Educational theory and “Being Digital”

I have recently re-focused my thinking on issues arising from Ilana Snyder’s “Being Digital” project that I worked on last year. I prepared a report on some of the data from that project, available online at The interesting part for me was reading some of the literature on cultural form (particularly Raymond Williams) and digital literacy practices, and trying to get my head around the academic discourse and legitimate research methodology in non-scientific research disciplines.

Having just returned to considering these ideas, I stumbled across the work of Karl Maton and, in particular, this paper on the place of theory in educational research. I wish I had written this particular piece myself, although perhaps it is a good thing to have somewhere else to point people to when expressing similar views. Of course, this would touch on whether a published opinion can add weight to my own professional opinion without an additional ingredient of “data”, and what constitutes the legitimisation of a personal opinion into a professional opinion, and then into domain expertise. I am hoping that further reading of Karl Maton’s work will enlighten me on this in a way that triggers a whole new way of expressing the core ideas in my recent research activity.

Addendum to Stephen Downes presentation

There were two things I forgot to mention in my post about Stephen’s presentation.

1) When Stephen was introducing the concept of connectivist learning, he used an example of the knowledge that “Paris is the capital of France” to talk about symbolic versus connectivist learning. He described the propositional version of declarative knowledge, and countered with the idea that we have a cloud of connections around the idea of Paris, and around what we mean by France and that, in fact, there is not a sentence in the head declaring Paris is the capital of France, but there are instead a whole host of connections that embody that information (or something along those lines). I couldn’t help but think that the example was a poor one because to me, X is the capital of Y is quintessentially the sort of declarative knowledge people have with absolutely no other understanding of Paris, of France and of the notion of “is the capital of” (economically? politically? socially? is the biggest? is the most well known?). I know many people who know the all the captials of all the small african nations without even knowing where the country is on a map, who lives there, or anything else about the notion, because either they learnt it at school, or they know it for trivia quiz nights.

2) The other example Stephen used was of flying a jumbo jet from New York to Melbourne. He commented that flying a jumbo jet was so incredibly complex that one couldn’t possibly consider it to be a set of declarative propositions (or something like that – he was way more eloquent in his connectivist description of Paris and flying jets). What stood out for me, as a result of having thought about military pilot training for the past two years, is that the airline industry is the most proceduralised industry in the world, and there are checklists and procedures for every foreseeable situation. That is to say, there has been a concerted effort to write down every step of the process of flying a jet from New York to Melbourne, including every possible error-situation or event that may happen …

Anyhow – I’m not sure that knowledge carves up neatly between declarative, procedural, connectivist or symbolic. I suspect they are different levels of analysis and apply in different contexts, depending on what entrenched position is being challenged.

Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.

Vale Marysville

Less than a week ago, I was at a workshop at Swinburne’s Healesville campus, the only time I’ve ever been there. We went out for lunch in Healesville and, just by chance, I caught up with a dear friend who happened to be driving past and stopped for coffee. I haven’t seen Di for a number of years and we had a wonderful chat. We didn’t bother exchanging phone numbers because, as she said “You can always get in touch with me via the Marysville Lolly Shop”, which she owns with a friend.

It’s only a few days later, and all of Marysville, that beautiful historic town nestled in the hills is burnt to the ground.

Di – I was so happy to see you on the ABC News to know that you survived the fireball. I am so sorry you lost your beautiful lolly shop, but I know you have the courage and circle of friends and family to deal with what life throws at you. My heart goes out to all the people who have lost homes, livelihoods and more importantly, have lost their loved ones. It will take a long long time for communities to recover.

And as an aside (note that this was written on the Sunday night of the fires), although the fires and devastation this weekend have been much greater than Ash Wednesday, I think many people in Melbourne are fairly oblivious to the scale of devastation. The difference is that on Ash Wednesday, the wind blew smoke and ash onto Melbourne itself, so that people thought their own suburbs were on fire and it was impossible to ignore. There are many many young people who don’t listen to local news services and, in any event, don’t know the names and size of towns in regional Victoria.

Wednesday: An update to the aside: As events unfolded, everyone in Melbourne now knows the extent of the tragedy, but it still feels far away for those that don’t go out to regional areas much. It is as “unreal” for them as pictures of warzones in Iraq. The possibility of two large fires joining around Healesville as the warms up again is quite frightening.

