Tuesday, June 07, 2005

From Friction to Engagement

To construct or not to construct, mom, that is the question upon most everyone’s lips these days. Politically, in Canada our home and native land, we have the same old, two, tired parties trying to construct their own unique narratives in a bid to gain the trust of a very distrustful Canadian public. Anyway, you will recall that in my last missive, I alluded to tension and neural networks and the way these are massaged by various media. Back when I was a teenager and engagement -especially with the opposite sex - was a full time preoccupation, a relatively obscure Canadian intellectual by the name of Marshall McCluhan coined the phrase: the medium is the message. He may have been better to say: the medium is the massage.

Judging by the manner in which the nation’s tensions are currently being massaged by Paul Martin and Steven Harper and their neurally linked and insatiable networks, I’d have to say the ‘massage’ is working. Today, we are beginning to talk a great deal in education about neural plasticity and the way that different and engaging activities enable the brain to establish new and enduring neural networks. And the intensity of the engagement determines the strength of the brain’s long term memory – not something our politicians want to occur, eh mom? One educator called true engagement the 4Cs: Challenge, Curiosity, Context, and Control.

Now if we apply these criteria to the Canadian political scene we can see that the Canadian electorate is well entrenched in what we in education call Discovery, or constructivist learning. Such discovery builds upon the Challenge of trying to solve the problem: do we continue with the ship of state ( sorry mom, a bad metaphor, the current Prime Minister being Dad’s old CSL boss ) as currently being sailed around the docks of Montreal by Paul Martin and his Liberals, or do we move to the evangelical right espoused by the western provinces ‘henchman’ and reputed savior Stephen Harper?

With discovery comes Curiosity. Can the electorate trust a man who might sell his soul just to hang onto power—the buyer being one Conservative MP of Indo-Canadian extraction who only wanted a seat in the senate for himself and his wife, mind, in return for his support? On the other hand, can they trust that a Stephen Harper understands that his church and its prelates and beliefs must be divorced from the state? Or so a significant number of the electorate would have us believe. What say you mom? Should a man or woman use his/her religious beliefs as guides for the rest of the nation? Remember the time when Pierre Trudeau suggested that the state had no business in the bedroom’s of the nation and you applauded vigorously. I wonder how Ann and Brenda’s parents reacted!

Next on the engagement stage comes Context, mom. Into this brouha, the electorate must be wondering: how can a country be as rich in resources as Canada is, but poor as church mice? (No mom, most Canadians don't know how to hide their resources in offshore Bermuda companies, like someone we know..) I know a bad metaphor, but really mom, here in Singapore with a population of some 3-4 million, and no natural resources – save that of intellectual capital, they have a surplus of some 132 billion $US. Contrast that with our country of 32 million, on the second largest land mass, replete with abundant natural resources and carrying a debt of 500 billion. Context, mom. Context is everything. We may have been poor but we did have the greatest of resources: you.

Which leads us to Control. True engagement means the learner is in control and knows what he or she is attempting to do. Thus true engagement leads to discovery, and not always of the things you might want to know. Judging by the fact that less than 50% of the electorate turns out to vote means the 4Cs are not fully addressed, leastwise by this present cadre of politicians. Memory becomes but a short term phenomena and the mind, perforce, looks elsewhere. My mind looks to you often, mom, and the next communication will be on the ways you nurtured the 4Cs and helped prepare me to become a sailor on the HMSS Discovery, upon which I now sail.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Friction Today and Yesterday

Obviously mom, there is a great deal of friction in this world. But today, rather than focussing on world friction, I want to share how that word reminds me of a time before the Internet and even before we had a TV. I'm not saying there was no world friction then, but the word for me and my girlfriends at the time (Anne and Brenda were their names-remember?) had a very different associative vlaue. We were about 10 years old and on the cusp of diligent inquiry into things we didn't know. On our way home from school one sunny spring day, we were searching in our dictionary for the F…k word. We had been involved in a strenuous debate about exactly what it was that our parents did to create babies. The F word was not new to us --we had heard it bandied about as the thing our parents did but we didn't know what exactly that meant and couldn’t find it anywhere in the dictionary we had available —this being the days of radical conservatism, when whatever we wanted to learn was very strictly controlled.

Anyway, I had stumbled upon the word friction which talked about bodies coming together to create heat, or something like that - time has a way of massaging memory ( today we call it neural plasticity, but that topic is for another discussion ) – and we felt that we were getting close to discovering the mystery. In fact, little did we know that we were engaging in some old fashioned discovery based learning, predicated on our quest to solve a problem of very real import to us: what did adults do to create babies! Today, problem based learning, situationally and contextually driven is all the rage. Go figure! Back then, it was just plain old learning.

Some 45 years later, if your grandson – now 10, were to want to solve this problem, he would not have to do much sleuthing. He could simply type into something called a Google search engine ( hey, aren’t we creative with words now?) and he would get , 2,790,000 references. In seconds he would know the answer, even if his parents didn’t want him to know, which was the case with my girlfriend’s parents at that time-remember the angry phone calls you got castigating you for having revealed such a thing to your own boy?

You want to know what we call such a child today? We call him or her a Net Gen, short for Net Generation. These children have known nothing but the Internet since they were born. They are called in academia, Digital Natives. You, were you around and predisposed to access the Internet via a computer, would be known as a Digital Immigrant. Just in case you are wondering, my generation is known as the Baby Boomers, and your grandchildren are known as Gen X. We love to label, don’t we?

