Learning across Cultures Roy Williams, Jenny Mackness, Simone Gumtau
Learning across Cultures
Learning across Cultures
Roy Williams, Jenny Mackness, Simone Gumtau
Education is built on the foundations of peer reviewed knowledge, first formalised in the Royal Society many years ago, so networking is nothing new. What is new is the facility for networking across the internet. It is now so much easier to ‘explore tools, information, resources and points of view from other disciplines that can elucidate and even answer problems’.
This provides opportunities and challenges for the curriculum. Institutions, through their courses, and students and staff through their networked learning and research, are all trying to find ways to reconcile core curriculum values and standards with these rich, serendipitous, and sometimes centrifugal, forces, which are becoming core to the dynamics of the new global political economy (1).
We have identified a number of new types of open, and in principle trans-disciplinary curricula: massive open online courses (MOOCs), interactive spaces (MEDIATE), trans-disciplinary installations (The Brain) ”” as well as resonances with much earlier curricula innovations, in Montessori education.
We propose new methodologies and approaches that may help us to describe, evaluate, manage and design these new dynamic curricula, based on recently published research, in Footprints of Emergence (2). To do justice to these dynamic changes, we developed a new learning topography ”” a 3D graphics ‘footprint’ template which acknowledges and integrates open or emergent learning as well as prescribed learning (or core knowledge). The framework is applied to a range of learning events.
Curricula that include science, engineering, art and design can be rich, stimulating and creative. They can also be frustrating and discordant ”” both in the design process and in implementation. These unique opportunities and challenges are consequences of working across not just different disciplines, but often different cultures. In other words, not just different ways of thinking or writing, but different ways of being ”” being part of social, intellectual and professional communities. It is from this perspective that we will explore the issues in this White Paper, which could be titled Learning (and working) across Cultures.
There are many ways to approach learning across cultures. This paper explores the particular role that emergent learning can play in developing new ways to design and implement learning across cultures, based on our recent research into emergent learning, and the affordances of social media. Emergent learning is in principle adaptive, ordered-and-yet-unpredictable, and flourishes in curricula that are themselves emergent. A more formal definition is:
Emergent learning is likely to occur when many self-organising agents interact frequently and openly, with considerable degrees of freedom, but within specific constraints; no individual can see the whole picture; and agents and system co-evolve (3).
The key to designing for emergent learning is to define negative constraints, not positive outcomes ”” which turns traditional curriculum design on its head. And if you want an example of emergence, Twitter is almost a caricature, although how much people actually learn in Twitter is moot. It could be argued of course that the negative constraints of Twitter, and their governance, are still in the process of being established.
There are two contributions that this paper can make to SEAD: on the one hand, a practical framework for describing, designing, and managing emergent learning in general; and on the other hand, some specific examples of how this can be applied to SEAD and related contexts. We gain rich insights from emergent learning, but it is always somewhat creative, surprising and unpredictable; hindsight does not necessarily produce foresight. Consequently, emergent learning does not produce best practice, but rather, interesting and thought provoking practice.
This will lead to a somewhat different and innovative set of ‘suggested actions’, to contribute to the task of developing SEAD curricula, and to contribute to the development of the notion of the curriculum itself, which might usefully accommodate more emergent teaching and learning, and even some emergent curricula, for ‘learning across cultures’.
2. Current State of Practice
It is ironic that the management of education has become more closed while learning has become more open, particularly over the past 10-20 years. The curriculum has become more instrumental, predictive, standardized and micro-managed, in the belief that this supports employability and learning. Meanwhile, people have embraced open, interactive, participatory, collaborative and innovative networks for living and learning.
There is some progress, however. Increasingly, a range of people and institutions are convening and curating open forums – both online, in MOOCs, JAMs, Online forums, not to mention blogs, twitter clouds, and wikis, as well as face-2-face (f-2-f), in un-conferences, and exhibitions and interactive installations that are curated across traditional disciplines. Both online and f-2-f events constrain or enhance participation in their own ways: online events can easily be opened up to global participation in ways that f-2-f events cannot match, and f-2-f events can provide an immediacy and richness that online events cannot emulate. These distinctions are, of course, becoming increasingly blurred, as the internet becomes just an ordinary part of people’s lives.
