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TTIX 2009 Presentation - “The Idea of the Idea”

Chris Lott
May/June 2009

[1]

When I was considering what to talk about here at TTIX, it seemed
[2] fitting at a conference whose raison d’etre is the exchange of ideas to
consider what ideas are, historically and conceptually, how they have
informed (and been informed) by technological progress, and how our
educational system does (and does not) and can (and cannot) help us
have them.

The Idea of the Idea
For those who slept through intro to philosophy, I’ll begin with a brief
[3] history of the “idea of the idea” which spans two vastly different
conception of human industry and our place in the world.

Plato and Idealism
The term idea comes first from Plato and his Doctrine of Forms.
Existence was comprised of two realms: the intelligible realm of
perfect, eternal Ideas (Forms) and the sensible realm of familiar,
[4] concrete, solid objects like my head. The intelligible realm is
necessarily comprised of shadows and echoes and imperfect copies of
these ideal forms (much like ideas as they circulate through the
blogosphere)… the “-ness” of things that can’t be pinned down
(particularly by slippery, somewhat shady philosophers) but that we
know exists: chair-ness and monkey-ness and bacon-ness… that kind of
thing.

So ideas were these perfect, invisible things outside of us. The highest
calling of men (and women, if you are one) was to reveal aspects of
these forms, to uncover something of the essential nature of things.
Our capacity to do so necessarily asymptotic, the dividing line coming
[5]
arbitrarily close to-- but never quite transgressing-- the golden curve
that separates our intelligible realm from the realm of forms.

Plato’s analogy of the cave illustrates our predicament. In this famous
illustration, we in the intelligible realm are prisoners chained together
in a dark cave between a fire and the cave wall, our heads fixed so that
we can only watch the play of shadows on the wall which, knowing no
better, we believe to be “real things”... we can learn, at least, to free
[6] ourselves enough to turn our heads and see the actual things making
the shadow-- the actors and puppets of this plane—recognizing that
even that herculean effort involved in this is not to actually access the
ideal realm, which is outside of the cave, represented by the sun, which
we know from Phaethon’s ill-fated ride is beyond our grasp.

Now, I don’t want to put Plato on too high a pedestal—he did, after all,
famously expel the poets from his ideal Republic, accusing us of
creating third-rate and third-removed imitations of an already mimetic
world—but this idea of the idea as an uncovering persisted and
informed our creative consciousness without serious competition for
close to 2000 years (which is about 1996 years longer than any idea
[7] I’ve ever had has lasted), in part because—despite being conceived
during that Godless Greek Interregnum—the theory of forms very
neatly dovetails with the significant religions that followed.
And while not typically a literal philosophy held by many today, I’d
argue that this conception remains, not just in religious refractions of
the world, but underlying the complexities of many fields of thought,
such as aesthetics, where our notion of the intensity of the beautiful
painting or tasty, delicious bacon is still in part derived from a
subconscious, apposite frame of idealized beauty, again, beauty-ness
and bacon-ness.

Humanism
It was as a reaction to the educational and philosophical traditions built
upon the Platonic ground that we were given our second idea of the
idea (not to mention a new conception of education that continues to
inform our graying and decrepit system). The Humanists, convinced
that the Greeks and Romans really had it going on… except for a few
*tiny* caveats regarding the potential power and perfectibility of
people… developed a new idea of the idea that put human creation
squarely at its center.
The role of humans wasn't one of toil to uncover what was already
there, but to create as capably as possible, new, beautiful things that
[8]
most powerfully realized our potential and divinity; rather than seek to
draw as close as possible to the sun outside the cave, instead move
incrementally toward increasingly sufficient mimesis. Those wild and
wacky humanists maintained we could create new things that were
composed of the human spirit and reflected, through realizing our
potential, the "real" spirit of the god that gave that potential to us.
Consider how fundamental this change is in understanding who (and
what) we as humans are... In the humanist light we are makers, with
creative powers of our own, in our own small way made of the stuff of,
not just by, the gods. It's no surprise that along with a new conception
of ideas came the first instances of "creativity" as a discrete action
undertaken by humans, as a state of mind, as a happening.
So, no matter how we put the pieces together now, the modern idea of
the idea and the problematic of creativity are fundamentally aspects of
the same undertaking.

