Thursday, 7 February 2013

Time for some new learning about novelty

After an 8-month hiatus from blogging that included a heavy dose of reading, I’ve returned to work this year with an awareness of some paradoxes around learning that I didn’t know could exist.  I’d never viewed technology in the classroom as a paradox prior to now.  I saw tech as a vehicle to advance all kinds of learning opportunities.  The PowerBook, upon which I tap out this installment, is a technological tool I’d rather not give up.   In the past year I’ve encountered technology driven content delivery platforms that would appear to be able to capture and keep eyeballs and attention for extended periods of time.  Nothing paradoxical about that, just good old time-on-task.  Web-based portals like the TED Talks site are fantastic resources.  For me, Technology adoption and adaptation was seen as both common and rewarding. 

Recent additions to my own practice have been the use of a team organizer site and a learner-mapping platform customized for career counseling processes.  Both help me to help learners control and manage the ‘orchestration’ aspect of their academic/athletic year.  These platforms address the administration aspects of learning and appear to perfectly suit those whose philosophy and practice places a heavy emphasis on organization.  Given my personal sense of the importance of organizing, I am on-board with making the sequencing more concrete and easier to access.   Should my world and the world of the learners I’m in charge of, become more manageable as a result, it should follow that I’d have more time to get on to the other learning priorities that provide an indication that learning of substance is occurring.

This brings me to the subject of today’s installment, the term Neomania, encountered while attempting to wade through Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.  The author of The Black Swan (which I have not read) has a lot to say about a lot of things.  From his perspective, uncertainty is the platform for discovery, while effect awareness trumps true/false accuracy (he paraphrases and labels this as non-sucker vs. sucker).  He goes in-depth on why most of life’s important exposures are non-linear and why we should take notice of that fact, and he has a deep respect for all things “barbell”.  The references to Benoit Mandelbrot and Daniel Kahneman, two scientists I hold in high esteem, didn’t hurt my opinions of his opinions either.

So why in a vast sea of aphorisms (which is really what the book is), did the term Neomania stand out?  I guess I should explain what Mr. Taleb defines the term as.  Simply put, Neomania is “the love of modern for its own sake” (Taleb, 2012) 
The term is nested in Book VI (the author is a fan of recursion as well), which is titled Via Negativa.  This look at the benefits of less is more starts with the topic of subtractive knowledge: the admission and knowing that what does not work is more robust than speculating about what might work.  Then examples are cited where less is more is proved out by relating the 80-20 rule, finding the Statue of David in the block of stone, and recognizing the importance of Location, Location, Location.  This leads the reader to a connection the author wants to confirm: Time and fragility are inextricably linked.  Although the entire book is very interesting, the time-fragility connection intrigued me because I am a big fan of folding time through the internship process and began to wonder if time folding would promote fragility or anitfragility. (Note: the temporal effects of internship have been discussed in previous blog postings)

Taleb talks about the fact that non-perishable things behave exactly the opposite of perishable things when it comes to time and life expectancy.  The older a perishable thing is, the less life expectancy you’d expect it to have.  He points out that fewer days of life expectancy is but one form of fragility. Non-perishable things like technology, behave differently in that, the longer the technology lives, the longer the life expectancy going forward.  Technology that has been around for 30 years will probably be around for another 30 years because it has been harder to replace by the newest ‘killer app’.  He also points out that technology is at its best when it is used to cancel out, or subtract out what he calls “bad technology”, -technology for technology’s sake.  Instead of over iterating, he believes the focus should be on the creation of elegance that some technologies develop through paying attention to the natural world.  For me of course, the postulating centred on which aspects of internship would express as perishable vs. non-perishable.

I would have just ruminated (and not written) but then book VI contained a section titled Neomania and Treadmill Effects.  Briefly, the effect is psychological, and has to do with having the latest version of something, specifically, the initial satisfaction that comes with having the latest (and hopefully greatest), and then the sense of loss when the novelty wears off.  Taleb acknowledges Kahneman’s work on this phenomenon, and then goes on to point out the “strange inconsistency in the way we perceive items across the technological and real domains.” (Taleb, 2012)  To make his point…

“I have never heard anyone address the large differences between e-readers and physical books, like smell, texture, dimension (books are in three dimensions), color, ability to change pages, physicality of an object compared to a computer screen, and hidden properties causing unexplained differences in enjoyment.  The focus of the discussion will be commonalities (how close to a book this wonderful device is).  Yet when he compares his version of an e-reader to another e-reader, he will invariably focus on minute differences.  Just as when Lebanese run into Syrians, they focus on tiny variations in their Levantine dialects, but when Lebanese run into Italians, they focus on similarities.” (Taleb, 2012, pp. 323,324)

