of Learning we are already familiar with the some of the things that have been adopted into schooling practices that contribute to student learning difficulties.
Are our terms ill-defined?
Have we been using the term ‘learning’ in schools when we have really been talking about meeting expectations? Has our “meeting expectations” become the context thereby suggesting to us that ‘learning’ is something that it is not? It almost sounds as if we talk about learning as meeting expectations. If you have not met the expectation you have not learned. But Smith reminds us that we are learning all the time. You simply might not be learning what your teacher thinks or wants you to learn.
Have we gone astray in our understanding of learning? Is this why we often talk about learning as if it is difficult?
Smith says learning is natural and easy.
If one’s expectation exceeds what is possible, then we might say that learning is difficult. But isn’t this is an evaluation of the expectation? In this case we are talking about the expected possibility, not the biological act of ‘learning’ itself. The expectation may be difficult to achieve. But does that mean that ‘learning’ is difficult?
Just because a person can’t learn to follow a rabbit’s scent like a dog doesn’t mean that ‘learning’ is difficult. It suggests that the person doesn’t have the capacity to follow scents.
Perhaps we should briefly clarify some terms:
1a: to perform work or fulfill duties regularly for wages or salary
works in publishing
b: to perform or carry through a task requiring sustained effort or continuous repeated operations
worked all day over a hot stove
c: to exert oneself physically or mentally especially in sustained effort for a purpose or under compulsion or necessity
2: to function or operate according to plan or design
5a: to make way slowly and with difficulty : move or progress laboriously
1: hard to do, make, or carry out : ARDUOUS
a difficult climb
2a: hard to deal with, manage, or overcome
a difficult child
having a difficult time coping with her death
b: hard to understand : PUZZLING
1: arousing competitive interest, thought, or action
a challenging course of study
a challenging job
2: invitingly provocative : FASCINATING
a challenging personality
These are not perfect examples. I did pick and choose. A more in-depth analysis would need to be made to justify any claims. However, a point might be made. We have all been in situations where we were trying to learn something. At times that learning felt like work. We felt as though we were carrying out tasks designed by others. And at times our learning felt more akin to a challenge–a challenge in which we were totally invested. At times we exerted a great deal of effort. That effort may have leaned toward work, and that effort may have leaned toward challenge. The experience is different.The challenge is seemingly more authentic, more interesting, more engaging.
Learning? To learn or not to learn, that is the question.
Perhaps we should think of the biological nature of learning. Let’s use a muscle-building analogy (even though I will talk about building muscle, I am not thinking of the brain as a muscle. I am just going to use this example as a metaphor for the time being). The body, when involved in resistance training, such as weight lifting, builds muscle naturally. It is not hard to build muscle, as long as the resistance is increased at a proper rate. Our body responds to resistance naturally. However, someone could erroneously say that building muscle is difficult if the expectation is beyond what the body is normally capable of. If you are to the point where you can comfortably lift 120 pounds, your body will with the proper increase of resistance eventually reach the capacity to lift 121 pounds. And then 122 pounds. But if your coach comes in on Wednesdays and says, “It is Wednesday, we lift 180 pounds on Wednesdays, this 58 pound increase becomes an impossibility. The coach could respond by saying, “You seem to find it difficult to lift weight. What is your problem?” You are a slow muscle builder. Of course the problem is with the demand, not on the body’s ability to build muscle. Building muscle is a normal body response to resistance.
It is not that building muscle is difficult. Our body builds muscle. Trying to build more than we can reasonably achieve is then termed difficult. Reaching a particular goal, when it exceeds our capability is difficult. But the building of the muscle is natural.
I couldn’t resist a little Saturday Night Live insight.
Back to learning: Is learning difficult or is the rate at which we are expected to learn some things difficult? Learning is simply wiring neurons together. Your brain is wiring neurons together all the time. But trying to force some particular learning to happen can give the perception of difficulty if we are unable to wire particular neurons together because the neurons are not positioned for wiring yet. To simply expect that neuronal wiring is going to happen the way we want independent of appropriate experience is a flaw in thinking.
