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The following article was written as preparation for my presentation to the Holland Open Source Conference (HOSC) held in Amsterdam in May 2007. My thanks go to the organisers, and in particular to Keimpe W. de Heer, for insisting that I make such a presentation despite my hesitations.

This article also served as a primer for my input on holistic approaches to policy-making (envisaging the nature of leadership and policy-making in complex, self-organising systems) for a meeting of European Schoolnet's Policy and Innovation Committee (PIC) held just after HOSC in Brussels in May on the theme of the nature of policy and practice and the relationship between the two.

Opening Education to the Future … or rising from the Second Fall from Paradise

An idealised hacker ethic

My perception of the Open Source movement is no doubt quite romantic and probably far removed from its everyday realities. I wrote an article some years ago called "Open sourcing ideas - A hacker approach to working, learning and writing" inspired by Pekka Himanen's book about the hacker ethic (1) . He too, no doubt, romanticised the open source work. In my article, I talked of the way the world has been divided up: learning has been separated from life; work has been separated from learning and pleasure; quality has been separated from work and needs to be applied from the outside; and leisure is becoming more and more like work. Money has replaced achievement and satisfaction. The price tag has become our predominant indication of value. And throughout this all, the individual has been raised to a pinnacle as the ultimate consumer while at the same time being divested of his or her power to decide when and where and what and how best to do things. Such a situation points to a deep-seated drive to control people and what they do, although these controlling activities are not organised such that you could identify one person or group of people as being responsible. In my article, the hacker ethic is presented as an integrative approach that reunites work and learning and pleasure, and reintroduces the notion of ethics in these activities, going beyond the simplistic logic of the market place. The key values are: passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring and creativity. Let's keep that supposedly playful approach and those underlying values in mind as we turn our attention to policy-making in education and the role of technology in that policy-making.

The mechanics of policy-making

Policy-making has to do with making specific things happen or not happen. Policy-making has to do with making envisaged futures present and sometimes maintaining cherished pasts in the future. Much policy-making is about control. It is based on the assumption that it is possible to change the way people work by starting from a written statement (called policy) about what should be done and how it should be done (called practice). In other words, much educational policy-making is based on a mechanistic perspective of change in which policy seeks to dictate practice. The overriding metaphor is that of the machine. A number of axioms govern the mechanistic worldview. These include the fact that the properties and behaviour of the parts of the machine determine the behaviour of the system as a whole. In other words, the machine is no more than the sum of its parts. The parts of the machine can be treated like discrete objects and are interchangeable. In addition, the functioning of the machine can be understood by studying the workings of its parts. If that understanding is incomplete, it is sufficient to further divide up the parts into even smaller parts. This process is called analysis. Decisions about the management of the machine rely very heavily on measurement and quantification of the workings of the parts. Change is linear, predictable and controllable. It results from the application of forces to its parts.

Software in the machine

From the perspective of policy-makers, ICT plays an increasingly key role in implementing educational policies even if those technologies are no longer placed front-stage. The reason for this dependency on technology lies in the belief that technologies dictate, to a considerable extent, what people can do with them and thus can be used to enforce the adoption of certain prescribed new ways of working. As such, ICT is seen as an extension of the written policy statement with the added advantage that it can constrain practice by its very workings. If collaborative working is required, then insisting on the use of suitable collaborative software can make it happen. If extensive evaluation is necessary to focus attention on the appropriate levels of competences of all students, then online testing provides a manageable, cheap way of making it happen. If personalisation is the key word, then ICT can help enforce it by bringing teachers to provide personalised scenarios for each pupil. ICT is the long arm of the policy-maker.

Bullshit as a strategy

When the gap between policy and practice goes beyond a certain threshold, most administrations working within the mechanistic paradigm will seek to reduce the gap by modifying the way policy is "put into practice" or even by modifying the policy itself. They are aware that they can't afford to let the gap grow any further. A number of administrations have chosen an alternative strategy, however. Recognising implicitly that they cannot force practice to comply with their wishes and not wanting to change their policies or their perception of policy-making, they increase control over the official discourse about practice so as to gloss over the differences between policy and practice and to praise the successes of their policy efforts. Such a strategy fits perfectly with Harry G. Frankfurt's definition of "bullshit" (2). It is not a question of lying, as those who use bullshit are indifferent to how things really are. They are effectively trying to get away with something, but they firmly believe the "reality" they have invented. Bullshit might work for a short period, but as it makes it impossible for the administration to respond to the rising pressure of differing practice (as it is not possible to openly address the issues) that pressure continues to build up under the veneer of the official discourse requiring ever-increasing efforts to control the public image. At some point, no amount of control can prevent the pressure breaking through. Note that many large companies adopt a similar strategy, where their marketing discourse, at great expense and with considerable subtlety, seeks to have users believe in the reality proclaimed by the company about its products and what they can be used for. Strangely enough, we are more tolerant of marketing discourse than we are of the proclamations of administrations and governments. Deliberately and systematically misrepresenting reality is a very hazardous path to adopt. For those who use bullshit, their ties to reality have been severed. In extreme cases, it can border on schizophrenia where the invented world takes on a life of its own and any tactic is justified to make the real world resemble the imaginary one.

A living system

One of the characteristics of complex systems is that they seek to maintain a relatively stable state even though they are really far from equilibrium. This can give the impression, from a rather short-sighted perspective that they behave in a predictable, "mechanical way". However, the more complex they are, the more potential stable states that exist simultaneously at any moment, resulting in fundamentally non-linear and unpredictable behaviour. It is these unpredictable leaps that move the system to a higher level of complexity in what we call paradigm shifts. The education system, as is the case with most complex human systems, is better understood using the metaphor of the living organism than that of the machine (3) . The axioms of the living system are quite different from those of the machine. Firstly, the overall living system is always more than the sum of its parts. This implies that the parts of the system cannot be understood separately from the system as a whole. In other words, analysis cannot satisfactorily explain the workings of the system. At best, topology can give us "classes" of change that help us understand the form of possible changes but not their dimensions and directions. The living system is open and self-organising. As mentioned above, major change is the result of new properties that emerge spontaneously and unpredictably from the complexity of the system as a whole. You cannot "manage" a living system in a predictable way by applying forces to its parts or seeking to constrain its activities.