Brief Technology Progression
Now, with that brief philosophical description in mind, consider the
outlines of the technological progression that brings us to this place:

In the early 1700s, Jacques de Vaucanson is obsessed, essentially, with
uniting these two visions of the idea through the creation of mechanical
life. He creates-- remember, this is the early 1700s-- stunning
automatons: The Flute Player is a life size reproduction of a shepherd,
complete with flexible skin for fingering the flute, that could play 12
different songs. His crowning masterpiece was The Digesting Duck,
comprised of more than 400 moving parts, a replica which could flap its
wings, drink, eat grain and even defecate. He believed that by
replicating every function of the duck he would be creating life because
it would be indistinguishable from the real thing... perhaps the earliest
instance of the idea of the Turing Test.

Inspired by Vaucanson's intricate creations, particularly the flute
playing automaton, Joseph Jacquard creates a loom that weaves
[9]
patterns based on punch cards, the holes in which determine where
hooks pull threads, creating the desired pattern. Jacquard wished to
automate the human action involved in a limited kind of creation. And
he succeeded so well that he narrowly escaped with his life after being
attacked by a mob of weavers, who rightly feared they would be
replaced by Jacquard’s machines.

And then Charles Babbage-- inspired by both Vaucanson and Jacquard--
creates the first mechanical computer, aka the difference engine. Not
content with this signal achievement, Babbage spends the rest of his
life attempting to create an "analytical engine" which would use punch
cards to provide instructions, the language of which would be Turing
Complete before there was a Turing.

The analytical engine encompassed the fundamental attributes of the
computers you are using right now to Twitter, check sports scores and
sift through email-- the separation of the data and the program (a
[1 collection of instructions), conditional execution and loops, and
0] separate units for input and output, and a processor. Each created in
purely mechanical form. The difference engine and particularly the
never-completed analytical engine so fascinated The Countess of
Lovelace, Ada King, that she created a method for calculating Bernoulli
numbers, becoming the first computer programmer.

And Babbage and Lovelace begat Stibitz and the Harvard Mark I, which
begat ENIAC, and through connecting ENIAC's children in the service of
protecting the United States during the inevitable nuclear conflagration
the ARPANET was born, which thanks to the squeeze of the not-so-
[1 invisible hand came the Internet, which allowed Al Gore to invent the
1] network of the people, the World Wide Web, from which today we
derive social networks which allow all the lonely people to connect to,
hookup with, and hate on, each other.

Legacy of Industrialism
I'm dwelling on this history a bit because it's important. Because
through history we understand the vast themes from which ideas are
born and culture built... and a significant theme emerging from this
history that influences our stance toward—and use of—technology
today happens to be one that is considered least by the geeks, gamers,
facebookers, bloggers, and the twittering digerati.

Babbage lived during the industrial revolution, when the Victorians
were perfecting the machinery of mass production. Babbage figured
out that through the division of labor-- by breaking down the processes
of production into its constituent parts-- mass production of a
consistent product was possible. Rather than creating something new
holistically, people were enlisted to create the individual parts and
assemble them into wholes. Babbage and others, propelled by the
current of commerce, put the world's eye to the other end of the
telescope and put man into the machine.
Babbage was the ultimate reductivist.

... it is said that he [Babbage] sent the following letter to Alfred,
Lord Tennyson about a couplet in "The Vision of Sin":
Every minute dies a man,
Every minute one is born
I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to
keep the sum total of the world's population in a state of
perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said
sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the
liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent
poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be
[1 corrected as follows:
2]
Every minute dies a man,
And one and a sixteenth is born
I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must,
of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

Another illustration: Babbage famously listed the value of a horse in
terms of its parts: flesh worth 1 pound, 8 shillings, the hooves 1
shilling, 6 pence, even the maggots that ate the horse were assigned a
value (they were worth as much as the hooves).
But in this accounting of the horse there is nothing of the ride. Babbage
believed himself to be an heir to Vaucanson, perfecting the individual
cogs in his productive mechanisms, whether those cogs be mechanical
or human. And in a sense he was correct. With the industrial revolution
came mass reproduction beyond the capacity of any individual, each
pin produced in the pin factory indistinguishable from the rest and none
of them able to be distinguished from those created the old fashioned
way.