MOOCs ”” (Massive, globally Open – and generally free – Online Courses) in particular are growing apace, and diversifying in size (ranging from a hundred to many thousands of participants), in facilitation (ranging from active facilitation and moderation to aggregation, to machine managed), in pedagogy (from connnectivist and constructivist, to behaviourist or instructivist) and in content (from open to proprietary, with an emphasis on open,, or at least creative commons resources).
But they all rely on peer collaboration across a range of social media, and active, self-organised participants. And MOOCs seem to have split, already, into cMOOCs – with more emphasis on constructivist teaching and learning- and xMOOCs ”” with more emphasis on behaviourism and numbers – of ‘raw’ enrolments rather than retention, and throughput rather than accreditation, (4). There are also, now, what might be called mMOOCs ”” ‘machine MOOCs’ which could be seen as DIY-book clubs with self-organised study groups. Formal assessment and accreditation is often an optional add-on, though it is unlikely to be free ”” if anything, it is likely to be the revenue generating tail that finances the ‘free’ course ”” which has to be financed somehow. This opens up the curriculum, in principle, to flexible and open access on the one hand, but also to a potential undertow of marketization and commodification of teaching and faculty on the other. It does at least allow the student to opt for either an informal, free, ‘certificate of attendance’ ”” or for certified, formal assessment ”” at a cost. But the age-old adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” should always be kept in mind.
3. The Potential
Working across disciplines can lead to creative and innovative solutions to problems ”” particularly intractable ones. This has potential value for society and for the participants. It also has potential value for specific disciplines, by enhancing creative approaches within those disciplines ”” whether arts or sciences.
However, we need to keep in mind that this requires a willingness to work across not only epistemologies, but also social, disciplinary and institutional cultures. For example, the physical sciences, in which things are expected to behave predictably, are a different culture compared to the social and biological sciences, in which organisms and people are self-organised, and consequently behave adaptively, somewhat unpredictably and, in the case of fine arts and performance arts, are required to be creative and innovative.
In addition, learning across cultures requires you to work across different types of texts and media ”” from the formalised, reified written texts typical of the sciences, to potentially more open, flexible and metaphorical texts – typical of the arts and humanities. These different perspectives have implications for people’s social and professional practice and identity, as well as for their commitments to their social and professional cultures. The key question is not “what do you want to learn when you grow up?” but rather “what do you want to be?” And the answer is generally not expected to be “both”.
One of the ways to work across these different perspectives and cultures is to convene open courses, networks, or discussions which encourage emergent learning, and to find topics (for instance: water, energy, habitat, learning, the brain, micro-credit, HIV-AIDS) which can attract contributions from a range of disciplines and perspectives. Such events can be open to ideas, disciplines and perspectives, as well as to diverse experiences, ages, cultures, and languages.
4. Describing Emergent Learning
In our research we identified a range of examples of emergent learning, and developed a new framework to capture and map out 25 relevant factors, as well as the dynamics of change in these factors over the course of a learning event. This framework, Footprints of Emergence, takes the form of a 3D typography or landscape – see (2) for details. It is based on complex adaptive systems theory ”” see (3) for the details. Below, in “Figure 12″, is an example of the way CCK08 (the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course in 2008, the first global MOOC) was described using the Footprints of Emergence, as it changed from the initial design phase across over 4 subsequent phases.
Figure 1. The design and four subsequent phases of CCK08.
From: Footprints of Emergence (2)
The footprints describe, and map out, the dynamics of learning across a learning event (such as CCK08, above). They map out the way learning has been designed, delivered, and responded to across a topography ”” a landscape of learning. This landscape includes prescribed learning (predictable, tightly specified outcomes) at the centre, and emergent learning across the ‘top’ or ‘ridge’ and towards the edge of ‘chaos’ (in complexity theory terms) This can be seen more clearly in cross section, in Figure 2, below.
Figure 2. The topography of learning.
From: Footprints of Emergence (2)
The intention, here, is not to promote emergent learning, per se, as better or worse than prescribed learning, but rather to map out the dynamics of the way prescribed and emergent learning actually takes place in a learning event, to see whether that is appropriate or ‘fit’ for a specific context. In the Footprints of Emergence paper there are several examples of how the balance between emergent and prescribed learning is, or is not achieved, in different ways, for very different learning events.
5. Designing Emergent Curricula
The key to designing emergent learning and emergent curricula is to define negative constraints, not positive outcomes. The first step is to decide what degree of emergence is appropriate for a particular context.
