CCK08: Reflection for Week 3

Further Connections

In the second Ustream discussion, Dave Cormier asked for practical examples of Connectivist learning in action. George Siemens suggested classroom correspondance between students who are remotely distanced from one another; Stephen Downes suggested that students who are actively involved in communitiy initiatives, for instance, learning about building a house on-site, is a more apt example.

Though Connectivism does not claim to be replacing its theoretical predecessors, it is worth pointing out that both of these examples were around long before Connectivism, and not necessarily in the form of an activity designed to support a theoretical framework. That having been said, Glasser has already suggested that students should be involved in house-building as part of the Quality Schools initiative. Similarly, Celestin Freinet, an educator from France who was largely unknown in the English-speaking world up until recently, initiated classroom correspondances between village schools in France prior to World War II. Freinet’s students also learned how to run a printing press, in order to run off copies of a newsletter that was distributed in the the local village.

The description of Connectivism as a “way of seeing” or a “way of understanding” resonates strongly with me. Though it appears to me that Connectivism is predominantly grounded in philosophical discourse, there are certainly numerous practical and pragmatic examples of experiences and activities that align themselves with Connectivist principles of learning. Downes’ assertion that there is no such thing as an ideal learner suggests a careful avoidance of any utopian vision underlying the Connectivist framework. Certainly, as he points out, it is empirically obvious that learners learn differently. In its simplest terms, I believe that this is the underlying message of the theory of multiple intelligences.

Downes describes Connectivism as a complex theory. Given the breadth of topics that are being addressed in this course, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. The diversity of points of view of course participants is indicative of the Connectivist principle that “networks are best understood as patterns of phenomena, and that what counts as a pattern to one person may not be so for another.” This statement certainly lends itself to complexity. But for all of the complexity of our world, what of Occam’s Razor? This maxim suggests that “assumptions introduced to explain a thing must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” Explained differently, Occam’s Razor posits “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” Is Connectivism the simplest solution? Perhaps at this time, but perhaps not—I personally believe that the theory would benefit from greater simplification, or at least clarification.

Downes’ distinction between networks and groups was an important and useful one for me. Whereas the network is defined by the connections of which it is comprised, the group is defined by the nature of its membership. This brings me back to questions pertaining to the nature of membership in rhizomatic educational communities. To a certain extent I believe that Cormier has addressed this point in his article on Membership, Collaboration and the Interwebs, and they have been applied to the Connectivism & Connective Knowledge course, in the course blog description of varying degrees of participation in the course itself.

Knowing as Being

It was also stated during the discussion that “What we know and how we know are questions that are fundamental to what we learn and how we learn.” In Francisco Varela’s Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom and Cognition (1992), the author reintroduces Dewey’s distinction from Human Nature and Conflict between know how and know what. Varela’s interest in Ethical Know-How is in exploring the relationship between theory and praxis, wisdom and action as it applies to ethical conduct:

We may be said to know how by means or our habits…We walk and read aloud, we get off and on street cars, we dress and undress, and do a thousand useful acts without thinking of them. We know something, namely, how to do them…[If] we choose to call [this] knowledge…then other things also called knowledge, knowledge of and about things, knowledge that things are thus and so, knowledge that involves reflection and conscious appreciation, remains of a different sort.

In summary, then, my main point is that most of our mental and active life is of the immediate coping variety, which is transparent, stable, and grounded in our personal histories. Because it is so immediate, not only do we not see it, we do not see that we do not see it, and this is why so few people have paid any attention to it until phenomenology and pragmatism, on the one hand, and new trends in cognitive science, on the other hand,  brought it to the fore. Yet the question remains: how can this distinction between coping behaviors and abstract judgment, between situatedness and morality, be applied to the study of ethics and the notion of ethical expertise? (19) [my italics].

If Connectivism promotes a “shift from epistemology to ontology, knowledge not as knowing, but being,” then how how we conduct ourselves in the world, the decisions that we make, are of crucial importance to the Connectivist framework. To refer back to a comment made earlier in the course by Siemens, activity influences the function of our brain, which in turn influences what our brain is capable of in the future. This development offers the possibility of new opportunities for personal agency.

Varela does not propose a normative ethical framework for moral agents. Rather, he describes his vision as:

…a plea for a re-enchantment of wisdom, understood as non-intentional action [my italics]. This skillful approach to living is based on a pragmatics of transformation that demands nothing less than a moment-to-moment awareness of the virtual nature of our selves (75).

Further, Varela suggests that expansive awareness, in its fullest realization, is akin to nothing less than “authentic caring.”

In Downes’ recent post on Intentionalism and Meaning, he describes Connectivism as a “non-intentional theory of learning and knowledge.” Both approaches describe agency in terms of a non-representational engagement with the world.



3 Responses to “CCK08: Reflection for Week 3”

  1. Stephen Downes Says:

    Oh yes – Varela was very important to me – I saw him speak at the University of Alberta Hospital in 1988 or so and it was a key learning event for me.

  2. ailsa Says:

    I’m really pleased that you posted this, i had not read any of Varela’s work. This is relevant not only to learning but also relevant to tracing change; when its moment by moment its hard to recognize. In retrospect a linear tracing can be overlaid, but at the time small things can seem inconsequential and the effects not yet known.

  3. Adrian Hill Says:

    Hi Alisa, I’m glad that you find the post favorable.

    Daniel Dennett has said of Varela that he “…is a very smart man who, out of a certain generosity of spirit, thinks he gets his ideas from Buddhism. I’d like him to delete the references to Buddhist epistemology in his writings.”

    I find just the opposite. I am intrigued by the associations that Varela makes between Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science. Varela was instrumental in initiating the Mind & Life Institute, which explores just these relationships.

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