The Wisdom of Jerome Bruner in “The Culture of Education”: Book Review

Education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture  —Jerome Bruner

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THE CULTURE OF EDUCATION, Jerome Bruner, Harvard Univ. Press, 1996

The Culture of Education presents nine thought-provoking essays on the subject of cultural psychology and its implications for education. The essays embody Bruner’s experience, knowledge and wisdom of the science of learning, and culture’s influence on teaching and learning.  A scholar of psychology, Bruner defines cultural psychology as a system that describes how humans make sense of their world. A cultural approach to education describes how the mind works—the science of learning with culture. In Bruner’s words the theory of education lies at the intersection “between the nature of mind and the nature of culture”.

The essays are still relevant in today’s context with the abundance of educational technology. Bruner provides a unique construct for thinking about technology. He describes how humans make sense of the world—where learning and thinking are dependent upon cultural settings and the use of cultural artifacts. Thinking of educational technology as artifacts of culture, and learning as dependent on culture—puts technology in a different perspective. Technology as part of culture suggests education needs to embrace technology, as according to Bruner learning is always dependent upon the cultural setting and its resources. Technology in education settings, as many have already argued, needs to be closely linked with pedagogy (Anderson & Dron, 2011Okajie et al., 2014).

In the first essay, Culture, Mind, and Education, Bruner devotes significant discussion upfront to contrasting theories that describe learning. Bruner is critical of the information processing theory or what he calls ‘computationalism’—comparing the mind to a computational device. Bruner proceeds to methodically outline how the psycho-cultural approach addresses learning via ten tenets that each include, to varying degrees culture’s influence and theory of the mind—cognitivism.  Bruner argues each tenet elegantly; none better than number seven—the institutional tenet.  The institution refers to all types of institution, each embodying a distinct culture reflected in symbols, stories and power figures. Complex structures within institutions Bruner argues, leads to coercion, power struggles which are especially detrimental for entities responsible for education. Bruner concludes that any efforts towards improvement (reform) by education institutions must involve teachers; teachers are critical and central to reform efforts.

Several of the essays quite practical in nature, focus on how to teach effectively. The second essay Folk Pedagogy brings in to the open the idea that teachers do not always approach teaching and learning effectively. Teachers (and students) bring with them to the classroom pre-conceived ideas of how learning happens, explained in part by ingrained cultural beliefs about how the mind works.  Bruner outlines in his methodical manner four models of the mind based on pre-conceived ideas, and the related education goals of each. Bruner suggests that by examining and evaluating each carefully, we are then able to rethink our approach to education. Pedagogy is not innocent Bruner states—it’s a medium that carries its own message (page 63).  The latter statement is an example of how powerful and deep Bruner’s ideas are.  The remaining essays are just as stimulating as the first two. Each presents a dimension of education worth examining. Each challenges the reader to think about teaching and education from a different viewpoint, sometimes several.

Closing Thoughts
The Culture of Education deserves a place on every educator’s bookshelf. Bruner is a remarkable scholar, author and man. At ninety-nine years of age his contributions to the study and advancement of education are numerous. As recently as 2011 Bruner participated in Arizona State University’s Inside the Academy program via an interview. The Culture of Education is just one of Bruner’s many works well worth studying; it’s an indispensable guide to finding answers to today’s toughest questions about education.

Educational encounters, to begin with, should result in understanding, not mere performance. pg. xi

“Spreadable Media” — How its Relevant to Education

The media industries understand that culture is becoming more participatory, that the rules are being rewritten and relationships between producers and audiences are in flux.” (page 35)

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spreadablemedia.org

I recently read “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture”.  Its focus (not surprisingly) is social media; how people consume and engage with content via various channels of social media and its effects on business, entertainment and other sectors. It addresses how meaning and value are created from content that is spread; ‘spread’ meaning sharing of content not just between people, but within communities. Content, the authors suggest, is shaped even manipulated throughout the spreading process.