Yearly updates

Today I paid a bit more attention to the fact that my sidebar on my blog seemed to have disappeared. When I went to look for it, I discovered that my sidebar had in fact been hijacked by a link injection evil-thing. This possibly explains random junk mail about Google Adword accounts (which I don’t have) and the fact that one or two domains seemed to have refused to accept my email address recently.

And then I noticed that it is more than a year since my last “yearly update” – so it is probably a timely reminder that I should either maintain my websites or shut them down. And if I maintain them, I should install updates and patches to the software running the sites.

So tonight I upgraded WordPress and deleted random other things and generally overhauled the code on my site.

It also gave me food for thought as to what I want to do with my web presence and what level of control I want to have over it. I have resisted the idea of Facebook / MySpace social networking versions of web-presence because of the lack of control and the “model of the world” implicit in them. At the same time, I have started to use open source tools in preference to hand-coding web sites, because my coding is aspirational rather than secure these days. But even though the code in open source tools like WordPress and Moodle is way way way better than mine would be, it is much more worthwhile to hack because of the number of potential targets for any one exploit.

Anyhow – the lesson learned today is to upgrade regularly. And to keep in touch with what the codebase is doing. And to have a bit more curiosity about apparently random things like the fact that my email was blacklisted by a few domains and other non-random but unsolicited junkmail. And to make sure that legacy stuff is removed from my website. And to keep backups of material. All pretty basic.


From Paul Christensen “in praise of bluffing” published in “The Antioch Review” of Spring 1999

So how was I not to bluff, if all my heroes did it, and did it well? You know the measure of your spiritual depth by how well you bluff. Cowards tell little lies and fudge a lot; poets expand the radius of the lie into illusion and allusion, and dream more. Politicians grasp the pulse of an imaginary nation and pronounce in simple boring language things that everyone should know, and the bluff is therefore stale and usually unimaginative, underreaching. Most of them have given up the bluff and gone to the pollsters to learn the trite and cliched truth. Priests bluff according to formula and repeat the doctrinal gestures and elements so often it is no longer bluff but rote habit.

No, the bluff pure and ethereal is reserved for geniuses and mad people. No modern poem ever reaches the condition of pure bluffness. The poem is a sad little grocery list with a bit of ego linking up the potatoes and carrots. Everyone wants a practical lesson in life and living, and the poor little lyric bag of syllables serves us a dim copy of that desire, as tasty as a box of Stove Top Stuffing or Hamburger Dinner. Predictability is a passion of our times, and preordained answers are far more welcome than the unexpected twist. People ask stupid and unbluffable questions and begin nodding and coaxing out the expected language before you can answer. “What’s the best car to buy, huh?” The Chevrolet Metro has the best mileage, according to the news we all watched last night, and remember partly. “Uh huh, that’s right. That’s right, uh huh.”

We cannot bluff now because we all have a uniform, slightly squared-off consciousness shaped for us by the same media exposure. We all watch the same shows, listen to NPR, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered, and then proceed to have, not conversations exactly, but trading sessions. I say part of a fact and you supply the rest; I was picking my nose at some critical moment of Bob Edwards’s comments and missed something, and you were sitting idly and retained it. So we talk as if we put together a rehab unit’s jigsaw puzzle: a portrait of Art Linkletter’s house at nightfall, just as Lawrence Welk begins playing an old rerun on the tube.

We all see the same movies, eat the same food, hear the same music, and read the same books and magazines, so we live in a lit circle of shared cultural noodles and broth. And the diet is so cloying and indigestible that we hardly ever want to regurgitate our nightly consumption.

By disposition the majority would prefer to remain behind the fence of such shared common shallowness, such boiled news and pre-owned food. We go along inside used and tired minds, trading tokens of consciousness that we already own in duplicate and triplicate. Maybe that’s why conversation is dead in America; what’s there to say that’s new? Nothing much. I’m okay, are you fine, too? Yeah, sure. Bye now. Bye.

In my current research, I am looking at the pattern recognition and the ability to deal with uncertain information that characterises expertise, so the notion of bluffing as a manifestation of implicit pattern recognition is appealing. It resonates with the concept of confabulation as part of a normal epistemic process as described by Hirstein (2005) in Brain Fiction, and of using simple heuristics described by Gigerenzer (2007) in Gut Feelings, among others.

