In world of infinite overlapping possibility and multiple, irreconcilable differences, what does #education mean?

I was invited to speak to #Gilbfest, an annual conference that’s been running for many years. The topic this year was Education, not something I really know about as a field.

But my presentation was on how to educate people who are dealing with true #complexity – the space of my work in systems | cybernetics | complexity in public | service | transformation

My slides are attached and the text of the speech is linked below.


Here’s the outline:

1. The world as we understand it is unending nebulosity and potentially infinite pattern

2. Our understanding is progressing neither linearly nor spirally.

Instead, it is unfurling, unfolding: greebling, to be precise.

3. Education in this context is continually contested and fractally ramifying #sensemaking.

4. This has many implications, but that main one is that we should judge education by the value created for stakeholders (this is fittingly complex and circular).

5. My humble submission is that education:

a) should admit and be founded on this reality of the ongoing unfolding of complexity of the universe; be based on #metarationality

b) should be rich in boundary ideas / threshold concepts

c) should be adult, peer, and action learning oriented

6. My practice in the RedQuadrant tool shed tries to follow these principles – supporting #creativity, #innovation and effectiveness


I’d love to hear comments and reflections.

Slides:


Education for the greebling

Benjamin Taylor for Gilbfest 2021

First, I am highly unqualified to speak on education. I hold few qualifications of any merit, have spent relatively little time in or around formal education – though I have done some teaching – and I am deeply sceptical of formal accreditation and, indeed, quantification of anything in this space (pace Tom, I wouldn’t know why to start with that). Being raised the son of two teachers was enough to put me off.

And yet I find myself dealing with three interlocking challenges:

  • building the knowledge, understanding, practice of the field of systems/cybernetics/complexity in
    • the world
    • my organisation
    • my clients

These three challenges turn out to be educational challenges.

And my university tutor did, after all, recommend teaching to me: he said (kindly) that my qualities were leadership, lateral thinking, and creativity – which I was happy to agree with, I just didn’t agree with the ‘teaching’ implication.

My talk covers:

  1. The world as we understand it is unending nebulosity and potentially infinite pattern
  2. Our understanding is progressing neither linearly nor spirally. Instead, it is unfurling, unfolding: greebling, to be precise.
  3. Education in this context is continually contested and fractally ramifying sensemaking.
  4. This has many implications, but that main one is that we should judge education by the value created for stakeholders (laudate Tom) – this is fittingly complex and circular.
  5. My humble submission is that education:
    a) should admit and be founded on this reality of the ongoing unfolding of complexity of the universe; metarationality (debatable)
    b)should be rich in boundary ideas / threshold concepts
    c)should be adult, peer, and action learning oriented
  6. My practice in the RedQuadrant tool shed

So let me take a step back and start with my cosmology. I claim that:

1. The world as we understand it is unending nebulosity and potentially infinite pattern.

  • All rationalism is contextual
  • People who think they operate in the world of facts make me sad. Establishing facts is one thing; adducing meaning turns out to be important in most decision-making involving people. The only meaningful world(s) are the worlds of meaning. This is more power to the scientists, not less.
(Diagram: David Chapman – www.meaningness.com / www.metarationality.com)

  • In addition to the nice schema above, Meaning is based on (deep breath):
    • both rational and non-rational, embedded judgement
    • society, traditions, habits, embodiment,
    • language
    • framing
    • perspective
    • intent
    • context
    • interpretation
    • memory
    • level of hierarchy and level of abstraction of of focus
    • understanding
    • ‘mere reason’
    • Bongard games are a nice practical proof
  • My understanding of the situatedness of rationality came from Nietzsche, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Chapman. I see it very much as ‘transcend and include’. We might say that if the thesis modernist/rationalist, and the antithesis is post-modernist undermining, the metarational is the clear-eyed synthesis. This means that you need to ‘master rationalism’ (I have not!) to avoid swimming in a sea of pre/post confusion – the problem with so much post-/meta- and complexity thinking. It is always worth saying that pursuing rationalism with true dedication will take you to its limits and foundations. And then you’re going to go ‘well, how do I apply rationalism to its own foundations? And either break down, and/or break through to a different understanding. This is the story of adult development, and also the story of Terry Pratchett’s bromeliad/tree frog)

2. Our understanding is progressing neither linearly nor spirally. Instead, it is unfurling, unfolding: greebling, to be precise.

