Knowledge Transfer

I'm so much in a "not writing" mode these days it pains me to put metaphorical pen to paper to author these words. Maybe I'll be more interested in writing when it's fun again.

So we have this discussion back and forth about the merits of MOOCs. We have the Chronicle acting as though the MOOC has just been invented by some American, Wiley complaining that “MOOCs and their like are not the answer to higher education’s problems” and now this piece of nonsense.

Did I say nonsense? Yes, I said nonsense. There's no call for this sort of condescending and catty response to people who are trying their best to work through some difficult issues.

The problem, of course, is that Wiley doesn't think it's a difficult issue. "By asking, we are asking them to transfer their knowledge to us. By responding, they do so. There is no swirling cosmic dance of emergent fluidity. There’s a simple question, and a simple answer. And knowledge is transferred in the process. End of story."

It brings to mind "a reader" Keith Harmon's response to Wiley. "Well, of course MOOCs favor sufficiently prepared learners. All classes favor sufficiently prepared learners." The totality of Wiley's example works only if both questioner and answerer speak a common language, have common expectations about the states of affairs in the world, and are sufficiently familiar with each other that most of the trappings of communication can be assumed as given.

At the risk of being pedantic, let's actually look at Wiley's simple examples.

- when someone asks me "what time is it" my first response is to ask back, "where?" Half the people I talk to in a given day live in a different time zone. Also, when people as me what time is it they are often asking about a specific event, such as an online forum. "I'm doing a session today," I remark to a friend on Skype. "What time is it?" he asks. "Where?" I respond. Oh I know, Wiley had a wholly different scenario in mind. The point is, this entire scenario needs to exist in order for the question "what time is it" to even make sense, let along constitute the trigger for a knowledge transfer (about which we'll get to in a moment).

-when some asks me "who won the game last night?" my usual response is, not surprisingly, "what game?" In some few instances - the Vancouver-Boston game, for example - I might have a clear idea. But Wiley was probably not talking about that game. I imagine he's a basketball fan. I hate basketball. I don't even know whether Wiley likes sports. If he asked me that question I'd be genuinely confused. What could he possibly mean?

- when someone asks "do you know where I left my keys" I invariably answer "yes". The joke, of course, is that I know that the person wanted an answer to the question "where are my keys" but is signifying so in a less direct manner intended to be more polite. I read once that in Spanish it's rude to simply say "yes" or "no" so I would be less direct to a Spaniard. In other cultures I have read that I should be less personal. So depending on circumstances I could answer "That knowledge is to be had." Wiley, though, would probably find such an answer rude.

- if someone asks "are there any tissues left in that box" I would answer "do you need a tissue?" To which the answer could be an obviously exasperated "yes, why do you think I asked?" but there is an equivocation between being unsure of our tissue supply, perhaps just prior to going to the store, and a request for a tissue expressed in the more passive polite voice. My wife often uses expressions like "You could close the door." She means "Close the door," but won't say it directly. Anyhow, note that while this example and the previous are structurally identical they actually demand differently-typed responses.

- if someone asks "where would you like to go for dinner?" my first (unspoken) response is "who's buying?" Just kidding. But going to dinner is one of those context-laden activities that blends place and time with location and the need for nutrition, dietary concerns (especially for me) and social circumstances. Where I'd like to go to dinner is the local pub where I can sit by myself, read the paper, watch the game (never mind which game), and enjoy a stack of barbecue ribs. For reasons too numerous to mention, that's not an appropriate response (I still haven't lost the poundage I gained in Edmonton). But that's what I like.

- if someone asks me "Who's your favourite author?" (favourite spelled with a 'u' because the asker is probably from a Commonwealth country) I typically respond that "it varies depending on the day." Often, my favourite author is the person I'm reading now (because what better evidence of being 'favourite' could there be?). But if pressed I equivocate because there's really no comparison between Tolstoy and Gibbon, say, and Hume or John Stuart Mill, or Robert A. Heinlein or Bruce Sterling. Or Ernest Hemingway. So I'd probably respond, "it's not a competition." Leaving people from that certain perspective where everything is a competition perplexed and puzzled.

- if someone asked me "what's the weather supposed to be like today" I would respond "I didn't think anyone was planning it." I would then enter a disputation on the question of whether the way the weather is supposed to be is the way I want it, the way the farmers want it, or the way some person paid to read Environment Canada forecasts off a teleprompter said it would be. The whole equivocation between 'want', 'need', 'ought' and 'will be' inherent in a word like "supposed" is a source of fascination to me. And I'm supposed to think it's simple?

