Break out of the loop and see the helix

I was reminded by the writings of King Solomon of an idea I had a few years ago but neglected to write down. In Ecclesiastes he draws a picture of the never-ending cycles of life which could be seen as having a beautiful balance and harmony but perhaps more commonly as acting like a monotonous cage.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.


CC – tidefan

Certainly my recent experience online  has felt like being trapped in a loop. I have been on/in Twitter for about five years now and most of what I see sailing past about education and/or technology appears to me to be a rehash of ideas I heard in previous years. Similarly in the land of shiny-tech there seems to have been very little of interest. It’s all higher rez, faster and thinner but in essence it’s not moving on. Witness the bored response to the latest iPhone. It’s as if we greedily consumed technology, are now feeling queasy and couldn’t possibly consume another Smartphone. We talk of elegant consumption but it feels bloated to me. Where has the dynamic, frontier-like web gone? Am I suddenly too old to ‘see’ the leading edge or is a large part of what happens online just the passive reception of main-stream media?

I worked on digital projects for the BBC at the turn of the century. Back then us young-guns felt as if we were on the verge of something genuinely new – outside of the loop (we were enthusiastic and a little naive). Looking back now it appears that the moment the iPlayer started to work smoothly the BBC stepped away from Social Media engagement and many there heaved a huge sigh of relief when they realised that ‘online’ could be used to distribute TV and Radio. Despite the promise of the web are we trapped in our classic producer-consumer cycle? Perhaps advertising a hash-tag at the start of a programme is all that is needed, maybe that’s what taking-part was always going to mean? The truth is that there are very few people out there with something to say and the skills to express it, those that do are quickly assimilated into a broadcast mindset. Beyond 150 people it’s all celebrity and performance?

The never ending loop

A surface view only sees the loop

This is all surface though and the reality, as ever, is far more complex than my rant. There are fascinating and disruptive things happing out there in the unpredictable currents of the tide fight where society and tech wrestle. Our immediate perspective is often of a Solomon’s recursive loop but if we know how to ‘see’ rather than to just look we gain a much more interesting view.

A new perspective

A different perspective shows the slow forward movement of the helix

I think of socio-technical phenomenon as a helix. Viewed with an end-on limited perspective everything appears to be travelling repetitively around the same loop, it appears to be a closed circle but if we put more effort into seeing beyond the surface, into new methods of data collection and analysis, we can gain a side view, revealing a helix.  This perspective shows us a  slow but powerful movement forward. Often though, we are so trapped in the loop of the ever-new present that this progression is only seen in hindsight. Getting past the upgrade-now, 10 tips for teaching with iPads, HD, 3D, faster, better, stronger noise of the loop – sidestepping it if you like and seeing the real morphing/evolution of science and society is, for me, what higher education should be all about.

The single biggest factor that can give us the side-on perspective is the ability to critique and to ask pertinent questions. It’s the role of education to equip students with this ability to ask questions rather than to only seek the answers to questions posed by others. Historically the effort required to seek-out answers encouraged students to ask additional questions of their own but now we can find answers online so efficiently we don’t have to engage in critical thinking. Generally these answers are correct and appropriate – this is an issue which is more fundamental than ‘quality’ or ‘validity’, it’s part of a paradigm shift in what in means to ‘know’.

I joked that Google’s strap-line should be “Think Less – Find More”. I’m finding that idea less and less amusing, especially after seeing Google Now which is the current apex of not-thinking tech. I’m not against instant access to answers or technology that makes our lives ‘easier’, what I do want though is pedagogy that equips students from an early age with the ability to question the answers thrown back by this kind of tech. The huge cognitive offsetting the web offers us creates a space in which we should be able to ask more and better questions and yet our pedagogy and our assessment is still focused largely on answers until around second year of university (if you are lucky).

‘Bring Your Own Device’ or ‘Smuggle-in Your Own Device’ ensures that students are taking advantage of the cognitive offsetting of the web, it’s time to accept this and take-up the slack. Our Visitors and Residents project is finding that the digital literacies students develop at Secondary/High school are taken through well into university. We haven’t interviewed students younger than 17 years-old but I suspect that the digital literacies (and in some cases the critical literacies) of a 9 year-old are similar to those of a first-year undergraduate. As educators we have to teach critical thinking at a much earlier age otherwise students will be trapped in the highly pervasive info-factory of the web. Yes they will be able to find correct answers but will they be capable of questioning the loop conveniently designed around them (whether well meaning or not) from about the age of 8 by Google, Facebook and the like?

This brings me to the knotty problem of serendipity which as been bothering me for some time. It’s not possible to capture it’s essence without it slipping through your fingers. It is in this regard nicely Truth and Beauty in a romantic, dreaming-spires kind of a way and generally a bit of a headache for those outside of the social sciences and humanities. Proponents of the importance of serendipity such as Aleks Krotoski make the crucial point that the individual has to have the ability to be able to recognise the moment it happens (or the moment of potential). In other words they need to be able to bridge two apparently unrelated pieces of information and “…have the creativity to do something new with them” (Here I am talking about the individuals role in taking advantage of putative serendipity rather than technologies possible role in increasing the potential for serendipity to take place) . I now think of the moment of serendipity as jumping sections of the helix. It’s a transverse movement across the traditional corrals of understanding.

Serendipity and the helix

The transverse leap of serendipity

If the helix is imagined as a spiral staircase then those that can ‘see’ serendipitous moments have the ability to jump beyond their floor and leap multiple storeys in a single bound. Not only can they make this leap but they have the perspective to see the distance they have travelled. I would argue that this is unlikely to happen if the individual has been educated to only find answers to questions set by others.

In this era of instant answers where technology (or the business model of those providing the technology) is winding the loop around us ever tighter I’m pro equipping our students with the ability to make serendipitous leaps. I’m for stretching the helix so that each turn pushes us further. We need to promote critical pedagogies which put pressure on students to ask questions. Questions that gain perspectives beyond recursive consumption. Instead of falling into “Think Less – Find More” we should be encouraging our students to be suspicious of the loop, to be anxious to make leaps, and hopefully to “Question More – See Further”.

2 Responses to “Break out of the loop and see the helix”

  1. Amber Thomas Says:

    Interesting post, and chimes with what I’ve been thinking about. I just posted something about the process of change and adoption too:

    Specifically, your post makes me think about the ideas Gladwell describes in “Blink”: that the jumping to a judgement in an instinctive way indicates a real mastery of a skill. But we have that leaping tutored out of us by being required to reason first, judge next. Being able to explain a decision arrived at by instinct is in some ways more of a sign of maturity than the methodological approach that we are taught represents skill. In a digital residents context I imagine that effective decoding of cues like “like/favouriting” numbers, trusted curation sources, visual recognition of different content providers mean that the richness of the information landscape is more intuitively felt, and processed better.

    My husband likes strategy computer games and he understands the conventions of how the controls work, whereas it is a foreign language to me. He has a resident mentality, if you like, and his experience in a game is of a different type to my visitor, where I spend all my time looking at the instructions and controls rather than being in the game.

    But online, on twitter, on the web, I am a resident, and I can move about with a fluidity that jumps me through the steps that get me where I want to be.

    Were I a student, I would find it immensely frustrating to have to describe my digital journeys and describe my judgement calls about quality.

  2. David White (@daveowhite) Says:

    @Amber I like the link between residency and instinct. It could be argued that we should be teaching students up to the point that they do have an instinct for their discipline. Evaluating/assessing this is tricky, just as evaluating how ‘immersed’ a student is in open/resident practices. (Personally I think this is where we have to look at arts based pedagogies as those guys have found many ways of assessing qualitative effort/achievement)