Learning in the era of digital Renaissance

By | 2014/06/08

In time

The digital environment and the process and dynamics of learning have always been passionately intertwined. Let’s remember for a moment that the digital environment was actually born around 2,000 years BC when humans decided to stop communicating using pictures. They turned to the creation of a series of abstract symbols, which today we call an alphabet.

The manner in which our alphabets were created are relatively well known and have been described in numerous works of research and non-fiction. The chronologies of the various alphabets, along with their interdependencies and their affiliations show us a complex mix of symbolic systems, cuneiform systems and alphabetic systems.

Ancient Egypt used in parallel a figurative system known as hieroglyphics, which mixed together phonetic transcriptions and symbolic representations (like the Chinese), and a cursive system (the hieratic) which simplified the task of writing. Around about 650 A.D, the hieratic yielded in turn to the birth of the demotic, which was closer to what we now know as an alphabet.

Two centuries earlier, in an opposite sense the Greeks did not pursue the overly-complex Lineare B but rather developed a stable alphabet directly derived from the Phoenician alphabet. They retained from the Phoenician alphabet the shapes and sequences of the letters, as well as the associated sounds. But above all the Greek alphabet is simple and effective because of a major innovation – the vowel.

The simplicity of this alphabet is important for the sharing of knowledge, and thus for the evolution of mankind.

An overly complex alphabet becomes reserved for the elite of a society, who will have the time to engage in a sophisticated apprenticeship. A simpler system allows not only for an alphabet to be learned by a much larger number of people, but also frees the brain to learn how to best use that alphabet instead of monopolising its processing power in order to decode its complexity.

Contrary to hieroglyphics, which were reserved for the superior caste, the Greek alphabet was intended to be distributed to a much wider scope and reach of population. We can see this in one of the Laws of Chardonas, as transcribed by Diodorus Sicilus, the law on teaching : « It is ordered that all the sons of the family will learn to read and to write from the Masters ordained by the public : it’s well understood that without this condition, the sons of the families who cannot pay the Masters will be denied this advantage. He was persuaded with reason that this knowledge should precede all others : because it is by writing that the events most useful for our lives come about or are known. »

It is also interesting to cite the follow-up to the analysis of Diodorus Sicilus with respect to the art of writing : « It’s by writing alone that the action(s) commited by the illustrious dead remain in the memory of the living; that those who are the most separated from each other by distance become present with their friends and converse with them; that the most active wars between Kings and nations end, and change through the faith in treaties and mutual signatories into solid and lasting peace; that the phrases and maxims of wise men, the responses by gods, the lesson from all types of Philosophies move around and between people in different countries and are recorded for lasting posterity. » We can replace « the art of writing » with « the digital » without changing the profound sense of this phrase ; we just have to wait for the current governments to understand the fundamental importance of being able to sign treaties through using the medium of the Internet

The simplicity of the Greek alphabet, accompanied by its widespread distribution and use, permitted the explosion of knowledge. This rapid accumulation of new knowledge was crystalised and centred in Alexandria. This in turn enabled the emergence of thinkers who were not necessarily scions of the royalty, nobility or the elite class of society. Pythagoras was the son of a engraver, Socrates the son of a sculptor, Epicureus of a teacher, Aristophanes the son of a citizen-soldier, Archimedes the son of an astronomer. We don’t really know much about the origins of Euclid.

And there was Socrates, who refused to use the alphabet. He believed it did not help distribute knowledge, but rather helped distribute the illusion of knowledge. Thus his preference for oral teaching with young people who walked around him (the peripatetics). Socrates was one of the first conservative teachers, one of those who refused the digital.