TV masks a human cognitive surplus caused by having “free time”

The quote below is from Clay Shirky’s piece on “Gin, TV and Social Surplus” in which he describes how our American cousins spend 200 billion hours a year watching TV, which he equates to 100 million hours each weekend just watching the ads!!! I have no idea how he comes up with these astonishing numbers, but they sound impressive … as does the 100 million hours of human thought spent he calculates has been spent so far on Wikipedia …

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

iCue – “Immerse. Connect. Understand. Excel”

iCue (MIT’s collaboration with NBC) turns social networking and some cool gaming stuff into a Collaborative Learning Community. I admit that I have not explored the site closely, but although it looks like it might have some good things in there, it’s interesting that brand association (MIT / NBC) and marketing can reposition a social network site as Educational. There is a big difference between Education and Learning – learning is what we do every day, not just when we are being educated and I don’t understand the obsession with chasing attention-spans to make everything into a branded, certified Learning Experience.

Education, intelligence and soul

from Michael Leunig in The Age:

It is said that many people sell their souls and live with good conscience on the proceeds. I know for a fact there are rats in good schools.

But education excellence or not, intelligence suits us all, and intelligence may be just another word for sensitivity as far as I can understand.

You have to grow it whenever and wherever you can and sometimes you have to survive an education system, an academy or any web of convention, authority or conformity to do it. Life’s a long time and that’s the achievement, that’s what matters in the end — to come through, not necessarily with excellence and brilliance, but with soul.

Opinions, rigorous thinking and self esteem

I am at a loss to figure out how children will learn to think clearly, to evaluate quality, and to show appropriate courtesy and respect to others if they are not given accurate feedback about their own thought processes, opinions and behaviour. Negative feedback can be delivered politely or impolitely, sensitively or insensitively, but is absolutely necessary if positive feedback is to carry any meaning. Without exposure to negative as well as positive feedback, self-esteem has no basis, and hence no on-going value.

During the course of unpacking boxes of books (from moving house) I came across Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, which addresses some of my concerns albeit from a slightly different perspective.

“At the family dinner table, conversation standards should be rigorous. Miss Manners will even make a major exception to the rule about not leaving the table for anything other than an emergency, in order to allow a disputed fact to be checked. (Ones that take longer must be deferred, but the volunteer researcher can usually escape helping with the dishes if he reads aloud from the reference book in the kitchen while the others are working).

Opinions, in Miss Manner’s opinion, are also subject to challenge at the family dinner table. She believes that the child who is allowed to get away with baseless opinions, or who is congratulated for mouthing a family opinion without having though it through, is destined to grow into a fuzzy thinker and a bore.

It annoys her no end to hear of children’s being credited for “discussing” possibilities, so that they can then produce the “opinion” of being against it. She would hope that the most active anti-nuclear-weapons parent would insist that the child understand that the issue is not whether one is for or against destruction of the universe – how smugly children accept congratulations for coming out against it – but how countries can live in peace and protect themselves from aggression. We all want our child to share our opinions because they are so wise. But if we want the child to be wise, as well, we will not accept his arriving at these opinions without knowing what he is saying.” (from Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children)

If Miss Manner’s droll style is not to your liking, we could go to the other end of the spectrum to highlight a lack of rigorous thinking through this highly amusing catalogue of self-esteem generated through style over substance (warning: those whose political-correctness has obliterated their sense of humour will probably be offended rather than amused … so if that is you, don’t follow this link … )

Coaching, training and teaching

A letter from LS Michaelis published in The Lancet, 1946, and just as true today:

Sir, — At a time when the resources of medical education are being replanned and expanded, it would I think be useful to define these three complementary activities.

Coaching is the assembling of knowledge in preparation for a test of mental assimilation — i.e., the examination. Coaching may follow teaching, but should never precede or coincide with it.

Training is the acquisition of techniques by practical experience: It may coincide with teaching, but should never precede it.

Teaching provides a fundamental introduction, a crtical survey, and a challenge to original thought; it promotes judgement and insight, enthusiasm, and inquiry. It should precede and accompany training, but never degenerate into coaching.