Neurons that fire together wire together
Neuron time lapse video Learning in action.
Here we see neurons wiring together. We call these webs of neurons Neuronal Cell Assemblies–assemblies of neurons.
What we learn, and the memories we have, are not localized representations in our brains but rather an assembly of neurons woven throughout our brains that re-fire experiences we have previously had that encompass a multitude of physical perturbations. (I will address this more later).
The Glorious Cinnamon Bun
You probably have some memory of the cinnamon bun. As soon as you read the words “cinnamon bun” your brain is firing neuronal cell assemblies that allow you to re-experience some of what you know about cinnamon buns. Your brain does that quite naturally. Cinnamon-bun-sight-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-taste-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-touch-neurons are wired to cinnamon-bun-kitchen-neurons etc. etc.. (These, by the way, are not the scientific terms:) As soon as these neurons are firing you are ready to learn something new as long as we can fire neurons that will connect to your already established cinnamon bun neurons. So when you read this:
The first cinnamon bun was created in the 1920’s just after the First World War. Because Sweden was a neutral territory during the war, there were heavy restrictions on the import of goods including sugar, eggs and butter. By the time the 1950’s rolled around, the average Swedish household was pulling in more money, meaning they were able to purchase the pricey ingredients necessary to make a cinnamon bun. It was around this time that the pastry began to really become more popular.
If you happen to be Swedish, or you have Sweden neuronal cell assemblies already created, or if you have First World War neuronal cell assemblies, or if you have sugar-eggs-butter neuronal cell assemblies already wired, you will quite likely fire these along with the cinnamon bun neurons. And, given adequate time and strength of neuronal firing, your neurons will wire together. It is something that happens quite naturally. Your brain does it without you even having to work at it. But if you have no experiences with sugar, eggs, and butter, you have not had the opportunity to learn about the First World War and have no neuronal cell assemblies developed, and you haven’t even seen a cinnamon bun, you won’t be wiring together any neuronal cell assemblies.Furthermore, it is unlikely you will remember, or have any interest in, the history of the cinnamon bun.
That which you experience is not discrete information. Even if you learned about cinnamon buns in a classroom using flash cards, you will have that classroom-flashcard-experience wired to your understanding of cinnamon bun.
Is it possible that some of our teaching models are wrong? Isn’t part of our teaching narrative suggesting that we can simply tell students something new and they will be able to learn it? Does our teaching narrative suggest that communication is linear–passing ‘information’ back and forth as if through a pipeline? What if that is all wrong?
Language — the linear communication model
Even language and communication is thought to be the manipulation of discrete bits of information.
: rationalism. [Lat.,=belonging to reason], in philosophy, a theory that holds that reason alone, unaided by experience, can arrive at basic truth regarding the world.
From Winograd and Flores
The rationalistic tradition regards language as a system of symbols that are composed into patterns that stand for things in the world. Sentences can represent the world truly or falsely, coherently or incoherently, but their ultimate grounding is in their correspondence with the states of affairs they represent. This concept of correspondence can be summarized as:
1. Sentences say things about the world, and can be either true of false.
2. What a sentence says about the world is a function of the words it contains and the structures into which these are combined.
3. The content of words of a sentence (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) can be taken as denoting (in the world) objects, properties, relationships, or sets of these.
That is interesting. Is it correct, or has it become a part of our narrative that we don’t even question?
What if our communication models are wrong?
Here we hear about three different forms of communication: the transmission model, the transactional model, and the constitutive theory. We hear of senders and receivers. Transmission. Pipeline. Containers. Inputs and outputs. Exchange of content. Presumably, these ideas rely on the idea that worldly aspects can be objectified and manipulated in some way–especially the transmission model.
The transmission model is so entrenched in schooling practice that it is difficult to think that communication and teaching work in any other way. We live within a discourse that has us speak and think these ideas.
How about Memory Models?