  • Concepts
    • Greebling
      • In its original use, it refers to adding details (often taken from existing modelling kits, as affordances) to Star Wars spaceships to give them an appearance of size and organic detail; ‘guts on the outside’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greeble – now it is used in all kinds of fun ways, with ‘degreebling’ meaning to get to (and potentially steal) the essence of an idea. Most business books and conference presentations are mostly greebling.
      • Greebling implies more: more dimensions, more sensors, more pre-adaptation or affordance or exaption
    • More, more dimensions, more sensors, more pre-adaptation or affordance or exaption
      • More dimensions, irreducibility:
        • ‘The world is not a theorem’ – Kauffman and Roli https://bit.ly/3nHSNUe which, broadly, argues against a deterministic/mechanistic view (or the competence of such) through the point of view of affordances (affordances from Gibson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affordance): “affordances elude a formalization in mathematical terms: we argue that it is not possible to apply set theory to affordances, therefore we cannot devise a mathematical theory of affordances and the evolution of the biosphere.”
        • And his KLI lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWo7-azGHic which goes further, talking about preadaptation as a comparable mechanism (still with the anti-mechanistic focus; but if we compare ‘unfurling’ to the rolling-out of a fern, we can see that there will, of course, be one level of description at which a mechanistic analysis is possible – and, as always, it will describe not explain)
        • (And, obviously, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or perhaps better Tarski’s undefinability theorem)
      • More ways to understanding and sensemaking worlds: incommensurability: Barry Oshry, John Seddon, Stafford Beer
    • one prospect of ‘systems change’ approaches is applying this self-reference, self- awareness, self-adaption at a wider level still.
  • just as “the universe peoples” (Watts), “we see the coupling of brain and environment as a unified field of self-organizing processes” (Chalmers and Clarke)
  • and – it’s embarrassing I should have to say this, but I think I might – this is not a collapse into solipsism or relativism – this actually is saying nothing about truth claims; we are talking in the field of meaning.

3. Education in this context is continually contested and fractally ramifying sensemaking.

  • I work in management consultancy, public services, and with systems/complexity/cybernetics approaches.
  • In these contexts, you are dealing with multiple perspectives, multiple dimensions, fractal realities, and incommensurability of goals – truly the ‘swampy lowlands’ (Schon)

4. This has many implications, but that main one is that we should judge education by the value created for stakeholders (laudate Tom) – this is fittingly complex and circular. (Further clauses are just greebling)

5. My humble submission is that education

a) should admit and be founded on this reality of the ongoing unfolding of complexity of the universe; metarationality

  • This is debatable, even if it is reality: the Total Perspective Paradox (Douglas Adams) and the importance of reductive science are critical – we don’t want people to realise we’re flying through space at 1,000 miles an hour held to the earth only by a mysterious force called ‘gravity’, they might panic and fall off (Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl https://twitter.com/antlerboy/status/1406748710508371971?s=20)

b) should be adult, peer, and action learning oriented – a weakness of my current thinking is a lack of explicitly encompassing the group, the social.

6. My practice

  • two of my favourite quotes:
    • ‘to understand is to know what to do’ Wittgenstein
    • ‘I can only know what I should do if I can first answer the question: of what story, or stories, do I find myself a part?’ Alasdair MacIntyre
  • So, the RedQuadrant toolshed is an approach both to aggregating the perspectives, theories, and tools which have proven useful at doing parts of the work, and creating a learning context which first elucidates this meta-contextual situation, then uses adult, peer, and action learning to help people develop their own fitness for the work. It is by no means a neat and compleat solution – but it has proven to be a useful direction of travel.

  • Participant quotes
    • “Bongard games really illustrated the fact that organisations can be complex and made up of lots of different “patterns”. Its important that individuals within organisations are able to think about context to see and understand these patterns and how they impact across our different systems. Without finding the links to patterns, it becomes impossible to fully understand the full context in which we are working in and the situations which we are addressing.”
    • “Meta-contextuality shows the possibilities of parties understanding the context of their own world as well as the circumstances others are working and living in. This is where the role of the consultant is key in terms of helping people to make sense at this level. It is also crucial that we understand the situation from our service users point of view to truly understand what works and where the complexities are.”