- if someone asks "When will Brandon Sanderson release his new book?" my response is, "Who?" Because I genuinely don't know who Brandon Sanderson is, and doubly don't know why anyone would think I know when his publisher will allow people to purchase his book (I'm not sure even Brandon Sanderson knows this, so I don't see why I would be expected to know"). OK, now I'm going to look him up on Google. ... OK, I assume this is him? Now I'm even more puzzled.

- if someone asked me "Is there any pizza left in the fridge" I would respond "I thought we agreed we weren't eating pizza any more." OK, so I'm not likely to be asked this. If it were a food I actually eat these days, I'd probably say "no" or "I'll get you some," because this is again possibly one of those passive requests for pizza. It's always a mystery with these sorts of questions.

And that's kind of my point, isn't it? It's always kind of a mystery when it comes to these sorts of questions. Pick the simplest example you want - or stay with these putatively simple requests - and even the slightest investigation reveals that the questions are not simple at all. In fact, they are questions that would totally stump a computer. Or - more likely - would elicit a literal and highly inappropriate response. The stuff that dozens of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes trade on.

But that's not even the main point. The main point - and I'm sorry for burying the lede - is that the concept of 'knowledge transfer', although superficially simple, is, just like those questions, fraught with difficulties. And that I really find it frustrating and even offensive that someone who should know this like David Wiley would respond in such a callous and high-handed fashion to someone who was making an honest effort to make the point in a brief comment.

Let me put the point in terse, plain language: people who say that there is such a thing as "knowledge transfer" cannot make the first coherent point about what it is that is transferred.

Seriously. Try it some time. Tell me what is transferred. You'll start by saying "knowledge is transferred." As though eliding one of the central questions of 2,500 years of philosophy will somehow make your response more believable. "Knowledge?" I'll ask, wilily. Do you mean 'justified true belief?' Not because I'm trying to lure him into a Gettier problem, but because I want the amusement of watching him now explain how not only belief will be 'transferred', but also truth and justification. Because, after all, if you believe P, and you have justification for P, and you say "P" to me, the justification does not come with it.

Let's go back to one of those simple examples to make the point. "Is there pizza in the fridge?" Let's suppose that context suggests to me that this is a genuine request for information, and not a passive request for restaurant service. So I say "Yes, there is pizza in the fridge." Now, note carefully, it is not redundant to ask, "How do you know?" So the justification did not travel with the answer. And I reply, "I looked." Now that is not the same as you looking. The justification still resides with me. If you want justification, you have to either get up and look yourself (in which case, our attempt to transfer knowledge has failed utterly) or you have to tell some longish story (to yourself, please) about why you trust me.

Of course, we know that knowledge is not justified true belief. We know that it's a lot more complicated than that. We know that what constitutes "the knowledge that P" depends very much on what P is, how it was expressed, what relevant alternatives there may have been, what is the state of the world, what is one's doxastic state (ie., are we in a position to know?), and whether we have the capacity to distinguish that P.

Does my asking of these questions make me a snob? Seriously? Because I have actually taken the time to work through what is implied in a common everyday presumption, and to show that it is empty, does that somehow make me a snob? Well, let's suppose it does. I've been called worse. What it doesn't make me is wrong.

Let's get back to knowledge transfer. Let's get back to the question of what it is that is transferred. Let's forget about the whole problem of knowledge. Maybe it's just data, or information, or some such thing. Let's look at what's there, what can be observed, and see if we can work it out for ourselves, you know, non-elite like.

The first and probably most important thing that leaps out at you (it certainly leaps out at me) is that there is no physical thing that is transferred from me to you when you ask "is there any pizza in the fridge" and I answer "yes". Not even pizza (which was, by stipulation, in the fridge, not in me). Reconstruct it with me:

- sound waves enter my ears, stimulate some hair cells and cause a cascade of signals to be sent through my auditory cortex.
- neural activity occurs. I form the intent to respond, assemble a response into words, which I now utter.
- these waves travel through the air, possibly through walls or telephone lines, and enter your ears
- these sound waves stimulate a cascade of electrical signals to be sent through your auditory cortex

Pretty basic. I could probably have expanded on the details, but I think the point is pretty clear. No physical transfer, not one atom, has taken place. Whatever it was that was 'transferred' from me to you is not physical.

So if it's not knowledge that's transferred, and it's not something physical that's transferred, what can it be? We can run through the list of possibilities. Maybe it's data. Maybe it's information. Maybe it's functional awareness. Maybe it's a depression in the noumenon. We can run through the full list of theories. I've studied them all, David. I'll punch holes in every one of them. It's not hard.