It’s a dense read. The lead author Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at USC, wrote the book with two digital strategists, Ford and Green. The book aims to “build understanding and conversation among three groups of readers: media scholars, communication professionals, and citizens who actively produce and share media content”. I’d say that there is quite a bit to discuss and not just for those involved in media studies. It’s applicable to education, more so given that social media platforms are used with greater frequency by students and instructors to connect with, consume and create education content.

Several of the book’s sub themes address topics educators and institutions are wrestling with, particularly those offering any form of online education. For instance engagement topic of chapter three—The Value of Media Engagement explores engagement from the perspective of market value, recently a topic of discussion among MOOC providers (Dodd, 2014). Building on the engagement theme, chapter four What Constitutes Meaningful Participation explores the changing relationship between producers and consumers, another parallel to education, as more students seek to be actively involved in a course’s content development—to co-create with instructors and other students. Both chapters offer insight into the issues in context of education, even though authors draw upon examples primarily from the business and entertainment sectors—the applicability is hard to miss.

Lurking
One discussion in chapter three addresses the behavior known as ‘lurking’, a topic of concern when it comes to MOOCs and online courses. Lurkers are students that typically don’t participate or contribute to asynchronous discussion forums, or engage in a real-time video conferencing sessions or other chat venues, yet are reading and/or watching—they are consuming content. Lurking is viewed negatively, or at least as a challenging behaviour by course instructors. More so in courses that require students to participate for course credit. Lurking in connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) also doesn’t go over well, particularly with other MOOC students (Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013). Jenkins, Ford & Green attempt to reframe lurking behaviour. They discuss barriers to online participation and suggest there might be opportunity to scaffold learning, or at scale least levels of participation (p. 158).

The authors portray “lurkers” (the bane of online communities where the vast majority of members who only consume others’ information without contributing any of their own) as only learning and biding their time until they too understand the rules and start to participate. In Chapter 5 they even describe what makes materials sharable. This will help me to completely rethink the development of content rather than just to focus on why community members are either engaged or not.”  T. Sales, Amazon Reviewer of “Spreadable Media”

Startling Parallel: Audience Fragmentation
Authors discuss engagement specific to television audiences, yet the similarity between television consumers and participants in education (particularly those engaging in open learning) is strong.  Beginning on page 116 the authors address the challenges the media industry is facing due to audiences consuming content across multiple channels e.g television, mobile devices, or DVRs. This behaviour, according to the authors, fragments the audience, an audience that traditionally consumed content via one channel—television. The audience has since splintered in response, and the result?— people consuming the same content on a variety channels creating smaller audiences. This fragmentation makes it difficult for providers to gauge the value of the different audience groups—to establish an appropriate pricing model.

Note the similarities to the education sector. Education, at one time used two distribution channels for content, 1) the instructor in a physical location delivering content to student, and 2) the textbook. It’s no longer the case. Today education content has numerous distribution channels, for example open education resources (OER) via the web, MOOC providers, textbook companies, closed, fee-based education platforms, Khan Academy and the likes. These channels suggest a fragmentation of the education sector—similar to what’s happening the media industry. It’s not surprising that MOOC providers are finding it a challenge to settle on a viable business model.

Even among those who understand that developing business models around such engagement is key, there has been little consensus on how, or even which, measures of engagement are valuable or how to agree on a model… (p. 116).

Closing Thoughts 
“Spreadable Media” puts forth several relevant and thought-provoking concepts specific to our digital culture. The book on the surface seems more applicable to business decision makers, marketers and media scholars given the numerous references to marketing and entertainment examples, however, the parallels to education though subtle are striking making it a worthwhile and interesting read.

Resources

An Essential Read for Online Education Decision Makers: “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education”

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By Gary Miller, Meg Benke , Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz & Karen Swan

“Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education” published in 2014 by Stylus Publishing in association with The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) is the first book in a planned series about distance education.

