Sunday, July 20, 2008

Catalytic Learning-

I think a lot about learning. I am interested in the acquisition of knowledge. I am also interested in how we know what we know. The mechanics, and what happens beyond the mechanics.

This affects how I think about teaching. I have great respect for teachers. Professional teachers and those who are teachers by accident or nature. Incidental teachers and lifelong teachers.

Educational systems are difficult to manage, but must be managed in some way. This leads to interesting applications, phenomenal successes, and occasional disasters.

I have to reflect on an imaginary scenario that has often come to my mind. A little schoolhouse in the Midwest in the latter part of the 1800's. Children compelled to memorize the capitals of states and nations they would never visit. Places far away that, in their era, would not impact their lives in any way.

The exercises were intended to exercise the mind. They also provided a way of measuring how much learning had taken place. The content and state of another person’s mind is impossible to know without some kind of exchange. These exercises provided ways to measure the success of education as an institution.

These educational institutions have existed in various forms for centuries. They go through changes, of course. They struggle to succeed and remain useful and current. It is a difficult task, and my respect for teachers is extended to good administrators for making it work to some degree. It is not an easy task.

What these institutions fail to provide for is the person who is wired differently. Not all humans have mental systems that absorb and regurgitate information on demand. Unfortunately, it would be a Herculean task for administrators to fund and manage a system that meets the needs of every individual. That ideal is far from reality.

So, these strange individuals get pushed to the edges of the educational system (whatever that happens to be in any given time and place.) Out on these frontiers these people cultivate new cultures. For those who succeed, it is good. Failures, however, get pushed farther and farther out.

I will deal with my idea of frontiers in another entry. For now I will get to my point.

I would contend that the mind exists in conjunction with a biological organ, the brain. The mind is a consequence of the function of the brain. Data passes to the brain from the senses, and affects the brain in various ways. Only one of those ways becomes stored information.

I would also contend that this process is more analogous to catalytic chemical reactions than to physical constructions. Just like the catalyst entering into a chemical solution and causing a reaction and subsequent change in the state of the solution, stimuli enter the brain and can cause similar changes of state.
We now live in a world that has become grossly interconnected. Information flows at up to the speed of light. Our intake and interaction with the stimulus of information is slower, but from a historical perspective it is now very fast. It will grow faster over time.

Not only is there speed, but volume. We are not far from the point where we will be virtually interconnected with everybody else. That is a lot in the way of stimuli.

This is both good news and bad. For those living on the edges, the stimuli they needed to grow will be abundantly available. For those living in the old ways of thinking, of simply storing and regurgitating information, it will be a challenge. The machines will do most of that for us. Such people will be challenged to find a new place for their old skills.

Institutions founded on trying to control the availability of information and the uses to which information is applied will find that control eroding. The institutions will have to adapt or become useless anachronisms.

For those of us who value thought and expression on an individual level, this will be a very exciting time. Stimuli will be everywhere, and the results will be wonderfully unpredictable.

For those who like structure and control, these will be very scary times.

My vision is not Utopian. One of the consequences of these changes will be violence, destruction and death. Not for everyone, but there will be cataclysmic events in various places as a direct result of the shift in how humans interact.

There will also be beauty and wonder beyond our present imagining.

Get ready. These shall be very interesting times.

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