If we take the example of CCK08, the convenors mapped out (explicitly or tacitly) the degree of constraint, or lack of it, of their four factors: connectivity, autonomy, openness and diversity. As participant-researchers, working with our research respondents, we found that we needed to tease out and elaborate those 4 factors into, eventually, 25 factors. What we would describe as the de facto (design) constraints, at five points in the event, are mapped out in the five footprints, above.
These 25 factors are ‘scored’ (on a relational, continuous scale, not a discrete scale). A high score indicates very little constraint, and places the factor ‘near the edge of chaos’ (and the footprint). A very high score indicates no constraints at all, which places the factor ‘over the edge’, potentially into complete disorder. A low score places the factor towards the centre, and right at the centre the constraints are extensive enough for the outcomes to be prescribed as positive, i.e. with no flexibility or room for emergence at all.
In this way the footprints can be used to design curricula that have varying degrees of emergence and prescription. The footprints can be used retrospectively, to describe the implicit (or tacit) design as it was operationalized, and experienced, at that time by a particular group of stakeholders (researchers, participants, convenors, teachers, etc.) Many educational events respond and adapt to their unfolding context in some measure, in which case the dynamics of the (implicit) design will change, and a series of footprints will need to be drawn (see Figure 1).
The design parameters vary from emergent – towards the edge (defined by negative constraint) to prescriptive – towards the centre (defined effectively by so many negative constraints that it makes more sense to define them as narrowly-specified positive outcomes). Within the design process, and within the management of a course, this ‘tipping point’ always needs to kept in mind.
The same applies to learners, or participants. They may need to be guided, or invited, to explore learning in more or less adventurous and creative ways, depending not only on the aims and purpose of the curriculum and the course, but often more importantly on the participants themselves ”” their degree of comfort, fear, confidence, experience, and their intentions and aims for their learning too.
6. Suggested Actions
There must be many ways to approach SEAD curricula. One way to do so is to explore the affordances of self-organized, emergent learning, within the global interaction and collaboration that the internet and its increasingly intuitive and ubiquitous interfaces makes possible.
Emergent learning is self-organizing, distributed, networked and collaborative, open and adaptive, and although it is not predictable, it is still organized. In fact, without some constraints, emergence unravels over the edge of chaos into disorder (5).
Emergent learning provides a unique set of creative opportunities – and limitations -within which SEAD curricula can be designed and developed. It does not offer predictability, or compliance with prescribed outcomes; these should be explored within other frameworks. It needs to be integrated into a learning landscape that includes emergent and prescribed learning, in which the emergent learning needs to be designed by ‘negative constraint’, not positive outcomes, turning conventional curriculum design (temporarily) on its head.
Action 1: Develop, and Communicate the Value of, SEAD Curricula
Barrier: SEAD curricula include disciplines which are creative and innovative, as well as insights and which are applied across cultures and disciplines. However, in the UK in particular, the Higher Education sector has demanded more predictability and more micro-management. So there are few opportunities to develop and use innovative SEAD curricula.
Target: First and foremost: practitioners, designers and participants in SEAD learning. They have the most at stake. Secondarily, administrators and policy makers.
Solution: Tools for Designing and Describing SEAD Curricula
Suggested Actions: Identify and develop frameworks and graphic formats and tools for designing, describing and communicating the value of SEAD curricula. Many of these will include emergent learning. The ‘Footprints of Emergence’ is one framework and ‘toolset’ which has specifically been developed with emergent learning in mind. It should be tested on a wider scale, and developed further. Others need to be explored too.
Action 2: Theoretical Frameworks for SEAD Curricula
Barrier: SEAD curricula, by definition, do not operate within disciplinary boundaries, which means they often lack the academic recognition and intellectual legitimacy of individual disciplines, built up over the years.
Target: Researchers, teachers, policy makers.
Solution: Identify, develop and disseminate relevant theoretical frameworks
Suggested Actions: There are many types of SEAD curricula, which possibly draw on as many types of theoretical frameworks for their design and practice.
These need to developed, made more explicit, and applied and disseminated to underpin the recognition and legitimacy of SEAD curricula, as well as to inform better design, practice and evaluation.
” The theory of emergence, is one such framework. It has arisen out of the specific need to understand current developments in in emergent learning, and to inform design for emergence in practice. It is based on an established body of research in Complex Adaptive Systems Theory (CAST), which already informs practice and research on Communities of Practice, connectivism, and networked learning. (5, 6).
