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Unschooling and Messiness

Jessica Shepherd reviews the recently published How Children Learn at Home in the Guardian. The review seems to focus more on the unschooling subset of home education and the part that I find most interesting is the comparison to the messiness that often results in creative leaps. It reminds me of a variety of articles that have been emphasizing the importance of random events and cross-pollination or hybridization of traditional fields of study.

Here’s a snip:

The authors discovered that these children absorbed information mainly by “doing nothing, observing, having conversations, exploring, and through self-directed learning”. They liken the “chaotic nature” of informal learning to the process that leads to scientific breakthroughs, the early stages of crafting a novel, coming up with a solution to a technical problem, or the act of composing music.
"Its products are often intangible, its processes obscure, its progress piecemeal," they say. "There are false starts, unrelated bits and pieces picked up, interests followed and discarded, sometimes to be taken up again, sometimes not… Yet the chaotic nature of the informal curriculum does not appear to be a barrier to children organising it into a coherent body of knowledge.
Thomas and Pattison acknowledge that critics will say home-educated children are likely to pick up information peppered with misunderstandings or inaccuracies, and parents may unwittingly pass on their own misconceptions. “Yet the lack of information quality-control does not appear to lead to muddled, confused children,” they say.
"In some ways, it may be an advantage because, rather than presenting knowledge in neat packages, the informal curriculum forces learners to become actively engaged with their information - to work with it, move it around, juggle ideas and resolve contradictions… It is not a static thing contained in a series of educational folders. It is alive and dynamic.

Keeping in mind that there needs to be a variety of educational options available and that unschooling is not for every family, unschooling is perhaps the best chance at truly differentiated learning.

As for the articles that Shepherd’s review brings to mind, in the spirit of messiness (maybe just laziness), below I’m assembling some loosely organized quotes with links to their sources. Apologies to anyone whose words I may have misinterpreted either through lack of aptitude or through my obvious biases as the parent of two unschoolers.

Cammy Bean takes a look at messiness, self-directed learning, and how they make traditional types uncomfortable:

So I’ve been thinking about messes and why messy learning makes people so uncomfortable. Especially the corporate types.
Learning is messy because we get easily distracted by shiny objects — or rather, inspired to shoot off in different directions. Because self-directed learning doesn’t always have a clear or specific performance objective.

David Smith looks at messiness and education, specifically how the Internet can be best used to enhance our ability to learn.

Evolving e-learning within educational institutions is to seed and cultivate a coral reef. It’s what Dave Snowden meant when he said (quoted by Euan): ‘You can’t manage knowledge but you can create a knowledge ecology’. It’s what John Seely Brown means when he speaks of ‘learning ecologies’.
To achieve this, to put digital technology to good use in education, requires, of course, that schools learn. To adapt John Seely Brown’s question (ibid.), substituting ‘schools’ for ‘universities’: schools are institutions of learning but are they, themselves, learning institutions?

David Smith again, this time on consilience as the removal of two traditional barriers to learning:

Consilience is about breaking down boundaries between disciplines, but it’s also about breaking down barriers between learners. Consilience and open, collaborative knowledge cultures are tightly intertwined.

Steve Hardy on how the structure of universities too often forces specialization when the resources offer so many possibilities for cross-disciplinary study:

Universities offer both the most compelling reason to fragment into disciplines and tracks of study as well as the most compelling reasons not to. On the one hand the volume of knowledge is so immense that it must be broken up to somehow manage it. Plus, much of this knowledge – research, consulting, writing - is at the extreme end of specialization. The wells are incredibly deep. On the other hand, however, they have so many potential intersections that the possibilities for new ideas baffle the mind. The waste is sad. Most of these institutions have such embedded bureaucracies to maintain specialization (tenure, for example) and to genuinely discourage insightful collaboration that few generalists are welcome and most students – even the pro-generalist liberal arts students – are foist on to a narrow track. After all, the same pressure on universities to offer specialized career training is the same pressure on student’s to pursue specialized careers. It’s a matter of practicality.

In the San Francisco Gate, Carrie Sturrock looks at the buzzword “interdisciplinary” and how it is manifesting itself in academia:

The buzzword in higher education is “interdisciplinary,” and at many research universities, professors are no longer judged primarily on how expert and rarefied their knowledge is in a particular area. Rather, they’re expected to bridge fields to remain relevant in a world with increasingly complex problems — from global warming to the spread of infectious disease — that demand interdisciplinary solutions.

Julian Bleecker warns us about how interdisciplinary work can be shallow and/or meaningless: (see the comments too)

Getting everyone together in one room and able to spend enough time together to understand the perspective of the other’s discipline may be a start. But, honestly? I think it’s absolutely vital — a requirement — that you practice the other disciplines that contribute to the project.

It’s a topic that Bleecker often discusses due to his varied experiences:

With a background in multiple disciplines, it’s been an ongoing search to find a comfortable place where my practical and professional interests can operate. In most situations, one or more are either surpressed, discouraged or hidden to the point of not even mentioning this or that expertise.