In the service of commerce and progress, the factory was itself a vast
automaton that subsumed and consumed the indentured humans
within it. So I ask you… if we function perfectly within such a machine,
receiving input and producing output just like everything else being
ingested and shat out around us, then haven’t we, in essence, become
machines ourselves?

As clearly as the technologies we use continue to mirror Babbage's
principles of what came to be computing, so the world that has been
made from it continues to reflect the relationships and principles that
he-- and others of that era-- promoted. It is a vision of inevitable
progress through production, of incremental improvement and
augmentation, of technological utopianism that blurs the lines where
the human ends and the technology begins.

This matters because we live in-- and in many cases, including mine,
often promote-- a complex, partially inherited machinery that we also--
in the tradition of building airplanes in the sky-- build as we go. And
from-- and in support of-- that machinery we've haphazardly
"developed" (a term I use loosely given the varied motivations,
irrationality and levels of obliviousness that characterize the processes)
an educational system that has managed to retain most of the least
productive characteristics of the original educational systems that grew
around two conceptions of the idea of the idea I outlined (in the first
case scholasticism, in the second humanism).
And in this machine, we attempt to create.

Kinds of Ideas
We all know there are many different shades in the spectrum of ideas:
abstract, fulfilled, unfulfilled (valueless), sarcastic:

• abstract, plot wheels
• unfulfilled, without value
• sarcastic, well-- that was a good idea
[1 • fulfilled, good ideas, ideas that manifest (or uncover) something of
3] value
If we’re going to concern ourselves with ideas, I see no reason not to
concern ourselves with the good—even great—ones. Given the
resistance we will encounter in directly addressing this concern it
doesn’t make sense to play for the traditionally small stakes wagered in
our everyday commodified, NCLB-ized, institutionally bounded
activities.

Good Ideas
When we speak positively of ideas we almost always speak of ideas
paired with their execution or implementation… or at least some plan
for doing so. Traveling faster than light and discovering oddly human-
like seductive green aliens is an idea… it’s only a good idea in the form
of Star Trek.

There's an essential solipsism in the abstract idea or the idea of the
idea. In one sense there's very little exchange of ideas, even at a
conference like this, but much exchange of the practices and products
of ideas. When we say "that's a great idea" we are usually referring to
the product of an idea, the practice, or the process. Every idea we
contemplate is subject-- or vulnerable-- to the query "what's the idea
behind that?"

Good ideas engender their own questions. Good ideas-- and this was
the great, liberating and thus terrifying, insight of postmodernism and
post-structuralism-- constantly undermine themselves, creating new
ground we can build upon only with new ideas.

Good ideas are wily, difficult, unpredictable, unsure, chaotic things... as
tend to be the people who come up with them. The fact is, the
[1
educational system we labor within has never been much good at
4]
recognizing or supporting great ideas and creativity because it's never
been particularly good at dealing with the people who have them. In
attempting to create a consistent, egalitarian system of education
we've wrung out the chaotic and capricious elements in (and on) which
genius thrives because they are unpredictable and difficult to assess
and above all qualitative and so a potential source of "unfairness."
And thanks to an American ethos that mistakes self-help for self-
realization and substitutes rationalization for understanding and
awareness comes a belief system-- an aesthetic, really-- that can't
contemplate the simple logic distinguishing between necessary and
sufficient conditions (in other words, work and talent) and would thus,
in affirming that there's nothing special about good generative ideas
and the genius and talent that creates them, kill them off through an
ironic neglect.

Quite simply, talent and creativity and genius operate, by and large in
spite of-- if not in direct opposition to-- the academy. This isn't a wholly
[1 bad thing... fine edges can be keenly honed by the friction of the
5] stones which they are drawn against... but those same stones can also
batter blades into plowshares and the life out of an intellectual body.

