Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Complexity theory as a basic litteracy

Another realization from our future learning environment project:
The Danish school system is built on 5 basic ”litteracies” – the fundamental skills you need in order to keep learning and to function in a modern society. The 5 litteracies are: reading, writing, math, being able to use information technology and English as a second language.

Obviously, what skills should be considered basic litteracies changes as society develops. So is there some new skill that will be indespensable in the future? Well, yes.
As everybody and everything are increasingly becoming connected in global, ubiquitous, high-density, always on networks we need to understand how complex dynamic systems work. You know: the internet, the market place, ecology, politics… complex systems are everywhere.

There’s a “package” of mechanisms that are common to all aspects of complex systems. They are all inter-connected and I don’t quite know what the overall title to the package should be. But among the contents are:
- - Feedback, non-linearity
- - The emergence of natural patterns such as fractals and hexagons
- - The same patterns occuring on all scales – from atomic to galactic
- - Evolution, genetics
- - Complex behaviours emerge in the interaction between many very simple functions
- - Small changes in initial conditions can have great consequences
- - Diversity makes a system more robust
- - You are dealing with probability rather than certainty

These are crucial insights – and I believe they will become even more so in the future. In many ways they run completely counter to the linear, top-down, predictable logic that formed the basis of industrial society.
I would argue that an understanding of this package of mechanisms will be a basic litteracy – if it isn’t already. But it’s not taught in a systematic way today. It doesn’t fit into one particular subject, and the concepts seem too abstract to communicate to children.

In fact I think there are lots of ways to teach and learn about complexity that are tangible, grounded in everyday life, and intuitively easy. One example that doesn’t quite get there is LEGO Mindstorms. I sense that it can be made easier still – hopefully, we can demonstrate that within a couple of years.

Learning - forget about subjects

At Danfoss Universe we’re coordinating a research project trying to create a learning environment for the future. Great project, good people on board and lots of enlightning discussions.
Here's one observation from there:
In a traditional school subjects are kept separate. The schedule shows it clearly: math, language, biology, history, physics etc. But this kind of compartmentalization is probably somewhat counter productive.
In many cases it would make more sense organizing learning around a different structure.
An example would be to use a narrative as a starting point, weaving aspects of many different subjects into the project.
Starting with the narrative makes it much easier to engage the learner through the usual narrative elements that drive a story forward. It also makes it easier to show how things are connected, and how what you learn can be applied in some situation.
If you have kids you have probably observed how engaged they become when the regular schedule is abandoned for a week or so to work on a particular theme or project.
Cross disciplinary projects, with elements of a narrative, connecting to everyday experiences and observations, demanding the learner to explore, structure, build and present – it makes sense not just for pedagogical purposes, but also because it is a reflection of what reality is actually like. These are the skills we will need – rather than merely reproducing what you are being told in a one-way transfer of facts from teacher to student.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Details with a difference

Several people (no, not from Denmark) have told me how the integration of an ipod with the stereo system was a major factor when they choose their new, expensive car. Amazing how a $250 gadget can determine the purchase of product that's a hundred time more expensive.
The trendwatching site Ɯbercool has collected some good examples of how some car manufacturers have started to adress this in this article.

Big Brilliant Weirdness

More video: The Carlton draught ad which is running in Australia is soo meta. Good fun, big budget. Big ad!