We have even gone to great lengths to delineate the ways that each generation differs, but what you will enjoy most to learn is that the Net Gens are considered to be neurally rewired ( recall the neural plasticity reference earlier?) and that as a consequence they are much more visually orientated when it comes to learning. (What this portends insofar as the evolution of the species I will address later.) I would argue that all these researchers who are building careers on this specious logic take some time to recall that the brain is hard wired to the visual from birth. Just watch any baby develop. Baby Boomers like myself are text addicts they say, and I agree, but to deny us, and the Gen Xers the same genetic propensity for the visual is to insult not only our collective intelligence, but that which has informed the educational narrative from the time of the caveman.

We don’t call this business of difference of opinion, friction today-although it certainly raises my temperature when I hear such nonsense. No, we call it ‘Tension’. And on that note mom, I will take a rest.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Naked Truth

To continue, mom, I have a tiny request. Please...please..do not enter my dream state naked. Okay! I mean, I already warned you about how the 'Freudians' would gloam onto this type of thing, creating much embarrassment for me. If you feel the urge to prance about naked in someone's dreams, do me and the rest of the world a huge favour, visit our poor abused soldier of misfortune, Saddam Hussein, but bring a couple of your favourite dogs with you.

Why? Well, he will consider them unclean and be mightily terrified, while at the same time over stimulated. How a dog could be considered unclean, vis-a-vis a character like him, beggars the imagination, mind.

Speaking of the imagination and its brazen application, have you folks in heaven been listening to the imaginative "white noise"characterising the Japanese and the Mainland Chinese dialogue lately? It's all the rage here in Singapore and across the planet. Seems the Chinese are very upset about the Japanese Prime Minister continuing to visit Japan's war shrine--though to be honest why a guy wants to go and speak to dead soldiers is beyond me, but hey, if a guy wants to exercise his free will, in a free country, then who am I to point the finger of admonishment.

They are also upset that the Japanese have not apologised profusely enough for their war crimes --and they are legion, trust me, but that's for another missive . The Japanese, on the other hand, contend that the Chinese have equally significant stains on their historical tapestry. You folks must have heard about the Chinese leadership running tanks over their students back in the early 80's, right? Now, whether that and the worst aspects of the genocides associated with Moa's great leaps forward compare with the savagery of the Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Singapore, for example, is a moot point. I mean, cutting people up into parts and hanging them in butcher shop windows, as an example mom, to the rest of the people not to disobey the conquerer--not to mention their legendary POW abuses, certainly drives home that old bromide you used to teach me when I complained about my treatment at the hands of my brothers and sisters: 'Young man, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones!'

And on that note mom, I'm going to exit...when I return, I want to tell you about the fascinating world that is developing as technology and education come face-to-face, or make that blend. Just maybe and thanks to the affordances provided by this convergence, we are now on the cusp of being able to move the children of the planet, who are our future, collectively towards a realisation of the rights and responsibilities that attend all members attempting to live in harmony in a global village.

Oh..just a reminder, don't forget to let the dogs out...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A short intro

Well mom, you did ask me shortly before you died, to every now and again bring you up-to-date on the state-of-affairs of this world. I have held off, for many reasons-not the least of which was my fear that I would branded another victim of Freud's famous theory of the Oedipal Complex.

Well, thirty years after your death I think we have achieved sufficient distance not to be tagged with that opprobrium. At least, I hope so, but when I tell you my little story you might disagree. Anyway, no doubt you are wondering what it is I have made of my life, where I live, what I do etc. You would be surprised - me too in fact- to learn that I am I'm living and working in Singapore, halfway around the world from where you birthed me, eh?

Not only that I am no longer a teacher, but an evangelist in something called online learning. Which means I serve in the army of an emerging consciousness that I have characterised as the "bit god.' Bit refers to the way that computers begin to assemble data for interpretation, or the lowest common term in computers - which we hardly knew anything about back in 1974. What a world it has become, mom.

Between you and me mom, the computer was supposed to emancipate us from the servile nature of work, but by golly, I am growing more and more worried that we have become slaves to something more demanding than all the Gods of the world, combined. I mean, they at least allow us to take time for ourselves, to think about who and what we are, and more importantly why we are. The bit god, on the other hand, just keeps pressing us into meeting its needs. And they are gargantuan. It's a world, mom, where the invisible electron seeks to become visible, nay conscious. But more on that later.

What I wanted to share so urgently was the latest example of how far down the slope of absurdity the world has travelled in other areas. There are many instances, rest assured, I could cite, but for today I want to tell you about a recent story in the North American press that has me fuming. A cold blodded despot named Saddam Hussein, recently deposed in the middle east country called Iraq (known as Persia when you went to school), has been photographed wearing only his boxer shorts, mom!

Can you believe that! It get's worse mom! He has even been forced to wash his own underclothing. This for a man whose only crimes include having gassed millions of his fellow countrymen, sponsored world terrorism, sought to build weapons of mass destruction - I could go on but you get the picture. We - the western world - have stooped so low as to make him do what you made me do so often as a kid. Wash my underwear by hand! Oh, they also photographed him pressing his pants wearing only his clean white boxers! Can you imagine
the abuse mom. I bet it makes you and all the angels dancing in the mote that is God's eye, want to shout with collective outrage!

You know mom, I hate to say this but if I had known then, what I know now, I would have reported you to the authorities, and had you called onto the carpet for human rights abuse. Yep! I mean if that kind of treatment can arose so much indignation now, just imagine how much the town would have ostracized you for subjecting me to such cruel and unusual punishment.

Hmmm, but come to think of it, many of my buddies had to do the same thing. I think we could all file a class action suit. There is no statute of limitations on child abuse like that, now is there!

What's that mom? If I do I will have to presss my own pants and iron my own shirts as well. No mom, that's a fate worse than death. I surrender...I do.