Grant McCracken on breaking away from the norms of academia and corporate culture:

Casting the reading net wide. You will have to leave anthropology for the other social sciences, and the social sciences for the humanities and sciences. You trick is to be Gladwellian: patient, calm, inquiring, and most of all peripatetic. Go where you have to. And for God’s sake be Baconian. Be prepared to think whatever you need to think to make sense of the evidence you see before you, even when this means breaking from scholarly and marketing orthodoxy.

Nicolas Nova left academia in part to have more latitude when jumping between fields in pursuing his interests and research:

What I am interested in, oftentimes, it the cross-pollination between different worlds, making analogies between different domains and drawing issues/solutions/problems/insights form them to enrich the problem at stake. Mapping the overview, defining the problem space, finding opportunities by using various sources: meeting people, having conversations, reading academic papers, annotating books, conducting user research (from usability test to ethnographical studies), taking weird pictures or writing about all of this. This is why I am interested in foresight research since it’s rather about this sort of macro perspective than the more narrow POV of scientific research.

Here’s Bleecker again as he broke with academia and made a move to design, focusing on problems as opposed to disciplines…

The next bit of kit to add to my practice is Design. As soon as the opportunity presented itself to become a part of a design studio and learn how design fits in with this larger goal of being able to do work through multiple-simultaneous practices, and to focus on problems and how to approach them, rather than disciplines and their nutty boundary maintenance politics.

…which he sees as a chance to cross disciplinary boundaries:

Design seems to have a deep comfort and history with talking with and about people and their practices.

Paola Antonelli takes that a bit further as she writes about designers as a vehicle for cross-pollination:

As designers advocate and obtain roles that are more and more integral to the evolution of society, they find themselves at the center of an extraordinary wave of cross-pollination. Interdisciplinary design has existed for decades, but only recently have other communities started to seek designers’ contributions. However, this is just the beginning. The figure of the designer is changing from formgiver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic reality; one increasingly informed by science and mediated by technology.
Because of their role as intermediaries between research and production, designers often act as the main interpreters in interdisciplinary teams, called upon not only to conceive objects, but also to devise scenarios and strategies. To cope with this responsibility, designers must set the foundations for a strong theory of design—something that is today still missing—and become astute generalists. At that point, they will be in a unique position to become the repositories of contemporary culture’s need for analysis and synthesis, society’s new pragmatic intellectuals.

Offering some similar advice to McCracken’s reading widely and Bleecker’s focus on solving problems, Robert Epstein describes the skills essential for creative expression:

There are four different skill sets, or competencies, that I’ve found are essential for creative expression. The first and most important competency is “capturing”—preserving new ideas as they occur to you and doing so without judging them. Your morning pages, Julia, are a perfect example of a capturing technique. There are many ways to capture new ideas. Otto Loewi won a Nobel Prize for work based on an idea about cell biology that he almost failed to capture. He had the idea in his sleep, woke up and scribbled the idea on a pad but found the next morning that he couldn’t read his notes or remember the idea. When the idea turned up in his dreams the following night, he used a better capturing technique: he put on his pants and went straight to his lab!
The second competency is called “challenging”—giving ourselves tough problems to solve. In tough situations, multiple behaviors compete with one another, and their interconnections create new behaviors and ideas. The third area is “broadening.” The more diverse your knowledge, the more interesting the interconnections—so you can boost your creativity simply by learning interesting new things. And the last competency is “surrounding,” which has to do with how you manage your physical and social environments. The more interesting and diverse the things and the people around you, the more interesting your own ideas become.

Now a look at few corporate, institution, and event-focused approaches to fostering cross-pollination. First, among other intentions, the RAND Corporation’s newish headquarters in Santa Monica was designed to encourage “chance meetings” (via Nicolas Nova):

While the headquarters is modern in design, its central design theme is based on ideas first expressed in 1950 by a RAND mathematician, John Williams. He proposed a design that would facilitate more interaction between staff by increasing the odds of “chance meetings.” Today, that theme is carried through with elements such as a system of interconnected bridges and stairwells that are unusually wide to encourage impromptu discussions among employees.

Le Laboratoire is addressing the need for institutions that facilitate cross pollination. Danielle Maestretti writes in the Utne Reader (NPR also covered Le Laboratoire):

Le Laboratoire’s practitioners spend a lot of time exploring interdisciplinary ideas that might not otherwise see the light of day, such as the Bel-Air, a futuristic-looking “living filter” that purifies air by passing it through absorptive plants. “We value creators in business, culture, education, and society, but somehow we struggle to create institutional environments to welcome them,” Edwards writes in Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation (Harvard University Press, 2008).
This problem starts early, right about the time each of us chooses between the mathletes and the drama club. We’re encouraged to take our place on one side of the art/science divide, a break that stifles creativity and innovation as we move through higher education and beyond. In his concise book, Edwards, a professor of biomedical engineering at Harvard, shares the stories of people who have found ways to cross this barrier—artscientists, he calls them—and elegantly communicates the catalytic effect of their interdisciplinary leaps.

inter_multi_trans_actions is an event with similar intentions (I should add that there are many conferences that have done the same or are making more of an effort to do so – Lift, ETech, PopTech, TED, PINIC, etc.):

The aim of this event is to inspire and inform the symposium delegates of the significance of this trans-disciplinary research and its impact for creative practice in the UK. This event will appeal to a wide audience including practitioners, researchers, educators, industrialists and stakeholders involved in the creative industries.