Overview The book is current and relevant; “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education” is an invaluable if not essential resource for leaders and decision makers in online education, though anyone involved with the development or implementation of an online learning strategy for a higher education or K-12 institution will find it an excellent resource. The themes are familiar—e-learning effectiveness and quality, support for faculty success, student success and retention, and the impact of online learning programs has on an institution’s traditional programs. What sets this book apart and makes it exceptionally valuable is the diversity of perspectives from the authors—seven leaders in distance education representing five higher education institutions and the Online Learning Consortium.

The book aims to guide and support leaders as they make decisions about online learning including how to overcome barriers and implement change. The purpose of the text is to provide readers with new perspectives on online program implementation and skill development for approaching education transformation proactively. 

Each author brings experience and a perspective to the topic of online learning that gives readers insight into a variety of models and organizational structures for setting up their own online education programs. Organizational structure and culture, influence on traditional institutions are discussed at length, as are standards of quality for online education including the framework for the Five Pillars of quality online education.

Highlights The book is divided into sections categorized by three principal themes: Part One: “Leading Change: Making the Match Between Leadership and Institutional Culture”, Part Two: “Ensuring Operational Excellence” and Part Three: “Sustaining Innovation”. Each features three or four chapters dedicated to a topic that addresses current and real challenges institutions face as they seek to adapt and transform within the constraints of institutional culture, policies and administrative issues. Each offers instructive insights and practical alternatives for consideration. Below I’ve included highlights of one chapter from each section.

In Part One, Chapter Two:The Impact of Organizational Contextoutlines in detail five very different programs of online education in higher education institutions. The five examined: 1) The Pennsylvania University World Campus, 2) University of Illinois at Springfield, 3) Empire State College, 4) Rio Salado College and 5) the American Public University System.  The leaders’ views are examined within each of the programs’ institutions on the leadership challenges, culture shifts, attitudes of faculty and impact of business models. The leaders’ responses in comparison with each other is instructive and enlightening.

In Part Two, Chapter Six: “Supporting Faculty Success” suggests that the skills and competencies required by faculty are contextualized to the culture, practices and administrative structure of the online initiative of the institution. I agree with the authors— culture and administrative structure pose a significant barrier in many instances. There is gap between what is needed and what most institution  provide in the way of support and skill development for faculty and instructors teaching online. This issue, the chapter emphasizes, is central to effective online education delivered by an institution.

The challenge for the institutions is to understand and address the needs of the online instructor and create appropriate programs and support services and policies that help develop the competencies necessary for online teaching success (p. 109)

In Part Three, Chapter Ten: “Policy Leadership in e-learning” discusses the multiple challenges e-learning growth has had on policy at the federal, state and institutional level. Policy remains a barrier and threat to the growth and success of e-learning the authors’ state, and they outline five policy issues that pose real barriers to online education now, that have emerged within the past ten years. The five identified and discussed are: 1) tuition, 2) transfer credit, 3) state and campus budgeting and allocation, 4) federal and state financial aid, and 5) student support services.

Closing No doubt, one can see the value this book holds for leaders of e-learning education.  What’s also helpful to the reader is the organization of the book, which makes it  unnecessary to read it from beginning to end; readers can choose to read chapters of interest and relevance. Though I suggest that all chapters are relevant to anyone involved in online education programming.

Resources:

What Educators and Policy Makers can Learn from “The Big Fat Surprise”

New-Nina-Book-Cover-e1399064213295What can educators learn from a book on nutrition science “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” (2014), a book that methodically debunks advice North Americans have been following for years, which is to eat a low-fat and high carbohydrate diet for optimal health? A great deal it turns out. I don’t typically feature books in this blog that stray too far from the topic of education, but “The Big Fat Surprise” is a worthy of exception. It’s a meticulously researched book that highlights how poorly designed research studies, bias, influential leaders, and the public’s unfamiliarity with the difference between causation and correlation can impact policy to the detriment of the public good.

