Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dynamics and 21st Century Education

In Chapters 12 and 13 of Networks of the Brain, Olaf Sporns tackles the issues of dynamics and complexity in neural networks. I have the feeling that I will be reading both chapters again to digest them, but what I understand so far is highly exciting. It's also beginning to feel somewhat natural to me. Nice that.

Sporns describes a very dynamic brain structure and function, radically different from the traditional views that "place much greater emphasis on serial processing, noise-free signal transmission, and reliable encoding and retrieval of information" (274). To me, this traditional view of neural activity sounds a lot like traditional education with its serial processing in a lock-step curriculum, noise-free signal transmission in a quiet classroom focused totally on the teacher, and reliable encoding and retrieval of information in rote memorization of a collection of facts and regurgitation on objective exams. Of course, as Sporns notes, the traditional approach to brains has "been remarkably successful in well-defined problem domains and in the absence of conflicting or competing demands" (274). The same with education, I think. So long as you are teaching a well-defined, fairly focused knowledge domain within a totally controlled environment with no conflicting demands, then traditional education, or training, works pretty darn well, but what happens when you encounter a rapidly shifting knowledge domain in a space with lots of conflicting demands—you know, like real life? Then the traditional models don't seem to work so well. What are the alternatives? Sporns suggests that the brain takes a dynamic path.

Why a dynamic path? First, Sporns suggests, for self-preservation, or self-expression. Apparently, diverse dynamics are important for self-organization and robustness within complex systems. Sporns notes W. Ross Ashby's law of requisite variety, which says that any system "must have a matching variety of responses at its disposal with which to counter [environmental perturbations] in order to maintain internal stability" (256). Thus, complex, dynamic environments demand complex, dynamic entities. Or, if historian David Christian is correct in his recent TED talk, then the universe is on a path of increasing complexity, and dynamic, complex environments and their composite entities are emerging together. In a marvelous dialogic, more dynamic and complex environments bring out more dynamic, complex entities which bring out more dynamic, complex environments. On and on, endlessly complexifying.

This has a strong lesson for education: the world our students live in today is much more dynamic and complex than the world of 19th Century industrialism that gave rise to modern education (see Sir Ken Robinson's RSA talk on this issue). It's time we moved on from that model to develop "a variety of responses" with which to counter the dynamic and complex environmental perturbations that bombard our students daily. Industrial thinking, while still valuable, has no response to iPhones, iPads, and Facebook-augmented revolutions. We must move education beyond its industrial mind-set, which does not have "a matching variety of responses at its disposal with which to counter [the 21st Century] in order to maintain internal stability." Just as an increasingly dynamic and complex Universe elicits an equally dynamic and complex consciousness, so too does an increasingly dynamic and complex society elicit an equally dynamic and complex educational system.
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