My answer, and it's a perfectly reasonable and well-research answer, is that nothing is transferred. That the whole idea of "knowledge transfer" is a handy fiction that we have created over the years, as simple folk, to function as shorthand for what we know is a much more complex process.

Probably the best intermediate position a person can attempt here is something like "knowledge replication". That's what's actually happening in a lot of people's theories. We know that the sending of a message from one person to another involves a state change. The signal (another handy fiction; let me have it for now) crosses through several media en route from sender to receiver. Thus questions of signal integrity arise, the problem of distinguishing signal from noise, and all the rest of it.

We know that it doesn't really matter what happens to the signal between sender and receiver, so long as what has arrived is (reliably and knowably) the same as what was sent. That's why the electronics industry invented mechanisms like checksums and callbacks. It's like double-entry book-keeping. Call-and-response. It allows for errors in transmission, enables the transmission to actually occur in parts, and ensures that what has arrived is the same as what was sent. Thus, I think, and then say "There is pizza in the fridge." Stuff happens. Then you hear, and thus think, "There is pizza in the fridge." Communication has happened, everyone's happy.

This would be great, except for one problem. The sentence "There is pizza in the fridge" is the medium of communication. It is not the thought, either of sender or receiver.

This is important, and is the foundation of modern education theory. If what was received in your head was exactly what was originally in my head, it would be useless. Even if we allow the theory that we have sentences in the head, that the idea of 'brain writing' is true (I don't, I think it's ridiculous, but people like Fodor do) these sentences are still composed of a neural substrate, and this substrate is very different for you than it is for me.

All very good, you may say, let's forget the neural substrate and just focus on the sentence. If we can just make sure the sentence is the same, then we're find. That (in my cynical estimation) is the foundation for direct instruction. And it's as foolish as it is stupid. It's easy to get someone to remember a sentence. We do it all the time; we force people to recite prayers and oaths or play popular songs over and over until their etched on people's minds. But being able to repeat the sentence "there is pizza in the fridge" is very diffierent from knowing that there is pizza in the fridge (if this needs empirical support we've both travel to China and I'll teach the phrase to a unilingual Chinesde speaker and then wait for you to show me he understands there's pizza in the fridge).

The substrate matters. The relation of that sentence to all other sentences (or if we're really really lucky, a significant subset of those sentences) needs to be the same, or at least relevantly similar (for a relevantly sufficient understanding). But this is not something you can transfer. Or at least, not in any simple manner as implied by the question-and-answer set posed at the outset.

You know what makes a snob, for me? The person who says, "oh well, of course, everyone knows such-and-such." The person who presumes this his or her 'simple' and 'basic' understanding is obviously the right one. The presupposition that there is only one way to understand the world, and that he or she has it. I stand up to such people and say to them, "You think you understand the way the world works, but you don't." And I hate such people telling me what to learn, and how to learn, as though they really believed their magic carpet theory of learning actually worked, as though if they just willed it enough, I'd become just like them. Well it's not going to happen, and that's why we (George and I) invented MOOCs.

Because if learning is not knowledge transfer, as I'm arguing here, that leaves open the tremendously exciting question of what it actually is. If you are open to the idea that learning isn't transfer, isn't transmission, isn't even replication, you are open to the idea that the person doing the learning can actually become something more than the person doing the teaching (there's also the possibility that he or she could be something less, but that was always a risk, even in the transmission theories, which is why there's so much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the "state of education" and the "crisis in America's schools" over in that camp.

You have the nine billion theories of constructivism to guide you, each an interesting way people can create, or (somehow) 'construct' their own knowledge, with more or less support from teachers, coaches, guides, or brilliant instructional design (people sufficiently educated will recognize the reference to Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favourite authors). Me, I don't think it's something we can just make happen, as though knowledge were a building or even a well-tended garden (though it's much more like the latter than the former). But people are welcome to try, and sometimes they perhaps over-engineer their environments, or their instruction (that's what I think has happened in eduMOOC, but I'll wait for some data before criticizing).

People always think they can engineer things for a precise result. To me, that's a bit like imaging there's some way the weather is supposed to be. I don't think it's random, I definitely don't think it's value-free, but it's not magic either, and fairy-theories of "knowledge transfer" and other fictions do not suddenly make it snap into some predictable form. And - frankly - I get offended when someone pompously claims that someone is ignorant and uneducated for not buying into the fantasy.

Yes, you can make a person utter the words. If you have a sufficiently large rifle, you can also make them goose-step and murder their enemies. You can hound them into submission, you can brainwash them, make them believe in nutty causes and blow themselves up, make them memorize the spelling of fifty thousand words, lull them into believing that the Grand Canyon was created by a giant hand, convince them that people of a different skin colour are animals, almost anything. You can shape people with no end of methods and mechanations physical and psychological.