Clever young graduates, with a fund of systematic knowledge, make good coaches; able technicians may make good trainers. But teaching calls for a balanced view of the part and the whole; it demands a broad outlook and a deep insight, with scepticism for the established and an open mind for the new.

When coaching is allowed to predominate in education, the body medical presents itself as a cleanly dissected corpse. When training is given more than its due, the result is a robot. Only when teaching is given its proper scope and precedence does this body medical emerge as a growing living organism.

Bias in academic courses

Young Libs campaign to out biased dons (from The Australian):

“NATALIE Karam, a second-year university law student, recently changed classes because she was so uncomfortable about the ideological stance of one of her lecturers.”

Apparently this biased lecturer stated that he belonged to the Greens, and poor Natalie, a Young Lib, felt marginalised in his class by belonging to the mainstream and moved classes. It made her think twice: what if she said something he didn’t like? … Perhaps she should have thought a third or fourth or fifth time until she came to the far more sensible realisation that this lecturer is capable of distinguishing his own bias, her bias and any other bias that creeps into academic work unacknowledged. The whole point of the academy is to analyse ideas, understand different perspectives, identify what is bias and what is “mainstream” (I’m assuming that anything “not mainstream” constitutes bias in the terms of the article in The Australian), and present a range of conflicting viewpoints. This is unlikely to happen if everyone runs off to immerse themselves in the company of like-minded people who will never challenge their view of the world.

Then again, let’s imagine that the lecturer had kept quiet about his affiliation with the Greens. Natalie would not even have known how uncomfortable she should have been!! Or perhaps the lecturer would no longer have been biased? Hmmmmm – how would that work? So perhaps what she is really saying, along with her Young Libs leader Noel McCoy, is that biased (non-mainstream, Greens-affiliated) academics should not be allowed to give lectures at all? Sweet. I wonder how Ms Karam expects to practise Law if she is not able to identify, present, analyse, or assess a line of argument in a professional capacity that differs from her own views? Then again, perhaps she won’t need to present any legal arguments when she can just go to the media and market her clients as victims.

Paul Keating on “Soeharto’s unsung legacy”

The former president of Indonesia, President Suharto, passed away last week – I am linking to Paul Keating’s article in The Age on Soeharto’s unsung legacy. It is well worth reading and considering. It is a pity the media rarely feels any level of responsibility for providing a deeper level of analysis and greater understanding regarding the complexities of politics and society.

A random update

It’s a long time since I updated anything online, but this site (and all others that I manage or contribute to) has/have not been abandoned. October and November were seriously busy work-wise, but the content was for client reports, not public consumption. Hopefully between now and February, much of the background science will be elaborated here.

The has also been a change of government in Australia, and hopefully a change of direction to a more inclusive, more compassionate society with more sense of social responsibility and integrity. I am following with interest how the Rudd / Gillard team will address education – I’m sure they have excellent intentions, but I suspect they will focus on the wrong things (all those things you can see, measure, direct and optimise) rather than having the courage to focus on fostering a desire to learn in our young children and trusting that by allowing curiousity and creativity to flourish (within loose rather than tight boundaries), good citizenship will emerge. This does not mean that we let students be the judge of what they need to know and what is relevant for their future intellectual development. We also need to ensure basic foundations in languages, literacy, numeracy and physical education. Technology and the internet provide tools and resources for learning, but do not replace discipline-based teaching, learning and research.

Barry Jones on resisting the forces of ignorance

An article by Barry Jones in The Australian argues that “Public intellectuals should not remain silent in the face of an assault on reason and our liberties”. Jones implores us to become involved in political life and public debate; to promote rational, informed discussion; to understand other cultures and other perspectives; and to understand that the roots of terrorism are not totally irrational and evil, but are the result of long periods of social injustice and marginalisation. Jones is critical of Australia’s politicians, the political system as it operates in Australia, the public service, the media and academics – all people who should be leading public discussion and debate, providing credible information (not political spin), and contributing to community knowledge and understanding.

We live in an era of instinctive, reactive and ill-informed leaders and followers, marked by contempt for truth, living by the dictum that the end justifies the means. It hardly matters whether that view is driven by cynicism or ideology.

The quality of public debate in Australia has been compromised, partly through media indifference and the systematic denuding of the ABC, but also through the retreat of the public intellectual. We have more paid academics than at any time in history, but across the nation, regrettably, they have fallen silent.