What Is Needed for Good, Even Great Ideas
What is needed for good, even great ideas to exist is to consciously
foster them-- meaning supporting both creativity and its application.
This demands a manifold of abilities and affordances: Places for both
connection AND contemplation to occur; activities of mind and life that
are conducive to creativity and supportive of a creative life, including
[1 cultivation and training of attention; an understanding of what work is
6] and a habituation to engaging in it; a capacity for trust; the ability to
self-evaluate in a historical context rather than just that of the reflexive
moment, and an ability to find one's own chaotic state of flow.

Some of this is readily embodied, even natural to, social networks and
applications, but much of it is not. And where it is, such activities and
capacities are squelched by a conformity that stems from well-meaning
attempts to provide consistency (which is often mistaken for fairness)
or out of simply being overwhelmed by the demands of the media on
top of all the other demands of teaching.

Social networks and software, of which this conference, like every
educational conference today, is obsessed, provide immense
opportunities for educator and educatee... but also pose a very real
threat to learners. No matter the medium there are strong and weak
ties, productive and unproductive connections. Without conscientious
[1 attention (and right there we have one of the most significant
7] problems) the networks we participate in take only a few basic forms
familiar to all of us: the ghost town, the shouting match, the arena, the
echo chamber, or the coffee shop. We don't expect to make significant
connections in most of these places. If we're smart we value the
informal and serendipitous relationships which comprise the individual
threads of our grand tapestries. However, the technologies we attempt
to use, too often, as simple tools are in truth an environment which
applies a constant, ubiquitous pressure that warps the ways of the
unprepared and erodes the will of the insecure.

We have an obligation as instantiators and tireless promoters of these
networks to “walk the walk,” to learn ourselves how to put these
[1 networks to productive use rather than having them use us. Because,
8] as we well know, few of those with the capacity to create the systems
we harness care about the quality or intent of the use the tools are put
to or the needs engendered by those uses, they simple want to put
*us* to harness.

If you’re philosophically inclined you can call this technological
determinism... or, as I prefer, "technological somnambulism" (coined in
an essay by Langdon Winner titled "Technology as a Form of Life"),
which encapsulates the idea that the problem isn’t technology’s
neutrality or not, which can be argued along many different vectors,
but the fact that most of the time most of us aren't disengaged from
the machine-- which can be a very valuable state to be in-- but
sleepwalking within it, blindly wandering through Babbage’s digital
legacy. Disengagement can be a positive, productive action...
sleepwalking rarely is.

The short-circuit inherent in this disconnection, which gives the
technology unwarranted power and primacy, can be illustrated by a
[1 joke:
9]

Old "Doc" Bloom owns a hardware store, but he's become famous
for his miracle cures for arthritis. He always has a long line of
patients outside his store, waiting to see him.

One day a little old lady, completely bent over, shuffles over,
leaning on her cane. When her turn comes she creeps into the
store... and emerges just 20 minutes or so later walking
completely erect, her head held high and a beatific smile on her
face.

[2 "It's a miracle!" says a woman waiting outside. "You walked in
0] bent practically in half and now you're walking like an 18 year old!
What did Doc Bloom do?"

And the woman looks at her and answers "He gave me a longer
cane."

Depending on your perspective, this joke can be taken differently. Do
our students-- do we?-- just need longer, better canes?

OK, since that joke [did/didn’t] go over, let's try this one on for size
(that's an advance pun attack, as you'll see):

A man goes to a tailor to try on a suit he's had made. He says to
the tailor "I need this sleeve taken in! It's at least two inches too
long!"

The tailor says "no no no... just bend your elbow like this... see,
that pulls up the sleeve."

The man says, "OK, but now look at the collar! When I bend my
elbow the collar goes halfway up the back of my head."

"So?" the tailor says. "Just raise your head up and back... perfect."
[2
1]
"Wait!" the man says, "Now the left shoulder is three inches lower
than the right!"

"No problem" the tailor says, "Just bend your waist way over to
the left and it evens out."