Winograd and Flores:
The correspondence theory of language is one cornerstone on which other aspects of the rationalistic tradition rest. Rationalistic theories of mind all adopt some form of a ‘representation hypothesis,’ in which it is assumed that thought is the manipulation of representation structures in the mind. Although these representations are not specifically linguistic (that is, not the sentences of an ordinary human language), they are treated as sentences in an ‘internal language,’ whose connection to the world of the thinker follows the principles outlined above. pp. 19-20. Recall the camera obscura and the spectator view.
We have been influenced by the three box memory model. But even the language depicting this model tends to come out of the rationalistic tradition that Winograd and Flores talked about.
Shall we talk about frogs for the moment?
What does the frog tell us about the spectator view?
Let us consider the frog’s visual system. Now you might be saying what does the frog’s visual system have to do with education and schooling? Well, I think you will find this very interesting.
Imagine if you will: A frog is sitting on a lily pad. A fly darts in front of the frog’s eyes and in a split second the frog’s tongue snaps out and grabs the fly.
The question I would like to consider is this: What does the frog see? We might, if we follow the rationalistic tradition (think back to the camera obscura), we might believe that the frog ‘sees’ an image of the fly as it ‘really’ is (meaning how we perceive the fly). But, that is not the case. And if the frog, a biological being, doesn’t see an image of the fly, what do we (also biological beings) actually see when we look out at objects in the world? Images of the objects? Representations of an external world?
When we are teaching, aren’t we continually pointing to an external reality and external objects that we want to share with students? Isn’t that the way we talk about teaching and learning?
But is it that simple? If it were, teaching and learning would probably be a whole lot easier. You tell your student something–your student learns.
But even if the educational community seems to still use metaphors that suggest external representations of reality, inputs, outputs, information etc. etc. etc. it has been know for many years that that is not how the brain perceives.
Winograd’s and Flores write:
In neurophysiological studies of vision, the traditional assumption (based on a rationalistic philosophy of cognition) was that the activity in the optic nerve was a direct representation of the pattern of light on the retina. The work of Maturana, Lettvin, McCulloch, and Pitts on “Anatomy and physiology of vision in the frog” (1960) challenged this, demonstrating that over large areas of the retina to which single fibers of the optic nerve were connected, it was not the light intensity itself but rather the pattern of local variation of intensity that excited the fiber. There was, for example, one type of fiber that responded best to a small dark spot surrounded by light. When triggered, it lead to activity appropriate for catching a fly in the location corresponding to the spot. It became apparent that at least some of the cognitive processes that we would interpret as relevant to the survival of the frog actually take place within its visual system, not deeper in its neuroanatomy.
For those of you who have a particular interest in Maturana’s early research, I provide a link to two of his papers.
Here is a link to Maturana’s paper: Anatomy and Physiology of Vision in the Frog
Here is a link to another one of Maturana’s paper: WhatTheFrogsEyeTellsTheFrogsBrain
In trying to extend this research to color vision, Maturana, Uribe, and Frenk (“A biological theory of relativistic color coding in the primate retina,: 1968) made observations that led to further questioning the relation between perception and the world being perceived. Making use of a simple observation that had been noted for many years, they argued that theories associating colors directly with wavelengths on the spectrum were inadequate. When a stick is illuminated by a white light from one side and a red light from the other, it casts two shadows, one of which appears red (against a generally pink background) and the other of which appears green. If we ask about the objective ‘thing’ being observed, there is no light with a spectrum of wavelengths normally called green; only various shades of red, white, and pink. However, Maturana and other researchers have postulated that the patterns of neural activity produced are the same as those produced by light of a single wavelength normally called green. The presence of ‘green’ for the nervous system is not a simple correlate of the presence of certain wavelengths of light, but the result of a complex pattern of relative activity among different neurons.