The book is a ten-year project by author Nina Teicholz. Through analysis and extensive review of countless nutrition, medical and health studies, interviews with top nutrition scientists, and heads of government agencies responsible for nutrition and health guidelines, Teicholz uncovers the lack of credible scientific evidence that supports the link between high cholesterol associated with diet, and heart disease (p. 172 – 173)

The study that started the low-fat diet movement (accomplished by eliminating meat, butter, eggs, cheese, dairy, etc) to curb cholesterol levels, was The Seven Countries Study (1963) by Ancel Keyes. This now famous study, sought to establish a relationship between diet and coronary heart disease and stroke. However Teicholz describes in detail the deep-rooted problems and flaws of the study. Even though Keyes was careful to state in published papers, “casual relationships are not claimed” (p. 73) he was a champion for the low-fat diet throughout his career, and extremely influential with politicians and decision makers.

Long story short, populations that include children, of numerous countries have been following low-fat diets for years yet with no scientific support that suggests low-fat diets are beneficial.  Food manufacturers are heavily invested in the low-fat movement, up to one-third of product offerings feature low-fat versions. Yet heart disease rates have not declined, and worse obesity rates have risen. Which, not coincidently began to rise (1980) at the same time the United States Department of Agriculture began publishing guidelines for low-fat diets (p. 328).

How it Relates to Education
The book illustrates how flawed research, bias and misunderstanding of results led to misguided dietary recommendations by government agencies and creation of policies that were, and still are detrimental to large groups within our population. The lessons within “The Big Fat Surprise” for decision makers and influencers within any public sector, education being at the top of the list, are instructive, even enlightening. The Wall Street Journal’s review of The Big Fat Surprise written by Trevor Butterworth from George Mason University’s site stats.org puts it this way:

“… Ms. Teicholz’s book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence“.

Book Highlights 

  •  Misunderstandings are exacerbated when the public, the press, and even decision makers are unfamiliar with scientific studies, specifically the difference between causation and correlation.
  • Dissenters within a scientific community can be silenced, if not shunned when bringing forth contradictory evidence of the popular hypothesis. The book describes in detail the intricacy of relationships between key decision makers, members of the scientific community, funders of the studies (in this case food companies), and how individuals can manipulate outcomes of studies to serve their own agendas.
  • There is little doubt that readers, upon finishing the book will look at claims about proven programs and even raw data with a far more discerning eye.

Further Reading and Resources:

 

Three Bold and Fresh Ideas for Education in ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’

“The function of the What’s-Worth-Knowing Questions Curriculum is to put two ideas into clear focus. The first is that the art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge…The second idea is that question asking…has to deal with problems that are perceived as useful and realistic to the learner.” Teaching As a Subversive Activity (p 81)

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by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, first published in 1969

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” puts forth ideas about education that are radical, controversial, bold and fresh. It suggests eliminating syllabi, formal curriculum and textbooks from education settings. It introduces ideas of student-centered learning over teacher-centered teaching, and leading students to learn by asking questions, not by teachers giving lectures. The book was first published in 1969—considered radical among educators then, and today.

Hands down it’s on of the most challenging, thoughtful, practical books I’ve read about transforming education. I read it on the heels of “A New Culture of Learning” the book by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas published in 2009 (my review here). The books complement each other well; Brown and Thomas write about learning in a digital age though don’t provide specific strategies. Postman and Weingartner do. The principles in “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” are applicable and relevant today just as they were forty-five years ago—how to change education where students learn how to think, to detect ‘crap’, and to learn how-to-learn that continues beyond high school and higher education.

In this post I highlight and share with readers three themes from the book, still relevant in today’s digital culture: 1) facilitating ‘crap detection’, 2) What’s-Worth-Knowing? and 3) bold proposals. There are more than these three within the book’s 218 pages, and I plan to address at least two in future posts. One readers may find interesting is the authors’ perspective on teacher education—the methods associated with teaching content. Postman and Weingartner suggest that content and method, are considered separate processes in teacher education programs, which is according to them, the wrong approach. This idea is compelling. Look for this post in the weeks to come.

Overview
To provide some context for the book, I found it helpful to dig more into the background of Neil Postman, one of the co-authors. He’s an American educator, author, critic of media and culture. Postman is known mostly because of his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), a book about the corrosive effects of television on culture and politics. He’s written several books on education, technology and children’s development.