[2
So the man leaves the store wearing the suit, his right elbow
2]
crooked and sticking out, his head up and back, and all the while
leaning down to the left. The only way he can walk is with a
jerking, spastic gait.

As he's making his way down the street, two people walking on
the other side notice him.

"Look at that poor crippled guy," the first says. "My heart goes out
to him."

[2 "Yeah," says the second, "that's sad. But his tailor must be a
3] genius! That suit fits him perfectly!"

I often wonder as I attempt to find the best way to use blogs or am
asked again how to use X or Y in the classroom, with X most often
being, right now, Twitter or Facebook, if I really am a genius... or at
least as much a genius as that tailor was.

There are no guarantees-- those living in a bubble of willful
technological utopianism in which genius thrives in multitudes, art is
created without concentration and humans productively multitask, in
which there is no problem technology cannot solve and always will, just
in time, can proceed apace, looking for the next longer cane for
communication and teaching students to properly perambulate in their
ill-fitting technological suits. This isn't the first nor will it be the last
time of intense technological change, nor is awareness of the
limitations of our (any) system new. All this has existed before and we
can see how little change has resulted. I was recently reading John
Henry Newman's Idea of the University, written in the 1850s, and with
a bit of tweaking to modernize the language, much of it would fit right
into any contemporary journal of education. And, to a great extent, our
broken system does work because all that is demanded of it is the
workaday.

But I ask you, is that enough?

We can coast... or we can attempt to take this opportunity-- and this is
a time of great opportunity that we all recognize-- to change our
practice by engaging in an honest assessment of the context we
operate in, learning from the past and putting the tools and
technologies at our disposal to resist the tide and incorporate
subversion.
Fundamentally, to support creativity is to help learners, including
ourselves, develop the capacity for—and an understanding how to
engage in—self-critique and self-realization. We have to support our
learners being a different kind of learner than most are even aware
exists and then guide them towards mechanisms which will support the
creative and generative state of mind—and continue to do so after our
part in the process is over.
So the operative question is: what do we do? If we care about ideas,
and particularly if we care about having and supporting good ones,
which means supporting creativity and, yes, talent and even genius,
what can we do to create a better environment for them?

Training Attention and Cultivating Mindfulness
Attention is simultaneously the single most important and neglected
skill, capacity and trait in our educational environment today. The
research is clear; the verdict is in: there is not only no such thing as
multi-tasking, but attempting to multi-task has an inevitably negative
effect on our productivity, efficiency and accuracy.

The positive effects of continuous partial attention, which is an
attractive theory for which there is no evidence, and witty repartee
aside (I'm particularly fond of Stephen Downes' idea that by directing
his intelligence toward four activities he is magnifying his IQ four-fold),
the idea that multi-tasking is an emergent cognitive property is so
much wishful-thinking engaged in by those who want to believe they
perform better doing multiple tasks or who can't find any obvious
escape from the demands that require it.

The brain possesses remarkable plasticity, it’s true, but research
consistently shows that our brains have evolved for single-focus
activity... if multi-tasking ability is an emergent cognitive property, and
that’s arguable to say the least, the process of that emergence has at a
minimum tens of thousands of years remaining before multi-tasking
exists as we wish it did.

From research into tasking and focus we know that attention benefits
[2 from-- and needs-- training. There's a wealth of research demonstrating
4] both the largely negative effects of burgeoning communication and
entertainment technology on our ability to pay attention and simple
(but not necessarily easy) ways to improve it. Ironically, the currency of
the "attention economy" quantifies and rewards intermittent,
lightweight engagement... working in opposition, most of the time, to
what we tend to mean about when we talk about attention.

Unsurprisingly, the key to improving attention is to increasingly pay
attention. Engaging in the practice of paying attention increases the
ability to pay attention just as using a muscle increases the strength of
that muscle. In fact, cognitive scientists have come to treat attention
as an organ system akin to our systems of circulation and digestion.
Research results and anecdotal evidence both support the
effectiveness of attention training activities and software.