In universities and research institutions, professional activity and workloads have increased appreciably, and contribution to public debate is discouraged. The term academic is routinely used in a denigratory way to mean remote, pedantic, impractical or irrelevant. The only consolation is that in the medium to long term, it is elite opinion that wins out.

Reviving politics will involve encouraging knowledge, curiosity, understanding, scepticism and transparency. It will also require a revolution in education to redefine non-economic values and a critical spirit, with heavier emphasis on history, philosophy and language, as well as the skills needed for vocations.

(The article is an edited transcript of “The John Bray Oration 2007: Censorship and secrecy: threats to an open society in an insecure age”, delivered at the University of Adelaide on Sept 4th.)

Yearly web updates

Every year or so, I do a bit of a springclean of my computers and web-presence. The past few weeks are the most recent efforts. I’ve finally spent enough time with Gallery2 to figure out how its basic features work. I’ve also had my account for a year now, and its services are stable enough to make it a great option for hosting. The Fantastico control panel autoinstaller makes using open source packages so simple for people like me who speak pidgin unix and have very rudimentary system admin capabilities. My latest web stuff:

    • featuring an RSS feed from this blog and some highlights from my new gallery
    • featuring some very non-branded, simple stuff on online learning and a Moodle installation for hosting professional courses for my consultancy work
  • my new photo-gallery
  • my main wiki
    • featuring my recent work stuff – I have a second wiki for my own project work
  • my deviantart site
    • featuring my occasional attempts at creativity (and pretty much replicated in my gallery) – deviantart is really a bit more of a social-networking-around-art site where I chat to a very small number of my nearest and dearest creative friends

I’m now lusting after a new camera and a new little video camera so I can keep playing with my gallery and start using Final Cut Express to play with video.

Reports, recommendations, social dysfunction and education

[This post mostly relates to the “Little Children are Sacred” report on child abuse in the Northern Territory of Australia.]

I have just recently submitted my second commissioned report, both co-authored with James Quealy. I have also prepared reports and recommendations within the normal committee framework of two universities (i.e. not as an external consultant). I am still completely confounded by the fact that people commission reports, but fail to read the them. They then take individual recommendations out of context to support whatever decision they were already going to make, or dispute the basis of recommendations without reading the sections of the report from which the recommendations arise. There seems to be complicity all the way to the top to allow the mentality that senior decision-makers don’t have time to read the reports which provide the background to decisions they are making – apparently senior people only have time to read the Executive Summary, and then only if it’s less than a page …

The reports I have co-authored relate to the use of technology in education, and some of what they say relates to the education system as a whole, and therefore to the core values we have as a society. It would be nice if issues raised in the reports were widely discussed but I am sufficiently in touch with the so-called “real world” to know that such reports are ticked off on someone’s checklist of “what are we doing about X …”, and consigned to the bottom of a filing cabinet.

But what is this post really about? In reality, although I am mildly disappointed as to what happens to my own reports, I am completely dismayed by the current legislation in Australia relating to Aboriginal Welfare allegedly arising from the “Little Children are Sacred” Report: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse.

I have been thoroughly perplexed since the government’s first response to the report as to why their response is not immediately seen in the mainstream media as the direct path to a modern-day Stolen Generation. For years, we have been ashamed that John Howard is not prepared to say “Sorry” on behalf of white Australia for the effects of past decisions … and now he is about to begin a new round of paternalistic “white man knows best” intervention allegedly to “protect little children”, but with underlying serious consequences for aboriginal land rights and welfare payments.

And what is the connection of the first two paragraphs with the rest of the post? The government is supposedly acting on the report – John Howard asks how we could fail to be moved by such a disturbing report. Indeed how could we fail to be moved? But I have heard Pat Anderson say emphatically that the government response bears no relationship to any of the recommendations in her report and that resonates deeply with my experience of writing reports and with my feeling of the deep malaise in Australian culture that allows such sloppy decision-making processes the higher we go within ‘the system’.

I have read through the report and note that its proposed solutions are not quick fixes (i.e. think of a timescale around 15 years rather than 15 months). The primary focus is on education, but significantly, on culturally-relevant, inclusive, empowering, community-based education. Child abuse, child neglect, alcoholism, violence, family dysfunction are all seen to be symptoms of a broader societal dysfunction, not isolatable individual problems that can each be addressed. The societal dysfunction is not an indigenous problem alone, but one that is amplified by societal problems in mainstream Australia. Any solutions are inextricably entwined within both cultures.