  • And we are teaching epistemic humility – the limits of the rational
    • How does metarationality supervene on a context?
    • Rationality operates through decontextualization –stripping, isolating, formalising, understanding situations abstractly – metarationality adds all that context and purpose back (which has some parallels to to Nora Bateson’s ‘warm data’), and looks at how the formal structure is concretely relating to the context etc…
    • You can see this in Lipsky – the street-level bureaucrat, or any ethnography of science or other ‘rational’ practice.
    • Rationality abstracts from context and therefore is more likely (apparently paradoxically) to be constrained/controlled by context. Metarationality is more humble with regard to context, and therefore potentially more empowered (like de-centring humans/the world/the sun or other supposed paradigm shifts)
    • So it’s a second order and a critical perspective
      • By recognising it is locked in to framings, it becomes freer
      • By being humble, it becomes more powerful

  • So we are providing a metasystem which, as in management cybernetics:
    • sets the frame of reference for the system (but does so knowingly and intentionally)
    • identifies the implications of emergence from the system
    • balances future and present to maintain identity

  • This is a wider, polycentric, heterarchical frame of reference – a collective journey (https://blog.collectivejourney.com/), perhaps, not a hero’s journey

  • We might say – akin to the metarationality diagram – that in human activity systems, and all kinds of systems we can manage or steer, the practical point is how to create systems that reduce or absorb complexity at the boundary (transduction, amplification, and attenuation), so that certain variables stay within manageable limits on the inside, so that you can treat what should be seen as an ‘open’ system as, practically speaking, a fairly closed one, and therefore act in more productive ways. This ‘understanding the openness of the system, in order to create a more closed system’ is one way I understand ‘closed to energy but not to information’ in the definition of cybernetic systems (here I am probably committing some technical errors!)

  • We are also sharing boundary ideas and threshold concepts:
    • Threshold concepts, or gateway ideas, are ideas that, once you get them, change your way of thinking permanently. There’s no going back. And you’re stuck with it.
    • But they open up and create new realities
      • Realising that ‘you’re not the child your parents had in mind’ (as Peter Block says) is a big one.
      • Deep systems insights like power+systems dynamics or the Viable Systems Model are very much in this category.
      • Understanding that aggression often comes from being wounded and attempting to protect that wound.
    • Meyer and Land, the scholars of this, say
      • “‘Threshold Concepts’ may be considered to be “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway” that opens up “previously inaccessible way[s] of thinking about something”
    • This doesn’t mean they are Eternal Truths For The Ages – it means that they change something in you – and as Marshall McLuhan said, ‘every extension is an amputation’. Good threshold concepts empower, inspire, and transcend and include.
    • I think that my RedQuadrant tool shed is full of these kinds of concepts, the things which shaped my thinking and which I never looked back from.

In any case, I’ve learned that the best way for me to learn is to try to work and be around smart people; hence why I’m here today!

So that was my talk:

  1. The world as we understand it is unending nebulosity and potentially infinite pattern
  2. Our understanding is progressing neither linearly nor spirally. Instead, it is unfurling, unfolding: greebling, to be precise.
  3. Education in this context is continually contested and fractally ramifying sensemaking.
  4. This has many implications, but that main one is that we should judge education by the value created for stakeholders (laudate Tom) – this is fittingly complex and circular.
  5. My humble submission is that education:
    a) should admit and be founded on this reality of the ongoing unfolding of complexity of the universe; metarationality (debatable)
    b)should be rich in boundary ideas / threshold concepts
    c)should be adult, peer, and action learning oriented
  6. My practice in the RedQuadrant tool shed

Additional links and references shared in the session:

On the game theory – and the fact that a reframing of the game – breaking the rules or playing off the board (or, in some cases, playing in a highly asymmetrical way that creates surprising optimisation) – is the only way to consistently win a stable game – which then leads to a reformulation of the game at a new high level (a greebling level):

  • Daniel Schmachtenberger https://twitter.com/search?q=Daniel+Schmachtenberger+antlerboy
  • A good listenable podcast on actual cybersecurity is Risky Business with Patrick Gray out of NZ
  • A really fun on is The Darknet Diaries (stories of hacking – which emphasise the extent of social engineering!)
  • Another great podcast is the one from the US national spy museum – SpyCast

Barry Oshry, Viable Systems Model, and other links – a very rough and partial draft systems thinking reading list: https://stream.syscoi.com/2020/05/06/a-very-rough-and-partial-draft-systems-thinking-reading-list/

Benjamin Taylor

June 2021

2 thoughts on “In world of infinite overlapping possibility and multiple, irreconcilable differences, what does #education mean?

  1. Well, thanks. Responding to your comments on your blog now.
    It could be shorter, but that was just the way my thoughts unfurled 😉

    Like

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