At the very least, attention is something that needs to be addressed in
our curriculum, if not be integrated as a “21st century” learning and
literacy skill.

Listening, Concentration and Meditation
Listening is perhaps the most common manifestation of attention. To
actively listen is to pay attention. Listening demands concentration.

This is going to sound crazy to some, but one of the best ways to
[2 improve concentration and the fundamental skill of listening, and one
5] which directly ties into the activities of self-criticism and meta-
cognition, is meditation. Research over the last few years has
demonstrated the physical effects of meditation on brain activity both
during meditation and after. I don’t know that I see much prospect of
formal meditation becoming a regular part of our curriculum and
activities…

But meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in the lotus position
and considering nothing or attempting to open our third eye or
chanting a mantra. Engaging in meditative "practice" in the form of
mindfulness-- developing the meta-cognitive ability to choose to pay
attention and engaging in the overt practice of mindfulness--in daily
activities, has consistently proven to be an effective antidote to the
omnipresent distractions of our noisy environment and is a
fundamental part of learning.

How can we invite and instill mindful practice?

Contemplation
I continue to believe that the vast majority of significant creative acts
are essentially individual... or perhaps it’s more accurately to say they
[2
wouldn’t exist but for an essential component of individual activity.
6]

True co-creation is exceedingly rare (though rightly sought after). No
matter what else informed their activities, no one held Da Vinci’s hand
while he painted or made a Vulcan mind-meld with Einstein as he
worked through his thought experiments.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a social phenomenon engaged in
setting the stage for-- and following through with-- ideas, but to say
[2
there has to be space for, and promotion of, individual contemplation, a
7]
space that is increasingly being overrun by our pursuit of connections
and the ubiquitous pressure and demands of social systems?

Relative to our understanding of how to productively increase
connections and engagement, our understanding of how to provide for
productive disconnection and thus room for contemplation is
rudimentary.

[2
8] It’s easy to promote productive solitude, particularly if it is paired with
skills at concentrating and paying attention, but it’s not as clear how to
make these a recognized part of our educational activities, particularly
in light of the push towards social technologies and public
performances.

I do recognize that the chaos of sociality, which can be a kind of
prophylactic for the conception of ideas is consistently necessary for
their birth.

[2 But he moments that we feel the power of co-creation, melding, getting
9] a groovy jam on, or experiencing simultaneous discovery, can’t exist
without the solitary intellectual work that precedes them.

Flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-Haj Tjixent-MeHaji) has published an
extensive amount of information on the idea of flow, aka being “in the
groove” or “in the zone.” Which is, I think, a way of summarizing the
greatest state of mind for creativity (and happiness)
Some characteristics of flow include:

• Operating in a state of clear expectation
[3 • High concentration and focus
0] • Distortion of one’s sense of time
• Recognition of intrinsic reward
• Action awareness merging

I suspect that not only is achieving a state of flow something we have
all experienced in the past and would like to experience more, but
having the ability to do so is a fundamental part of why we do what we
do, what brought us to our disciplines in the first place.
[3
1]
One of the best ways to achieve a state of flow in education is through
overlearning, or the practice of skills beyond initial mastery, leading to
automaticity and the ability to focus on the performance rather than
the individual activities that make up that performance.

[3 It’s one of those strange paradoxes that the path to flow, as the path to
2] a creative state of mind where ideas can be conceived, comes through
what is often dismissed as rote practice

Avoiding the Echo Chamber (the Lure of Wishful
Thinking)
The participatory web and the rise of social networks and reputation
[3
systems makes it easier than ever for each of us, no matter how
3]
uniquely individual we are (or think we are), to connect with our peers,
colleagues and fellow enthusiasts. Monkey dance coaches, extreme
knitters, Twitter poets, and particle physicists alike can find
communities and cultures relevant to them.

But with these easy and valuable connections comes the double-
barbed lure of hearing our mellifluous words resoundingly cheered in
the echo chamber and confusing reality with wishful thinking when
[3
that doesn’t happen. Healthy communities (healthy democracies for
4]
that matter) and meaningful learning demand individual capacity for
diverse engagement and self-criticism. And not just self-criticism, but a
critical ability that includes perspectives of history and tradition, not
just the culture of the moment. Building this capacity demands
undertaking that diverse engagement, which doesn't happen if you
remain solely in the network of affinity and familiarity.

