12 March 2015

What's your porpoise?

In this selection of my current writing I talk about Gregory Bateson's ideas about learning. I really like how this guy thinks...

Now I shift from Vygotsky to consider porpoise behavior. The following anecdote introduces Gregory Bateson’s (2000) “double-bind” (pp. 271 - 278) theory, and his construct of “levels” of learning (pp. 279 - 308). A trainer uses a porpoise to provide demonstrations (shows) of operant conditioning to the public. During the first show the porpoise enters the tank, raises her head, hears the whistle, and her behavior is reinforced with food. The show ends and the porpoise returns to her enclosure and awaits her next show. She has learned a few rules of behavior and the context in which to exhibit it. She has learned how to deal with this single episode. But when she returns to the exhibition area and raises her head her behavior is not reinforced, and she follows with a tail flap, a typical sign of annoyance. Instead the tail fall is rewarded, repeated, rewarded, and so on. And during the next demonstration her tail flap is no longer rewarded. Through this process the porpoise comes to deal with the “context of contexts” (Bateson, 2000, p. 277) and she learns that each demonstration is asking for a novel display of behavior, not a repeat performance. The trainer emphasizes that the instance of being wrong disturbed the porpoise to such a degree that reinforcements were necessary so as not to damage the relationship between the porpoise and the trainer. Furthermore, the porpoise’s attempts to “get it right” during the first fourteen sessions were marked by futile demonstrations of the behavior rewarded in the previous session. Remarkably, during the time period between the fourteenth and fifteenth sessions, the porpoise “appeared to be much excited, and when she came on stage for the fifteenth session she put on an elaborate performance including eight conspicuous pieces of behavior of which four were entirely new—never before observed in this species of animal” (Bateson, 2000, p. 277). Bateson draws two conclusions from this story that serve to support meaning for a term that he coins, “transcontextual” (p. 272)—an experiential condition (a "double-take") characterized by the recognition of a "double-bind" (a conflict of contexts, both psychological and social). First, “Severe pain and maladjustment can be induced by putting a mammal in the wrong regarding its rules for making sense of an important relationship with another mammal” (p. 278), and second “If this pathology can be warded off or resisted, the total experience may promote creativity” (p. 278). Although this example is with a porpoise, the humanity of this somewhat cruel tale is deeply moving and illuminates some of the transformations that occur with deep learning, or what Bateson calls Level 3 learning.

The “double bind” is created when the porpoise can no longer succeed due to a change in the rules. Sense is lost. Meaning must be recreated. Bateson also uses a human analogy (a schoolchild and the 'hidden curriculum') for this phenomenon when he describes the relationship between the double-bind and his levels of learning. Although this is oversimplification, there are three levels of learning according to Bateson. Level 1 learning is trial and error learning, happens all the time, and often involves unconscious, automatic behavior—such as the intricacies of driving a car. Using the metaphor of a schoolchild, Bateson says Level 1 learning for the child in school is the formal curriculum. Level 1 learning involves the actual subject matter like reading and arithmetic. Level 2 learning involves the “hidden curriculum” of school. This is what the child learns about how to succeed in school beyond the subject-matter. How to succeed in the context of school; how to survive the lunchroom, how to please a given teacher, how to fit in with classmates, and so on. At this point there is a tension between levels 1 and 2. Experience becomes problematic and things don’t seem to add up, much like how the porpoise must have felt when her prior experience with a session conflicted with her experience in the subsequent session. Level 1 and 2 learning are going on all the time for people as they try to makes sense of the world and resolve conflict and disorder. Level 3 learning begins to happen when the pupil begins to radically question the situation. Perhaps the answer is to drop out of school and pursue life goals by some other means. The big idea here is that Level 3 is marked by “a profound reorganization of character” (Bateson, 2000, p. 301). Also and very importantly, Level 3 learning cannot be achieved in isolation; a social support mechanism must be there for the person to make a complete transition from Level 2 to Level 3. And many people spend much of their time going back and forth between Level 2 and 3. According to Bateson, even the attempt at Level 3 learning can be dangerous territory; it can lead to psychotic breaks with reality, schizophrenia. And yet, Level 3 learning can also be, for some, a milestone of intellectual development and a fundamental shift in thinking. This relationship of binds and levels is an elegant model for human development.