There’s another important reason associated with the simplification provided by the Greek alphabet. Recently, the neurosciences have helped us to better understand the mechanisms in the brain that enable the accomplishment of complex tasks. The fundamental role of the relationship between the phonemes and the graphemes for learning how to write has been clearly demonstrated. Learning how to read made necessary a « recycling » of a part of the brain which was initially designed for pattern recognition, or more specifically recognition of objects and messages. We might think that the easier this recycling became, the more the brain retained its capacity to carry out other, additional complex tasks. Inversely, when the task of associating visual forms, phonemes and meaning is complicated, the brain is overly engaged in carrying out the decoding necessary to accomplish the associations. Thus it is is less available for other information processing tasks.

Without an alphabet, there would not be information technology; computers are the support mechanisms for programs, which themselves are based on mathematical logic. Programs only process zeroes and ones, and are written according to languages that obey formal grammars. The term digital comes from the latin digitus, the finger.

Computers, and networks, are based on alphabets which also were designed in order to represent most efficiently various forms of knowledge : texts, audio, images, videos and now sensors.

This ability to transmit information and knowledge via means other than just plain text is one of the greatest opportunities for pedagogic innovation offered us by the digital era. Rather than just relying on text, it allows us to communicate with the brain via many other channels. Researchers call this « brain ergonomics » (described further on in this document). By an amusing twist of history, we’re witnessing the revenge of Socrates.

In space

In the end, technological innovations have always permitted us to meet the major challenges faced by mankind. Technologies that serve no purpose or have no utility have never prospered.

Life is a constant back-and-forth process between the capabilities of technology and its actual usage. On the one hand, technology, like the science that supports it, constructs a corpus of knowledge which supports itself. On the other hand, in social behaviors, or when in touch with and using our feelings, we are circling ; we like, we detest, we commit errors in ways which seem to repeat themselves over thousands of years. Reading the work of any ancient Greek author always impresses us with its eternal vitality and relevance, as if the feelings and the situations haven’t aged a bit and could be applied to our modern society « as is ».

On the contrary, what changes is the context. And, since the middle of the XXth century, we are facing an enormous rupture with the past, created by the recent exponential growth of the planet’s population. On the first of January 1950, there were 2.5 billion people on planet Earth. Only 61 years later, we have passed the 7 billion population mark.

The exponential growth of the human population has an enormous impact : we are now in a world where the number and frequency of interactions has exploded. There are more and more students, customers, partners, workers. The streets are filled with more cars, planes, trains, public transport are more and more crowded. The world is operating under enormous constraints. If proof is needed, just ask a youngster of 18 what it means to drive a car in a big city like Paris or New York : where senior citizens have learned how to drive by coping with the gradually increasing pressures of urban life, it becomes a nightmare for the younger generation, who are brutally « plunged » into this pressure without the proper time to learn how to deal with it.

A world under such massive constraints must re-organise itself in order to deal with the inexorable pressure. It’s a system which is far from its thermodynamic equilibrium, and for which one major condition of survival is to have an efficient flow of information. One way to show this is to consider the reverse : many large and systemic dysfunctions are not due to lack of quality but rather to a poor circulation of information between the various units concerned, whether at the design or the operation level. The Apollo 13 accident is a perfect example of this.

There are many more examples that show a properly functioning system requires the effective and efficient flow of information; not between top managers at the highest level(s) of the organization, but between all the people in all areas of a given business/organisational process. In this sense, the hierarchical model reveals itself as potentially catastrophic in this constrained-world. Typically it does not enable the efficient and effective circulation of information. Those who work in organizations with significant silos experience this problem almost daily.

The Internet is a fundamental support for a community, because it enables exchanges between individuals all along any given process. Thus, it is the tool we need to improve flows of information and knowledge, and it becomes the support mechanism for collective intelligence. It is because the world is complex, and very constrained, that the digital era imposes itself as a new language, not the opposite.