Lack of diversity in engagement and perspective is as characteristic of
many of our communities as it is those of our students. In fact, given
our ability to influence many people, the sameness of many of our
[3
communities could be considered even more dangerous.
5]
These echo chambers serve a purpose—I don’t just turn to my network
[3 for information or to answer a question, but also for moral support,
6] commiseration and sometimes pity. The danger comes from being so
wrapped up in a particular configuration of our learning environment
that we can no longer distinguish clearly between these activities.

In addition to the danger of the echo chamber leading to an often
unnoticed form of groupthink, it can also reinforce a scourge at the
heart of the intersection of education and technology which is on
[3 display every day in those communities: wishful thinking. I'm the last
7] person to defend the abysmal record of quantitative research in
education (which to a great degree is refuted by the state of our
current system) but we have to question whether we are promoting
and adopting positions which *are* true-- as contingent as one's
definition of truth may or may not be-- or that we just, for reasons
positive and/or negative-- *wish* were true.

The defense of a productive capacity for multi-tasking is a prime
example. Ignoring the evidence of a decline in reading skills, cultural
knowledge and engagement, and attention skills is another.
[3
It's easy to dismiss the thinking in books as diverse as the hysterical
8]
The Dumbest Generation, the generally clueless The Cult of the
Amateur, and the incisive but uncomfortable Rapt due to either obvious
logical and interpretive flaws or philosophical differences (or both).

It's also easy to less-than-critically accept the agreeable assertions
[3 made in books filled with enthusiasm and conjecture but not much in
9] the way of facts or examples or any convincing argument of what the
few facts and examples mean such as Everything Bad is Good For You
and What Videogames have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

Both kinds of wishful thinking—dismissive disagreement and uncritical
agreement—are serious and consistent mistakes (the allure of which is
quite familiar to me… it take me a while to like ideas that aren’t my
[4 own), because lost in the first are important facts and themes that are
0] difficult to argue with except by pretending they don't exist or radically
mischaracterizing them, while the latter positions many thoughts and
ideas which should be the starting point of our own investigations as a
kind of inherited summation of truth.

[4 Some less abstract changes:
1] Conceptualizing Intellectual Property and Closing the
Virtuous Circle
Assuming we can pay attention, we naturally wish to see that attention
rewarded. Beyond the purely pragmatic-- the invisible hand of self-
interest embiggening us all-- the virtuous circle-- the interaction
[4 between investment of intellectual currency and the reward of social
2] currency-- is the primary driver of our social networks and systems.

Our activities need to explicitly engage this artificial (in the literal
sense) economy, making it real. The beauty of the virtuous circle,
which is explicitly rendered in collaborative systems that provide a
sense of reputation, is that it indeed does work even when it is overtly
artificial... we respond to recognition even when that recognition is
prompted...

The ourobouros that is the virtuous circle can't exist without a sensible
philosophy of-- and mechanism for handling-- intellectual property. The
distorted, complicated, mass-media-interest driven system we are
slaves to is a yoke worn by individuals inside a prison that confines--
and is slowly leaching the vitality from-- an information commons.

Our copyright system is tied to an understanding of property and
duplication wholly misfit for today's environment (and arguably hasn't
*been* fit for approximately 200 years). I have scant hope I'll live to
see significant copyright reform, but we have strong alternatives that
provide regular "teachable moments" in which we can help expand the
understanding of intellectual property and enhance the information
commons at the same time.

There's no point in making contributions if we do so in the equivalent of
[4 company towns and trade in obsolete currency that can only be used in
3] the bare-shelved company store.
Information Fluency and the PLE
I've spent a fair amount of time now working out a coherent model for
considering technology and the contemporary learning/living
environment focusing primarily on two intertwined concepts:
information fluency and the PLE.