We might use Bateson’s idea of the double-bind and learning levels to ask questions such as: how can we design learning experiences that support successful (healthy, rewarding, transformative, equitable) level 3 leaning? And, what skills do people need to resolve Level 2 double-binds in their daily lives, at work, at school, and so on? How can Level 2 double-binds be used with systems thinking and Activity Theory?

Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000.

07 March 2015

Technology tools checklist: future proofing your tool box

image from: Sylvain Moreau
The market for technology tools is big and there's a lot to choose from. Here are some questions I like to ask when confronting the possibility of adopting a new tool into my workflow. I try to be sure the tool actually adds value to my process, especially after reflecting on some tools and how some of them seem to a needless complexity (e.g. Microsoft Word for very long documents.) Tech is great. Just make sure you are using it—and it's not using you.

So this is my checklist, scribbled out in a few minutes. That means I'll probably revise this list later.

Technology tools checklist:

  1. What am I trying to accomplish with the tool?
  2. What about the tool adds value to my process?
  3. Aren’t there alternatives? Why use this particular tool?
  4. If the tool goes away, will I still have the artifacts I made via the tool?
  5. What is the money cost of the tool? If it is a subscription tool, do I need to maintain a lifetime subscription if I want access to the artifacts I make throughout my life? If it is an institutional tool, can I access the artifacts I create with this tool after I am no longer with the institution?
  6. Is it popular? What are the chances it will be around in 10 years time?
  7. Can I export artifacts I created with this tool to more generic formats?
  8. Who owns the artifacts I create with this tool? Me? The company that made the tool? The institution that bought the tool?
  9. What’s the learning curve for the tool? How much time will I need to invest to simply learn how to use the tool (not make content)?
  10. Is there a large user-base for the tool? Community of practice around the tool?
  11. Something to consider: Tools mediate thought. Choose wisely (if you have a choice).

03 March 2015

Dewey on Public Schools in 1916

Suzanne La Follette, Benjamin Stolberg, Otto Ruehle and
John Dewey at Coyoacan in April 1937.
Big quote from Dewey (1916):
"School facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic inequalities, and secure to all the wards of the nation equality of equipment for their future careers. Accomplishment of this end demands not only adequate administrative provision of school facilities, and such supplementation of family resources as will enable youth to take advantage of them, but also such modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline as will retain all the youth under educational influences until they are equipped to be masters of their own economic and social careers.

The ideal may seem remote of execution, but the democratic ideal of education is a farcical yet tragic delusion except as the ideal more and more dominates our public system of education." (Kindle Locations 1728-1729)
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan. 

02 March 2015

Virtual trolling and toxic talk coming soon to a game platform near you

Just kidding, trolling and toxic talk in games has been around forever. But the Internet makes everything so. much. louder. In any case, here comes the Game Developers Conference 2015. Of course Oculus Rift is still making big waves of hype, along with the more concerning emergence of toxic talk and GamerGate and the misogyny demonstrated by so many gamers lately. Plus a look at the continuing trend of Freemium games and the phenomena of in-app purchases that has taken mobile gaming by storm. I don't know about you, but I swore off games that aim to hook with free gameplay only to charge the player once they've gotten into playing the game. Buyer beware is what I have to say about that! But the conference of course will be interesting with hundreds of speakers and more bootcamps that you can, well, shake a boot at. For a business perspective check out the Wall Street Journal's preliminary coverage of the event, held in the city of San Fransisco.

Toolwise, the Unreal engine has just officially become free. Great news. Now folks have one more inexpensive, quality tool for making games. File next to Unity 3D.