Monday, 7 September 2015

Implications of a Situated Intelligence in Education

One of the big shocks I got in philosophy was reading Bertrand Russell's Analysis of Mind.  If you can get through it, you come to the startling realization that we are barely conscious at all.  Russell does a thorough job of demystifying how our minds work.

With The Singularity looming, a number of films attempt to
imagine what a super-human intelligence would look like.
If you can imagine a being with the mental capacity to be constantly self-aware and conscious, you begin to see just how different from us it would be.  We have flashes of self awareness, moments of conscious consideration, but more often than not we fall back on instinct and autonomic processes.  An always on intelligence would never surrender a decision to involuntary reflex, but we do it all the time.  Basic processes aren't the only thing at stake here.  If you've ever found yourself in your driveway but unable to remember the drive home, you're performing complex mental and physical processes without conscious thought.

That greater intelligence is able to consider and respond in non-reflexive ways to all physical and mental challenges.  Practice is what we use to get around our limited ability to attend to the world around us.  With sufficient muscle memory from repetitive action, we are able to do pretty amazing things with our limited attention spans, but we have to offload cognitive capacity to our muscles and the world around us to achieve it.

The idea that we are dislocated minds that exist metaphysically is one of the last remnants of pre-Enlightenment thinking.  From souls to Descartes' ghost-in-the-machine, we've long cherished the idea that our selves exist beyond the mundane world in which we find ourselves.  But the very idea of a self only happens because its situated in reality.  Context, rather than self awareness, is what gives us the continuity required to acquire a sense of self.  Your 'youness' isn't a magical property that exists in the ether, it's a consequence of your mind interacting with the world around you.  What you think of as your mind is actually a network that expands beyond your head and through your body into the world around you.

A skilled person recognizes this process and 'jigs' their environment, using their surroundings to support their work.  You see this in everything from a scientist's lab to a short-order cook's kitchen, to a teacher's classroom; they all design their work environment to allow them to do their jobs better (assuming they are good at what they do, of course).  In extreme jobs, like professional sports, this jigging takes on almost talismanic power.  Our psychology places a lot of value in how effectively our immediate surroundings can be used to serve us.   Our intelligence leaks out into the world, forming it to our will, unless we intentionally block it.

I took that advice to heart.
Jigging of their environment is a window into student learning.  As a teacher you can see how thoroughly a student understands a process by how well they manipulate their environment.  The student who can't find the right tool for the job probably doesn't understand the job very well.  My father always used to give me a hard time for leaving his workshop in a mess.  I get it now.  If you can't find a tool when you're in the middle of a complex task, you won't be able to perform the task well.  My father's assessment of the dirty shop was actually an assessment of my understanding of the craft of mechanic.

True mastery learning requires an advanced practitioner to
jig their working environment to produce complex work.
This isn't that.
The stock classroom is a Cartesian throwback to the disassociated minds myth: our minds are magical buckets which we can fill with information.  But of course they aren't, they are fractured, non-continual biological processes designed to interact with the world around them.  A human mind only blossoms in the presence of an interactive reality.  You have to shed the myth of mind to see the absurdity of the typical classroom.

If education is going to adapt to this simple truth, it needs to recognize that learning isn't confined to mental processes.  Even cognitively focused courses of study, like mathematics, are recognizing that tangible representation improves student learning.  If you teach students like brains in boxes, you don't get too far.

Recognizing tangibles in teaching concepts is only the first part of this incorporation of an accurate philosophy of mind in learning.  The real power comes in creating learning environments that encourage student control.  If you're teaching anything sufficiently complicated, then allowing students control of their learning environment will only improve their chances of mastery.  It also allows teachers a vital insight into how well a student understands the material they are learning.  If a student arranges to use a chainsaw to sharpen a pencil, you have to doubt their grasp of the subject at hand.  If a student begins a project and finds they have nothing that they need to complete it (which happens frequently in building electronic circuits in my lab), you have a better understanding of just how little they know.  The worst thing we can do is what we do now, put students in institutionally designed spaces that demand conformity and tell them to do it in their heads... and then agonize over engagement.


Bertrand Russell, On Mind
Finishing off Descartes' ghosts
Rene Descartes, ghost in the machine
If we can't have souls, we can have magical, metaphysical minds!
Matt Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head
A modern dismantling of Enlightenment ideology that has run wild
I recently attended Stratford's Possible Worlds.  
It plays on a conceit that you see in a lot of drama (Jacob's LadderInceptionThe Matrix), that we would be incapable of realizing that the world around us isn't real.  This conceit trivializes reality and sends us back into that superstitious state of magical minds.

I'd argue that our existence actually precedes and produces our intelligence.  We wouldn't be what we are if we were brains in boxes being fed information; reality defines our intelligence.  I had a lot of trouble getting into Possible Worlds because it used science and tech babble to lead the audience through a fractured dreamscape, depending on our belief in magical minds to suspend our disbelief.