But you can't use any of this to make them learn. You can't make them understand. Understanding is a voluntary act. It is the act of a free person, inhabiting a world in which he or she can interact with a stimulating and diverse environment, creating a rich fabric of what we would call thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, fears, and all the rest of it. Understanding and learning are the results of a life-long process of experience and growth. You can present the things you think are important and should be valued, but people must accept these for themselves. Freely.


  1. What makes you so confident that you 'know' what you are talking about?

  2. @Anonymous Please state your name if you want to play philosophy 101.

  3. @Daniel Lemire my name makes a difference for you?

  4. Stephen - thank you very much for this post... you've crystalized a lot of what I was trying to get at in the comments to David Ws post. I'm starting to understand the whole area a bit better now.

  5. Hi Stephen, I'm not entirely convinced by the "nothing is transferred" point. In speech, for instance, a small amount of energy generated by the speaker is absorbed by the ear - that is a transfer, no?

  6. I agree the term knowledge transfer is misleading. Knowledge is not a commodity that can walk or fly or be carried over. There must be a better metaphor to signify how an abstract idea is absorbed into long term memory and subsequently is made available when constructing more complex ideas.

    Knowledge is integrated and not packaged and placed on a mental shelf. When conceived as elaboration of one’s knowledge capability, rather than cargo, the term elaborated knowledge explains how we can draw upon it to establish proof, create a reference point, or apply it as a problem-solving strategy in a new context. There is an irreversible, exponential value to learning and the term knowledge transfer fails to express that reality.

    Should the metaphor to of "knowledge transfer" be changed to something like "knowledge elaboration" or "knowledge integration"?

    As an educator who regularly talks to other educators using the language of learning science, I do use the term knowledge transfer, although I recognize it is an imperfect metaphor. Coining a more accurate metaphor would facilitate the shift from the commonly held false belief that knowledge is a collection of concrete chunks of stuff to a more accurate and flexible understanding of knowledge as a constellation of inter-related concepts with each triggering action and reaction on the others. Knowledge elaboration suggests knowledge construction is more of method of thinking, a path or flow.

    eduMOOC 2011

  7. Stephen,

    I hear you on the writing these days, but I have to say this post goes a long way towards framing the importance for thinking of education as a process of complex ideas, never as a simple Knowledge transfer. I understand why Wiley may be trying to reduce this idea a bit to get some clear sense of a shared mission to educate the world---and this is indeed a noble goal---it can never be simple, it can never be just a transfer of valus and ideas. I mean if we understand knowledge as something stable and absolute it makes it far easier to justify exporting it around the world, but there is already a lesson for us in education about the danger of such an idea---take look at the post-colonial moment, what were they revolting against in Africa, South East Asia, etc. --this cultural assumption of knowledge and value. Sharing and transferare radically different---the former suggests a joint, open ownership of ideas, the later suggests a transfer of assumed power.

  8. @Pat - there is a causal chain, otherwise we're into the realm of mysticism. So there is perhaps a story that could be made about a transfer of energy. But transfers of energy are not contiguous; the same energy doesn't 'travel' from one point to the next. See my comment to Jenny.

    @Jenny - I actually have come up with an alternative metaphor, it is the metaphor of 'induction' and I describe it here. The nice thing about the induction model is that it makes it clear that the instructional act plays a role, and it shows (by metaphor) how this induces a learning state in the student. @Pat induction is a process where the causal chain remains intact, but where energy does not 'travel'. If you haven't read the 'induction' post I wrote think of it as a natural follow-up to this one.

    @Jim thanks for the nice words.

  9. The point may not be the particular distinctions by which you describe knowledge or learning (and anyway 'knowledge transfer' is only a metaphor)

    I think the important thing is what you do with those distinctions.

    I've seen equally effective and ineffective teaching and learning from those who call themselves constructivists 'empowering' their learners as those who think they are 'transferring knowledge'.

  10. @Mark

    If you think teaching is 'knowledge transfer' (metaphorical or otherwise) then you think that 'effective' teaching is accomplished then then knowledge in the sender is replicated in the receiver.

    If you don't think teaching is 'knowledge transfer' then you think 'effective' teaching is something else.

    You haven't defined or attempted to explain in any what what you mean by 'effective teaching'; you've simply wielded it like a sledgehammer.

    But I suspect that what you mean by 'effective teaching' is 'successful replication', in which case, then yes, you can obtain it by various means.