I’ve not yet finished reading the whole report, but nowhere in the Recommendations or Overview (Executive Sumary) did I see anything about bringing in the Army and a white task force of health workers to save the children.

I was appalled with the approach of the government to tackle the problem of child sexual abuse. Having read the report allegedly inspiring this approach, I am doubly appalled at the response of our government. I am also appalled at the lack of analysis by the media. I am generally appalled at the lack of compassion and the lack of recognition in mainstream Australia that child abuse, alcoholism, family dysfunction and violence are extremely complex, are not just the result of ‘bad’ people, and are not just happening in remote communities. Each instance of family dysfunction has a long and complex history and any intervention must be sensitive to complexity.

Below, I have picked out a few quotes from the report as I looked through it. I have no idea what I’m going to do other than write this small somewhat inconsequential piece – probably nothing specific. I guess I have a strong view that education is the answer, but I have a strong view that the current education system, with its lack of moral fibre, lack of intellectual rigour, lack of any value system, is as much the problem as the solution.

From the “Little Children are Sacred” report:

It’s not just in white man’s law that child abuse is considered wrong.

“The title quote In our Law children are very sacred because they carry the two spring wells of water from our country within them reflects the traditional Aboriginal law of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and was provided by a senior Yolngu lawman.”

Child abuse is, more often than not, a symptom of deeper, more complex societal problems.

“the incidence of child sexual abuse, whether in Aboriginal or so-called mainstream communities, is often directly related to other breakdowns in society. Put simply, the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children. It will be impossible to set our communities on a strong path to recovery in terms of sexual abuse of children without dealing with all these basic services and social evils. Even then, the best that can be hoped for is improvement over a 15 year period – effectively, a generation or longer. “

There needs to be genuine consultation, not paternalistic government intervention

“It is critical that both governments [Northern Territory and Australian] commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities. “

“Our appointment and terms of reference arose out of allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. Everything we have learned since convinces us that these are just symptoms of a breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society. There is, in our view, little point in an exercise of band-aiding individual and specific problems as each one achieves an appropriate degree of media and political hype. It has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. We are all left wringing our hands. Look at all that money! Where did it go? The answer is, of course, down the plughole.”

Education is the key to the solution, but education needs to be community based and does not just relate to school. Language and cultural barriers are real.

“We are utterly convinced that education (that properly addresses the needs of the local community) provides the path to success. We have been dismayed at the miserable school attendance rates for Aboriginal children and the apparent complacency here (and elsewhere in Australia) with that situation.”

The difficulty is that because of the language and cultural barriers many people never get an opportunity to express their knowledge or their ideas. The impression is given to them that they are idiots and that people outside of their community are more qualified to deal with their problems. As a result of this general attitude people become apathetic and take no interest in dealing with the problems. “

The dominant mainstream white culture as expressed via television, movies etc does not set a high standard with respect to sexual behaviour, alcohol and drug use, and respect.

“The Inquiry was also told that many youth today have an erroneous belief that the wider Australian society is lawless. They believe that: “it is acting within “white fella” law when being abusive. A thinking that began with the systemic undermining of our own law with the colonization of Australia and the atrocities that followed. It is now reinforced by TV, movies, pornography and drugs brought into our community from wider Australia.” (Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra press release, 19 May 2006) It became clear to the Inquiry during its consultations that in many of the communities visited, the “language barrier” and the “cultural gap” was greater in the younger generation. The Inquiry was told that this problem is increasing, then intuitively it might have been assumed the gap was decreasing.”

Academic research into other cultures can be very influential – it is used as a bridge from one culture to another. When academic research is used to drive policy and policy significantly affects the lives of many people, there is a professional duty to ensure that research is supportable, and that it is used within its context of applicability. Even intellectually-rigorous academic research tends to be fairly specific and should not be disembodied from its caveats.

“My alarm bell is that sloppy and questionable academic research has the power to influence many people. Prejudice and ignorance may be reinforced. Media representations may then support such misconceptions, and hence feed into and trigger political action that has the capacity to create more problems. We do need education for early childhood; education for life; education for healing. But please not education that is fatally flawed (Atkinson 2006:22).”