Postman’s style of writing is blunt. The subtitle of “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, ‘A no-holds barred assault on outdated teaching methods—with dramatic and practical proposals on how education can be made relevant to today’s world‘ gives the reader a glimpse into not only the content, but the authors’ tone. I adapted to the writing style; I tried to view the remarks about education not as criticisms but as a perspective. Though some readers of the book have dismissed the ideas because of the harsh criticisms of education practices, sometimes teachers (one can read the book reviewers comments on Amazon to get an idea). Saturday Review Magazine captures the implications of the authors’ tone and the books content in its review of the book featured on the back cover:

 “It will take courage to read this book…but those who are asking honest questions—what’s wrong with the worlds in which we live, how do we build communication bridges across the Generation Gap, what do they want from us? These people will squirm in the discovery that the answers are really within themselves”

The Three Themes

1) Cultivate learners to be experts at “Crap Detecting”
Crap detecting may sound harsh. Though what the authors suggest is that “schools serve as the principal medium for developing in youth attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism“, where schools cultivate students that are discerning, can view problems from multiple perspectives, identify what’s valid and not, and most importantly why it is so.

Is this not an essential skill for all youth in a digital age, determining what information is ‘crap’—information that is not valid or worthy of examination, yet determine what is relevant, deserves consideration, sharing and building upon (remixing)? I’d say so. The authors use a quote from an interview with Ernest Hemingway to emphasize their point:

Isn’t there any one essential ingredient that you can identify [to be a great writer]?” Hemingway replied, “Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

It seems to us that in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the school’s in today’s world.  page 3

I can’t add much more to that—relevant in 1969, and in 2014.

2) The Inquiry Method — What’s Worth Knowing?
In “A New Culture of Learning”, the concept of inquiry based learning is the fulcrum of learning in the digital age. The premise is that only when students are interested in following a path of inquiry, based on something they are passionate about, will they be motivated to learn. It’s up to educators then to harness the passion and leverage the abundance of resources to guide their learning.

This idea of inquiry learning is not new. In fact Postman may have been one of the first educators to fully develop and implement the method in a public school setting. Postman started, along with another educator, a model school dedicated to the inquiry method. The program named the “Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study” was located within the New Rochelle High School in New York. The “open school” experiment survived for 15 years. 

Two chapters discuss the inquiry method and go in great detail; chapter three, and an extension the questioning technique in ‘Whats-Worth-Knowing?‘ described in chapter five. The latter chapter stimulates much thought. Authors challenge the reader to imagine a classroom without syllabi, textbooks, and curricula. Then suggests:

 “…suppose that you decide the entire curriculum consists of questions. There questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view but, more importantly , from the point of view of the students.”

The next challenge—on a blank page that exists within the book (it really does in the hard copy), authors instruct readers to take a pencil and list questions that might be starting questions to use with students. Though authors warn, these are starting questions given that:

“…the ecology of the inquiry environment requires that the students play a central, but not necessarily exclusive role in framing questions that they deem important”

It’s a provocative exercise. I came up with six questions, though after reading the rest of the chapter, I cut it down to four.

3) Bold Proposals
I won’t cover all of the strategies, proposals and ideas presented by the authors for education transformation, given the detail of each, and for the sake of your time. There are many.  But here is where the practicality comes in where “A New Culture of Learning” left off. As I said in my previous post, “A New Culture of Learning” didn’t provide practical solutions, or ideas for application for the new ways to learn. This book does. Some seem preposterous, some not. But perhaps it is time for preposterous ideas, though one’s perspective will determine just how preposterous the ideas are. In future posts I’ll discuss ideas put forth in the book for educating teachers and about pedagogy. In another I will share a summary of the authors’ ideas for inner city schools, classroom learning and teacher roles.

Conclusion
“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” is on the top of my list of best books for educators. If read in conjunction with “A New Culture of Learning”, one can gain an in-depth view of what education transformation really is, or what it could be, and what’s needed—which is dialogue and action that is bold and fresh.