Upon reading this my first thought was, “Oh-oh, I have written about novelty’s role in learning.”  Were there now types of novelty that created inconsistencies that until this point I was unaware of?  Next thing I knew, there was a cascade of questions developing in my mind.  The first was, what would Taleb say are the implications of these perception responses for something like learning internship? I know he doesn’t like the current way education is delivered; he makes this abundantly clear throughout the book.  His concerns about education aside (I’m not going to try and find out if he likes the idea of internships), for me the second question was: does education’s current fixation on all things technological run the risk of creating learners who use up novelty even faster than previous generations?  Which lead to: If something today isn’t new, are learners even more prone to dismissing?  Also, do we run the risk of confusing learners through our desire to have more technology, more “Friends” on our technology platforms, essentially, more commonality with our technology at the expense of recognizing and celebrating the variations that make up the world?  Of course the world of variations is very much present in the social relationships we develop face-to-face, so are we blinding ourselves to variation by sitting in front of a computer instead of sitting in front of another human being, while arguing that our world is expanding from internet usage?  If this is true, that is a pretty big paradox.
Asking myself these questions in the context of running an internship program can mess with your head.  The implication as a program developer is whether the experience (bringing together mentor-intern-situation) is more like a Walkman (little variation and now practically extinct) or a Wheel (many variations, many years of existence)?  I believe it is the later.  However, internship certainly couldn’t be described as ‘less is more’; adding a mentor means, ‘more is more’ (hopefully).  Additionally, by putting faith into, and adopting the program’s learning goals, the learner certainly does nothing but prove Mr. Taleb’s assertion that knowing what doesn’t work is more robust than speculating on what might work.  As I’ve seen with my own eyes, some interns fail, but is that evidence that the concept of internship is more prone to failures than success?  Not really, or at least not in my experience, in fact quite the opposite.

As I went for a walk today to think about some answers to all these questions, I was reminded again that perception plays a big role in our lives, and not just our learning lives.  My job these days is to get people acting on the perceived benefits of interning at the high school level.  To the people I talk to about doing this work, this is quite a novel idea.  The parallels in our perceptions to technology use compared to the adoption and use of a learning platform might be real even if we aren’t conscious that the parallel exists.   As for the role that novelty plays when working with a technological or relational platform, the response to said platform may be similar, or as Taleb points out, quite inconsistent.  It’s my job to make sure both the good and bad of ‘novelty’ are managed in such a way that the inconsistencies that turn out to develop discovery and creativity, aren’t lost by trying to be novel for novelty’s sake.

As I stated in the opening, I like and use the latest technology when I get the chance.  ‘Trying something new’ can be as powerful an excuse as my main focus on creating efficiencies around time and information management and administration of learning. At the same time, I’ve found that the novelty that comes with working with a mentor, the “trying something new by connecting school work with field work”, has some uncanny similarities to technology, if the mentoring is perceived as being faddish.  Some mentoring relationships last longer than others, but the interns I work with want to stick with the program even if it isn’t the same mentor year after year.  Depending on the nature of the relationship between mentor and intern, there are going to be varying degrees of focus on similarities and the variations, but there can never be a sense that this work is flavor of the month stuff.

As my walk ended, I knew that what internship is, at least as I teach it, is a combination of old and new.  To me, internship is grounded in a process that has been around for a very long time: artisanal apprenticeship.  Of course apprenticeship was/is used as a way to help the learner define and refine and has pretty much stood the test of time.  I’m not sure if anyone has ever done a study to determine how long an apprenticeship platform feels novel for learners, but I do know that that matters.  In this technological age I believe there is the very real possibility that learning, no matter where the learner is situated, runs the risk of learner ‘sense of loss’ around novelty much sooner now, than even a couple of decades ago.  That said, if you aren’t bringing the novel into the learning equation, you’d better be looking at other learning platforms that have stood the test of time.  As to my question around commonality, I won’t get trapped in the me vs. we argument.  What I can say is, where Taleb describes bad technology as technology for technology’s sake, I think he’d describe learning for learning’s sake as the exact opposite.

To bring this discussion full circle, and hopefully have it make sense, the ability of technology to save time through administrative/management efficiencies can be a great thing if you use that newfound time to go learn something important.  This is not technology for technology’s sake.  The paradox is, in our quest to use the latest technology, we may be potentially abandoning the very tools that have ‘stood the test of time’ (both technological and non-technological).  So we need to ask ourselves, do we adopt new technology because different is good (maybe, maybe not) or because the technology adoption effect is good (time will tell if I’m actually saving time).  If it is proven out that the adoption effect is good, then what?  

The worst thing that could happen would be that the saved time isn’t used to get smarter.  In this paradox, we may have in fact become more fragile as we are now more dependent on technology, and a little more brain atrophied due to a lack of taking advantage of other learning opportunities.  In my case, I’ve been able to use that saved time via technology to read many new books like Antifragile, which made me realize that in fact what’s old can be new, what’s new isn’t always better, and if technology is involved, we’d better think about the effect on our thinking bias’ for seeking out novelty.  Maybe now more than ever, our learning relationships are going to become critical, maybe even more critical than our smart phone.

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