Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On Learning A New Metaphor for Learning

This past week, I attended the American Educational Research Association annual meeting here in Chicago. More than 12000 educational researchers filled hotel meeting rooms all over downtown with discourse about education in all its flavors.

From what I could see, almost all of them had a rewarding and enjoyable time, personally and professionally.

Once, a long time ago, a longtime colleague/friend of mine, David Hansen (who is now director of the philosophy of education at Teachers College, Columbia University) told me that you can't expect a great deal out of a conference like AERA.

This is Philip Jackson and some of his students. David Hansen in the back left.

At this particular conference, there were over 18000 papers and presentations. A lot of sessions were sequences of research reports "delivered" (using Powerpoint of course) by relatively young researchers who are trying to prove themselves to get jobs and tenure, which often means doing work with relatively simple concepts. These sessions are sometimes simply boring.

But one great thing about AERA--because it is so big--that there are also a lot sessions with reflective, often brilliant, knowledgeable scholars from many fields of research interacting with each other in stimulating ways.

David told me if you only get one valuable thing from a session, or from a day of sessions, or from a whole conference, you should be happy.

I have learned to modify this principle: if you get just one valuable thing out of BEING AT the conference, be happy with that.The good stuff doesn't always come out of official sessions.

For me, the highlight of AERA is the parties and receptions that happen at Special Interest Group business meetings and also after hours. I love these social events because they provide a time to catch up with people I've known for years and also to meet some new and interesting people. Catching up with especially the close personal friends involved in educational research once a year over an over-priced glass of wine or good food is what keeps many of us in this business coming back to these conferences for more.

Sometimes I see close and brilliant personal friends only once a year at a conference.

For example, I had Dim Sum on Sunday with Martha Wagner Alibali, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Martha and I went to graduate school together a long time ago, and are the best of friends. Dim Sum was also an opportunity to introduce a my much newer friend, Katariina Holma, a critical thinking theorist at the University of Helsinki, to Martha. Needless to say, it was a great conversation. Both women are brilliant, extremely well-respected in their own fields, and just a lot of fun.

Katariina, me, Martha, after Delicious Dim Sum.
Martha is a very special friend. I tell anyone who will listen that I met almost all of my friends through Martha, and it's true. One great example is Mitchell Nathan, a professor of educational psychology at Madison with whom Martha often collaborates. Mitch and I have become great friends, too, over the years. Here we are (also Sunday) having the best Buffalo Shrimp I've ever had.

Shaw's Crab House, Mitch, Shrimp, Craig

Mitch is an electrical engineer who became a learning scientist. He is brilliant and generative. He thinks about learning in very interesting ways, using very interesting concepts and data, across multiple domains.

I often ask the people I see at conferences what questions or topics or activities are interesting them right now. This is often a lead in to talking about some hugely important and interesting stuff.

Mitch's answer this time came completely out of the blue. He offered a metaphor for thinking about the relationship between thought and action, one that I had never considered. In the couple of days since our conversation the metaphor has found its way into the center of my thinking.

The metaphor is really simple yet needs some explaining, but it connects immediately and directly to what I have been thinking about lately, which is the function of systems in complex situations. It also fits nicely into Martha's work on gesture and cognition (which is partly why the two collaborate. Surprisingly, it also connects immediately and directly to what Katariina has been thinking about related to the emotional aspects of critical thinking. (Katariina and one of Mitch's long-time friends, Michael J. Jacobson, a brilliant educational technology professor from the University of Sydney, joined us later at dinner.)

Katariina and Michael
The interesting way the metaphor worked its way so quickly and deeply into the different foci of our respective works was what has made me so excited about this metaphor.

So let me now reveal it and explain the metaphor.

The metaphor is "transductive systems," or just "transduction."

The word "transduction" is pretty complex. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transduction).

A "transducer" is a a device that transforms one type of information or energy into another, but in a way that the same device can transform in BOTH directions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transducer).

Here's how Mitch explained it to me. He started with a simple example.

The simplest example is a microphone and a speaker. Both convert energy between sound energy and electrical energy.

These two transducers are STRUCTURED the same way. In fact, you can use a microphone as a speaker and vice versa.

Another example is an LED. Put electrical energy through it and light energy comes out; put LIGHT energy on it and electrical energy comes out. (I didn't know that LEDs are the same a photovoltaic devices (solar cells). Mitch, the electrical engineer, does!)

A third example is the generator in a car. It converts kinetic (motion) energy into electrical energy. If you reverse the direction of the energy flow, a generator is a motor.

So by now the metaphor should be at least somewhat clear:
  • Electrical/acoustic energy is transduced by microphones/speakers
  • Electrical/light energy is transduced by LEDs/photovoltaics
  • Electrical/kinetic energy is transduced by motors/generators
 In each case, the devices on the right are the same, structurally.

Now, the really INTERESTING part (from my standpoint) is how this metaphor can be transDUCED into working in a sphere such as the relationship between cognition and action (which is Mitch's issue), emotion and critical thinking (Katariina's issue) or between universities and entrepreneurship (something Michael has been thinking about) or the interaction between a living system and its environment.

So to repeat what I just did above with the bullet points:
  • The relationship between cognition and action/gesture is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between emotion and critical thinking is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between universities and entrepreneurs is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between a living system and its environment is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between teaching and learning is transduced by ...
Now, pay attention to the differences in these two sets of bullet points. The first one is a set of physical devices that transduce energy or signals. The second is a set of complex relationships that educational researchers are working on figuring out. These concepts are sometimes treated in isolation from their counterpart, which treats complex reality too simplistically. The latter group also lack "devices" that transduce. The transduction might be done by very complex systems that have to be modeled and figured out.

We need to rethinking some of our dualistic conceptions about how learning and other parts of nature work. Thinking about transduction as both a real transformation and also a metaphor of interaction is, to my mind, extremely generative. You can thank Mitchell Nathan for this the next time you see him at AERA.

Oh, and the conversation didn't stop there! It generated new ideas for HOURS.

Translating ourselves across the Chicago Cartesian grid for more transductive and transformational conversations.
(Language itself is transductive.) But I can't talk about that right now. I have to transPORT myself home so you'll just have to wait for the next part of this conversation.

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