Now, Maturana’s research was taking place in the 60s. We have, since that time, had many psychologists show us how our brains construct our perceptions of color. Here is one example:
Back to Wingrad and Flores:
[The example of color] was one of many that led Maturana to question the validity of our commonsense understanding of perception. On the naive view, there is some objectively recognizable property of a thing in the environment, and our perception of it is a capturing of the property in our mind. This ideas contained in the very words use in description:
When Jerry Y. Lettvin and I wrote our several articles on frog vision. . . , we did it with the implicit assumption that we were handling a clearly defined cognitive situation: there was an objective (absolute) reality, external to the animal, and independent of it (not determined by it), which it could perceive (cognize), and the animal could use the information obtained in its perception to compute a behavior adequate to the perceived situation. This assumption of ours appeared clearly in our language. We described the various kinds of retinal ganglion cells as feature detectors, and we spoke about the detection of prey and enemy. — Maturana, “Biology of cotnition” (1970), p. xii
Further examination of visual phenomena, however, suggested a different orientation. In order to deal with the seemingly fundamental perceptual category of color it was necessary to give explanations in terms of relative patterns of activity within the nervous system.
I soon realized in my research that my central purpose in the study of color vision could not be the study of a mapping of a colorful world on the nervous system, but rather that it had to be the understanding of the participation of the retina (or nervous system) in the generation of the color space of the observer. — Maturana, “Biology of cognition” (1970), p. xii.
Here it is. Get ready. I think this is huge!
Perception, in other words, must be studied from the inside rather than the outside — looking at the properties of the nervous system as a generator of phenomena, rather than as a filter on the mapping of reality.
There it is: The nervous system is a generator of phenomena. No inputs or outputs. No external representations of the world. How can this not have a change on how we think of teaching and learning?
Maturana describes the nervous system as a closed network of interacting neurons such that any change in the state of relative activity of a collection of neurons leads to a change in the state of relative activity of other or the same collection of neurons. From this standpoint, the nervous system does not have ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs.’ It can be perturbed by structural changes in the network itself, and this will affect its activity, but the sequence of states of the system is generated by relations of neuronal activity, as determined by its structure.
When light strikes the retina, it alters the structure of the nervous system by triggering chemical changes in the neurons. This changed structure will lead to patterns of activity different from those that would have been generated without the change, but it is a misleading simplification to view this change as a perception of the light. If we inject an irritant into a nerve, it triggers a change in the patterns of activity, but one which we would hesitate to call a ‘perception’ of the irritant.
What does this mean, then, for the way we talk about perception? Rather than perceiving with our senses, our nervous system is perturbed by light, or by forces. These perturbations can only trigger the neurons within our nervous system.
Maturana argues that all activity of the nervous system is best understood this way. The focus should be on the interactions within the system as a whole, not on the structure of perturbations. The perturbations do not determine what happens in the nervous system, but merely trigger changes of state. It is the structure of the perturbed system that determines, or better, specifies what structural configurations of the medium can perturb it.
In other words, we can only see that which we have neuronal structures to see. Just because we have sight, doesn’t mean that the objects we encounter have any meaning (or that we can ‘see’ them.) We can see a coffee cup because we have neurons that were woven together in the past–neurons that include the shape of the cup, the weight of the cup, the texture, the temperature, the way we grasp, the way we situate ourselves in space with the cup. These neurons were woven together through our historic interactions. We don’t just see a cup. We re-experience the cup (refiring all of these neurons) when the light perturbs the cells on our eye in a particular pattern. We will come to understand this better in the Eagleman documentary below.
From this perspective, there is no difference between perception and hallucination. If the injected irritant creates a pattern of neural activity identical to that which would be produced by heat applied to the area served by the nerve, then there is no neurophysiological sense to the question of whether the heat was really ‘perceived’ or was a ‘hallucination.’ At first, this refusal to distinguish reality from hallucination may seem far-fetched, but if we think back to color vision it is more plausible. . . .
Think back briefly to the two states of motocross riding–the experienced and perceived from a distance (the observer state):
Of course an observer of the nervous system within its medium can make statements about the nature of the perturbation and its effect on patterns of activity. For this observer it makes sense to distinguish the situation of an injected irritant from one of heat. But from the standpoint of the nervous system it is not a relevant, or even possible, distinction.
What does this say about teaching or instructing?