    On the other hand, if you do not agree that teaching is 'knowledge transfer' then you do not believe 'effective teaching' results in 'successful replication'.

    I have long argued that the hallmark of successful teaching is not regurgitation of facts presented, or repetition of actions demonstrated, but rather a complex of adaptive social behaviours, as evidenced in such things as better health, lower crime rates, increased innovation, and greater satisfaction in life.

  11. Hi Stephen,

    I certainly don't think that the mark of success is replication. That's more like a mark of failure!

    We may agree on the things which matter. Increases in confidence, the ability to work across different linguistic registers, the ability to 'read' the positions of others, the wisdom to act appropriately, developing wisdom... and, frankly, discovering the joy of living.

    You and I, and many who've engaged in this discussion have a love of ideas and philosophy. But like any deep attachments, they can also be blinding to the simple things that 'do the trick in the moment'.

    Without accusing anyone, it's worth pointing out the terrifying ease one can become a fundamentalist.

    The point is it's not the ideas that count. (Now of course, that's an idea..!)

    kind regards,


  12. Here is an explanation / critique of the tranmission mode of communication that neatly demonstrates how a model originating from a viewpoint different from one's own can still be useful (up to a point) in one's own meaning-making.
    I am very interested in how those to whom 'learning' means something different can still have a productive and meaningful dialogue. I think participants would have to start by trying to explain what the word means to them and then listen to what others have to say. It would also help participants (especially given the context of openness) to enter the dialogue with the possibility of changing their minds even if only in a small way.
    So I would be curious to know what the word 'nonsense' means to you Stephen as I interpreted it as being used pejoratively - saying that David Wiley was 'wrong'(rather as he used the word 'snob' pejoratively). Whereas it could mean that for you Wiley's ideas are 'not my sense" signifying that you acknowledge that you and Wiley are interpreting learning differently.
    Maybe what is important about theories of learning and knowledge is what they mean to learners and teachers, as we personally theorise the world around us. Since that can often be in a social context we need to get the knack of sharing theories in dialogue. I have observed over a long period (and on CCK08 in particular) that teachers use theories in a very pragmatic way (connectivism being a good example), sometimes thinking about transmission modes of learning, other times using constructivism and in our digitally-saturated environment, turning to help the practice and reflect.
    I spent a short time as a Maths teacher in school and saw the twin disadvantages of knowing your times tables without understanding how they were constructed and vice versa.

  13. The penultimate sentence should have read - I have observed over a long period (and on CCK08 in particular) that teachers use theories in a very pragmatic way (connectivism being a good example), sometimes thinking about transmission modes of learning, other times using constructivism and in our digitally-saturated environment, turning to connectivism to help them practice and reflect.

  14. The theories we live by are part of our identities: a way we can make sense of the messyness of doing real stuff (in this case, real teaching). We mistake them as mantras for how real stuff ought to be done (probably in a process of asserting our identity). Armartya Sen's "Identity and Violence" is good on this...

  15. > So I would be curious to know what the word 'nonsense' means to you Stephen

    Honestly, I was using the word as a verbal rap on the knuckles. I felt David Wiley was out of bounds with his remarks and needed to be corrected.

  16. > The theories we live by are part of our identities: a way we can make sense of the messyness of doing real stuff (in this case, real teaching).

    I would have to think about this. Identity is complex and messy stuff.

    Some people have the identity they have because of the theories they have. Other people have the theories they have because of the identity they have.

    Making this even fuzzier is the vagueness of the term 'theory'. What we think of as a (properly so-called) theory is just the tip of an iceberg, an abstract representation of something deeper, more distributed, more ineffable.

    Wittgenstein used terms like 'form of life' rather than 'theory'. I think that's a better usage. Form of like is something we evolve into through experience, like a riverbed (another of Wittgenstein's terms). A 'theory' is often a rationalization and articulation of (some aspect of) that after the fact.

    In general (and this is the underlying weakness of constructivism, IMHO), anything that exists as a construct is an abstraction, created after the fact, of some deeper and more substantial phenomenon.

  17. Glad to see mention of Wittgenstein - the clarity and humility of the Philosophical Investigations is probably an example to us all!

    When we did the PLE work for JISC, one of the central questions was the relationship between the person and tools (indeed, I still think this is the real value of the PLE discussion generally... it's got a bit lost recently!) What is 'my' phone to me? 'my' blog? 'my' ideas? 'my' learning?

    I'm in the process of exploring John Bowlby's work on attachment as a way of trying to dig into this. That seems to be important work because Bowlby has been the foundation of approaches to 'care', and 'care' I think lies at the heart of what we do in education (and parenting for that matter) when we get it right.

