Just finished re-reading Mark Buchanan's book Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks. The notion of "small worlds" comes from Stanley Milgram's letter experiments on how people are interconnected in the U.S. He sent out letters to randomly selected people in different cities with instructions to send them to some other individual. If they didn't know that person, then they would forward it to someone they felt might know the person. Milgram found that the letters made it to their destination with an average chain length of 5-6 people. (For a critique of problems with Milgram's study see Could It Be a Big World? by Judith Kleinberg and her shorter followup Six Degrees of Separation: An Urban Myth? (via Rebecca Skloot)).

Whether or not the six degrees of separation is accurate, the small-world phenomenon apparently is found in many different network systems—for example, food webs, cellular metabolism, the Internet, language, and so on—and the organizing principles of social networks are apparently the same as those of other small worlds. Buchanan wrote,

This feature has a specific mathematical signature: the power-law or fat-tail pattern for the distribution of elements according to how many links they have. And this signature turns out to be nearly identical from one kind of network to the next.

What we see then is a kind of natural order that for mysterious reasons seems to well up in networks of all kinds and that does so despite the complexities of their individual histories (p. 91).

In this power-law pattern, a few nodes are highly connected, resulting in clusters, while the majority have only a few connections. We can see that in the classroom, too. The teacher is a hub, connecting to all the students, and among the students, some have more connections with classmates than others do. In a small class, this might not play a significant role, but in large lecture classes—I remember my introductory chemistry course with 400 students—it might. And the teacher is not the only hub nor always the biggest one in a particular class.

Some connections between people are obviously stronger than others. For instance, my connections, or ties, to faculty in other departments are weaker than those with my colleagues in composition. I interact with other faculty infrequently while I talk with composition faculty almost every day, for longer periods of time, and in more depth on our common subject, composition. Strong ties result from interaction over time and affect (e.g., trust, respect, and friendship). So, another aspect of the small world phenomenon is the notion of strong and weak ties formulated by Mark Granovetter.

Both types of ties are important. Strong ties play a role in motivation, support, and identity. Weak ties have a role, too. Granovetter's seminal article "The Strength of Weak Ties" (pdf) (see also The Strength of Weak Ties: A NetworkTheory Revisted (pdf), written 10 years after the seminal article) showed that weak ties acted as bridges to information and sources different from one's networks of strong ties. In small classes, strong ties would be dominant among classmates while weak ties would connect to others outside the classroom. Of course, students have other networks (for example, family and friend networks, which would consist of strong ties) outside the classroom and so would have strong ties outside the classroom, too. Rather, I am thinking of ties connecting to networks that would have information of use to the class's subject matter.

So, I've been thinking how to take advantage of weak ties to enhance learning in my composition courses. One way is to have each student establish a blog on a topic of personal interest and to subscribe to at least five other blogs writing on the same topic. However, with students writing on different topics, it would be unlikely that their weak ties would be bringing in information and resources of interest to the entire class. So, in addition, students would also be posting on the rhetoric, both textual and visual, contained in those other blogs, leading to interaction with their classmates on rhetorical similarities and differences between blogs and blog subjects, and between blogs and other genres the class would use or come across. If you have any ideas or suggestions on taking advantage of the "strength of weak ties" in learning, email me. I'll collate them them in a later post.

Abstract is better than concrete for transfer, according to the New York Times reporting of recent research in mathematics:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The explanation of examples clouding up the concepts reminds me somewhat of the research on reading about seductive details diminishing recall of information. (There are many articles on this phenomenon, but see, for example, Processing and recall of seductive details in scientific text.)

Transfer is also a major problem in writing: Students often don't transfer what they know about writing in one situation to new situations. Somehow, the situations are compartmentalized so that the concepts don't transfer, which remains me of the research on students learning physics. David Hammer's research showed that students could compartmentalize and keep their every day notions about motion from the physics concepts they were learning.

So, although this was a small study (and one that needs to be replicated), it does fit in with what we know of transfer, that learning that is bound to a particular context doesn't transfer well--which explains why students who have learned the five-paragraph essay structure in high school continue to use it in college even when an assignment requires them not to.

What would be the abstract set of rules for writing? I've looked at that before, except I called them "building blocks." But although I can see the need for knowing the building blocks abstractly, I think mastering them abstractly is achieved through much practice of remixing these building blocks across contexts. (See Learning by Remixing and also this review/synopsis of Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility Theory.)

The problem remains determining what those building blocks are. Although they likely differ across genre (just as math concepts differ from geometry to algebra to calculus and so on), they must also have elements in common. At a basic level, there's always writer, audience, text, and purpose. For persuasion, it may come down to the formula in Graff and Birkenstein's book "They Say / I Say", in which writers join into a conversation with others and position themselves with respect to those others. It's a small book with three parts and ten chapters:

Part 1. "They say"

ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)

TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)

THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"

FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)

FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)

SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)

SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together

EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)

NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)

TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

As you can see, despite having only two building blocks--"they say" and "I say"--students are led into a variety of ways of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating what "they say," along with generating their own understanding and position among others in a conversation. And treating persuasive writing like a conversation has many connections to students' lives: They argue about their sports, clothes, cars, majors, professors, and so on.

I imagine that different sets of building blocks are possible, just as different sets of rules can be found in different fields of math. The key seems to be helping students practice using one coherent set of building blocks (i.e., abstract principles) across contexts.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
Learning by Remixing

In an earlier post, I wrote,

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

Many apparently disagree with that assertion, at least about the part on structure being limiting. I'm not sure why they do. Perhaps it's because many do use the five-paragraph essay in limiting ways. Perhaps it comes from a notion of learning as a creative endeavor, and perhaps the notion of "creative" for many suggests that learning occurs by intuitive leaps and bounds, which structure unduly restrains. However, without structure, no creativity can take place. Language itself requires structure to communicate meaning. In English, for example, stress can differentiate between adjectives and compound nouns, as in the difference between a "blue bird" (a bird that is blue in color) and a "bluebird" (a particular type of bird).

learning never occurs de novo.

Similarly, structure is crucial for learning. After all, learning never occurs de novo. Rather,

  • Learning always builds upon that which came before, and
  • Learning almost always involves a remixing of known building blocks.

My favorite example of these two principles is the many species that have evolved from the remixing of only four building blocks of DNA.

In looking at the five-paragraph essay, we can see at least four potential building blocks of writing:

  • introduction
  • "main idea" (thesis statement and topic sentence)
  • evidence
  • explanation (explanation of evidence and conclusion)

Let's look at how these four building blocks are used across three different situations: (1) framing a quotation, (2) the five-paragraph essay, and (3) introducing an academic journal article.

When introducing a quotation, as Graff and Birkenstein note in their book "They Say / I Say", it is typically framed. First, one introduces the source/author of the quotation and the author's main claim, then the quotation (evidence), and next one explains the quotation in light of the author's claim. Then, one uses the framed quotation to introduce one's own position (claim), thus starting another cycle of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation.

In the five-paragraph essay, of course, one introduces the main claim (thesis statement), provides evidence for that claim in the form of subclaims (topic sentences), explains the subclaims with more evidence and explanations (logic or reasoning), and finally re-explains the main claim in the conclusion.

In introductions to academic journal articles, John Swales has shown that regardless of discipline they always include four rhetorical moves: introduce the topic, review the literature on that topic (explain the topic and the evidence surrounding it), indicate a gap in the literature (explain how something is missing or wrong in the literature, a claim accompanied by evidence and explanation), and then explain what one will do to remedy that gap (another claim with the evidence and further explanation forthcoming in the rest of the article).

The building blocks naturally take different forms in each context and build upon one another as the context becomes more complex. The power of such an approach is its interlocking strength of basic concepts across contexts, thus facilitating learning and transfer via student use and practice of building block concepts across different writing landscapes.

Thus, again, although one can use structure in limiting ways, when used appropriately, structure supports learning. For those who use the five-paragraph essay, then, rather than treat the structure as a formula, it would be more fruitful to familiarize students with its building blocks across contexts (including the five-paragraph essay), rearranging the building blocks in different orders and combinations to consider their rhetorical effect.

To acquaint students with these building blocks, consider beginning by building upon their own experiences with conversation. For example,

  1. First, have students write a conversation they might have with friends trying to persuade them to see a certain movie, play a particular game, or do some other activity, keeping in focus that their friends want to see a different movie or play a different game.
  2. Next, have them analyze their conversations, asking questions such as:
    • Are the building blocks of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation there?
    • Are there other building blocks?
    • Are they consistently in a particular sequence?
    • Does the order of building blocks change?
    • Is a particular sequence of building blocks more effective?
    • When?
    • Why?
    • How do the sequences and uses of building blocks in conversations compare/contrast to those in the five-paragraph essay?

Of course, you can extend this process of analysis to other genres, such as blogs and editorials in newspapers, and to other media, such as podcasts and videos.

contradictions ... are the driving force of learning.