If you break down existing systems whatever they are, you need to replace them with something viable and support the process of change. Better that systemic change occurs gradually towards a commonly agreeed target as inclusively as possible.

“Overall, the constant message passed to the Inquiry was that as traditional Aboriginal and missionary-imposed norms regarding sex broke down, they were being replaced with rampant promiscuity among teenagers. Teenagers no longer saw themselves as bound by the “old ways” and many viewed the modern world as “lawless”. One Yolgnu Elder told the Inquiry: ‘For young people today having sex is like fishing, and they throw that fish back when they finished.’ Such behaviour was seen as being encouraged by the dominant non-Aboriginal culture. The Inquiry was told in one community that the Elders were trying to teach the young people about staying with the “right skin” and getting “married” at the right time. At the same time, the Inquiry was told, the local health centre was distributing condoms and telling them they could have sex with anyone they want at any time as long as they wore a condom. “

As a footnote to this post, I visited the Cook Islands at Christmas and had a wonderful holiday in a beautiful location. I also had the pleasure of meeting local people and spending a lot of time with the family of my daughter’s boyfriend. One striking thing was the complexity of the local culture and family relationships, the significance of family land, the relationships between the different island groups within the Cook Islands, and the multi-layered integration of missionary and island cultures.

And at a level just below the surface were the multifaceted problems arising from lack of job opportunities, poor nutrition, alcohol abuse, and demographic distortion based on most young people leaving the island for “a better life” in New Zealand or Australia. I found it ominous to see Chinese workers being imported to build government buildings and tourist resorts – the influx of money and tourists is great for the economy, but not necessarily for the Islanders in that economy.

There are many complex problems bubbling below the surface in the Cook Islands, but there are also no obvious quick-fix solutions. The more I looked, the more complexity I saw, and the greater the depth of local customs and culture. I also noticed that local Islanders (some of whom had actively chosen to return to the Islands, others of whom had specifically chosen not to leave their home) were deeply aware of the problems and quite capable of articulating them, and were looking to instigate their own community-based solutions. I was very aware that I cannot possibly know more about their needs than they do themselves. A desire to help is one thing – the ability to be helpful is entirely a different thing. A first step is understanding the complexity of the problem. The next would be the willingness to work collaboratively and inclusively – as for any serious undertaking, that would require the time and effort to understand the island culture and be accepted into it. I realise that, although there might be many ways I could “help”, they would mostly be small gestures not lasting contributions. I hope that some of the people we met in our very brief visit (including a policeman and his family, a mountain-tour guide, a bank worker, various cricket teams, a dance group coordinator, a New Zealand ex-nurse, a diving instructor) can find a way to keep the community strong and address some of the underlying problems along the way.

I am finally understanding one of my (very wise) grandmother’s favourite sayings “Charity begins at home”. I used to think it had something to do with looking after family first, as a somewhat ironic justification of not having to give other people your money!! I thought it fitted with another of her sayings: “If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”, in a penny-pinching, frugal way. I now understand these sayings as they relate to values, not money (as I’m sure my grandmother meant them).

If we show respect and care (charity) for the people in our home (our family, friends and local community), we will not need to rely on the kindness of strangers. Furthermore, if we show respect and care as a habit within our home, this habit is likely to stay with us on a broader scale. And if we share our home with others, we are also beginning our charity at home. As for the second saying: if we take care of the little things (whether they be pennies and pounds, or the small things relating to respect and care), the bigger things (respect and care across the broader community) will take care of themselves. Maybe complex problems really do have simple solutions.

Sensory neuroscience revisited

In the past week or so, I have been immersed in my first sensory neuroscience conferences for 10 years (and ironically, they managed to overlap by half a day which was a bit unfortunate). The lead-up to these conferences has been somewhat frantic due to the fact that our year-long project on Simulations in Early Pilot Training required an extra month’s work to address a few extra issues.

I hope to find time to write a few more substantive posts about the various strands of ideas generated by these conferences, but the upshot was that although much has changed in sensory neuroscience, much has not. The ideas that have been percolating away in my mind while I have been occupied by elearning and simulation mirror some of the major developments in the mainstream of cognitive neuroscience, and the time is ripe for the application to training of learning principles firmly grounded in cognitive neuroscience.