” The theory of affordances is related framework. It has arisen out of the work on perception, action and interaction, in ecological psychology, based on the earlier work of J.J. Gibson (7). It deals with the way in which people create new ways of thinking and doing things, in interaction with their environment as a whole, which often includes work across disciplines.
” The theory of synaesthesia and embodied learning. The work of Ramachandran on synaesthesia and cross-modality is key to understanding embodied learning, and the use of metaphor and multimedia in open and cross-disciplinary learning ( 8).
Action 3: Develop a Knowledge Bank of Exemplars of Emergent Curricula and Courses
Barrier: Educational policy makers and administrators have little tolerance for cross-disciplinary study, whereas an a small but increasing number of academics and SEAD practitioners are enthusiastically working with their colleagues and professional practitioners in emergent learning. Particularly because emergent learning is not aimed at producing predictability and ‘best practice’, but rather unpredictable, ‘interesting and inspiring practice’, and emergent curriculum design is based on defining negative constraints rather than positive outcomes, there is a lack of understanding, or appreciation for the value of, emergent learning. There often isn’t a common framework for dialogue, let alone a working relationship.
Target: Faculty and collaborating practitioners, administrators and managers, policy makers.
Solution: A Knowledge Bank and Community of Practice, based on Exemplars of Emergent Learning Practice
Suggested Actions: Create a knowledge bank of exemplars of interesting and inspiring emergent learning and curricula, using a practitioner- and designer-generated, tagsonomy of for courses and events that contribute to the development and design of emergent SEAD curricula. Appendix 2 lists and describes several such exemplars. Further research is needed to systematically identify, describe, and tag more emergent practice. The current explosion of interest, and creation of new courses in MOOC of one kind or another would be a good place to start.
SEAD curricula are both a challenge and an opportunity. There are substantial opportunities for SEAD initiatives to build on recent research and practice in emergent learning, in terms of a theoretical framework, a design and research tool (Footprints of Emergence), and in terms of several exemplars of interesting and potentially inspiring practice.
Based on this, a number of actions are suggested, including using and further developing the theoretical framework and the descriptive and design tools, and creating a knowledge base within a Community of Practice on emergent curricula and learning in the SEAD domain.
1. Williams, R. (2012) Affordances and the new political ecology. In: Terrorism and affordance. New directions in terrorism studies . Continuum, London, pp. 93-120. ISBN 9781441133816
2. Williams, R. Mackness, J. and Gumtau, S. (2012) Footprints of emergence. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13 (4). pp. 49-90. ISSN 1492-3831
3. Williams, R., Karousou, R., and Mackness, J. (2011) Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12 (3). pp. 39-60. ISSN 1492-3831
4. Daniel, J. (2012) Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility Seoul: Korean National Open University
5. Cilliers, P. (2005). Complexity, deconstruction and relativism. Theory, Culture and Society, 22(5), 255-267.
6. Snowden, D.J., & Boone, M. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review.
7. Gibson J. J. (1977) The Theory of Affordances, in R.E. Shaw and J. Bransford (Eds): Perceiving, Acting and Knowing. Hillsdale, New Jersey. Laurence Gilbaum Associates.
8. Ramachandran, V.S. (2003). The Emerging Mind: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. Reith Lectures. Retrieved 2012-07-16
9. Radiography and fine art
10. Affordances for Learning (2009) HEA Project report. Retrieved from: http://learning-affordances.wikispaces.com/Project+Report
11. Mackness, J., Mak, Sui, Fai, J., & Williams, R. (2010). The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. In Networked Learning Conference (266-274). Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Mackness.html
12. Mak, Sui, Fai, J., Williams, R., & Mackness, J. (2010). Blogs and forums as communication and learning tools in a MOOC. In Networked Learning Conference (275-284). Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/Mak.html
13. Gumtau, S., Newland, P., Creed, C. & Kunath, S. (2005). MEDIATE. A Responsive Environment Designed for Children with Autism. Accessible Design in the Digital World Conference.
14. Gumtau, S. (2011). Affordances of Touch in Multi-Sensory Embodied Interface Design. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Portsmouth, UK.
15. Wellcome Collection unveils £17.5m expansion project, retrieved 14/11/12 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-20055213).