Whether learning new languages or new dialects, such as academese and blogese, this process of analyzing concepts across contexts can bring into focus contradictions between the rhetorical conventions of different dialects, languages, disciplines, and media. And it is contradictions that are the driving force of learning.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Click on building blocks and contradictions under Topics.
See also my article in Complicity: "Building Blocks and Learning".

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments.
—Chris Brogan

Is a blog without comments a blog? According to many, no. Chris Brogan (at SHOUTS:

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments. It’s the opposite of a blog. As Shel Israel said the day before yesterday (if not further back), “It has been the dialog vs. the monologue.”

While not shouting, Michael Arrington (TechCrunch) is just as adamant:

I believe the term “blog” means more than an online journal. I believe a blog is a conversation. People go to blogs to read AND write, not just consume. We’ve allowed comments here on TechCrunch since it started. At times, user comments can be painful to deal with. But they also keep the writer honest, and make the content vastly more interesting.

Should the definitions of “blog” be revised to exclude journals that do not allow reader comments? Yeah, absolutely.

Like Brogan, Arrington believes that the conversation must be limited to one writing space, at least if you want to consider it a blogging conversation. But is it so? Brogan's claim, for instance, implies that the monologuers live in a cave, never reading what others are saying, never responding to the web conversation on their own blog. Arrington suggests that disabling comments somehow prevents others from writing on their own blogs and that enabling comments acts as some sort of anti-dishonesty ointment. Now, they're not actually saying it that way, but it seems to be a logical conclusion of their claims. Plus, they don't seem to consider what other types of conversations are available to bloggers besides comment-enabled ones. George Siemens (Connectivism) does:

Dialogue does not need to be direct in order to be effective. Dialogue of greatest value is what I call parallel, or dialogue of awareness. At this level, the comments and views of others are within our cognitive network (i.e. we know they exist) and their influence weighs in our reasoning and thought formation. It's the same way we come to know people. We have a sense of how a colleague or family member will react to something we say or do because we function with an awareness of their views, personality, and character. This is not to say that we lose our identity in consideration of others. We affirm the value and individuality of others not by changing our mind sets to reflect theirs, but rather by creating our world views with an understanding of the world views of others.

Hmm. Reminds me of the greater processing power of computers in parallel.

blogging should not become ... "more a medium of exchange than reflection."

By "effective," Siemens, like myself, is thinking in terms of learning. From an educator's perspective, blogging should not become, as Joshua Marshall wrote, "more a medium of exchange than reflection." I've posted on this issue before, too, also noting the value of parallel conversations in preventing confirmation bias and in promoting a "measured pace of weblog response" (Mark Bernstein)—not to mention that "blog comments seem to bring out the worst in people" (Matt Linderman).

The fact is, far too many people comment simply to talk, to "twitter", as Kathy Sierra put it, not so much to learn from others or to make the conversation worthwhile. Listen to Allen Stern's (CenterNetworks) trackback post:

For example, Seth Godin has comments off. So I read his posts, I may have good insight or reaction, but I can go nowhere with it. Instead it is almost like attending a seminar in that we listen to what he has to say, grab our coat and head back home. I want a chance for Seth to hear my thoughts and views just as I hear his.

Note that I and everyone else who read Stern's post were able to hear his "thoughts and views." The problem is that Stern wants Seth to hear them, to have his opinion at a level equal to Godin's. Excluding comments is seen as excluding equality and the desired social relationship (see "The Social Nature of Blog Comments"). But why should it be seen this way?

What is making the conversation "vastly more interesting" apparently isn't the content, but simply the feel-good socializing taking place among "peers." When I counted, out of the 58 comments on Brogan's post, perhaps 20% of them said something that added "content." Out of the 141 on Arrington's (not including trackback, which have a higher percentage of "content"), it seemed to be a little more than 20%. (I stopped counting quickly as my eyes glazed over.) Now, a few of the 20% were very good. Still, most comments were simply thanks, pats on the back, or repetition of something already said, without reference to others in the "conversation." As Dave Winer (comment #116 on Arrington's post) said:

Dave, I don’t see much moderation here, nor do I see much conversation. Most people state their point of view without relating it to what other people said.

Now, if the purpose of the comments is simply to socialize, then comments are fine. And I can think of other purposes for which comments might work well. The "context, the author, the audience, and the subject all" do affect the nature and quality of comments. But far too often, it seems that if the purpose is to add content to the conversation, then comments don't work well.

Most people who support comments claim they do so because they want a conversation or dialogue. Where's the conversation when the overwhelming majority of commenters add nothing to the conversation? Where's the dialogue when most do not relate their comments to others'. Just imagine the following face-to-face "conversation" between two friends:

Friend 1: What'd you think of the movie Aragon ?

Friend 2: I got the new MacPro yesterday.

Friend 1: The special effects were great.

Friend 2: It's much more user-friendly than my PC was.

Why not rethink how we should conduct our conversations? Just as weblogs have taken us past the simple broadcasts of websites, other tools such as RSS, trackback, and search engines can take us past the simple monologues found in comment sections. From Siemens again:

The space of dialogue has changed. Instead of a physical or even virtual space (newspaper, TV, radio, classroom, or discussion forum), the connections we form have now become the space. The connection is the space. In direct dialogue we still hold control of voice (through filtering and silencing)...because the ownership of the space rests in the hands of one individual (or a particular group of people). In parallel dialogue, we separate the control of the space from the conversation. The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space - a space not held or controlled by others.

It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Obviously, my post here is an example of how the "space of dialogue has changed." It's not a "monologue" because it's a response to and drawing upon the writing of quite a few other bloggers. And it need not be limited to just this website. Others who come here to "read" can "write" on their own blogs, continuing the "conversation." It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Instead of fixating on old forms of conversation, why not have our forms of conversation evolve along with the new tools available? Why not move beyond impoverished conversations full of empty comments to rich conversations across the blogosphere? Not that there aren't empty blog posts in the blogosphere, but rather we can select the nodes we wish to create networks of conversations rich in content. Responding to a commenter, Brogan said,

It's all a matter of what you want.

What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For myself, a rich conversation is what I want. For those who feel the old ways are better, What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For related posts on commenting, see my website with links to my earlier posts on commenting and Mark Bernstein's many posts on this issue as follows:

Update: For a balanced, pro-comment perspective, read "Blogging Basics: The Convenience of Comments" (Nongeek Perspective).

Much hype is given to social networks on the internet and collaboration in the classroom. But, as Kathy Sierra comments on the differences between "Collective Intelligence and Dumbness of Crowds":

"Collective intelligence" is a pile of people writing Amazon book reviews.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is a pile of people collaborating on a wiki to collectively author a book. ...

"Collective Intelligence" is about getting input and ideas from many different people and perspectives.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is blindly averaging the input of many different people, and expecting a breakthrough.

(It's not always the averaging that's the problem it's the blindly part) ...

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

"It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work" (Kathy Sierra).

Sierra's post brings me back to a series of posts by Konrad Glogowski (see in Related Posts below) on disliking group work with young students. In his last post, he sums up his position:

In addition, Eric MacKnight e-mailed me some time ago to tell me that he had discussed my entry on group work with his students and encouraged them to respond. I read all their entries and was impressed by how well they articulated their thoughts. Their responses show a wide range of opinions. Some argue that group work has a very positive impact on all group members. Others contend that working in groups is alienating and ineffective.

All of these texts once again led me to a realization that I prefer communities where everyone can contribute while retaining their own sense of individuality and independence. In such communities or networks, individual learners can still link up if they choose to and can achieve the goal of what Gordon Wells and Mari Haneda (.pdf) call “purposefully knowing together.”

For me, both Sierra and Glogowski have pointed out that "differences" need to be valued. We don't learn from those who think like us or who know only what we know. Rather, we learn from those who think and know differently because it is differences that clarify, challenge, and expand our thinking. Groups, or crowds, can stifle thinking and creativity, while collective networks can facilitate learning.

Practically, this perspective means we need to give careful consideration to building structures into our classes that promote a networking community as opposed to collaborating groups. Wikis, for instance, can become a classopedia to which students contribute and see who else has the same interests. If students are blogging, they should be subscribed to their classmates. And so on. None of these practices are new, of course. What's important in using them is to avoid the dumbing down effects of group work. That is, have students share, discuss, and bump ideas off each other but create their own individual works. In this way, the class can expand both its collective intelligence and individual learning.

Related Posts:
» Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain
» Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction
» On Commenting and Readerly Voice (Konrad Glogowski)
» To Ungroup a Class (Konrad Glogowski)
» They Begin to Build Bridges (Konrad Glogowski)
» Students Reflect on Group Work (Konrad Glogowski)
» Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Continues (Stephen Downes)

Alex Reid (network authority) has clarified his notions of authority, positing an interesting view of authority as situated in networks. He writes

So authority is always a networked condition. As the network changes so do the conditions of authority. So the traditional classroom offers one type of node or portal into a network of information (through the authority of the teacher), but when the rest of the network changes...