Chad Monfreda looks at another teaming of art and science in the Canary Project which reminds me of something similar that LACMA did in 1967:

Why do art and science make such a persuasive team? We’re accustomed to thinking of them as opposites. Science is rational, and art is irrational. Scientists feel, and artists think. Ask an artist if she thinks in her work or a scientist if she feels in hers, however, and you’ll likely get a funny look. And for good reason because art and science actually share a lot in common. Both are meant to be public and display themselves in museums. Both talk about methods, and are open to the internal turmoil those methods can create. Both convey dynamic truths about their subjects, though those subjects may differ. Different subjects, in fact, may be what allow art and science to come together so well.

As fields are mixed, terminology can become an issue for some. (Note that even describing the mixing invokes multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, post-disciplinary, etc.) Crosbie Fitch and Sebastian comment on Dan Lockton’s post “The asymmetry of the the indescribable” on how interdisciplinary exploration can be inhibited or spurred on depending on the vocabulary used to describe it:

If you’re in search of a term, how about ‘Philological Cladistics’ to describe the exploration of ways in which knowledge/fields-of-study can be compartmentalised (also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_decimal), and ‘Philological determinism’ to describe how any compartmentalisation inhibits interdisciplinary exploration.
Richard Rorty coined “vocabulary” for what you mean. Progress or “paradigm shifts” happens when someone invents a new vocabulary to describe the same phenomena. And being the good relativist that he is, Rorty holds that new vocabularies do not win over because they are truer, explain more phenomena, etc., but simply because they are more interesting.

And, speaking of new vocabularies, here’s a look at “shattering” boundaries in science from Seed Magazine’s introduction to the “Re-envisionaries” section of their profiles of “Revolutionary Minds” in which you’ll learn more about the nascent fields of neuroarchaeology, genetic acculturation, immunocomputing, stochastic biology, and astronomical medicine:

The more science advances, the less, it seems, that any one discipline holds all the answers—even to the problems that a discipline was originally conceived to answer. So it’s not surprising that some of today’s most innovative scientific thinkers are making breakthroughs by hybridizing multiple fields. In this installment of Seed’s Revolutionary Minds series, we feature five young researchers whose work fuses seemingly disparate disciplines. By drawing upon the techniques, insights, or standard models of other scientific fields, these individuals are redefining their own. Among them are a computer scientist who rethought the concept of information after studying immune systems; an archaeologist who believes material culture is an important driver of human cognitive evolution; and an astronomer who has discovered how to take an MRI of the cosmos. These thinkers are doing more than merely crossing disciplinary boundaries—they are altogether shattering them.

For more on the topics in the quotes above and related topics, see my bookmarks tagged with cross-pollination, interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, messiness and, I suppose, unschooling, deschooling and homeschool.

UPDATE: I forgot to include mention of random events, which are best covered by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Here are a few quotes from a piece he wrote for Forbes entitled “You Can’t Predict Who Will Change The World”:

Things, it turns out, are all too often discovered by accident—but we don’t see that when we look at history in our rear-view mirrors. The technologies that run the world today (like the Internet, the computer and the laser) are not used in the way intended by those who invented them. Even academics are starting to realize that a considerable component of medical discovery comes from the fringes, where people find what they are not exactly looking for. It is not just that hypertension drugs led to Viagra or that angiogenesis drugs led to the treatment of macular degeneration, but that even discoveries we claim come from research are themselves highly accidental. They are the result of undirected tinkering narrated after the fact, when it is dressed up as controlled research. The high rate of failure in scientific research should be sufficient to convince us of the lack of effectiveness in its design.
If the success rate of directed research is very low, though, it is true that the more we search, the more likely we are to find things “by accident,” outside the original plan. Only a disproportionately minute number of discoveries traditionally came from directed academic research. What academia seems more masterful at is public relations and fundraising.
America’s primary export, it appears, is trial-and-error, and the innovative knowledge attained in such a way. Trial-and-error has error in it; and most top-down traditional rational and academic environments do not like the fallibility of “error” and the embarrassment of not quite knowing where they’re going. The U.S. fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam-takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional studies is where his or her very strength may lie. The American system of trial and error produces doers: Black Swan-hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, with a tolerance for a certain class of risk-taking and for making plenty of small errors on the road to success or knowledge. This environment also attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners like this author.

Of course, one of Nassim Taleb’s top life tips is:

2. Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.

For more Nassim Taleb, you might start with my collection of bookmarks relating to him.