Along with this new understanding of perception, Maturana argues against what he calls the ‘fallacy of instructive interaction.’ ‘Instructive interaction’ is his term for the commonsense belief that in our interactions with our environment we acquire a direct representation of it–that properties of the medium are mapped onto (specify the state of) structures in the nervous system. He argues that because our interaction is always through the activity of the entire nervous system, the changes are not in the nature of a mapping. They are the results of patterns of activity which, although triggered by changes in the physical medium, are not representation of it. The correspondences between the structural changes and the pattern of events that cause them are historical, not structural. They cannot be explained as a kind of reference between neural structures and an external world.
The structure of the organism at any moment determines a domain of perturbations–a space of possible effects the medium could have on the sequence of structural states that it could follow. The medium selects among these patterns, but does not generate the set of possibilities. In understanding an organism as a structure-determined system we view it in terms of its components and the interactions among them. The appropriate domain of description is not the behavior of the organism as a unity, but the interlocking behaviors of its physical components.
Does this mean that we have an epistemological problem — or a problem with the way we talk about knowledge?
Maturana’s understanding of an organism’s relation to its environment leads to an epistemological problem. In our culture’s commonsense theories of knowledge, what we know is a representation of the external world. Based on information gathered through perception, our brain somehow stores facts, uses them to draw conclusions, and updates them on the basis of experience.
. . . But
Learning is not a process of accumulation of representations of the environment; it is a continuous process of transformation of behavior through continuous change in the capacity of the nervous system to synthesize it. Recall does not depend on the indefinite retention of a structural invariant that represents an entity (an idea, image, or symbol), but on the functional ability of the system to create, when certain recurrent conditions are given, a behavior that satisfies the recurrent demands of that the observer would class as a reenacting of a previous one. — Maturana, “Biology of cognition” (1970), p. 45
Think back to the cinnamon bun.
I do want to give you a great example regarding external reality by sharing a documentary on the brain by David Eagleman.
Before we launch into Eagleman’s documentary on the brain and reality I would like to leave you with one more clip to consider. The point in the following clip that you might find interesting is the statement, “Our observations are in agreement with our theory, and there is no viable competing theory. It has not yet be falsified, and therefore still true.” We have lots of theories about teaching, learning, knowledge, schooling, etc. But do we really know what is going on, or have we simply not falsified our theories? Does the truth simply remain to be unmasked?
Part 1 – The Correspondence Theory of Truth
Now, finally, on to a better understanding of reality.
The Brain with David Eagleman – What Is Reality – BBC Documentary 2016
*****Please note: Some people have had difficulty accessing this through this library embedded link. I have included the youtube version below.
There is a lot in this video of interest. With the example of Mike May, we learn that our perception and understanding is more than what we ‘see.’ Color doesn’t actually exist. We also learn how the brain is quick to adapt to its surroundings. We hear about psychic reality. And we consider how our brain shapes our lives.
As we begin to learn how the brain creates our reality, it is easier for us to understand some of the problems associated with our common explanations of teaching and learning.
Response question for the day:
So as educational care givers, or teachers, or co existing beings, what do we do with this idea that we each create our own reality? What are the educational implications? If we do not share a common representation of external reality what might this mean for the idea that we can pass a curriculum on to students or that we can even expect that students can have a common understanding of things we might tell them? What does all of this say about learning? What does this suggest regarding testing? When we begin to understand that the individual (teacher and student) is a closed system that does not ‘input’ representations that are presumably provided by teachers, that would seem to have substantial implications for what is possible in terms of teaching. All I ask for this responses is that you talk about your own thinking here.
Please add these to your second set of responses due during the week of May 20th. Thanks.
That is enough for today. The ideas we have been considering are difficult because they begin to challenge the tradition we have grown up with. To begin to re-think what we believe about our perceptions of reality, our construction of reality, and the implications for teaching and learning may very well take a long time. And I do recognize also that this sort of thinking may not happen during the short time we have in this course. But I hope you are trying to suspend your beliefs and consider these ideas.
Have a great week!
__________YouTube Embedded Version of the David Eagleman Documentary ______