It’s all very exciting. Watch this space for updates of ideas (although this always takes longer than I think it will …)

The more we learn, the less we know?

When I first started learning taekwondo, I didn’t really think of myself as a “martial artist”, I didn’t feel like part of the martial arts community, nor did I see myself as a core part of my own taekwondo school. This is not a reflection on USMA or the people within it, because it is a most welcoming school for students of all ages and from all backgrounds. It is much more about the way in which I viewed myself, my capabilities, and my reasons for being there, compared with the way in which I viewed the other students in the school on these dimensions.

The initial phase of learning for me was very focussed on the pragmatic aspects of learning sequences of movements and techniques – where to put my hands and feet and how to coordinate the most basic of actions. A blog of my “journey in taekwondo” was really a bit like a homework diary on learning something as an outsider with no particular skill at it, and recording my experience in an easily accessible place in case other people like me wanted to know some of the things a novice might need to learn (eg what are the movements in 3 step sparring? what is the student oath? etc). I have received a few emails from complete strangers asking exactly these sorts of things.

However, as I mastered performance of these physical aspects to a greater or lesser degree, I began to understand how much more depth there is in each movement than just the basic physical execution. I also started to understand some of the theoretical aspects of the martial art and to start seriously considering the philosophical underpinnings of martial arts in general. This was in the context of my own research work in cognitive science, but also in the context of teaching and learning, and in terms of my own understanding of morality and social justice.

The “journey” stopped being a purely physical one in terms of how to kick and punch and learn my patterns and perform in front of an audience, and has become much more of a philosophical one focussed on how these things fit with in with “moral culture”, discipline and ways of thinking. I also started to get to know my fellow students and to become an insider within the school. I can no longer comment on martial arts as an outsider or observer, as I am now very much part of the USMA community, and through this association, with the broader taekwon-do community. I am no longer anonymous, and my views, while still my own, are no longer *just my own* – as an assistant instructor at USMA, even my personal views will reflect on the school itself, as will my personal conduct in the rest of my life. In particular, any views I have on instruction or hierarchy or NGBs or martial arts politics will to some extent be taken to reflect on my own Instructor irrespective of whether they align with his views. In any event, in the martial arts world it is probably not appropriate for a first dan to comment on such matters publically.

At this point in my “taekwon-do journey”, I see taekwon-do as a martial art, and see a martial art as a way of life which does not neatly turn off when I leave the dojang. Similarly, my professional life as a cognitive scientist and psychologist does not magically turn off outside the office and nor does the belief system and ethical position attached to it. And I remain a mother, daughter, friend and colleague for various people whether I’m in the dojang or my office or not. The trick is how to reconcile the disparate views of the world encompassed in these various roles and relationships and make an integrated whole. The more we learn, the more we see how different ideas might relate to each other and how much more there is to know in order to understand the world. The more people we know, the more we are exposed to different ways of looking at the world.

And the more we know people, the more we know the myriad ways we can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented despite our best intentions, and the best intentions of others. Audience matters, and although I am willing to defend most of what I say in public or private, sometimes it is important to know the motivation and intent of the potential audience.

Of course, having said that, you might well ask why on earth I would keep a blog on the internet if I care about who might be in my audience? It’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer. Probably because I think it is important to hold our views up for scrutiny, even just the self-scrutiny involved in writing them down. And the web was the tool of a much smaller (mostly academic) community when I first started using it.

More importantly though, I think that I am identifying the fact that, as taekwon-do for me has moved from being an “activity” to a “way of life”, my taekwon-do blog has evolved from being a blog about “ooh wow, great excitement, I broke a board”, and “here are 5 2-step sparring drills to remember” to a blog of thoughts about how we live, how we learn, and how we relate to each other. These are much more personal insights which at some level involve other people in my life and so require a greater level of thought in terms of how (and whether) they should be written.

Perhaps as I start training seriously for my second dan grading, my taekwon-do views will become more focused on specifics that are more publically sharable. There’s nothing like a grading to focus the mind – and, as I write, I suspect the frequency of my blog posts is actually most closely related to the frequency of gradings … an self-insight that is worth re-considering in the broader context of teaching and learning.