Thus, we should abandon a certain number of ideas from the past : linearity, predictability, and the infinite reproduction of standardised schemas. In a well-known TED talk, Sugata Mitra speaks of a world « which relies on a computer : bureaucracy ». And to feed this computer called bureaucracy we have invented another computer : the school system. This is perfectly legitimate in a stable world; it is much less legitimate in a world in dynamic homeostatic equilibrium. It’s even less legitimate in a world which needs constant inventions of new forms in order to maintain a balance, a world in autopoeisis.

In such a world, hierarchical and silo’d organisations can no longer maintain this equilibrium ; they cannot create new and effective forms of organized collective activity. On the contrary, teams that share a common objective are more able to create the tools necessary to face the challenge. One of the most obvious examples of this is open source software.

In such a constrained world, the environment become more accident-prone, and each error has the potential to become a catastrophe. Traditional learning, meant to develop automated processes which only reproduce the past, should now be replaced by simulations. Simulations demonstrate and enable the reactivity necessary when changes in the environment are more and more unpredictable.

However, the technological revolution is nothing if it isn’t accompanied by changes to the models of organisation and the organisation’s culture. Typically this type of change does not happen without pain. The Renaissance was a moment of extreme tension between on one hand technology, science and art which had all made spectacular advances, and on the other hand lifestyles deeply rooted in religious tradition. This deep attachment to habitual thinking prevented people from accepting the coming changes. This tension seems to be appearing again in 2014, a year in which the tensions between the old models and the new models are reaching a paroxysm which divides our societies. We are experiencing another Renaissance ; a digital Renaissance.

One of the biggest improvements developed during the Renaissance was medical knowledge, because the relation to the body changed : dissecting the body was allowed, and performed more and more often. Thus, more and more knowledge about the body and how it functioned was acquired. Nowadays, it is the relation to our brain which follows the same path. The neurosciences are making huge progress, and will be the source of our most interesting innovations. Just as in the Renaissance, this will not happen without fear and resistance, without regressions to the past and denial of the future.

In the Brain

We often believe that technological revolutions are the fruit of an immutable order, from which we would not have been able to make emerge earlier a new technology. The appearance of technologies throughout history proves to us that it’s not because of material reasons, but rather for psychological reasons that the industrial revolution(s) happen. A new technology is adopted when people are ready to receive it; otherwise it is rejected. Kondratieff and Schumpeter have shown us that the adoption of a new technology in history occurs on a sigmoidal curve : the moment in history when 50% of a population has adopted a technology is a place of great instability, which precedes either massive adoption of the technology, or rejection.

The theory of ensembles could have been born 2,000 years before Cantor ; the electric battery was invented during the third century ; Pascal’s machine could have been invented during the Middle Ages. These did not expand because technological revolutions create intense psychological problems for most of humanity. As proven by the experience of conformity described by Asch’s Law, and by other experiments carried out during the 20th century, when an individual or a group has the choice between 1) accepting the truth and leaving their zone of comfort, or 2) rejecting the truth and maintaining presence in the comfort zone, the choice is almost always the latter. This principle of psychological inertia explains clearly the well-known phenomenon regarding the adoption of technologies or scientific revolutions : all paradigm changes unfold in three steps or stages. First it is considered ridiculous, then dangerous and finally it comes to be accepted as obvious. The right of women to vote or the abolition of slavery offer us good examples of this principle, and we must not forget that it always applies even now : all real technological revolutions will always be considered ridiculous by the majority of the population. If an idea is not considered as ridiculous and then dangerous by the masses, then it is not a revolutionary one.

As with all technologies, neurotechnologies are neutral. They are neither good nor bad, but they are powerful. They allow the prediction of behaviours, the manipulation of both individuals and crowds, and they provide a potentially exceptionally powerful lever for human thought and decision-making. So, if psychology has been used from time to time as a weapon, as examples by Goebbels or the CIA show, neurotechnology today is being massively studied and explored by the American military-industrial complex. But this isn’t a reason to reject its fantastical applications which will profoundly impact the 21st century, in the same way as will biomimicry and the nanotechnologies with which they interact.