Information fluency provides-- through the triad of domain knowledge,
critical thinking, and participation-- the philosophical foundation for
creating rich, relevant learning experiences while the PLE, as
amorphous and indefinable as it in part is, provides the place where
many of these processes happen, free of the boundaries of the LMS,
[4
and free of necessary connection to the institution both of which limits
4]
its usefulness for "lifelong learners" (in other words every learner).

Most importantly, these are the concrete skills and the operational
place where we can solidify and become something more than lost,
functionally lonely somnambulant specters wandering inside our
cavernous machines, self-consuming commodity zombies… we can
realize some of our potential to be mindful walkers, eyes wide open,
embedded in genuine communities.

A Posture of Openness - Fast, Cheap, Out of Control
At this point it goes without saying-- or at least it goes without me
saying—that many of these mechanisms simply won’t work, and might
even be detrimental without adopting a posture of openness and a
willingness to work in a way that is out of control as often as it is
meditative and contemplative.

Virtue
A few years ago, through interactions with people like Scott and Brian,
who you’ve heard from here, and other idols of mine, including Gardner
Campbell, Barbara Ganley and Nancy White, I had a sudden, blazing
personal insight into this whole ball of wax of teaching and learning.

I realized, in a deep and very direct way that everything I talk about
w/r/t education, everything I seek for myself and to share, everything I
hope for… all are profoundly informed by and intertwined with two
emotions: trust and love.
It might seem obvious, but I realized that in the end what I am trying to
do in my work and teaching is to A) find ways to trust my friends and
[4
students and mentors alike and to trust my resilience while being
5]
vulnerable in the ways necessary to learn, and B) discover and
rediscover my love for learning, for the subjects I learn of and teach,
and for my friends, students and mentors. Trust is really a refraction of
love, and both are products of vulnerability and humility.

Now, I may be one of those crazy banished poets, but this realization
stunned and scared me, not just for obvious personal reasons-- these
emotions can be terrifying—but because they represent personal
character traits and virtues, which were once considered the most
essential features of humanitas, toward which education was directed
but are now dismissed if not the victims of outright hostility.

We can return to Plato now and recognize that when he says to love
what is rightly and orderly means to love what feels right and fits in a
fundamental way we recognize in those fine moments of flow.

But it turns out that I’m not alone. Positive psychology is a relatively
recently named branch of psychology that studies the strengths and
capacities needed for individuals and communities to thrive and
[4 methods for nurturing genius and talent.
6]
Positive psychology is derived from humanist psychology, which itself
has deep roots in ancient greek philosophies, including Platonism and
stoicism, as well as the humanism of the Renaissance and some
Romantic conceptions of emotional expression.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-Haj Tjixent-MeHaji), mentioned earlier is a
prominent example, of positive psychology as are Christopher Peterson
and Martin Seligman. The latter are part of the “Institute on Character”
and they have worked out a classification of these “character
strengths” that they are studying with very concrete, positive results…
in the same way that the mind and attention have become objects of
organic study. The six strengths/virtues are:
• Wisdom and knowledge
○ Creativity, curiosity, love of learning
• Courage
○ Bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
[4 • Humanity
7] ○ Capacity to love and be loved, social intelligence
• Justice
○ Teamwork, fairness, leadership
• Temperance
○ Modesty, prudence, humility, self-regulation
• Transcendence
○ Awe, wonder, gratitude, hope, humor

I would argue that THIS encompasses what we are really trying to
teach, what informs and underlies and propels everything else we see
here and elsewhere… anywhere educators who want to excel for their
students and themselves gather. It is my contention that by:

[4 • taking an honest assessment of the world around us and some of
8] the assumptions built into our approaches to the intersection of
education and technology
• by directly addressing training of attention, cultivation of
contemplative and mindful behaviors and habits in the service of
honest self-criticism and, ultimately, self-realization
• and by not fearing to reintroduce and reinvigorate a modern
tradition of virtue

we have the opportunity, right NOW, to transform teaching in the ways
that we wish for, that we intuitively know are possible, and that I have
to believe we all know are right.
Thank you very much for gift of your time and attention.
[4
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