16. Brains ”” the Mind as Matter, Wellcome Collection website, retrieved 14/11/12from http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/brains.aspx).
17. Williams, R. Mackness, J. and Gumtau, S. (2014) Synaesthesia and Embodied Learning. Under submission ”” forthcoming.
1. Frameworks for Emergent SEAD Curriculum Design
2. Exemplars of Emergent Design and Practice ”
Appendix 1: Frameworks for Emergent SEAD Curriculum Design
1. Innovation across ‘cultures’
In broad terms, learning and/or innovation may result from interactions between ideas and practice from different disciplines or cultures, which may resonate with (or challenge) each other, when brought together.
There is no hard and fast boundary between ideas and practice. Nevertheless, we can distinguish different ways in which such resonance takes place: within an exchange of ideas, or practice, or both.
Ideas – Ideas
For example, the idea of self-organised adaptation and innovation. There are aspects of self-organized adaptation and innovation in social, psychological, biological, and physical systems that may resonate between disciplines, within the overall notion of emergence, and/or evolution, across all these different perspectives and intellectual ‘cultures’. This cross-pollination may result in learning and innovation.
Practice ”” Practice
For example, the way images are captured and created, in fine art in radiography. There are aspects of a particular practice which are common across different disciplines (like capturing images) which may resonate at the level of practice. This may involve resonance and inspiration from one technique and discipline to another (9).
This kind of resonance or borrowing might result in quite new ways of doing things; exploring and establishing new affordances in one practice, based on an example of a related practice in another.
Ideas ”” Practice ”” Ideas.
Within an individual or a team’s work and learning, the interaction between ideas and practice is likely to be a regular feature, repeated iteratively within the process of adaptation, development and innovation. This may occur within a single discipline, but it may equally occur across disciplines.
The development of the theory of affordances for learning, for instance, featured centrally, over two and a half years, in the Affordances for Learning project team, which explored the theory of affordances using insights from evolution, biological ecology, media theory, learning theory, and evolutionary psychology. These insights were used on an iterative basis, together with expertise in interactive media design, in the development of practical tools to create open, emergent affordances for professional reflective practice in a new ‘nested narratives’ methodology. This was written up in a methodology paper, a theoretical paper on affordances for learning, and a project report for the funders (10).
The theoretical paper in turn served as an input into a seminar on Affordances, Political Violence and Terrorism, and has subsequently been rewritten, and published as a chapter on Affordances and the new political ecology, in a book on Terrorism and Affordance (1). This chapter, in turn, has recently been used in a publication on Enterprise Resource Planning, in business information systems.
Appendix 2: Exemplars of Emergent Design and Practice
Emergent learning, because it is based on self-organized actors, is paradoxically unpredictable yet organized. There must be some organization, as without any constraint at all, emergence is likely to tip over the edge of chaos into total disorder. So how is it possible to design for emergence? The answer is surprisingly simple: by negative constraint, rather than positive outcomes.
When you design for emergence you turn the curriculum process on its head. As far as possible, you specify what is NOT going to happen, rather than what IS going to happen (which is the traditional way of designing a curriculum).
This is evident in several layers of the MEDIATE project, somewhat differently within the curating of The Brain exhibition, and in the Montessori classroom. Emergence is also present to a varying extent in CCK08 (11, 12), and the Entrepreneur courses and Teacher Training courses, all of which are described in the Footprints of Emergence Paper.
The details of what happened with in the MEDIATE project itself can be found in the Footprints of Emergence paper (2). This section will deal with related events, and with emergent learning in the MEDIATE development team, which included people from across the SEAD spectrum: artists, designers, computer engineers and scientists, and psychologists. It was based on the initiative of a design team at the University of Portsmouth (including sound artists, architects and a psychologist), who had some experience in developing interactive systems utilizing artificial intelligence, specifically to train fire chiefs in a simulated emergency scenario.
In MEDIATE, they were interested to develop an interface that addressed all the senses in a responsive environment, and could grow intelligently in dialogue with the user. This cross-disciplinary team then sought out collaboration from Europe, which was a condition of the research funding institution (the European Union). This itself was a somewhat emergent outcome, as the project struggled to find support in both Arts and Science camps, both contesting ownership. The two international design teams were approached on the basis on their expertise and/or previous successful collaboration with the team at Portsmouth.