So I return to the point I'm trying to make here. My professional knowledge remains valuable. My knowledge continues to authorize me. But the shift in the network changes the conditions surrounding that authority and alter its relative value. Before the pedagogic value of my authority took shape in the lectures I gave, the other activities I orchestrated in the classroom, and my evaluation of student writing and tests. Now my ability to develop pedagogic value from my authority takes form in a different context.

Definitely. Also, as we are embedded in more than one network simultaneously, and so are our students, the different nodes in our networks perceive our authority differently. In a class of mine some time ago, one student was perceived by three others as persona non grata (due to aggressively asserting his ideas), while others in the classroom valued his opinion. One student said that he had his "own ideas," which was "very important." These niches aren't fixed as the student himself felt it important to get along with all classmates, worked at that goal, and by the end of the course had been able to collaborate pleasantly with at least two of the three.

Even so, a few caveats, because it is unlikely, at least for some time into the future, that an instructor's authority changes much simply because his/her pedagogical network changes. One is that although students can turn to other professors' online materials in the "academic marketplace where others are moving on, leaving me behind," they probably won't unless those other online materials aid them in meeting the expectations of the instructor who hands out their grades. Another is that the authority embedded in networks is governed by social relational models (see Social Relations and Classroom Activity). That is, the authority of instructors is not based as much on their pedagogic methods as it is on the authority accorded to instructors by virtue of their being instructors, at least for those students in a class. For others simply wanting to learn, then the pedagogically related network authority can increase.

Despite these qualifications, the idea authority being embedded in networks is a notion I plan to keep in mind and consider how to incorporate into my own pedagogical practices.

Henry Jenkins (subbing for Mark Glaser at Mediashift) writes an interesting article Learning by Remixing. He notes that re-mixing is a Western tradtion: that The Iliad and the Odyssey were remixes of other myths, that the Sistine Chapel Ceiling is a remix of Biblical stories, that Shakespeare's work is a remix of parts of other plays, and so on. However,

Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs often remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in emphasizing totally “original work”, schools sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process; and they don’t teach them the relationship between analysis and production.

Today, I want to report on several interesting new experiments which involve students sampling and remixing in order to develop better media literacy skills. My MIT students often report that they learned how engines worked by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Maybe students can learn how culture works by breaking it down into its basic building blocks and remixing them.

After reporting on those projects that value remixing, Jenkins concludes:

What each of these projects have in common is a hands-on approach to culture: they recognize the value of remixing as a means of mastering the core vocabulary of storytelling and representation. They value the kinds of creative expression which emerges when familiar materials get placed in unfamiliar contexts or get rethought through different perspectives.

Of course, though the digital environment places a new emphasis on understanding and responding to remixing practices, this is not a radically new idea. I was going through some of my mother’s things recently and stumbled upon a box of her school papers from the late 1930s. One of the assignments had been to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. As they say, everything old is new again.

Jenkins' position on "learning by remixing" meshes well with the building blocks in John Holland's model of complexity theory. Interactions of building blocks lead to the emergence of new building blocks at higher levels. In Hidden Order, he gives the example of quarks, nucleons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, and so on, to show the integration of building blocks at different levels. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

I've wondered before what would be the building blocks that could lead to the various genres and concepts of writing. From classical rhetoric are candidates, such as stasis theory or the elements of pathos, ethos, and logos. More recently, Toulmin logic or Halliday's functional linguistics might be candidates. It's not that clear, however. Holland himself (Emergence, 1998) notes that poetry has a "looser framework" than physics when it comes to re-combining building blocks. Poetry's looseness, he says, "limits the possibilities for a cumulative structure," although not making it impossible.

Perhaps the levels are utterance (or word), clause, paragraph, and genre. I'm not sure how helpful using these levels would be in learning to write across genres. Gordon Wells (Dialogic Inquiry, 1999) tied Halliday's functional model with its concepts of ideational, interpersonal, and textual semantics to activity theory's levels of operation, action, and activity.

I've noticed that quite a few books on writing have similar sorts of questions. From stasis theory comes: What are the facts? What is the nature of the event? What is its value? and What should we do about it? From Deborah Meier's Habits of Mind: How do we know what we know? Who's speaking? What causes what? How might things have been different? and Who cares? (or So what?)

Quite close to the notion of Holland's building blocks are activity theorist Davydov's germ cell concepts in his "Ascending from the abstract to the concrete." This approach starts with students discovering primary general concepts in a particular discipline, investigating those concepts across particular contexts, and in the process retrace/recreate the process through which people developed the present day concepts.

These similarities across disciplines and theories suggest that human thinking runs along a few fundamental paths (this is not new), so perhaps the building blocks of any of those paths will be sufficient for students to learn and use in their writing in ways that help them transfer their learning to new contexts, whether to other classes or to future careers.

The key, however, remains remixing. In a fashion like the four bases of DNA that in various combinations lead to different species, composition might focus on a few building blocks that can produce a variety of genres across different contexts. Previously, I wrote about Graff and Birkentstein's book They say / I say. The book's goal, as they put it,

is to demystify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates. (p. x)

There are just two basic building blocks: "They say" and "I say". However, the permutations and recombinations are endless.

Dynamnics in ActionWeb 2.0 adherents often talk about the need for conversation, sometimes as if simply participating in the conversation is sufficient to promote learning. What is less often seen is the notion of intention. Philosopher Alicia Juarrero's book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System tackles the problem of intention in action.

In her book, Juarrero asks, “What is the difference between a wink and a blink?” The wink, of course, is intentional, and the blink is not. And this is what her book is about, a contribution to action theory, which is a branch of philosophy that investigates the difference between action and non-action, intentional and unintentional behavior. Such distinctions are crucial in courts of law and have import in interpreting everyday encounters. Juarrero asserts that modern action theories are grounded in an inadequate understanding of cause and explanation. To remedy this defect, she proposes that action theories take a dynamical approach and consider intentional behavior as a complex system.

That is, tracing its development from Aristotle’s four causes (formal, final, efficient, and material) and his prohibition against self-cause (the axiom that nothing can move itself), Juarrero shows that philosophers and action theorists—by keeping the dictum against self-cause and reducing the four causes to one, efficient cause—have reduced our understanding of cause to a mechanistic understanding. Moreover, she shows how action theory, influenced by Hume and behaviorism, adopted the covering-law method of explanation in which the particular is subsumed as an instantiation of a universal law. Thus, the only explanations that count are those that include prediction on the basis of a universal law.

With such an understanding of cause and explanation, an atomistic and mechanistic perspective of intentional action became the norm: Behavior was reduced to lawlike patterns divorced from their history, their context, and the environment. Such perspectives created difficulties, at least for philosophers, in understanding human behavior—how it was intended, initiated, and sustained—and disregarded the anomalies, uniqueness, and intentions in behavior that are apparent in everyday life.

To remedy this defect, she proposes that action theories should take a dynamical approach and consider intentional behavior as a complex system.

Before looking at complexity theory, she moves away from an efficient cause understanding of behavior and explanation by drawing upon information theory and reframing intention as a source of information, as a trajectory. Then, she uses information theory’s concepts of information flow, noise, and equivocation to determine whether the flow of information is compromised by calculating the presence of noise and equivocation. If it is compromised, then intention is not present, and so action does not occur. Thus, instead of a discrete event due to efficient cause, action can be considered to be an unequivocal trajectory from intention to behavior. In this way, Juarrero resolves action theory’s problems with cause and explanation. As she notes, however, information theory has its own weaknesses of handling meaning and alternative possibilities of action. To overcome those weaknesses and to further develop her treatment of action, she turns to theories of complex adaptive systems.

Using complex adaptive systems (CAS) as a theory-constitutive metaphor for intentional causality, Juarrero asserts that “intentions and actions should be taken to be facultative, self-organized dynamical systems” (p. 112). By providing a dynamical basis for intention and behavior, she is able to underscore modern action theory’s inadequacies, to account for the self-cause seen in complex systems, and to move toward a new understanding of intentional behavior.

By viewing intentional behavior as a characteristic found in self-organization dynamics, Juarrero shows that the covering-law model cannot explain these systems because (1) the properties at one stage of self-organization are not equal to the sum of the properties of the earlier stage and (2) direct links (i.e., efficiently causal links) do not necessarily exist because properties emerge from the interactions of the parts.

The interactions of parts framework allows Juarrero to tackle the problem of self-cause. Self-cause, she posits, originates from a top-down interlevel causality, which in turn arises from constraints. These constraints cause not efficiently “but by making things interdependent” (p. 150). Interestingly, constraints can “open up as well as close off options” (p. 133). I've mentioned in an earlier posting Juarrero's example of language in which particular combinations of sounds are possible in any particular language but others are not. Without such constraints, communication could not take place, or would at least “be limited to a few grunts, shouts, wails, and so forth” (p. 138).

Redefining actions as “behavioral trajectories constrained top-down by an intention” (p. 151) and framing patterns of trajectories as attractors constraining future actions, Juarrero posits that meaning is embodied in a self-organizing neural topology. Re-organizing the neural landscape constructs new relationships and, therefore, new meanings, which, along with intentions, emerge uniquely in contexts influenced by the history of interactions between an individual and “the interaction, nature, and sequence of the stimuli” in the environment. Thus, the notion of intention and meaning as a self-organizing landscape remedies the lack of meaning and of alternatives in information theory.