  18. I enjoyed this post Stephen. Distributed knowledge comes to my mind, very Latourian, with persuasion of belief being dependent on the alliances formed.

  19. I commented further on this in a blog post

  20. I would have to think about this. Identity is complex and messy stuff.The point may not be the particular distinctions by which you describe knowledge or learning..Should the metaphor to of "knowledge transfer" be changed to something like "knowledge elaboration"

  21. @Downes I am stuggling deeply trying to understand what you are claiming in your lengthy post. It seems your claim is that the neural substrate in the sender and received is different, and therefore knowledge is not transferred, although possibly replicated to some degree. Your argument calls for freedom of understanding (in the action of the receiver)to triumph over the sender's message. All well and good, and perhaps it is only the choice of metaphor that causes your discomfort. You focus on the 'what' of knowledge, requiring it to have substance in order for a transfer of a material nature to occur, and on this point I agree, no material substance called knowledge is transferred.

    However, communication occurs, and in this communication, a sharing of information occurs, and in this, knowledge is shared, if not literally 'transferred' in the sense that you so strongly object to.

  22. My reflections on this discussion: MOOCs, Methodology and Nuremberg Funnels (see

  23. > a sharing of information occurs, and in this, knowledge is shared

    If you are not speaking metaphorically, then you need to explain what you mean by this.

    If 'sharing' is not a euphemism for 'transfer' or 'replication', then what is it? Otherwise, youa re saying "transfer occurs because transfer occurs", which is empty and meaningless.

    What is 'information', on your account? Is it (pace Dretske) a 'reduction in the number of possible states of affairs in the universe, from the perspective of the receiver'? If so, one person's 'information' is another person's 'noise', and the account of transfer, replication or sharing needs a rather large back story. If not this, then what is information?

    You want something to be 'transferred' but my response is that neither you nor anyone else has the first clue as to what this could be, and that it is therefore a handy fiction, not something real that's happening.

  24. @Downes I don't know that dismissing the desire to understand the possibility of a transfer as fiction is very useful or not. But I will try to avoid the use of the word 'transfer', to appease those, like you, who find it offensive.

    How about a view that suggests that communication is the expression of the neural state of the sender. Would it be possible that in communicating to you, I am expressing what I think (a neural state), and you, as recipient, are receiving information about my thinking, which, through your agency, you can choose to agree with, believe, seek further justification etc. It does appear that in the act of communicating that something real is happening, don't you agree?

  25. > the desire to understand the possibility of a transfer as fiction

    It's not that I find it offensive, it's that it is, in my view, an error that leads to greater errors.

    > communication is the expression of the neural state of the sender

    That's better, keeping in mind this: that the communication is the neural state expressing itself. There is no third party agency here; just the neural state, and how it expresses itself through communication.

    This expression becomes part of the environment I experience. My neural state (ie., me) reacts to that expression in any number of a variety of ways, including by learning something as a result of that expression.

    The big difference between the way I have phrased it here and the way you have phrased it is that on your account, you are preserving the 'aboutness' of the communication, and I am not. You want the communication to be 'about' the neural state, and I do not, I want it to be a creation of the mental state.

    It is this 'aboutness' that is said to be transferred, preserved, shared, etc. in communication. But the determination of 'aboutness' by the receiver is very much an inference, not inherent in the communication, and very frequently an incorrect inference.

  26. >There is no third party agency here

    Agree. My reference was to the agency of the neural state, not a third party. For example, I may choose not to communicate.

    >You want the communication to be 'about' the neural state, and I do not, I want it to be a creation of the mental state.

    What is the difference in your understanding of the two terms 'neural state' and 'mental state'? Are you representing the same thing in these two terms?

    I agree that communication is a creation of the neural state. I also wonder what an examination of the communication reveals about the sending neural state. I think the communication can be examined/studied etc. - it has an 'aboutness', yes, as a creation of a neural state, yet I am unsure as to the details of this 'aboutness'. I tend to think of communication as a re-presentization and re-presentation of a neural state experience, i.e. a bringing back into the present (through communication) the unspoken past experience of the neural state resulting in a sharing of that experience. And yes, I am cognizant of the difficulties seemingly inherent in communication.

  27. > What is the difference in your understanding of the two terms 'neural state' and 'mental state'?

    The two terms do not refer to distinct entities. They are two ways of referring to the same thing.

    What makes the term 'mental state' different is that it typically refers to a partial description of a neural state, typically an abstraction, based in folk psychology, that is often imprecise and arbitrary, and may well refer to nothing at all.

