Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

31 August 2009

Consciousness and non-linearity

Clark @ 11:41 AM

Aaron Silvers (@mrch0mp3rs) wrote a post tying together the non-linear nature of cyberspace with the essentially linear nature of our past.  Identifying how new technologies have to establish their own natures is a familiar refrain, but he’s comparing our learning with our  new contexts, and essentially questioning the relationship between old methods and new contexts.

It was this quote which got me thinking:

communications outside of education are happening, increasingly, in hyperspace…, but our preferred methods for learning are still long-held narrative forms

I started wondering about whether we could learn without a linear narrative form, and realized we could.  That is, we really do want to train certain people (e.g. pilots) to react before conscious thought kicks in. And similarly in, say, martial arts. It gets to a point where the expert creates rationales for what they’re doing that aren’t necessarily tied to the real action.  We saw this in the problems that arose with ‘expert systems’, where experts articulated what they did, and then they built systems that did what the experts said, and they didn’t work.

Typically, we start off on component skills, addressing them with some explicit feedback, and gradually layer on more complex frameworks (“be the ball” :), and the performance is compiled into a deeper, really subcognitive level.  We’ve used stories and feedback, and then augmented with video capture and fancy feedback machines, but we’ve kept that conscious layer of description even as it gets more abstract to match our increasingly high level of control.  Our brains have evolved to process linear narrative, as we see in all the calls for incorporating story in communication. And reflection, a critical component of learning, is conscious.  Now, consciousness is a still not understood linear phenomena emerging from our parallel processing brain.  What would it mean to end-run linear consciousness?  That’s what I started trying to imagine.

And what I came up with was a simulation game/immersive environment with non-cognitive feedback, that could train your responses. You’d be performing, and the feedback would train and integrate your responses.  Yes, there’d be an explicit model of performance to guide the feedback, but the learner might not be aware of the relationships.  Yes, learners would likely create a story about what’s happening (given that we’re likely to reflect consciously on what we do), but it could be wrong or they could even have their attention drawn elsewhere. So the game might even have some layer with high or little relation to what the system is training.  But it could work, like in that possibly apocryphal story of the students who kept paying high quality attention to the instructor when he was on side of the room, and looked away at the other side of the room, and at the end of the lecture the instructor was way off in one corner of the room.

And what concerned me was that I wouldn’t want to have a parallel training system that bypassed or misled the conscious learning.  And that’s what I raised as a comment on Aaron’s post.  Not that I thought Aaron was advocating that, but it’s just where my thinking went, and he rightly queried what I was on about.  I couldn’t fit it in a comment, hence this post.

The point being, there’s a role for the linear conscious narrative and reflection in our learning, just as there’s a role for dynamic multimedia networks in our learning as well.  It’s finding out the balance, the role of activity and reflection, that’s the interesting and important challenge.


  1. First of all, very cool where you’re going with this, Clark. Your model of “non-cognitive feedback, that could train your responses” — would you consider this to be a reinforcing model? I ask because there’s parallels to be drawn from things like “shock therapy” where you’re conditioning someone at a subconscious level (though cognitively aware of the pain) to respond to a stimulus in a certain way.

    With the example of pilot training, being in a simulator gives you the feeling of spinning out of control and enough experience with it impresses pilots to get a feel for the plane leading up to an unplanned event. Kinda like getting a feel for the signs of trouble early on. You have some pilots, like Capt. Sullenberger who read the signs and just “knew” what he had to do to get the plane down safely.

    Simulators, though, are really expensive, which is a constraint. The tacit, experienctial learning is the kind of thing we want to enable with Virtual Worlds, because (pragmatically) if they can be effective, they’re a whole lot more accessible and a lot less expensive. Right?

    You got me thinking, Clark… I got question-fog now…I need get to clearer questions to articulate…

    Comment by Aaron — 31 August 2009 @ 1:14 PM

  2. I find his font aggravates my fairly mild dyslexia so that it’s like the font is pouring into a whole in the middle of my focus.

    Comment by Joan Vinall-Cox — 1 September 2009 @ 9:19 AM

  3. Interesting post. Reminded me of Deleuze and Guarrari and their idea/metaphor of rhizomatous learning.

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhizome_(philosophy)

    “Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the term “rhizome” to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. In A Thousand Plateaus, they opposed it to an arborescent conception of knowledge, which worked with dualist categories and binary choices. A rhizome works with horizontal and trans-species connections, while an arborescent model works with vertical and linear connections.”

    Not so much that the ‘long-held narrative forms’ themselves are out of date. But that they will now be negotiated, mutable, personal, local, [insert webby buzzword epithet here].

    I can’t remember who said it, but I remember reading that it’s TV and cinema and novels that are the true aberrations, in the grand scheme of things – not the web. Historically, all art and stories have been participatory (and thus in a constant state of hyperspatial flux). It’s only in our lifetimes that humans have ‘sat back’.

    Perhaps, teachers and classrooms are a similar aberration?

    Comment by bfchirpy — 1 September 2009 @ 10:22 AM

  4. It’s very clear classrooms are an aberration. Gary Woodill has been talking about the history of classrooms emerging out of Prussia a couple of hundred years ago or so. Before that, the apprenticeship model was in place. I can see a reason for a slightly more scalable model than individual mentoring, but the didactic approach is broken. Rhizomes, like Siemen’s connectivist model, have some appeal, but I think there’s a tension, e.g. there’re things I’d like my kids to know how to do, or know *not* to do! And I do believe narrative is powerful; it may be co-created, but I still like reading books. The power of a master storyteller isn’t just an aberration, in my mind.

    Comment by Clark — 1 September 2009 @ 1:35 PM

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