Moreover, in the process of self-organizing, new interdependencies are entrained via reciprocal interactions and ongoing feedback between internal dynamics and the driving environment. These interdependencies cause in a way different from the modern perspective of efficient causes involving “independent and disconnectable items” (p. 194). Rather, having a context and history located in time and space, they cause by constraining future behaviors, so that to move from one established attractor to another one requires disequilibrium. The complexity of establishing such interdependencies and attractors means that explanation needs to “tell the whole story” (p. 213).

At last, Juarrero returns to the concept of explanation, asserting that we need “to enlarge our views of what counts as a rational explanation” (p. 218) with respect to human action. Covering-law explanations may work for phenomena that can decontextualized and limited to efficient causes. However, for human action—a phenomenon embedded in historical, contextual dynamical systems attendant with complex attractors and coupled to the environment—understanding must reconstruct the processes and interrelationships of the system, accounting for regularity and anomaly. Thus, what is needed is a genetic, historical narrative of explanation, a hermeneutics that “provide[s] insight into and understanding of how something happened, that is, into its dynamics, background, and context” (p. 240). In short, we need stories.

Stories are not new. They have transmitted heritages and values from before the time of the Hellenic epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey; nowadays, they may be the basis of curricula (e.g., “Socratic Arts” founded by Roger Shank), and they may aid managers in making decisions (e.g., Shell International’s Global Scenarios). What is new is Juarrero’s complexity approach to explaining how stories work: “myths and tales explain because they recreate the open, nonlinear dynamics of the real processes they purport to explain” (p. 241).

Stories are one important educational implication I drew from Juarrero’s work. Juarrero looks at stories, or narrative, primarily as a hermeneutic tool. However, they also have the potential “to promote flexibility and resilience” (p. 253), to push one’s conceptual landscapes far from equilibrium, in children and in adults. Not all stories. Most simply reproduce social expectations and indoctrination. For stories to develop flexibility and resilience in children, they need to provide some element of surprise via juxtaposing concepts in unexpected ways. For an example, consider The Farmer’s Wife by Idries Shah.

In this children’s story, a farmer’s wife drops her apple, which rolls into a hole. Unable to get it out, she asks a series of animals and objects (bird, cat, dog, bee, beekeeper, rope, fire, water, cow) to help her. However, each one in turn refuses and is called “naughty.” Finally, she asks the bird to peck the cow, which sets off a cascade of actions in reverse order of animals and objects, returning to the bird again, building up to the point at which it is expected that the last (and first) animal, the bird, will retrieve the apple. However, instead, at the last second, a wind blows the apple out of the hole, “And everyone lived happily ever after.” This short story juxtaposes (1) asking according to one’s own interest with asking according to the recipient’s interest (or nature), (2) allegedly naughty beings (and the good farmer’s wife) with living happily ever after and (3) an expected outcome from a linear cascade of causes with unexpected chance.

There are other concepts with educational and research implications: interlevel causality, interdependencies, enabling constraints, and so on. What is the role of intention in education? What relationships exist between intention and focused attention? Juarrero wonders “whether and to what extent we can teach children to focus and channel their internal dynamics” (p. 251). I wonder if it is sufficient simply to provide activities that promote flow, “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 4). Flow experiences develop the complexity of a person by increasing levels of both differentiation and integration (Csikszentmihalyi), which parallels Juarrero’s point of “an earlier state space [transforming] into a more differentiated and complex set of options” (p. 180). Juarrero’s book is pregnant with concepts and questions for re-examining old lines of educational research and opening up new ones.

Dynamics in Action is dense. To understand its philosophical underpinnings requires careful re-readings. It is also speculative. Juarrero is using, as she says, complex adaptive systems as a theory-constitutive metaphor. But it is insightful speculation. It is a story worth re-reading.


Shah, I. 1998. The Farmer’s Wife. Cambridge, MA: Hoopoe Books.

Note: Most of this post is excerpted from my review of Juarrero's book in the journal Complicity.

The Ornament

When you think of tolerance and multiculturalism, does Medieval Europe come to mind? Probably not. Yet, Maria Rosa Menocal's (professor of Spanish and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University) book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain makes precisely that claim. Weaving together tales from medieval Spain, Menocal illustrates how three different religions built a "first-rate" culture of tolerance that influenced Europe for centuries to come.

Menocal intertwines "culture of tolerance" with F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion of a "first-rate" mind, writing,

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time ...

[that] contradictions--within oneself, as well as within one's culture--could be positive and productive. (pp. 10-11)

Contradictions, Menocal asserts, were responsible for the flowering of art, intellect, and tolerance towards others in Medieval Spain: Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacted openly and freely, keeping a strong sense of identity, yet assimilating features of other cultures that they admired. In Medieval Spain, tolerating contraries led to great philosphers like ibn Rusd and Maimonides, who wrestled with the contraries of faith and reason. Maimonides, with his Second Law, or Mishneh Torah, would be called a "second Moses." Moses of Leon struggled with the traditional Halakah and came up with his Sefer ha-zohar, The Book of Splendor, a systematic compilation of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The study of the living language of Arabic generated once again a Hebrew that was "the language of a vibrant, living poetry" (p. 109).

Such "first-rate" contraries resulted in "authentic multiculturalism." Jews, such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Samuel the Nagid, were viziers in an Islamic government. Alongside Arabic--a language of state, love, and religion--existed other religious and vernacular languages. This multicultural environment preferred freedom of religious expression to political correctness; "incongruity in the shaping of individuals" (p. 11) to a "strict harmony of ... cultural identities" (p. 277); "to pose difficult questions rather than to propose easy answers or facile morals" (p. 274); and so on. All of these contraries and others touch upon so many issues in education and modern life, such as assimilation vs. heritage maintenance, multiculturalism vs. traditional canons, political correctness vs. freedom of expression and of religion, bilingual education vs. immersion, and so on.

The authentic multiculturalism of Medieval Spain arose from tolerance of and dialogue with others. Yet, tolerance and dialogue are not givens, as this culture of tolerance eventually fell.

WHAT HAPPENED? HOW AND WHY DOES A CULTURE OF tolerance fall apart? How did a people come to abandon a culture rooted in an ethic of yes and no, so readily able to love and embrace the architecture or the poetry of political enemies or religious rivals, so willing to read good books regardless of the library they came from? All the answers are themselves bundles of contradictions.... Perhaps all that can be said with any conviction is that in the combination of spectacular successes and failures presented by this history lie tales of both warning and encouragement. (p. 266)

The notion of contradictions being essential for tolerance and creativity, and also for learning (see Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction) underscores the need to inject uncertainty and novelty into the classroom, not so much as to be overwhelming but enough to promote the flow of learning.

At the end of the book, Menocal writes, "Every reader will take away different lessons from the tales in this book." Indeed.

Below are some reviews that offer other readings of and lessons from The Ornament of the World

i just came across two sites giving good advice on how to use (and not use) blogs in the classroom. James Farmer has two posts, one on how to use blogs and another on how not to use them. And Doug of Borderland comments on Farmer's posts.

On how not to use blogs in education, Farmer's main points (my summary of his summary of his paper "Blogs @ Anywhere: High fidelity online communication") are:

  • Don't use

    • blogs as "discussion boards, listservs or learning management systems"
    • group blogs
    • blogs for something they're not made for
  • And don't forget RSS

On how to use blogs in education, the main points are to use:

  • blogs "as key, task driven, elements of your course" (that is, provide structure and purpose)
  • assessment that promotes, or at least allows, personal pursuits and expression
  • blogs for what they are good for
  • blogging tools that work (Farmer covers 9 major multi-user blogging tools here.)

On not using group blogs or blogs as discussion boards, etc., at the university level, Barbara Ganning has a different perspective. See her BlogTalk paper, "Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom", in which she discusses her use of blogs in the classroom, including a class blog that ties together students' individual blogs, communication, and class management.

Doug supports Farmer's main points with his own experience, although noting that more centralized management systems are appropriate for younger learners. Along these lines, he notes the need for more conversation on using blogs in elementary schools, giving several examples, one of which is more teacher oversight at the lower levels:

Mainly, younger kids have a very different notion about private vs. public information. I know this is an issue for all students, but younger kids have a harder time recognizing personal boundaries. A kindergartener, for instance, would be far more likely to tell her classmates that her mother is in jail than would a 5th grader, for instance.

It makes sense to use technology for what it does well and also to take into consideration the age and background of the students. Not paying attention to this point may result in little impact on students' involvement or learning, as Farmer, based on his reading of others' use of blogs in education, asserts in his paper:

While the resulting feedback indicated a degree of satisfaction and no objection to the use of blogs, there was little to indicate any significant shift in student perceptions and activity in the learning environments. While it is beyond the scope of this examination to argue hard and fast rules, this could be attributed, along with other factors such as the nature of assessment, to the use of blogs as collaborative areas without the use of aggregation.