The sound design team at the Hogeschool vor de Kuensten in Utrecht, Holland, was responsible for designing the ‘intelligence’, in other words the pattern detection software adapted especially for recognizing repetitive behaviour in MEDIATE. This software was based on a previous project, the Signature Analyser, designed to detect idiosyncracies in human jazz saxophone players. The visual design team at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona was based on the partnership between Narcis and Roc Pares, two brothers who collaborate regularly as artist and programmer, to create innovative interface designs.
The brief of the project was initially based on a commonly agreed diagnosis of autism and its symptoms (informed by the psychology team), for example: sensory hyper- and hypo-sensitivies, lack of communication, repetitive behaviour, and avoidance of novelty. The vision of this interactive space was that this could be a safe place for a child with autism and low verbal skills to interact, explore, communicate and be creative ”” something that is normally seen as a deficit in people on the autistic spectrum. The brief developed as the project progressed, as a tacit understanding of the interactive space, and how it was going to be created.
A project on this scale and this complexity in research aims and technical accomplishment had never been done before. The space was effectively developed by an iterative series of developments ”” ideas and practices ”” which increasingly defined the ‘open’ outcomes of the project, and the MEDIATE space, by increasingly agreeing on the nature ”” and limitations ”” of the negative constraints that would define the open, unpredictable outcomes within the interactive space. Emergent design values centred, unusually, on openness and uncertainty, and sought to define minimal, but necessary, constrains ”” from the ‘outside’ as it were. It was an evolutionary approach in the sense that both the structure (of the event), and the agency (of the participants) are expected to adapt, change and co-evolve.
In the case of the MEDIATE space, it was not only interactive, but was programmed (literally) to respond adaptively and unpredictably (within constraints) ”” as a kind of proxy ‘mind’ to respond to the participants behavior, and establish a kind of dialogue (13, 14).
This also applied to the project team ”” because the teams were in different locations around Europe, face-to-face meetings were limited and costly. Although all members spoke English very well, there were often misunderstandings that could only be articulated and resolved in these meetings, so project development was a lot more efficient at those times.
However, it was important that there was a shared design rationale when members were working away in their local teams. Many discussions focused on the ethics and potential dangers of producing a responsive environment for vulnerable children, and in the end it seemed there was a very strong shared vision of what was not going to happen. In fact this vision was so strong that one member of the consortium could not continue with the collaboration, as they were arguing very strongly for the sort of things the rest of the team had decided they definitely did not want to aim for. So the learning of the team, seen as a collective individual, was also managed (tacitly) by iteratively clarifying the negative constraints within the emergent development of the project.
The participants who entered the interactive MEDIATE ‘room’ were not expected to behave in any particular way, or to carry out, or develop, particular kinds of responses. Crucially, it was hoped that the space would be engaging and open enough for them to “take charge” of what they did ”” to develop agency, which they did ”” in develop their own, very different responses, which surprised nearly everyone concerned. If there was a positively defined outcome, it was this ”” the participants did develop agency, and a strong sense of self-in-engagement with the world around them ”” but, crucially, without having to comply with any specified ‘content’. They were, predominantly, children on the Autistic Spectrum.
The emergence ”” the continued interaction, adaptation and co-evolution between the participants’ agency and the structure of their immediate environment ”” continued after and outside of the participants’ engagement with the MEDIATE space, particularly in the case of ‘Mr. Purple’, a child who had honed in on the colour purple in the interactive space. His family and carers, after discussion with him, painted his bedroom purple, and he slept through the night for the first time in many years.
The participants’ learning was impressively emergent, as well as being positive in terms of their own development, but it was the development team’s learning which is the real exemplar of learning across the SEAD spectrum ”” albeit in more of a ‘project’ than a conventional ‘course’. There is of course plenty of room for the application of the MEDIATE team’s experience to more conventional project-based, research-based and problem-based learning, all of which are well established in higher education.
2.2 The Brain
The Brain ”” Mind as Matter exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London in 2012 is the most visited installation there to date (15). It received a total of 105,033 visitors during its run. Art historian Marius Kwint, a senior lecturer in Visual Culture at the University of Portsmouth guest curated this exhibition, which featured over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos and photography ”” both commissioned and found.
