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On the difference between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ (and getting from one to the other)

I went for a walk at the weekend through the woods near our house to clear my head. While avoiding slipping on the icy track I was struck by something that’s been percolating in my thoughts and conversations for a while. It’s embarrassingly simple, but important to me and hopefully worth sharing. It’s the difference between what is and what ought to be – and how we get from one to the other.

Let me explain.

Most of us believe that the way the world is differs from the way the world ought to be. This may be for many reasons – climate change, religion, how we educate young people, the government’s financial policy…. the list is endless. Consciously or unconsciously we tend to surround ourselves with people who think in a similar way to us. Our Circle of Concern grows wider.

The trouble is that all of us hold views of the world that are theory-laden. That is to say we perceive things through the lens of what ought to be. This, inevitably, leads to a situation where a person/group/state points to something as ‘evidence’ in support of their views. Meanwhile, another person/group/state points to the very same evidence in support of the exact opposite view.

A good example of this would be the current crisis with the National Health Service in the UK. Some point to this as evidence of an ideologically-motivated government de-funding public services. Others use it as an example of the shortcomings of socialised medicine. Each side ends up talking past one another as they have no common ground on which to debate. Not only do they use the same example to ‘prove’ different things, but they use the same words in different ways.

During my most recent self-imposed two month digital hiatus I became convinced that quite possibly spend the other 10 months of the year somewhat deluded. I’m almost certainly surrounding myself with people who live within what is quite a small bubble. While there are examples in history of small numbers of people effecting massive change (e.g. the Renaissance, the Bolshevik Revolution), most of the time change is s-l-o-w and comes from lots of groups of people coming into alignment. This takes time because the reasons for each group’s alignment depend on factors other than ‘evidence’.

“Good things happen slowly; bad things happen fast.” Finley Quaye

To my mind, meaningful change comes through people (and organisations) having a reason to change. They respond to ‘incentives’, loosely-defined. They change in accordance with their own version of reality, not by accepting others. Innovations, if not entirely in harmony, are seen to at least be non-threatening to their common beliefs. If it didn’t sound so mystical and new-age, I’d sum this up by saying change comes from within. There are many staging posts along the way to ‘enlightenment’.

I’m not sure whether any of this makes sense, but for me it’s going to mean a change. I’m kind of done with spending my life talking on all fronts about the way the world ought to be. I’m going to spend more of life enjoying the world as it is and being patient. Otherwise, I’m in very real danger of slowly turning into a Grumpy Old Man. And goodness knows there’s enough of those in the world.

Image CC BY-SA Luke McKernan

Things I’m Thinking About

In this month’s Wired magazine regular contributor and comic book writer Warren Ellis entitles his column ‘Five things I’m thinking about right now.’

Whilst I often share what I’ve been thinking about in my weeknotes, I thought I’d share what’s been on my mind more generally recently:

1. Standardisation

Innovation seems to be predicted upon standardisation. This can either be distributed (in the case of Open Source Software) or due to an individual or small group’s previous efforts that have led to a core of good practice.

2. The atomisation of society

Even when events are held and people are gathered together they are increasingly not interacting with others who are physically present. Whilst there is some mediated interaction via social networks most of the interactivity is, in fact, controlled by brands and organisers. These exert power and control even in seemingly-informal situations, such is the power of mediated communication.

That’s not to say that there is anything new to this, per se. It has ever been so through television, books and the power of institutions. People seem to like hierarchies.

3. The media

Whilst a lack of gatekeepers and the extremely low cost of entry allows blogs like this to reach a modest number of people it can, depending on the critical faculties and method of presentation, lead to a situation where all ‘news’ is seen as equal.

Perhaps the zenith of this is newsmap.jp, a service that constructs an uncritical visual representation of the top stories from Google News. Stories from the barrel-scraping TV show ‘X-Factor’ are juxtaposed and, depending on the time of day/week, sometimes overwhelm events of immense historical, political and economic importance.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the public broadly considered believe news to be apolitical and unbiased. One has only to witness the number of people in obviously well-paid jobs crucial to the country’s successful functioning who eschew quality news reporting for the fast-food ‘reporting’ of free newspapers.

4. Metaphors

There’s a paucity of historical metaphor, especially within the educational sphere. As I hope to point out in a forthcoming post, grasping for new metaphors and making seemingly-tenuous connections is vital for sustaining and enriching language.

I’m currently at the stage of laughing at authors whose imaginations (or perhaps basic knowledge) cannot stretch further than hunter-gatherer or industrial revolution metaphors. That laughter may well give way to frustration sooner rather than later.

The sublime and the ridiculous.

There’s a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. Take the following in response to a retweet I made about potentially giving learners Google-like ‘20% time’ to pursue their own interests:

My initial response?

Ridiculous. That would never happen!

And then…

But perhaps as a vision statement for 2020 that could work.

Which got me thinking:

So what would we need to do to make that reality?

Perhaps:

  • Mobile phones seen as learning equipment.
  • Availability of secure GPS-enabled school environment.
  • Learner autonomy.

So actually, an offhand statement can serve as a vision to work towards. It’s good to mix things up sometimes. :-p

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