There are quite a few comments on Farmer's pages, indicating that the environment affects the implementation of Farmer's guidelines. With respect to foreign language learners, in particular, we need to be careful. Still, let me emphasize Farmer's point on keeping RSS in students' minds. As he says,

Ignore RSS at your peril: Probably the biggest mistake that adopters tend to make is to ignore RSS or just through it a casting glance. The problem is that these people aren’t bloggers and just don’t understand. Without RSS blogs would pretty much just be extensions of geocities pages. Your learners are NEVER going to surf each others sites everyday and the majority of them won’t even go to that funky web-based aggregator you set-up.

RSS, or news, feeds are like subscribing to a newspaper or magazine: it comes to you instead of you going to the corner store to buy a copy. Why use news feeds? Well, mainly (1) to save time and (2) to be exposed to a variety of opinions. More concretely on time, you, and your students, can subscribe to all of the class blogs and other blogs of interest so that instead of clicking on 10, 20, or more different sites, all new posts are aggregated at one's own site (and perhaps another aggregation at a single class site). On the latter reason, you and your students can create search feeds for news groups and news (via Google News or Yahoo News) and for websites and blogs that can keep a current flow of information on topics related to class studies, projects, or personal interests. Participating in knowledge networks is crucial for students to develop an awareness of audience, competing values, and diverse perspectives, which, in turn, is essential for learning to write thoughtful and complex responses to and essays on an issue.

For more info on news feeds, see my brief introduction here. For an introduction on possibilities in higher education, go here, and for different RSS platforms, read "RSS readers: best of breed picks". And, again, be read Farmer's article.As Farmer notes,

The development of knowledge through learning to self-publish and comment on postings that adhere to the protocols and norms of behaviour in the chosen communication network is expected to enhance the learners’ reflective, meta-cognitive and written skills as well as management of their learning.

In a nutshell, the combination of blog writing and news feeds helps connect students to one another and to others outside the classroom, creating networks of learning that promote reading, writing, and critical thinking.

Apparently, as I read Harold Jarche's response "Who are the experts?" to my critique of his earlier posting, there is some misunderstanding of my points. I thought I would clarify them. I'll do that below, first covering two interesting comments he made. One was:

I am only as good as my last project. Knowledge workers are like actors, we are only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting moment, we may be viewed as experts, but for not much longer.

Many of my students, and I imagine many people, would like to think that after a certain amount of training, they become an expert and there's no need to continue learning. But in our fast-changing world, having Jarche's attitude of being only as good as one's last job is the sort of perspective that keeps us learning, which seems to be ever more crucial for survival nowadays.

How can teachers and educational institutions help students acquire this sort of attitude? I think that one way is modeling it, making transparent the fact that we are always learning and to share how we are always learning with our students, making it a natural, pervading aspect of the classroom and school. For example, this past year, I have had my students blogging, and in the past I have had them keep learning journals, journals contained with observations of their learning. I also maintained a blog separate from this one for my classes. Mostly, I used it for examples of what they needed to do and recaps of what we've covered in class. However, I didn't include anything I was learning. So, this coming year, I'm considering how to include what I'm learning--perhaps new theories, perhaps new ways of teaching--and comment on it in class, drawing them into a conversation that compares my learning with theirs. Any comments? Email me. I'd appreciate it.

Another point Jarche made that's worth thinking about is:

my greatest asset is my network. Perhaps individual expertise is gradually being replaced by collaborative expertise.

Although I wouldn't quite say that individual expertise is being replaced by collaborative expertise, not enough attention is paid to the notion of collaborative expertise with respect to education.

Both types of expertise have existed for quite some time. In earlier times, the activity of hunting could include two roles: noisemakers and slaughterers. The noisemakers would beat drums or other items to drive the animals towards the hunters lying in wait, who would kill the animals when they approached.

The need for more complex networks increases according to the complexity ot the activity. Consider the activity of health care. A hospital's activity, for instance, is distributed among many people, each of them occupying particular niches and no one of them knowing every aspect of every other niche and task in the hospital. The different levels of expertise are interdependent, and both the "collaborative expertise" of the hospital and the expertise of its members are needed for health care activity to take place.

We see the same phenomenon in educational institutions with teachers, other staff, and administrators. What's interesting to me is that similar to the role of patients in a hospital is the role of students in schools. That is, patients are usually treated as if they had no expertise, or knowledge, and likewise, students. Students are often treated as receivers of content rather than creators of knowledge. Just as important, students are often considered mostly as individuals rather than as members of networks or ecologies. Just as patients are not considered part of the community of health care practice, neither are students considered as part of the community of knowledge creation.

In their book, Wenger, McDermott, and Synder posit that there are seven principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice:

  1. Design for evolution.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
  3. Invite different levels of participation.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
  5. Focus on value.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community. (p. 50)

As they note, these are principles, not a "recipe." These principles were oriented towards business organizations. I'm not quite sure how they would apply in an elementary school with respect to students. As we move into middle school, high school, and college, they seem to be more applicable. For now, I'll limit myself mostly to the college level.

What sorts of structures facilitate schools to become communities of practice? One would be to facilitate student (and teacher) reflection on class and school practices, whether through open discussion, an anonymous suggestion box, as part of student self-evaluations throughout the semester or year, and so on. That would also require a certain flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of teachers, staff, and administrators to consider student input seriously and invite them into implementations. Otherwise, the students are not really a part of the community.

Along these lines, our classrooms often operate as self-contained entities, making the "learning" that occurs in it irrelevant to and not valued by the students. More needs to be done on taking the learning outside the classroom and bringing outside reality into the classroom, to turn the classroom into a living network that interacts with other networks. Technology can help facilitate the blurring of classroom boundaries. Will Richardson, in his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, mentions how his high school class corresponded with Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees (and other books), and they wrote an online study guide for the book, which at the printing of his book had already received more than 1.5 million hits.

Regarding our networks and our students' networks as great "assets" in designing our classes to be communities of practice is a notion well-worth considering if learning is our focus.

Clarification of points

Jarche wrote:

Dr. Nelson feels that experts are necessary, or “learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.” He says that experts should proceed with humility, but that experts are necessary for our field to progress.

I did not tie a lack of experts to derailing or stopping learning. Rather, I said a lack of critical thinking can derail or stop learning:

To learn, to engage in critical thinking, we need to play both the "believing game" and the "doubting game." With respect to a flattened learning economy with no experts, there's been too much reliance on the believing game. It's time to play the doubting game: instead of "echoing," we need to question our common "refrains." Otherwise, learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.

Nor did I claim that experts were "necessary" for progress. What I did say was that experts existed, and given a choice, most people would prefer to be advised or taught by an expert than by someone who knows no more than they do. Applying this to education, of course, I want my children to be taught by teachers who know considerably more about teaching than the average person walking down the street.

Jarche quotes me,

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts …

The second is that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”.

and claims:

Without heirarchies, no authority can tell us who is the expert. ...

Personally, I know that hyperlinks subvert heirarchies. ...

By subverting traditional business heirarchies ...

On hyperlinks not subverting hierarchies, Jarche seems to equate subverting "traditional" hierarchies as equivalent to getting rid of all hierarchy. Citing Mark Bernstein, my point was that old hierarchies are simply replaced with new ones.

Not having an authority to tell us who is an expert does not mean that there are no experts. When I think of what an expert is, my thoughts are close to this definition from; an expert is,

A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. ...

a person with special or superior skill or knowledge in a particular area.

It seems obvious, at least to me, that some people, compared to others, have much more knowledge or skill in certain areas. As I mentioned in my post, if I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic who has "a high degree of skill in" fixing cars.

Jarche talks about patients who co-manage their health with their doctor. I'm one of them. Even so, unless I have strong reason not to (and in that case I get a second opinion or a new doctor), I defer to the doctor who has 4 years of medical school, 3-5+ years of residency, and often 10+ years of practice. It's possible that I may "get the scoop" on my doctor on a particular disease. Even so, is it realistic to compare my 1-2 (perhaps 3-4 or more) weeks of research on a particular illness with the 15-25+ years of experience of my doctor? In what way has my several weeks, even months, of research flattened the doctor's 15-25 years of experience and made us equal?

So, I keep wondering, Why does Jarche (and others) say, "I'm no expert"? Is it some sort of self-effacement? Some sort of anti-intellectualism? (See, for example, Todd Gitlin's review in The Chronicle Review of Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) Or, are people following Socrates' lead, proclaiming, "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." I have to admit, the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Still, one thing for sure, if a consultant says they know nothing and a potential client believes them, that job is gone.

Recently, several people have agreed with my claim, "Confusion is the beginning of learning," but disagreed with "Satisfaction is the end of learning." (See "Thoughts" in the sidebar.) One considered satisfaction to be the reward of learning, and thus the motive to continue learning. Another said that satisfication leads to exploring new avenues of knowledge and learning. They and one other considered the second claim to be negative; that is, dissatisfication, a negative term, is not appropriate for approaching learning, a positive term. After all, how many people enjoy being in a state of discomfort?

