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Connections and complexity

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on July 14, 2007 at 6:07:41 pm


Knowledge is often advanced by chance, coincidence, serendipity and the useful connection of elements from different origins. This may happen according to some formal process of interdisciplinary communication or by a general state of alertness in individuals. Either way, explorative approaches increase opportunities for finding things that relate to the problems we are trying to solve or to other matters in focus at any given time.
I was mindful of this when, on the same say, I listened to a BBC programme that addressed an elusive reference that I had made in my book, and then later heard an after-dinner conversation on that very topic, even though neither of the participants was aware of the reference in the book or had heard the programme.
Since the SCEPTrE Conference itself was an explorative undertaking on a large scale, it was not surprising that there were fortuitous connections to be found and made there. I collected a few, and list these at the end of this page. Meanwhile, here is the text of some idle thoughts that I put down on paper following that programme and conversation relating to nexialism.
Nexialism, Darwin and Explorativity
In 1839 Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle was published as his Journal and Remarks. 100 years later, A E Van Vogt published The Voyage of the Space Beagle, including a story called The Black Destroyer. The plot draws on ideas from Alfred A Korzybski’s 1933 work Science and Sanity: an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.
In Van Vogt’s science fiction work, a new field of “nexialism” was mentioned, whereby a specially trained professional member of the crew – a “nexialist” – brought together knowledge from several areas to save the Beagle from attack from a predatory alien species. In 2006, I dimly recalled this story in the context of my book on explorativity. Essentially, the idea was that an approach to life and work that was “explorative” was likely to generate connections, opportunities and potentially productive developments for creativity, problem-solving and personal satisfaction.
It seems to me that the creative demands on students and tutors in a complex or super-complex world will require a general set of personal qualities and approaches that can be termed explorative, and that will make unpredictable links across various sources of experience and learning.
On 14 December 2006, BBC Radio 4’s programme The Material World considered the topic of complexity science. Without getting too deeply immersed in the very complexity of complexity science itself, the programme explained that there were certain systems (such as animal populations, financial markets and the brain) that involved “non-linearities” that made unpredictable, complex, compounding links across the systems, and were so unfathomably complex that their operations could not be understood in detail.
The programme referred to the interdisciplinary concept of nexialism, attributing it to a later edition of Van Vogt’s story, published in 1950. Furthermore, the very definition of nexialism from the book was quoted, as a candidate definition for complexity science:
“The science of joining together in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields to provide techniques for speeding up the processes of absorbing knowledge and of using effectively what has been learned”
As a definition, this seems sound except for the phrase “in an orderly fashion”… 
Anyway, the connections between these concepts and their origins fascinated me, as they seemed to demonstrate the very points that they had advanced!
As a footnote, apparently the story of the Space Beagle was the inspiration for the classic Sigourney Weaver film Alien some years later.
Barnett, R (2006) Slides supporting address at official launch of Surrey Centre for Excellence in Professional Training and Education, 23 June 2006
Korzybski, A A (1933) Science and Sanity: an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics
Law, R (2006) Get a Life – An Introduction to Explorativity. Surrey. http://www.lulu.com,
Law R (2006) Learners For A Complex World – What Are They Really Like? Paper written following launch of Surrey Centre for Excellence in Professional Training and Education, 23 June 2006
McDonnell, J and Tosey, P (2006) Learning to Learn through Supported Enquiry. Paper presented at Surrey University, SCEPTrE, 27 February 2006
Thomas, N (2006) Address at official launch of Surrey Centre for Excellence in Professional Training and Education, 23 June 2006
Van Vogt, A E (1939, 1950) The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Conference Connections

At the SCEPTrE conference, it was fascinating to see how quickly the different workshops and presentations began to be linked by chance or even by a process that somehow seemed inevitable.
Teacher as an authority, not in authority
In her workshop on interactive conversations, Penelope Best engaged us in a variety of highly mobile physical interactions, in which numerous constructive learning conversations took place. Her role was influential, without being didactic. In the short time we were together we also touched upon such tantalising notions as the ambiguity and multiple meanings of images. The role of the teacher was powerful, but as a quiet authority, rather than as one in authority, since we were effectively being liberated by her.
This idea was central to the session that followed, where Lewis Elton talked us through the importance of Wilhelm Humboldt for British universities today. Essentially, the radical proposition of Humboldt was that the teacher and the student shared a duty to explore the solutions of as yet unsolved problems. We looked at reasons for not educating the young too specifically, but rather fostering an approach that could be termed (as it was by Professor Elton) “Constructive Anarchy”.
Shaping the metaphor “herding cats” to make it even more powerful, Professor Elton came up with “herding ants”. In other words, a society of individuals with no apparent ruling force can proceed in such a way that they all move towards the same ends. This self-creating system was the purposeless community that Humboldt envisaged. We might connect it to complexity theory today.

The session concluded with a flourish that seemed tailor-made to exemplify the serendipitous connections that can inform and illuminate our experiences and our thinking. In his case, the story of Humboldt was brought into strong and colourful relief when Professor Elton was on holiday in Vienna, and encountered the extraordinary architecture of Hundertwasser. The key image was of a building complex that conformed to few expected norms in terms of structure, inhabited by people who amicably occupied it without any sense of need for externally imposed systems or conventions such as flat floors or well-defined walls. This highly original artist’s work was dubbed by Professor Elton “anarchitecture” (remember, you heard it here first, at the SCEPTrE Conference…).


Rejecting rigidity
This rejection of the usual boundaries was to arise again, later in the conference, when I was struck by the links between George Allan’s work at Portsmouth and the encouragement we had had from Kevin McCarron to embrace a pedagogy akin to the performance of the stand-up comedian.
The specific connection seemed to be the ability to do away with excessively detailed preparation and rigid scripts, in favour of a much more flexible, responsive and two-way process that recognised the essential co-active roles of both teacher/comedian and student/audience.
George's Portsmouth paradigm serves to engage the student more fully by going beyond the customary boundaries of session timings, and uses inter-session opportunities to support the sharing and reflection processes that deepen understanding, recall and results.
Prior knowledge
In her workshop “Bite-sized EBL”, Dr Susan Jamieson of Glasgow University highlighted the importance of learners’ own prior knowledge as a genuine resource to be tapped by the group, which prompted the recommendation to “enquire within”. This was echoed in David Hay’s “Concept Mapping” masterclass, where we discussed the way that learning depended absolutely on the existence of prior knowledge as a means of making sense of new information.
Visual images
Catharine Slade-Brooking of University College for the Creative Arts, Farnham presented a workshop entitled “Creativity, accident or design – enquiry techniques of graphic design for problem-solving in other disciplines”. One of the important features of this was the use of visuals – which brought me back to the beginning, in the use of visuals as liberating prompts in Penelope Best’s workshop…
Connecting for understanding
When faced with extreme complexity, such connections are the key strands, threads or zones of coherence that can provide a means of making sense, solving problems and growing knowledge.
A final coincidence:
The Guildford Adventure - the Explorativity Walk - took us on the trail of Lewis Carroll. He got his pen-name "Lewis" from "Lutwidge", his real name. Surrey's Professor Lewis Elton got his "Lewis" from its original "Ludwig".
Explorativity email: explorativity@yahoo.co.uk
Explorativity book: www.lulu.com


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