According to the press release, the exhibition sought to “to explore what humans have done to brains in the name of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning and technological change” ‘Brains’ asks not what brains do to us, but what we have done to brains, focusing on the bodily presence of the organ rather than investigating the neuroscience of the mind.” (16)
Working with the Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Collection, the brief, similar to MEDIATE, could be seen to be very much centred on what was to be avoided (negative constraint). In this case, both parties were very clear that they wanted to avoid visual clichés and ephemera, such as the ubiquitous brain scan images in contemporary visual culture. The viscerality and materiality of the brain, the brain as an embodied organ rather than emphasis on the workings of the brain was to be at the centre of interest (also utilizing to full extent the Wellcome Trust’s human tissue licence and collection).
Kwint reports that his job as curator was very much to weave these elements into a narrative which could have potential for emotional content / communication / impact.
This is not the first project on this subject matter for Kwint, as he was also involved in an exhibition around the dendritic (branching) form in nature and culture, called
Einfach Komplex (Simply Complex) at the Design Museum in Zurich in 2005.
Based on this, he developed a sense for the medium of exhibition as a form of embodied communication with very particular affordances. This medium allows the curation of content in a way that is experienced and digested in a very different way than web page content would be, for example. Not only is it a designed space involving full body interaction, it also presents information in a certain sequence or patterns. However, Kwint says they were very concerned to avoiding a didactic exhibition in a scientific sense, and not to teach brain functions in a classical way, but rather to offer an open narrative which could be explored by visitors on their own terms ”” in a way, as self-organising agents.
This can only be described as a resounding success, as the figures and other evidence show ”” with the appeal ranging from school children to veteran neuroscience experts, re-connecting with their passion and interest in what motivated them to go into the field in the first place.
The engagement with the ‘mind as matter’ merged different kinds of embodied learning ”” across science, biology, art, and intellectual and emotional responses. In terms of SEAD curricula, it is an inspiring example of how the choice of a particular, and in many ways unusual choice of the mode of interaction ”” in this case primarily ’embodied’ (in a multitude of different ways) rather than intellectual or conventionally scientific – can be used to engage an audience whose identities were drawn from a range of very different roles, within a vast range of social, scientific and artistic disciplines, and ‘cultures’.
2.3 The Montessori Classroom
The Montessori classroom arose out of practical, scientific innovation. Montessori, at heart a mathematician, and the first woman doctor to qualify in Italy, initially took on the task of teaching ‘mentally disabled’ children. The approach that she adopted in her design and development of the Montessori ‘materials’ (embodied proxies of an open curriculum), as well as in the learning materials themselves was, implicitly, a SEAD-type curriculum. Both her research and development, and the children’s engagement with the materials includes was based on a scientifically rigorous, design informed, aesthetically sensitive, emergent learning framework, integrating insight and content from mathematics, biology, and medicine, psychology, linguistics/semiotics, the humanities, aesthetics and what we have recently come to recognize as the cross-modality of synaesthesia and embodied learning.
For all that, she consistently maintained that “there is no such thing as the Montessori method”, just “follow the child”. However, to follow rather than to lead turns the whole notion of education (from the Latin, educare, to lead forth), and traditional curriculum design on its head.
The core of her method was to scientifically and rigorously observe each child, each day, against the whole range of knowledge about child development at the time (which required her to be something of a poly-math), and then to design, engineer and produce aesthetically pleasing materials, appropriate for a range of ‘sensitive periods’ for child development, for the children to work with, based on their own internal motivation ”” effectively their own self-organised and self-managed learning, albeit in a deeply intuitive rather than an intellectually scaffolded manner.
This was evidence- and research- based observation, design, construction, and practice, within an intuitive-aesthetics. It was based on her observation that children (including her initial, ‘mentally defective’, charges) really want to learn ”” they have almost unlimited internal motivation for learning, if you are capable of designing and providing them with the materials they need to work with.
This resonates with the MEDIATE exemplar, as in both cases the learning in the design team, or collaborative group (Montessori worked with Piaget, amongst others) as well the learning of the participants in the actual learning environment, happened across ‘cultures’ including most if not all of the SEAD disciplines.
In all three of these exemplars learning is grounded, substantially, in embodied learning, often with little or no instruction, and certainly with remarkably little linguistic or intellectual scaffolding. This is not to say that emergent learning is in any way confined to embodied learning, but it does point to interesting alternative affordances for learning, and complementary modes of interaction. Embodied learning, in turn can be seen as grounded in cross-modality and what can be called ‘synaesthetic scaffolding’ (17).