  28. > I also wonder what an examination of the communication reveals about the sending neural state. I think the communication can be examined/studied etc. - it has an 'aboutness', yes, as a creation of a neural state, yet I am unsure as to the details of this 'aboutness'.

    I think that the communication can reveal something about the underlying neural state. But I think this is difficult and imprecise and that we should draw conclusions only very carefully.

    The 'aboutness', for example, gets us in trouble. We receive rays of light from the Sun, they are caused by the Sun's internal configuration, and we can learn about this configuration from the rays of light (indeed, there seems to be no other way), but the rays of light are not 'about' the Sun's internal configuration; that would be an interpretation we place on the rays of light, a theoretical, intentional or descriptive stance (pace Dennett).

  29. >But I think this is difficult and imprecise and that we should draw conclusions only very carefully

    I agree wholeheartedly that rigourous inquiry has value. You mentioned replication above. It seems to me that through the sharing mechanism of communication some exercise of power upon another occurs, maybe even in a mild form of suggestion, which might elicit a similar neural state to emerge in the recipient of a communication. Would this be classified as learning, or must the recipient exercise a full, conscious, free and voluntary act of understanding in order for learning to occur? Are there different categories of learning?

  30. > Would this be classified as learning... Are there different categories of learning?

    I have described 'learning' in the past as changes of neural states as a result of experience.

    Obviously there can be many types of learning, classified according to various schemas.

  31. Somewhere, in some place the knowledge sharing is missing. I agree with it.
    What is needed first is the proper medium of transfer.
    There are many issues regarding MOOC's but still their work is appreciable. Online education and its process is not a easy task to be made.

  32. >Obviously there can be many types of learning, classified according to various schemas.

    I like this satement as it is suggestive of many possiblities rather than limiting to one schema, like behaviourism, connectivism, constructivism, instructivism, etc. I think your description of 'learning' has value too. I guess that assessment and evaluation attempt to measure the changes in the neural states of students, and, maybe indirectly, the effectiveness of the schema method employed to induce the changes.

    @Gifty I think that a goal of education (however defined) is knowledge (however defined) sharing. Those who have learned through experience, can share their knowledge with others. Timely open knowledge sharing (TOKS) is a valued feature of a web-connected world.

  33. I find this all very confusing!

    What is shared? As far as I can see, identities are expressed through articulating ideas (in text). Maybe its 'ego-sharing'? (half joking!)

    Are there many types of learning? Bateson would say there are many 'levels', but that's in the context of a bigger over-arching model. How would you know one type from another? How would your your own identity and knowledge are separable from your knowing of the difference between one type of learning and another?

    I think this is all about causation. There is a danger in going down the 'neural cause' route - it's neuron's (and infinite regress) all the way down! This is 'mentalism', and the object of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: (from Wikipedia)
    "Wittgenstein's investigations of language lead to several issues concerning the mind. His key target of criticism is any form of extreme mentalism which posits mental states that are entirely unconnected to the subject's environment. For Wittgenstein, thought is inevitably tied to language, which is inherently social; therefore, there is no 'inner' space in which thoughts can occur. Part of Wittgenstein's credo is captured in the following proclamation: "An 'inner process' stands in need of outward criteria."[24] This follows primarily from his conclusions about private languages: similarly, a private mental state (a sensation of pain, for example) cannot be adequately discussed without public criteria for identifying it."

  34. Wittgenstein is entitled to his opinion, same as anyone else. He seems to have some good things to say. I am not sure it is necessary to rest upon causation: as you say, the regression may be unhelpful.

    What is shared is experience(s), understanding(s), perception(s), representation(s), (etc).

    What is meant by identity? Is it the composite state of a neural entity at a particular moment in time? I think an entity is cognizant of difference when in communication with another entity - through dialogue we are aware of our differences as well as our similarities. Perhaps in that dialogue your Wittgenstein's 'law of outward criteria' is met.

  35. "Wittgenstein is entitled to his opinion, same as anyone else."


    Isn't there an implicit position regarding knowledge, culture and philosophy in that statement?

  36. >Isn't there an implicit position regarding knowledge, culture and philosophy in that statement?

    I would think that all statements contain an implicit position, no? And the position most generally would be the purview and perspective of s/he who makes the statement, agreed?

    So in my statement, my explicit position is that Wittgenstein is freely entitled to his opinion, and my implied position is that there is a variety of opinions to be had.

  37. I think it depends on your ontology. You're articulating a constructivist ontology, and that's very much in line with most of the e-learning universe. That's fine...

    Personally, I find the slippery slope to relativism rather uncomfortable, and we quickly get into ethical hot-water ("Hitler's freely entitled to his opinion...").