I imagine that they are referring to the sense of pleasure, a hormonal high, that results from accomplishment, whether overcoming some struggle or solving a puzzle. That pleasure can enable one to struggle and work through some confusion again, which can lead to "exploring new avenues" of learning.

Satisfaction for me, however, indicates a state of equilibrium rather than a sense of pleasure.

Learning from a radical constructivist, or Piagetian, perspective occurs through the interactive processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the adding of new knowledge to old by “reduc[ing] new experiences to already existing sensorimotor or conceptual structures” without changing the structures; accommodation is the modifying of old knowledge to accommodate the new or the creation of new cognitive structures, patterns of thought, and behavior. Accommodation occurs when new experiences that cannot be reduced to existing experiences create a perturbation that, leading to reflection on the situation and activity, may, in turn, cause either a change in prior cognitive structures or the creation of a new schema (von Glasersfeld, 1995b, p. 63). Both assimilation and accommodation, individual in nature and based on experience, are driven by the process of equilibration, a process of self-regulating the mental tension between the two, between internal mental states and external reality.

From the viewpoint of activity theory, learning is a process driven by contradictions, contradictions in the activity of learning between students and institutional influences or between classrooms and other activity systems. To learn and develop means to resolve or transform these contradictions (instead of merely shifting them elsewhere) at individual and system levels. In other words, learning means that one cannot be satisfied with the status quo.

From a third theory, complexity theory, adaptation, and I include learning, requires an organism to be on the edge of chaos, where forces of order and disorder interact in a balanced way. Satisfaction would be a force of stability in this model, and confusion, a force of disorder. Complete confusion would be disruptive to learning, as would be total satisfaction. Complete confusion brings anarchy, while total satisfaction with the status quo has no motivation to change, to learn.

From these theoretical perspectives, satisfaction cannot lead to learning. Then, again, neither can too much confusion. Rather, learning is recursively driven by the desire for satisfaction (or equilibrium), a desire once reached, leads to new dissatisfactions, and thus more learning. Pedagogically, then, instruction must keep students balanced on the edge of dissatisfaction with their present state of understanding.

Patrick Keefe (Can Network Theory Thwart Terrorists?, New York Times) looks at the use of network theory by the National Security Agency to find terrorists with its controversial eavesdropping (and warrantless) program. He discusses the civil liberties issues and the obstacles involved in detecting terrorists, such as information overload, identifying hubs and the "strength of weak ties" notion, a concept that important information can be exchanged between individuals in different networks that are not closely related to one another.

Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford , originated the notion of the "strength of weak ties" in 1973 to explain the spread of information among people, asserting that diversity and new knowledge comes through distant connections rather than close ones like friends or relatives--an important point in finding jobs. In a 1983 article (pdf), he wrote that

individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend, as I have documented elsewhere (1974), on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time.

Obviously, the classroom would be a hub of information with strong ties rather than weak ones. I suppose weak ties would be responsible for spreading what was learned in the classroom to outside the class. I've seen this in my own first-year composition classes. One student helped a graduate Middle Eastern Studies student organize his paper. Another student helped her older brother, a graduate student in pharmacy, create a questionnaire that eventually was sent to more than 1000 people. I've seen the reverse, too, as when one student used a computer flow diagram to help organize his paper. What I'm wondering is, In what ways, if we can, capitalize on weak ties in order to promote the diffusion of knowledge across classroom boundaries to strengthen learning. Such diffusion would help classroom learning to become more real to the students, of course. Beyond that, however, what else might there be?

Alan Finder (The NY Times) reports on the jump in reading and math test scores in Wake County, NC, a jump that is attributed to economic diversity accomplished by busing.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

Reading through the article, we can see people's values at play: white vs. black, choice vs. quality education, choice vs. busing, success measured by property values and corporate support, economic diversity as a proxy for racial diversity, and so on. We can also wonder whether those with bigger dreams are being influenced by those with "smaller" dreams. We might ask where the teachers in previously low-income schools went? Did they quit to make room for the "highly qualified"? Or, like the students, did they become influenced by the "highly qualified" to raise their "teaching" scores?

However, it's more interesting from a complexity theory perspective of clustering and diversity. Clustering often leads to segregation: people feel more comfortable with what's familiar, and that includes ethnic and racial familiarity. Diversity can lead to creativity and innovation, and as seen here, increased test scores. (It should be remembered that the top scores likely aren't increasing, but the overall scores are due to lower performers achieving more.) In some sense, the fitness of the school ecology is improving through rearranging the system's structure.

Somewhat paradoxically, a central tenet of complexity theory is self-organization with no central control. And yet in this case a central, top-down order has improved the system's fitness. Of course, we don't know how that order came about: whether initiated from the school superintendent or deriving from the input of many stakeholders. Even so, along the lines of Juarrero's enabling constraints, greater complexity results from structure. Thus, on a smaller scale, we might consider how to structure diversity and interaction among different groups in our classrooms.

George Siemens writes well on the need to move from designing instruction to designing learning ecologies:

What does this "learning ecology" look like? First, it holds "content" in a manner similar to courses, but the content is not confined and pre-selected by the designer. Instead, the ecology fosters connections to original and knowledge sources, allowing for "currency" (up to date). The ecology fosters rich interaction between disparate fields of information, allowing growth and adaptation of ideas and concepts (i.e. "the verge"). Each participant in the ecology pursues his/her own objectives, but within the organized domain of the knowledge of a particular field (after all, some form of learner competence should emerge as a result of existing in the ecology). Nodes (content and people) and connections are the basic elements of a network. An ecology should permit these networks to develop and flourish without hindrance.

This is pretty much what I have been writing about. He focuses on electronic tools, such as RSS feeds, blogs, wikis, and so on, to foster collaboration and interaction, key processes in any living ecology. The pursuing one's own objectives within a particular domain (depending on how wide domain is meant) fits in well with the notion of enabling topdown constraints along the lines of Alicia Juarrero's position on action and intention (see my review of her book posted here on August 22, 2005).

In Dynamics in Action, Part I (see July 25, 2005), enabling constraints were seen to be important in learning. As Juarero notes, in a complex system, enabling "constraints paradoxically also create new freedoms for the overall system" (p. 247). In contrast, without constraints, information overload leads to burn out, non-learning. By reducing the amount of information coming in, constraints allow that information to self-organize (actually for the neurons to self-organize), thus opening up to more alternatives. Juarrero puts it terms of having a larger phase space with more dimensions. And the more alternatives there are, the more autonomy can be exercised.

Juarrero asks "whether and to what extent we can teach children to focus and channel their internal dynamics?" (p. 251), to become more psychologically complex. This question is crucial because, as she (and the folk proverb) notes, we become "set in our ways" quite early on. To be, instead, resilient and flexible, adapting to new contexts, requires attending to when young. But, still, how to accomplish this goal?

I'm reading Alicia Juarrero's book Dynamics in action: intentional behavior as a complex system. One point she makes is that of "enabling constraints." Take the example of language in which rules, or constraints, on how sounds can be put together, enable meaning to be communicated. Without rules, language would be only noise. This perspective on learning is a good counterbalance to the prescriptive vs. "anything goes" dichotomy presented in pedagogy. The difficulty in a classroom activity, I imagine, would be determining ahead of time, what sorts of constraints would enable rather than disable.

Along with the germ cell concepts in the previous entry, we need to consider the flow of germ cell concepts in the classroom. Outside of the teacher, where are the key nodes in the network? Do they involve students? Bottlenecks could result from not including students in the network of knowledge flow in addition to not having appropriate germ cell concepts. So, the lever points somehow involve the interaction of students, ideas, and niches in the classroom. I'm not quite sure where to go with this. One point to consider is that in education today, there is a focus on the learner-centered classroom, as opposed to being teacher-centered. However, a better approach might be a network-structured, idea-focused classroom, or more simply, a learning-centered classroom. Along these lines, I recommend reading Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world by Brent Davis, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler.

It may be difficult to see bottlenecks and lever points in the classroom, because one characteristic of classrooms is that all students learn and do the same things, leaving the teacher as the primary bottleneck/lever point. What if the classroom became more like an ecology in which different students occupied different niches? We see this sometimes when introducing technology and learning that one or two students are already proficient, we rely upon them to help the other students and us. But that remains a very non-diverse ecology. Project-based learning tends to have different students be responsible for different aspects of a project. One source of bottlenecks could occur in the flow of information between different parts of the project. But that seems to be a bottleneck for completing the project but perhaps not so much for learning. Bottlenecks, and simultaneously lever points, for learning would involve key concepts that are required before others can be learned, or at least would facilitate later learning. And so, we're back to building blocks and Davydov's germ cell concepts. What are the germ cell concepts for writing?