The principle of neurotechnologies is the concrete application of discoveries in the neurosciences, the sciences which study the nervous system, including the elements of the system beyond the neurons. The nervous system is a set of cells which interpenetrate our bodies from the scalp to the soles of our feet, from the insides of our intestines to our skins, and which form, with our brains and spine, the « central nervous system ». The apex of the central nervous system is the brain, which is the biological corollary of our decisions, our emotions, our thoughts, our language, our learning, and of all our processes of intellection cognition as well as our personalities.

Our current ignorance of the brain is abysmal. As during all epochs it’s necessarily the case that our human ignorance is infinitely greater than our knowledge and understanding. What we know about the brain gives us the illusion that we know almost everything about it. But, in the same way as knowledge of physics in 1901 still hadn’t incorporated relativity or quantum theory, the neurosciences of today have many unknown discoveries yet to consider. And just as Lord Kelvin refused to believe in the existence of X-rays or of the flight capabilities of heavier-than-air arcrafts, it is the neuroscientists of yesterday and today who most clearly are opposed to the neurosciences of tomorrow. This is how humans’ understanding of science evolves, because changes to existing paradigms must always be considered as ridiculous and then dangerous before being cynically accepted as obvious.

The neurotechnological revolution cannot be stopped today. It will certainly pass into that which we call the « chasm of adoption » in the economy of innovations, an historic moment which can last a decade during which a technology is functional but equally anonymous. This chasm is experienced for various reasons, the primary of which is notably the psychological inertia of individuals and groups. Today perhaps we are in the chasm which means that the neurotechnologies are still « under the radar » and maybe have evolved to being seen as « dangerous ».

The technologies bring us a better understandng of how knowledge is created in or transferred to the brain. During centuries we have not used anything but language – a tiny window onto the brain which becomes filled or saturated very quickly – to transfer knowledge. So let’s be very clear : our methods of teaching are absolutely not ergonomic. If the brain is like an open hand, our current methods of teaching do not stimulate but a small part of the little finger. Therein lies the principle of the brain’s ergonomy : redistribute the load of knowledge into several areas of the physical brain and onto several modules of the mind. Even though pioneers have used this method for many years now, we have just recently learned how to operate it scientifically, meaning in a testable and reproducible way, at the level of the brain, at the level of the neuron and at the level of the Neuroglia. The consequences of having learned how to do this are fascinating.

If yesterday’s courses chemically « tortured » our brains by the profound lack of brain ergonomy, the courses of tomorrow will remind us of a simple principle : playing is the mammals’ natural way to learn, and suffering does not in any case necessarily correlate with intense learning.

So, meanwhile the world’s knowledge doubles in less than 9 years. This exponential growth of knowledge, which is at the same time an expression of the growing complexity of the world today, is a phenomenon that is forcing us to innovate in the ways we communicate, transfer and distribute knowledge. There again, at the assumed risk of placing some readers outside of their psychological comfort zone, the principles of teaching in the French Third Republic which still constitute (at least in theory) the essence of France’s educational system, are derived directly from the industrial revolution; because in no case the humanists, ranging from Vittorino da Feltre to Montaigne and including Rabelais, da Vinci, Bude or Pascal taught in this way. The classic principles are completely ovewhelmed by the current situation.

Today in effect we must adapt teaching to the ergonomy and functioning of the brain, and not adapt the brain to the teaching, which is what we humans have done for the last two centuries. Today we must transmit a lot more knowledge in much better ways. Today we can no longer wait until a knowledge is stabilized to teach it. On the contrary, we must teach current, living knowledge, including to young pupils, such as the existence of dark matter and dark energy, even if that is what our principles of teaching in France strictly forbid.