Paradise rediscovered

If the education system and more generally society as a whole is to be considered as a living system and learning and working as self-organising growth processes in which individuals and groups are empowered to live and learn and work together with pleasure then the first step will necessarily be to reintegrate what has been lost in what might be called the second fall from Paradise: the separation of life and learning and work and pleasure. So many of society's efforts are organised around keeping these separate. As I mentioned in an as-yet unpublished article entitled “What are the real lessons of schooling?” school as an institution conveys a series of potent, subliminal messages about learning that reinforce the impression of its estrangement from life and from work. Proclaiming the importance of “life long learning” or “innovation” on a policy level is not sufficient if the structures and practices remain the same. It is encouraging then that there are organised groups of people, like those who identify with the “hacker ethic” mentioned above, who have made an effort in their approach to work to partially reintegrate learning and playing in work along with the idea of striving for quality and working for the common good.

Approaching the future

So what would policy-making look like if education were seen from a holistic perspective? Probably the most fundamental difference would lie in how the future is approached. The machine perspective is centred on the belief that the future can be shaped according to a plan drawn up in advance by a small group of privileged people. The future is seen as being built in the present, often on the basis of experience from the past. Furthermore, those policies are necessarily coloured by partisan perspectives and preconceived ideas. As I wrote in an article in 2004 about leadership : "… we walk into the future backwards (our attention fixed on the past or present) with our eyes closed (blinded by habit and our self imposed limits)…" However, if the evolution of complex systems like our education organisations is necessarily unpredictable, we cannot count on the future to comply with our blueprints. If the most appropriate change is to emerge spontaneously from complexity through a process of self-organisation then we cannot rely on control as our strategy. On the contrary, deliberate efforts to impose a given future might produce a quite different and possibly undesirable outcome. This perspective is so radical that it seems to make the concept of leader redundant. Yet there may still be a role for a new type of “leader” that lies in the personal challenge of being attuned to the future as it emerges as lines of force in the constant flux of the present (4) and being able to act, if necessary, according to that knowledge. Caution is needed here because words can mislead us: the position of leader described here gives no special privileges or rights to tell others what to do. There is a whole corpus of literature about the possible role of such a "leader", in particular those that talk of Wu Wei (5). The latter could be summed up as unattached, quiet watchfulness, in which intelligence is that of the whole body and not just the brain, and learning springs from experience and intuition.

Relationships not information

Policy makers are convinced we need information to build the future. Information has become their key asset. They order studies. They measure performance. They consult experts. They even proclaim that we are living in an "Information Society". Now if this obsession with information didn't make sense, at least locally, we wouldn't have developed it, but in the context of complex systems and emergence, it is useless to know, for example, that three out of every four children have access to a computer at home. No amount of measurement will help predict the unpredictable. What we need is to shift our attention from quantification to relationships and processes. It is a fundamental misconception to believe that understanding is based on information. Understanding is built almost exclusively on relationships, not on information. My hunch is that if there can be any awareness of the future as it emerges in the present, that awareness can only be “experienced” in terms of a complex web of relationships.

The role of technology

As mentioned above, technology is employed in the mechanistic approach to change as a lever to enforce modifications in practice. The unacknowledged metaphor is that of the Trojan Horse. However, practice, like the education system itself, is based on a complex web of relationships in which major changes emerge spontaneously and unpredictably from the complexity of the system itself. As a result, technology can only constrain practice locally and partially but not in the overarching way that policy-makers imagine (6). Of course, technology contributes to the “lines of force” in the present out of which the future is to emerge, but it cannot be attributed a privileged role in that emergence without returning to a deterministic view of the future. As a consequence, those people who design technology are under the same moral responsibility as the leaders mentioned above: they need to see what they are making in the much wider perspective of the emerging future that is not solely governed by market logic, utilitarianism or self-interest. I may be misguided in thinking so, but I believe that the values underlying the Open Source movement mentioned above are closer to this joyful, holistic watchfulness than the sad and strained forces behind the efforts of major software concerns driven purely by profit however much they proclaim they are working for the good of users.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise


  1. Himanen P., The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Vintage, London, 2001.
  2. Frankfurt H.G., On bullshit, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005.
  3. For more about these ideas see, amongst other books, Capra F., The Web of Life - A new synthesis of mind and matter, Harper Collins, London, 1996. Another inspiring book is Prigogine I., Stengers I., La nouvelle alliance, Gallimard Folio, Paris, 1979, translated into English as "Order out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature".
  4. See a very interesting book about the role of leaders in an emerging world: Synge P., Scharmer C. O., Jaworski J., Flowers B. S., Presence - Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, SoL, Cambridge MA, 2004
  5. Wu Wei is an important principle of Taoism that has to do with knowing when to act and when not to act by being in contact with the flow of Tao. By extension it concerns governing and leadership. It is sometimes called, seemingly paradoxically, the "effortless doing".
  6. There is a delightfully optimistic book by Michel de Certeau that explores the way people creatively misuse the tools that are designed to channel their behaviour. See de Certeau M. L'invention du quotidien 1. Arts de faire, Gallimard Folio, Paris, 1980. For de Certeau in English try "The Practice of Everyday Life".
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Created: May 18th, 2007 - Last up-dated: May 21st, 2007