Structure, behaviour and wood

Churchill said ‘we shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape our lives’, a sentiment echoed by McLuhan whose take on it was ‘we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’. That’s the starting point for the theme for my bit of the Change11 MOOC. Ignoring the elephant in the room for the moment (because that’s mostly what we do), there are big questions about the kinds of dwellings and tools should we be using and designing to help us to learn, what are the effects of our choices?

It’s partly about softness and hardness. Harder technologies are constraining: learning management systems, for example, work because they deliberately limit the number of choices we have to make, performing some of the orchestration of phenomena on our behalf so that we don’t have to. That’s why they are relatively easy to use, at least when compared with alternatives such as adapting existing tools or building our own programs. There is a strong risk that they can therefore stifle creativity. However, constraints can also drive creativity. I was reminded of this while touring art exhibitions in Vancouver yesterday, where I saw some images that drew their form from the medium on which they were painted, using the natural whorls and knots of the wood grain to structure the picture.

Bradley Messer work in progress




Bradley Messer painting, using the knots in the wood to form eyes

As Stravinsky said, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” Bradley Messer seems to have taken this message to heart and, though I do not love all of the pictures that result from that, there is no doubt that something creative has emerged from the constraints.

The trouble is, the constraints of our learning technologies are far from arbitrary and are often the result of turning soft and flexible processes observed in traditional teaching practices into something harder. This is not like the knots in the wood, where arbitrary forms can guide our creativity. This is the solidifying of history, the intentional creation of path dependencies that can entrap us in pedagogies and methods used by our forebears that may be less than perfect for our current needs. We need to think far more carefully about those constraints, not to take them as a given, to find ways of using them but not being bound by them. Or maybe we need to build our learning technologies more like wood, more organically, more arbitrarily. 

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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