In Holland's model, tags direct the attention of agents toward certain features while disregarding others, thus facilitating selective interaction. In effect, tags identify and categorize phenomena, thus setting the boundaries of aggregates, or groups. Practically, that means that students recognize salient features of other students, thus forming groups that last the semester. Those features tend to be ethnicity, language, and gender. Tags are also values. When students work in groups, some value consensus models of interaction while others prefer more aggressive competition models. These values lead students to continue working with those of the same values and avoiding those of different values. With some groups, age tags operate. With the Chinese students I've had in my classes, the eldest one seemed to be a spokesperson for the rest, regardless of gender. Because tags regulate the formation of groups and networks, having an awareness of the mechanism of tagging can provide a new stance from which to see bottlenecks and lever points of classroom interaction and learning.

So, what/where are the bottlenecks and lever points of classroom interaction and learning?

On a listserv, we're discussing the concept of transfer in writing. We know that people learn and that they build on prior knowledge. But it's not clear in the field of composition how writing (whether skills or concepts) transfer to other classes and to careers. In fact, often the case seems to be that students do not transfer what they have learned in first year composition (FYC) to later classes.

Returning to the notion of building blocks and Davydov's germ cells, we can see that students need practice in adapting ideas from one context to another. But with only one semester in which to practice, which apparently is too short a time frame, I believe there needs to be a focus on those germ cells/building blocks that will be most fruitful in transferring, recombining, etc., along with practice in using them in a variety of contexts and genres.

Interestingly, it often takes only 3 or 4 types of agents (building blocks) to make a system quite complex. Consider the following: Four building blocks of DNA have led to the thousands of species on earth. All of physics can be explained by four forces: weak, strong, electromagnetic, and gravitational. There are four parts of speech: pronunciation, stress, rhythm, and intonation. Holland's model has 4 properties and 3 mechanisms.

Deci & Ryan, in their self-determination theory, says that motivation has 3 components: intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and amotivation. Extrinsic motivation is subdivided into a continuum of autonomy: integrated regulation, regulated regulation, introjected regulation, and external regulation--integrated regulation having the most autonomy and external regulation the least.

Learning task incorporating intrinsic motivation, according to Lepper & Malone (1987), include four elements: fantasy, control, curiosity, and challenge. Note that "control" overlaps with the autonomy (extrinsic motivation) in Deci & Ryan's theory. Hmm.

Those 2 theories are psychological theories of motivation. For a social theory of interaction (based on psychological mechanisms), Alan Fiske posits that there are four relational models: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing. These four models govern all social interactions, constrained by cultural guidelines. (There are also non-social interactions not covered by the theory.)

That so many different arenas can be based on a small number of building blocks suggests that when many factors are posited as explanations, it may be due to interacting combinations of 3 or 4 basic building blocks that generate the many factors.

Perhaps the lowest useful building block is words (or utterances) and then clauses (where does syntax fit in this model?). It's what comes after those levels that becomes more difficult to determine. Holland (Emergence, 1998) notes that poetry (and I include writing in general) has a looser framework than physics, which allows for a tight integration of building blocks. In Hidden Order, he gives the example of quarks, nucleons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, and so on, to show the integration of building blocks at different levels. Poetry's looseness, he says, "limits the possibilities for a cumulative structure," although not making it impossible.

For building blocks, I mentioned the questions of stasis theory below, perhaps in combination with Meier's Habits of Mind. Almost all academic texts would include these questions, or assume them in some fashion, and they seem to be natural ways in categorizing thinking, and so perhaps writing. If these are good building blocks, then we should see how various interactions/combinations of them can generate what we see at a higher level, if it exists. One emergent level should be genre.

Another potential contender, one I'm not familiar with, is Halliday's functional model with its concepts of ideational, interpersonal, and textual semantics. Gordon Wells (Dialogic Inquiry, 1999) interestingly tied it into activity theory's levels of operation, action, and activity.

Similar to building blocks are activity theorist Davydov's germ cell concepts in his "Ascending from the abstract to the concrete." This approach starts with students discovering primary general concepts in a particular discipline, investigating those concepts across particular contexts, and in the process retrace/recreate the process through which people developed the present day concepts.

I'd like to return to my first thoughts on Holland's model and why I'm interested in them. As a writing instructor I want to help my students improve their writing and be able to transfer what they learn in my class into other classes and eventually into their careers and elsewhere. Holland's mechanism of building blocks lend hope that we can achieve these purposes. That is, if we can determine (the) common building blocks of writing across a variety of contexts and genres, whether within school or without, and help our students master those blocks, so they can adapt them to fit in various combinations across new and diverse situations, then we have accomplished our goals.

Right now, I'm leaning toward stasis theory: What are the facts? What is the nature of the event? What is its value? and What should we do about it? And, I would add, how did it come to pass?

In a way, these questions are similar to those in Deborah Meier's Habits of Mind: How do we know what we know? Who's speaking? What causes what? How might things have been different? and Who cares? (or So what?)

The similarity between these sets of questions leads me to think that human thinking runs along a few fundamental paths (this is not new), and teaching writing along fundamental lines, i.e. building block, can facilitate our students learning these blocks and transferring them to new contexts, whether to other classes or to future careers. Thus, teaching composition will need to include both the content of building blocks and practice in adapting those building blocks to novel situations.

Charles Adamson with more comments (edited by me):

Charles Adamson , who has lived in Japan for one half of his life, suggests that Holland’s model is influenced by cultural and psychological factors. He writes:

Culturally, Holland, like most Americans and Westerners, generally divides the world into bipolar pairs, while people in Japan, for instance, frequently see continuums. Examples of Western bipolarities are animate/inanimate, sentient/nonsentient, good/evil, war/peace, etc. Psychologically ,based on Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Holland processes information in terms of similarities, rather than differences as I do.

Point 1: It seems obvious to me that there are continuums from sentient to non-sentient and from animate to inanimate. However, for Holland, things are either this or that, with no middle ground. For CASs, he divides animate and inanimate, saying that only animate objects can be a CAS. He also classifies all animate objects together in terms of whether or not they are sentient.

Point 2: According to NLP, people tend to prefer one of two possible ways of processing information. They can look at the similarities, as Holland does, between people and bacterium, which lets him attribute human qualities (anticipation) to the bacteria. I process information by looking at differences, so I tend to compare bacteria to less animate objects and say, "Wait a minute. Neither of these are at all like a human, so you can not say that a bacterium can anticipate."

Points 1 and 2 together

My position and Holland's make sense as two different world views. One view is not more correct than the other, but one may be more useful in a particular situation. Holland's view leads him to his model of CASs, but mine seems to put limits on that model, restrictions that do not appear from Holland's viewpoint.

By limiting the use of the term 'anticipate' to only sentient beings, we can force a redefinition of the terms for CAS that include non-sentient agents, like bacteria. Once we have new definitions of the CAS properties and mechanisms that accept a non-sentient view of bacteria, I believe that we will find that a wider range of phenomena fall into the category of CAS, things like language for example.

So by a round about route, I have arrived at the position of Charles N a few days ago. I think that we need to modify, redefine the terms of, Holland's model of CAS, so that we no longer have the problem of words 'anticipating'.

My comments:

Certainly, different views may be more viable in particular contexts. So, I asked Charles, What would you like to redefine (in addition to “anticipate”)? Why? and What will be gained by doing so with respect to understanding CASs?

Before redefining, perhaps we should discuss what we mean by CAS: complex adaptive system (as opposed to complicated and merely complex systems). Can inanimate objects adapt? Rocks can't. What would we consider Brownian motion? It's a form of self-organizing, but it doesn't seem to be a CAS. Bacteria do adapt, so we need a CAS model that includes them. Words change over time, but do they adapt? Metaphorically (and what isn't a metaphor), it may be useful to see them as adapting. But then we need to consider what we mean by "adapt". Are we using the term with different meanings in different contexts? If yes, is it legitimate/profitable to do so? Does that mean that we are looking at different types of CAS? If yes, how is that different from Holland having different types of anticipation: implicit for bacteria and both implicit and explicit for human beings, perhaps with some continuum in between.

Charles Adamson responds:

This means that we have to be clear about what 'adapt' means and then to determine whether it applies to language seen as a time series. Maybe, it is not a CAS at all. Maybe, it is only the people involved that are CASs and the language is simply complex.

Charles Adamson later came up with a lengthy online definition of CAS from Kevin Dooley (saying that he would think some more now that he had a definition), a major member in the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences. I've briefly summarized that definition.

"A CAS behaves/evolves according to three key principles: order is emergent as opposed to predetermined, the system's history is

irreversible, and the system's future is often unpredictable. The basic building blocks of the CAS are agents. Agents are semi-autonomous units that seek to maximize some measure of goodness, or fitness, by evolving over time. Agents scan their environment and develop schema representing interpretive and action rules. ... Existing schema can undergo three types of change. ... Schema define how a given agent interacts with other agents surrounding it. Actions between agents involve the exchange of information and/or resources."

My comments:

These schema are the same as Holland's internal models. For the most part, words undergo change, but perhaps it would be better to consider their tags as defining how they interact with other words rather than schema or internal models. So, with Charles Adamson, perhaps language is a complex system rather than a complex adaptive system. If so, then the primary differentiator seems to be the presence/absence of schema.

