Dave Snowden on The 21st Century University

Notes from Dave Snowden’s Presentation to Week 17 of ChangeMooc, 18-01-12

Recording of his presentation

Learning and the Human Brain

The assumption that the human brain is a computational device has led to an information focus in learning. There is a dominance of machine-type metaphors. We have been seduced by machines, leading to an education system dominated by input/output models (promoted by some types of systems thinking) and a view of the brain as an information-processing device (see All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace ).

The human brain is a pattern processing intelligence not an information-processing machine. We need to avoid the pattern entrainment  that results from group think. The human brain evolved to handle messy coherence, not structure and order. It allows us to innovate, have insights and see things in a different way

Knowledge Acquisition

We need more generalists, people with a mix of generalised and deep knowledge, for working in a complex world – people who can work quickly across subjects and in contexts of high levels of uncertainty.

There are whole tracts of knowledge that can only be understood through interaction, e.g. through an apprenticeship model of education, which allows for imitation and failure, such as for London taxi drivers. Failure is key to human knowledge acquisition and the two-year apprenticeship of London taxi drivers has been shown to change the hippocampus area of the brain

The minute a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a measure, e.g. as when academics are measured on the number of papers they produce  rather than the originality of their ideas. PhDs destroy intelligence rather than build it. In universities we are training recipe book users and assessing whether they can reproduce the recipe. We are not training chefs who can achieve a huge amount without a recipe. Chefs have a mix of practical and theoretical wisdom and willingness to engage conceptually and theoretically with real world problems.

We need to avoid the anti-intellectualism that is endemic in Europe and N. America i.e. don’t use big words or read books, keep things simple and become simplistic as a consequence.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Complex adaptive systems are not causal but dispositional, i.e. they are pre-disposed to evolve in random ways which cannot be predicted. So models based on cause and effect which do not have a predictive capacity are of no use in complex spaces.

A way of handling uncertainty is to make use of collective or distributed cognition. Complex spaces need experts to compete/disagree with each other to increase diversity, rather than a consensus based approach. For emergence we need to force conflict by bringing in different people with different backgrounds. In complex systems we should also bring in safe-to-fail experiments and prevent premature convergence by moving people around into different groups.

By contrast, complicated spaces need experts whose judgment we trust.

Innovation and Creativity

Deception is the heart of innovation in any system. Play the game and innovate (under the radar).

Creativity is a symptom of innovation not a cause. Innovative people are creative. Pressure, starvation and perspective shift produce innovation which produces creativity.

Failure, consensus and facilitation

Negative stories carry more learning than positive stories. Appreciative Inquiry is often unethical and used in inappropriate contexts; it tells people what stories they are allowed to tell.  Open space is also like this in that it rewards consensus and punishes dissent. Anyone who survives in an open space does so because the only people there are those who listen – everyone else votes with their feet. Knowledge Management which focuses on best practice also entrains past practice and fosters consensus. In a complex system we have to increase diversity and conflict so that emergent possibilities become visible and can be consolidated.

If you haven’t failed, you have failed.

Any technique which relies on really good facilitation isn’t going to work on a consistent basis. We need processes that don’t require facilitation. It’s not about creating spaces to enable thing, but about creating processes (e.g. Ritual Dissent).

Final Message from Dave Snowden

Don’t give up on formal education, but interact with the ‘real world’ and read outside your subject.

8 thoughts on “Dave Snowden on The 21st Century University

  1. Ken Anderson January 30, 2012 / 12:43 am

    >PhDs destroy intelligence rather than build it.

    I am struggling with this statement, and the ones that support it. It is too easy a statement to make, and sounds too slogan-istic (as in: 3. A battle cry of a Scottish clan – http://www.thefreedictionary.com/slogan) for my liking. But I don’t like pedants either.

    By way of disclosure, I don’t hold a PhD, but am seeking one.

    I suspect that PhDs in fact build intelligence, of a sort. It may not be the type of intelligence that is preferred, at a particular place in time, by those doing the preferring, but it is a form of intelligence nonetheless.

  2. jennymackness January 30, 2012 / 7:55 pm

    Hi Ken – I agree. It is one of Dave Snowden’s controversial statements that jumped out at me too – and one that I think is easy for someone ‘who has made it’ and doesn’t have a PhD, to make.

    Since I don’t have a PhD myself, I can’t really comment on whether or not it builds intelligence. For myself, I have decided that the only form of PhD that would interest me is PhD by publication and even then, for myself in my own context (which is all important), it would be hugely expensive and I can’t see what I would get for my money that I can’t get by myself – apart, of course, from those letters PhD.

    But then, I don’t need the letters PhD for what I do with my life, but I can understand why it might be important for a career, if you were at that stage of your life.

    Hope you will be sharing your PhD journey online 🙂


  3. Elinor July 29, 2014 / 3:30 pm

    You really make it seem really easy together with your presentation however I
    find this matter to be actually one thing which I think I might by no means understand.
    It sort of feels too complex and extremely extensive for me.
    I am taking a look ahead in your next submit, I’ll attempt to get the hold of it!

  4. jennymackness July 29, 2014 / 4:04 pm

    Elinor – thanks for your comment. The presentation was not mine, but Dave Snowden’s. You might like to explore his Cognitive Edge blog – http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/author/19/ – where you can find out a lot more about his thinking.

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