Further Reading:

A Not-so-New Recipe for “A New Culture of Learning”

book3dA New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change“, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown has stellar reviews from numerous reviewers including high-profile academics such as Cathy Davidson of Duke (CUNY in the near future), Howard Gardner of Harvard, and Henry Jenkins of USC. Though the content might be considered provocative by educators, few of the themes are startlingly new or groundbreaking. Though there is great potential in this book—as a catalyst for conversation about change in an education culture for instance, or as a window into learning in a digital age. Granted, given it’s publication date many ideas were new in 2011, including the concept of collective learning which describes MOOCs to a tee (pg. 72). Noted, the book was published one year prior the New York Time’s declaration of 2012 as The Year of the MOOC.

Brown and Thomas are well-regarded academics and authors—John Seely Brown is co-chairman for the Deloitte Center for the Edge, a visiting scholar at USC, and former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Douglas Thomas, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and is considered an expert on the culture of computer gaming.

This is not a how-to book. There are few practical examples describing how education institutions can create a new culture of learning; yet the book is an excellent primer on how and why education and learn is changing. For this reason the book holds great potential as a catalyst for conversation within education institutions. If decision-makers and stakeholders read the book it could serve as a starting point for discussions about existing education methods and approaches. It could stimulate discussion on change and its impact on students, the institution, employees and faculty. The volume lends itself to such use, as the physical book is slim at 118 pages, with wide margins that encourage the writing of notes and ideas. No question, it’s concise. Apparently this was intentional. The authors hired an editor to strip the book down to its essential points and ideas.

What is a New Culture of Learning?
Authors Seely and Brown define throughout the book what a new culture of learning entails:

So what frameworks do we need to make sense of learning in our world of constant change? The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything. The second is bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries” (p 19).

The authors describe and elaborate on the themes quite well by using real scenarios; in the instance of information abundance, they provide interesting stories that emphasize the new ways of learning where learners access and vet information within a massive network. Yet there is a disconnect. The stories describe highly motivated learners, learners that seek information and learn on their own terms not within a structured or formal environment (except for one story of a group of University students set up their own study group on Facebook).  Intrinsic motivation is also a pattern observed in xMOOCs participants in 2014, where the majority of learners hold, at the very minimum, an undergraduate degree. These xMOOC students are self-motivated learners, and already know how-to-learn. If one of the ingredients to a new culture of learning is intrinsic motivation, how then can educators develop this intrinsic motivation within their students, and at the same time leverage the massive network (the Internet) for learning?

Learning as Inquiry
The authors do suggest a solution—students learn through inquiry, rather than by instruction. This approach, the authors state, will help learners find a passion for a topic, encouraging them to seek out tough problems and work harder to solve them.

“We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their intention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them? (pg 81).

The idea of problem based learning is similar to this approach of learning via inquiry. Start with a question. An example outlined in the book describes a physics teacher using an inquiry approach to teach a physics concept with a student that loves basketball. The teacher might write out a questions such as “What is the best way to shoot a basketball?” (p 82). Yet Brown and Seely don’t get to the details of how this approach translates to the classroom. What happens when all students aren’t interested in basketball or any sport for that matter? How does inquiry based learning look in context of existing curriculum?

Though the idea of learning through inquiry that Seely and Brown present is sound in principle, and there are examples of educators using the inquiry method with students, some at the K-12 level, though fewer at the post-secondary level. Many have suggested this inside out approach to education, which starts with a question not the answer. With inquiry based learning [also known as problem based learning] teachers are learning along with students, students are engaged, and are doing.

“It is crucial to recognize that inquiry-based teaching should not be viewed as a technique or instructional practice or method used to teach a subject. Rather, inquiry starts with teachers as engaged learners and researchers with the foundational belief that the topics they teach are rich, living and generous places for wonder and exploration…Inquiry is not merely ‘having students do projects’ but rather strives to nurture deep, discipline-based way of thinking and doing with students.teachinginquiry.com

Closing Thoughts
“A New Culture of Learning” is about learning in the 21st century, it’s about information abundance, and learning in the collective. It’s also a book about change, a changing culture that influences learning. Perhaps nothing new, nothing we haven’t read or heard before, but the message will be new to some, educators or professionals that haven’t considered how digital culture, the connected network we’ve created influences students, their learning. If you are looking for a conversation starter for educators you interact with, looking to implement and champion change in an education institution, this book is for you.