From the Chaosla listserv (a listserv dedicated to the study of chaos and complexity theory as applied to second language acquisition), Charles Adamson applied Holland’s model to language itself rather to the processes through which students produced it. What follows is our conversation with some paraphrasing, integrating of emails, and adapting for this forum.

Charles Adamson wrote:


Aggregation: This would seem to take place on a number of levels - letters into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into sections or chapters, and sections or chapters into complete works.

Nonlinearity: At every level language is nonlinear; the whole is not predictable for the parts. For example is we have the words the, man, dog, and kills. We can generate /The man kills the dog/ or /The dog kills the man/. We also have sentences like /The horse raced pace the burning barn fell/ which is almost impossible to understand the first time it is seen.

Flows: Initially, I was thinking that it was the flow of information, but maybe it is the control that each additional word in a sentence exerts on the potential words to follow. Each additional word in a sentence limits the pool of potential sequences that can follow it. Also it is obvious that the string of words has a strong role in selecting the tags that can be active for the following words. This might be considered the movement of resources.

Diversity: This refers to the variety of word and sentence types, parts of speech, etc.


Tagging: Words are tagged with both a meaning and a part of speech. These interact and determine the possibilities for the use of the word in context. I might mention that Robin Facett, a Hallidayan researcher, determined that there are something just over 300 slots in a generalized sentence. This means that there are just over 300 parts of speech since only certain words can go in each slot.

Internal models: This would seem to refer to the patterns that we can extract from the vicinity of a word. These patterns are strong enough that it is possible to generate an index number consisting of the sum of the inverse general frequencies of the three words on each side of the target word. This index separates the various senses of a word, in other words, the meanings.

Building blocks: Words and affixes, which become all the other things in language.

My comments:

Charles A.’s application modifies Holland’s model a little. In the model, internal models are mechanisms agents use to anticipate. Thus, if language is the system, we might consider words as "anticipating" (through tags) where they would fit in (or interact with) a particular aggregate of words. Although it doesn’t really make sense to me that words can anticipate. Even so, Brent Davis, a prominent complexity science researcher in mathematics education at the University of Alberta, considers ideas to be agents.

I’ll need to think some more about his suggestions concerning flows as those are concerned with the flow of resources among agents, but rephrasing him, it is an interesting idea to equate “enabling constraints” (another concept I acquired from Brent Davis) with resources.

Charles A. expanded more on internal models and the concept of anticipation:

The word 'the' will have an internal model where 'the' will be followed by modifiers (including a null modifier) and then a noun or nouns. This model will restrict the models of any following word to its internal model of being a modifier or a noun. Another example would be that verbs with their internal models that specify, among other things, the number of objects and whether or not the grammatical subject of the sentence is animate or inanimate.

I do have one problem with the use of 'anticipate' in relation to the internal models. Linguistically the internal model of the word 'anticipate' requires an animate, sentient grammatical subject. We can generally ignore this fact, but it is like proverbial rotten apple, given time it can cause all sorts of problems. It becomes very easy to start attributing other characteristics of sentient beings to the model. However, the model does not anticipate, it exists. We, the humans, anticipate when we think about the language processes associated with the word.

My comments:

Charles is right that problems occur when we apply attributes of sentience to inanimate agents. Holland draws upon biology for his model, and so, although it gives some insight to language, adaptations may be needed to use it with language as a system. I suppose we will need to see what is gained and what is lost when we do so.

I realized that it would be helpful to have Holland's model here on the blog rather than needing to refer to the papers, so I've put a slightly shorter version of it here.

Properties of complex adaptive systems

Aggregation has two meanings. One is simplifying complexity by grouping items with similar characteristics, a primary method, Holland points out, by which we build models. The second meaning refers to how complex systems behave. Through the combined interactions of less complex agents, complex collective behaviors emerge. Consider the following levels of aggregations, their interactions, and their emergent behaviors: cells, organs, individual human beings, and social and institutional groups.

The differences in behavior at different levels is due to the property of nonlinearity. In nonlinearity, the behavior of the whole cannot be reduced to the sum of the parts. Obviously, the behavior of individual human beings cannot be understood simply by studying cells and organs, and similarly the behavior of complex educational systems cannot be understood by the behaviors of individual members, whether students, teachers, or administrators.

A third property of complex systems is flows. Flows refer to the movements of resources among agents via connectors that vary according to the system. For instance, in a food transportation system, the connectors are the transporting vehicles; the resources are the different foods; and the agents are the transmitting, storing, and receiving entities, such as farmers and grocery stores. The elements in a network change over time as agents adapt to various situations. In a second language writing framework, flows include the movement of rhetorical knowledge among students and teachers within and across classroom boundaries.

The final property is diversity. Educational institutions consist of many different types of teachers (science, English, history), staff members (janitors, secretaries), administrators, and students. Diversity results from complex systems because each agent’s niche in the system “is defined by the interactions centering on that agent" (Holland). This diversity is a dynamic pattern because agents engage in progressive adaptations via their interactions with other agents, thus constantly changing their niches in the system.


The mechanism of tagging facilitates selective interactions and thus the formation of aggregates. Tags are identifiers and categorizers. They can be badges identifying people who work in a company, thus setting the boundaries of the aggregate. They can also be values that identify potential friends or mates for future interactions and screen out others. Tags, therefore, also influence flows because they almost always define the network by delimiting the critical interactions, the major connections.

A second mechanism is schemas, or what Holland calls internal models. Internal models are mechanisms for anticipating situations. Internal models develop from interactions with the environment through three steps: reproduction through fitness, recombination via cross-over, and replacement. If a schema is fit, that is, successful in anticipating situations and guiding behavior, it acts as a parent in reproducing new schemas. In recombination, parts of different parent schemas (i.e., building blocks, see below) cross over to each other and recombine to create, new offspring schemas. These offspring schemas can replace other schemas already in the population. If we translate these terms into composition classroom analogies, reproduction means that students continue to use schemas that work in their essays. Recombination refers to students incorporating, for example, new concepts of writing into their present concepts so that both old and new concepts are used in some hybrid form. Replacement refers to students replacing an older schema for writing with a new, usually hybrid, schema.

The final mechanism is building blocks. Holland gave the example of a human face, in which the common building blocks would include hair, forehead, eyebrows, eyes, and so on, up to ten blocks. He also broke each facial building block into ten alternatives (e.g., blue eyes, brown eyes, hazel eyes, etc.), which gave a total of 100 building blocks. If one were to choose one alternative building block from each of ten bags of facial components, there would be 10 billion distinct faces with only 100 building blocks.

Another example would be the four bases of DNA. Various permutations of these four building blocks have given rise to myriads of species, all uniquely adapting to and fitting their environmental niches. When applied to composition, Holland’s model of building blocks differs from those in which teachers “transmit” a static blueprint of writing to students who, in turn, learn to assemble various components in a linear, lock-step manner toward a predetermined product. Rather, in Holland’s model, the focus is on interactions, adaptation, and emergence. Like DNA, interactions between rhetorical building blocks and social environments generate species of arguments, each one adapting to social niches, such as political speeches, academic articles, newspaper editorials, and family squabbles. Thus, the interactions of a few building blocks can generate novelty and, as will be seen, learning.

As per the entry, below, it is the interactions of building blocks that I am looking at right now. Are there a few building blocks that can give theoretical rise to a coherent model of rhetoric for students in first-year composition, a model that they can take with them and transfer to new situations?

This entry is adapted from my article "Building blocks and learning."

In Holland's model, the mechanism building blocks are of particular interest to me as the concept suggests that most learning and creativity occurs recombining what is known rather than invention de novo.

The term building blocks may suggest a mechanical perspective on learning, but simply consider the myriads of living species that have emerged from various combinations of the four building blocks of DNA. And in writing, the repetition and reusability of building blocks, or patterns, allow for commonality across genres, while new circumstances fuel unique interactions between the patterns that generate novelty—and learning.

A major goal for me now is determining what building blocks in rhetoric are particularly fruitful for recombining. (This notion is similar to that of Davydov’s “ascending from the abstract to the concrete.”) Of course, students naturally select and combine building blocks on their own without direction from the teacher, and teachers present students with a variety of strategies and concepts to use in writing. However, a haphazard, cornucopia approach to pedagogy misses the point. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

In other words, if there are kernel building blocks from which all other building blocks in composition can be derived, then learners, through a process of recombining them across novel and varied contexts, can gain a deeper, conceptual understanding of the discipline than they would otherwise. Contenders for building blocks might come from stasis theory, Toulmin logic, or the lines of argument of pathos, ethos, and logos.

The main model that I have been using to guide my research and teaching practice has been that of John Holland, father of genetic algorithms and professor of psychology and computer science & electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. His model of complexity theory (Hidden Order, 1995) considers complex systems to have four properties (aggregation, diversity, flows, and nonlinearity) and three mechanisms (internal models, building blocks, and tags). Most of my work has looked at the networks of knowledge flows and the role of building blocks in learning. If you go to the Complexity and Education website, you can read two of my articles: "The role of networks in learning to write" and "Building blocks and learning." I'll be looking at those two articles over the next few weeks. Comments are welcome.