Learning how to be surprised

Over the past couple of months, we at Unthinkable have been surfacing a few of our reflections on learning, and in particular the ways in which digital and physical interactions can come together to create new kinds of learning experience. And since getting back to school after an August spent camping with the family, I’ve been looking for the time, and the words, to try and sum up this period of reflection with some grand synthesis, ideally (since after all, we’re a digital agency in the game of raising our profile), with some sort of shareable list of stuff attached, before we collectively move on to think about our next theme.

But instead, I find myself drawn to share some more personal reflections. I thoroughly enjoyed a Radio 4 mini-series a couple of weeks ago, In Search of Eden, which excavated the hidden meanings of the story of the Tree of Knowledge with reference to our prehistory and transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agrarian communities and from illiterate and innumerate to literate and numerate, and the ratchet of cumulative ‘entanglement’ with different technologies that’s characterised our supposed progress as human beings, right up to today’s digital technologies that are our stock in trade in Unthinkable.

Among other things, the programme explored ‘The Curse of Knowledge’, a phenomenon I realise I’ve been familiar with for many years but first saw named in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (one of the many thoughtful presents that Justin has given me over the years). This is the process by which it becomes very hard to imagine not knowing something once we know it. (Paul Howard-Jones, the presenter of In Search of Eden, gave a neat example of this that anyone can try out by inviting us to drum out a tune to a friend and notice our own surprise when they find it hard to guess the notes that are so clearly playing in our head.) It’s also the same phenomenon that occurs whenever you find yourself trotting out initialisms and jargon in conversation that are meaningless to your interlocutor (you mean you don’t know what ROI stands for? B2B? the semantic web? COB? etc).

Curse alert

So ‘The Curse of Knowledge’ is, as Pinker explored it, a problem for writers. But it’s also a problem for learners. As a child, I distinctly recall not noticing the learning process; and to this day, it costs me effort to remind myself that something I’ve just learned is not something I’ve always known.

As we grow older, the proportion of new impressions to older impressions gradually diminishes. A child is born blind and gradually learns to see. The passage of day into night, the changing of the seasons, are all new information. As this body of knowledge of the physical, emotional and mental world builds, we learn to accommodate new facts and impressions within it, unconsciously learning that each new fact and impression will be incrementally less significant and smaller than the last, in comparison to an accumulating whole.

As a result, we get used to a certain pace of absorbing and understanding new things. Watching my sons take in and question new facts awakens in me a vague sense of loose ends left hanging, as if throughout my life I have half accepted things, not necessarily fully assimilating new information into my particular way of looking at the world. As they ask searching questions about knowledge, I am left with the sense that I in turn have accepted all this information in the past through a series of half-syntheses, a string of broken promises to myself to revisit the information later, to build it in and make it my own.

But then I also suspect that this is inevitable, as if at each stage of learning I was unconsciously expecting to apply the methodology of the previous stage — as if I could apply to the 0.1% increment of information that I’m acculumating this year precisely the same resources of attention and cognition as I had applied to the 1% increment a year before. And I am left with a sense of unfinished business because the longer I live and the more I learn the less attention and cognition are available to deal with it.

And that’s only proportionally speaking. The same is probably also true in absolute terms, because the more I learn, the bigger the system for contextualising new information grows, and the greater the amount of information that is able to be accommodated and gets through my filter. And so I am partly inclined to believe that we can only build the complex systems of interrelations that we need to function in the world by becoming more blasé about new information.

That’s all very well, but what does it have to do with digital technology?

Here I’m going to get back on topic. Digital technology — more precisely, online data and the technology to organise and retrieve it — has in some ways commoditised factual knowledge. If all knowledge is available to all people at all times, then simply acquiring new knowledge is inherently a waste of time, unless we are at the same time making that knowledge our own in deeper ways. This is a bit like the difference between news and comment. News is, or should be, a steadily increasing database of objectively true, flavourless information about real events. (I don’t wish to understate the value of news, by the way: that process of acquiring and distributing objective fact is really hard and requires very serious training and resources.) Comment is the product of a process of reflection by the commentator, where the news is synthesised and integrated with other things that the commentator knows, and ideally with a more abstract layer of principles and philosophy.

And the gateway habit to those other habits of reflection, synthesis, integration and abstraction? It might just be surprise. I recently heard the following quote from Pierre Bourdieu: ‘The difficulty… is to manage to think in a completely astonished and disconcerted way about things you thought you had always understood’. And I almost fell off my bicycle with the shock of recognition. Although Bourdieu was specifically referring to the discipline of sociology, this cultivated astonishment is a mode of knowing that I aspire to. But more than that, it is perhaps a mode of knowing that is relevant to all of us as it never has been before because of that central paradox of digital knowledge: as humanity’s memory store of facts has been progressively disembodied — from aural culture to books and now to distributed online databases — the value that we humans can add to knowledge is in the way we personally know, the way we re-embody knowledge by giving it the imprint of our accumulated personal wisdom and experience.

It may not seem like much to hold up against the overwhelming knowledgeability of the machines, and of the disembodied millions of people, that surround us and pervade our lives ever more deeply — but I am more and more convinced that the quality of our knowing is a unique gift that each of us can give the world.

As thinkers and practitioners in the world of digital learning, this has a couple of implications. First, it underscores our interest in technologies, platforms and experiences that valorise individual ways of knowing over the simple acquisition of expertise. Adaptive learning software is a step towards this. Platforms such as Khan Academy and Duolingo track learners’ progress in mastering specific fields of knowledge and present options to the learner that are moulded to their personal needs. We are a long way from software that can get near to modelling or even enhancing the rich idiosyncracy of how an individual integrates new knowledge into the full depth and breadth of knowledge and skills that he or she has mastered over a lifetime. But it is at least theoretically possible, with the right combination of clever coding, wide adoption by people and platforms and long-term use, to imagine such a system. Badges and ePortfolios are promising emerging components, with the open-source approach to badges pioneered by Mozilla being well-suited to such an open-ended, long term and holistic application.

Surprise me with your ways of knowing

Then there are learning experiences, including socially constructivist MOOC platforms like our beloved FutureLearn, that enable plural individual ways of knowing to collide and mingle. Justin recently suggested to a prospective partner of FutureLearn that they consider building only 70% of the content their desired curriculum into a course, on the basis that we can rely on the diversity of a very active and engaged learner base to supply the other 30%. I said a little earlier that the web exposes us to the expertise of disembodied millions, and it can seem disempowering to pit one’s own ignorance against that. But with the right tools, open-ended learning design and a generous and wise convening spirit, engaging with other learners in this way can also enhance rather than detract from that process of knowing in our own way.

The other way in which this philosophy of learning and knowing — one that favours cultivated astonishment — bears on us as practitioners is in how we learn about the problems of our clients. Sure, we aspire to bring expertise and we know that clients want it. But if knowledge is a curse, we can also bring the blessing of ignorance — of the specific detail and circumstances of the organisations we work with. We can help the people we work with to be surprised and astonished at the right things.

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