    It's what you do with your opinion that matters. Articulating your opinions can be causal (they can upset people, incite people, etc). We may not be as 'free' to our opinions as we (you) might like to think.

    What you 'do' with your opinion is an ontological matter: not what you think, but how you are.

    And then possibly we get to the nub of the matter concerning knowledge: that it is tied-up in some way with being, tied-up with civil society. And that means its very multi-level, multi-dimensional, and to flatten it to the level of language is a category error.

    That's the same category error as in your statement: "Wittgenstein is entitled to his opinion, same as anyone else."

  38. I agree that the exercise of power of one's opinions over others' is fraught with the potential for harm, or blessed with the potential for good. And perhaps Wittgenstein's expressed opinions have caused their degree of harm or good. All I was really trying to say, given your extensive quoting of Wittgenstein, is that there are other perspectives.

    Who would flatten knowledge to the level of language? Is not knowledge an aspect of being? Or do you find that it is outside of existence?

  39. Yes - indeed there are other perspectives. But I admire Wittgenstein for the precision, depth and humility of his investigations. Similar qualities are shown by thinkers I don't agree with so much (like Ernst Von Glasersfeld). I can disagree with them and still admire their achievement.

    The relationship between knowledge and being is a continuous tussle in the history of philosophy. To say it's an aspect of being is contentious to some (although I'm sympathetic to this). Descartes would say being is an aspect of knowledge! Constructivism does have a flattening tendency (Roy Bhaskar considers Wittgenstein guilty of flattening being to language - I disagree). But clearly knowledge exists and has causal power in the world. In fact, I would echo Bhaskar and say that knowledge is real.

  40. Mark, do you think that knowledge has a life of its own? That it is an entity, and identity, that is independent of humans?

    I tend to think that knowledge is that which is shared between humans, and I have suggested above that:

    >What is shared is experience(s), understanding(s), perception(s), representation(s), (etc).

  41. My view is that Roy Bhaskar's Critical Realist ontology is broadly correct, but regarding knowledge more working-out is still to do. See my recent blog post on Paul Hirst's "forms of knowledge"

  42. Thanks. Looks like Hirst is performing an Aristotelian-style classification and dissection of the concept. I'm ok with that route, but find it a little boring.

  43. I wonder if what you mean by 'boring' has something to do with hierarchy and authority? and that somehow a hierarchical approach to knowledge is less radical than a non-hierarchical approach? I think real radicalism comes from understanding hierarchy and authority, which is where Hirst is focused (he was an advocate of associative democracy).

    Hirst's influences include Aristotle, but are by no means limited to him. There's a nice quote from Aristotle which underlines his (Aristotle's) approach to knowledge and its relationship to being, and I get the impression that Hirst is on this track too.
    "We think we have knowledge of something when we have grasped its cause" (Posteria Analytics).. and 'cause' in this sense is Aristotelian, not Humean.

  44. Boring = unappealing, routine, dull, tedious etc.

    I find that an unquestioned reliance on determining 'cause' contributes to 'boring' analysis, although I appreciate the utility of this approach when trying to fix a mechanical problem (like in car repair). I think 'causal' knowledge is too limiting in the general sense. So I might think that knowledge can be constructed, and that causation is a human construct or explanation in itself, which probably leads us back to ontology.

    I might say then that cause is a human concept applied to the world of sensation, and likely has no absolute validity but rather a probalistic utility.

  45. Ok - but this is a misunderstanding of causation in the Aristotelian sense.

    You are using cause in the way that was set out by Hume, and which has been the foundation of thinking around 'scientific method' ever since. It is this conception of cause as a human construct based on "regular successions of events" which Bhaskar, Harré and many others powerfully critique: not just because it doesn't fit social science, but it does adequately explain scientific knowledge either.

    With regard to Boring = unappealing, routine, dull, tedious... be careful! there may well be a 'lethal attenuator' at work!

  46. ok thanks. How else might one view 'causation'

    Attenuation? sure. guilty, at times...

  47. I think the most accessible (and funny!) introduction to rethinking causality is contained in Pawson and Tilley's 'Realistic Evaluation'. They deal very well with the Aristotle vs. Hume thing. I think it also highlights some of the methodological problems that we have in e-learning... (although they're not e-learning people but criminologists... they started by asking questions like "how can we know if CCTV in carparks stops crime?")

  48. > I have long argued that the hallmark of successful teaching is not regurgitation of facts presented, or repetition of actions demonstrated, but rather a complex of adaptive social behaviours, as evidenced in such things as better health, lower crime rates, increased innovation, and greater satisfaction in life.

    Stephen, thanks for this thought, and thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion.


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