Today, and tomorrow even more, we must shorten the time it takes to go from a scientific discovery to teaching about that discovery. We must above all make the courses more fun and more accessible to the way(s) the brain works, become more interested in the motivations of students and of their limbic systems, of their dopaminergenic pathways that video games stimulate easily, and which traditional courses barely consider. Nowadays, we too often oppose a world of distraction and entertainment, a world which is exciting, immersive and profoundly emotional, to a form of education that is as boring as it was in 1905.

In 1905, the son of the farmer favored the emotions and feelings associated with learning the subject of geography rather than learning how to bale hay. In 2014, most studends find education dull and boring, at the exact opposite of what todays’s technologies can offer. We would be wrong to consider these technologies dangerous, because they are, on the contrary, potentially rich in learning, and that one day their use will be the norm in an era less barbaric than the one we inhabit today. Our courses will be better than videogames in emotional terms. Making this principle come true is the key to modern learning. Making this concrete is the challenge of brain ergonomy.

In the classroom

In the passionate report from the academy of sciences on « children and the screens », Serge Tisseron juxtaposes the culture of the book (favouring unity, temporality, single identity, and suppression) and the culture of screens (favouring multiplicity, spaciality, multiple identity and cleavage). More importantly, he preconceives the mixing and mashing up of the two. As an example, when a child has played with a video game, typically a screen culture, Tisseron advises parents to ask the child to tell them what he has lived and experienced. Asking this question plunges the child into a narrative, which is what the culture of the book provides.

Thus, learning is thus not a choice between several theories, but a back-and-forth between intuition and rationalisation. Rationalisation is necessary; without it, we will live in a world of false science which will, in turn, create both slaves and dictators, and nothing in between. But rationalisation without intuition creates a dry and soulless science which impoverishes the spirit. This creates a dual society, made up of elites, and people rejected by the society. To avoid this we must have a systemic approach in which effective learning is situated. It must be made up of loops between the left brain and the right brain, resulting in both being better connected.

The neurosciences show that the brain uses a large part of its capabilities to understand speech and writing. It is then less available for the true task of structuring of learning, in its rational phase. All work carried out beforehand to facilitate this rational learning is welcome, making the intuition phase of learning very important.

It’s in those phases of intuition that games are crucial, because games and gaming permit three fundamental principles : fun, engagement, and collaborative work. This phase should not be focused on trying to access the rational brain ; far from focusing on sudoku puzzles, serious games and other educational games, it should produce and evoke pleasure whilst also creating good connections in the brain. This will favour rational learning in the future. When this happens, the left brain can tap into the zones of the brain that have been impacted by the game(s). The left brain contains the elements necessary for rationalisation to take place, and accessing it helps that rationalisation process occur more easily.

It is the main challenge for neurotechnologies to know how to create games that can help make this opening up of the brain occur more easily. Most of the games are either mindless diversion, like throwing birds at pigs, but leave no trace and are useless; or on the contrary, they require the player to make an effort, such as aligning numbers in squares, but without having any fun. Only scientific knowledge of the mechanisms and functioning of the brain will allow for the creation of games that have the necessary qualities. The neurotechnologies are still in their infancy, but their possibilities are hugely promising.

In real life

Education is undergoing a significant evolution as a result of the digital Renaissance in which we are living today. As in all phases of a tectonic shift, nothing is truly stable : MOOCs, the flipped classroom, co-design, collaborative work, etc. All these new developments are experiments in constructing the educational processes, not of tomorrow, but that fit today’s new conditions; it is an urgent task, because the planet is heating up in all conceivable ways.

However, this digital Renaissance which is both based on collective intelligence and feeds that same collective intelligence, is happening through placing all forms of intelligence into connected networks. This placing of intelligences into networks necessitates an understanding of two fundamental things : the dynamics of complex systems, which implies the importance of well-and-widely distributed information, and what is « intelligence », a question to which neurotechnologies can deliver a lot of beautiful answers.

Above all, we are in the process of giving birth to the noosphere, the sphere of « human thoughts »[15] envisioned by Pierre Theilhard de Chardin.

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