Further Reading

Nicolas Carr on ‘Social Physics’…The Darker Side of Reality Mining

BigDataImageIt’s this article ‘The Limits of Social Engineering that piqued my interest this week, first because of the image featured in the article which I found appealing, then it was the reference made to Marshall McLuhan, a scholar and author I admire greatly, and finally because it was by Nicolas Carr, author of the book, “The Shallows” which I reviewed this week on my blog. But it’s the article’s unusual topic that grabbed hold of me by the collar and motivated me to share it with readers—something called ‘reality mining’.  Reality mining is an advanced branch of data mining and is central to the book “Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science that Carr reviews and draws from in his article. Carr provides a good overview of not just the book, but of the science, and hints at the potential ills of reality mining, or as the book’s author calls it ‘social physics’ (or ‘mislabeled’ it as several reviewers of the book on Amazon claim). With reality mining researchers and scientists create algorithmic models using ‘big data’ generated by human movements and behaviours tracked by mobile phones, GPS, wearable tech or tracking devices to analyze and predict social and civic behaviour. Reality mining, with the expansion of mobile phone penetration globally in the past year and now wearable internet enabled devices, is likely the next big thing in data mining. Already many experts extol the virtues of reality mining and what it can do for institutions, society and the public good. As quoted on the book’s website:

John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC):

“Read this book and you will look at tomorrow differently. Reality mining is just the first step on an exciting new journey. Social Physics opens up the imagination to what might now be measurable and modifiable. It also hints at what may lie beyond Adam Smith’s invisible hand in helping groups, organizations and societies reach new levels of meaning creation. This is not just social analytics. It also offers pragmatic ways forward.”  socialphysics.media.mit.edu/book

We can already catch a glimpse of reality mining in businesses and organizations taking shape. The WSJ featured an article this week by Deloitte that describes the target market for wearable devices which is not consumers, but organizations or ‘enterprise’.  It seems there is unlimited potential for fitting employees with these wearable tech devices to gather data to support better decision-making at the workplace.

Reality mining takes Big Data to a new level, and as Carr emphasizes Big Data can and likely will be used to manipulate our behavior. It’s the idea of manipulation in this context that is disturbing.  Several questions come to mind like this one—who makes the decisions on the actions to take to manipulate a society’s behaviour? And, based on what values?

Below researchers describe how behaviour can be manipulated, as excerpted from “Social Physics” within Carr’s article:

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Author of “Social Physics”, Alex Pentland will be teaching “Big Data and Social Physics” via the edX platform. Start date: May 12, 2014

“They go into a business and give each employee an electronic ID card, called a “sociometric badge,” that hangs from the neck and communicates with the badges worn by colleagues. Incorporating microphones, location sensors, and accelerometers, the badges monitor where people go and whom they talk with, taking note of their tone of voice and even their body language. The devices are able to measure not only the chains of communication and influence within an organization but also “personal energy levels” and traits such as “extraversion and empathy.” In one such study of a bank’s call center, the researchers discovered that productivity could be increased simply by tweaking the coffee-break schedule.”

Closing Thoughts
Like Carr, I too am somewhat wary of reality mining, or ‘social physics’.  Though in examining Marshall McLuhan’s works, who Carr refers to in the opening of his article, I find wisdom in McLuhan’s words that so accurately describe what is happening now—within the realm of big data for instance.  The website managed by McLuhan’s estate includes snippets of interviews, quotes and links to his works that are worthy of perusing and pondering. I found the quote below applicable and insightful when considered in context of reality mining.

In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in-depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.”  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (p 4)

Worth pondering, is it not?

Further Reading