Complexity and critical literacies

Is a critical literacy for networked learning to know something about Complexity Theory?

Dave Snowden was today’s speaker on the Critical Literacies open online course, talking about complexity. We had technical difficulties and had to move from ‘Open Meetings’ to ‘Elluminate’ (many thanks to Carmen) and when we finally got going it all seemed like a bit of a rush.  I’m not completely ignorant about complexity theory, but it was too fast for me and I will have to listen again to the recording when it finally gets posted (probably more than once), as there was a lot packed in there. We were also given this link which I have dipped into and looks as though it will be very useful.,-a-new-approach-to-research-and-productive-inquiry

My interest in complexity theory is related to what it has to say about teaching and learning – which comes back to critical literacies. My understanding is that a complex system is one in which you cannot predict what is going to happen and just that over-simplified one statement presents huge challenges for our education system (UK), which seems to want to prescribe and measure everything in sight. In an article that I read this afternoon, this question was asked about what complexity theory might mean for the philosophy of education:

Complexity theory poses a major question: What do the following mean for the philosophy of education: emergence and self-organization; connectedness; order without control; diversity and redundancy; unpredictability and non-linearity; co-evolution; communication and feedback; open, complex adaptive systems; and distributed control?

Any teacher will know the challenges that these ideas present,  just as anyone who took part in CCK08 might also recognise these as characteristics of a complex system.

I found this article (cited below) very helpful as an introduction to thinking about teaching and learning in terms of complexity theory.  Unfortunately it is not available online and I can’t post the pdf because of copyright restrictions, but it is likely to be in a University library if you have access to one.

Morrison, K. (2008). Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory. Philosophy, 40(1).

So plenty to think about and plenty to come back to! Is complexity theory ever included in a teacher trainee’s degree course? It wasn’t in any of the courses that I was ever involved in, but it seems to me to be important in helping teachers to manage the inevitable uncertainty, unpredictability and emergent learning which is going to increasingly occur as students become more and more connected and networked.

Uncertainty and learning

This week the Critical Literacies course bears the title ‘Change’ and Stephen has made a great post about ‘Patterns of Change’. Whilst a lot of this was not new to me (down to having a science background), I was really impressed by the lucidity with which the information was presented.

I have had a good look at the Report capacity, change and performance article as it relates to some research that I am currently involved with and I sent the link about 50 ways to foster a culture of innovation to my eldest son who is an entrepreneur, although if you are an entrepreneur you probably don’t need to read articles like this.  And I have lightly skimmed this – Technology, complexity, economy, catastrophe – Article Globe and Mail . But I haven’t yet had time to check out the other readings.

I’m going to be very interested to hear what Dave Snowden has to say this week (assuming that I can hear the presentation – I wasn’t able to hear Grainne’s last week) – because it seems to me that the critical literacy that is being addressed this week is an ability to cope with uncertainty. I don’t know enough about this to comment about it any further at this stage.

Related to this is Heli’s post today in which I was struck by her comment:

The Basic Message is that learning and development is not linear, it has individual phases, it goes up and down or straight foreward.

I would add to this that it can also go sideways – and diverge into areas that teachers do not expect. In thinking about this I was reminded of a course I went on a very long time ago about teaching mathematics to young children. We were asked to carry out an action research project about how children progressed through the National Curriculum (UK) for mathematics – and what were our findings? Well that the National Curriculum expected children to follow a linear course through prescribed stages – but did they? No – they certainly did not. They jumped all over the place – forwards in jumps instead of a nice linear sequence, sideways and even backwards.

This would suggest that a good teacher needs to be able to cope with this unpredictability in students’  learning – this uncertainty as to how learners are going to learn.

Where do you put your attention?

In thinking about why I am attending this Critical Literacies course, at a time when I should probably be focussing elsewhere, I realised that one reason is that I would like to know more about how to manage learning in an online networked environment. Sometimes, it hits me hard that I am seriously short of the necessary skills!

I mentioned this to a friend who suggested that I access this link –

This is a longish presentation by Howard Rheingold, who has a lot to say about 21st century literacies but principally about where you put your attention. I would agree that this is a critical literacy.

Also relevant to this is a post that George Siemens has made on his blog today. ‘Does the internet make you dumber/smarter?’ because I think it’s not just a question of ‘where you put your attention’, but ‘how you put your attention’ and I suppose that is what a lot of this course is about.

Wayfinding as a critical literacy

Heli’s first week reflections and Mike’s response to these have reminded me of the work of Darken & Sibert on wayfinding in virtual worlds, which I came across a few years ago when I was trying to learn more about why people might drop out of an online course.

This article is about what we might need to consider when designing large virtual environments in order to prevent people becoming disoriented and lost and suggests that navigation tools such as maps, landmarks and trails are needed. It has occurred to me that wayfinding must also be a critical literacy. In addition to being able to select and use technology, we need to be able to navigate virtual environments.

In another article by Darken and Peterson that I have found today – is this model of navigation

Darken, R. P., & Peterson, B. (2001). Spatial Orientation, Wayfinding and Representation. p. 6, Training, 4083.

This seems to me to be very relevant to discussions about critical literacies for networked learning and I’m wondering whether those with well-developed spacial awareness are in a better position to critically navigate virtual environments.

Critical Literacy – a personal perspective

Like Ken I need to sort out where discussion is going to focus in this course and what type of literacy we will be talking about. Traditionally literacy has been thought of in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening – at least this is in the UK where the National Curriculum for schools includes a ‘Literacy Hour’ – one hour every day of learning how to read, write, speak and listen (and all that entails). I remember when this was introduced to schools – force-fed literacy, according to a prescribed set of lesson plans- every day. Enough said!

However, this course is obviously about more than just reading, writing, speaking and listening – or I assume it is – as there is that word ‘critical’ in the course title. But what are we to be critical about and what are the critical skills we need?

Rita’s first question in Moodle give us a steer.

‘What do you perceive to be the critical literacies to be able to learn, work and play in a networked world and why?’

From my own ‘off the top of my head’ perspective (and trying to clarify my own current understanding, so that I can mark what I think at this point near the beginning of the course), here are my thoughts:

1. I obviously need some technical literacy or I won’t be able to take advantage of the networked world for learning work or play. If I wish, I can be very choosy, although I think it’s probably better to be connected to the internet and know how it works, than not. However, I haven’t felt the need to add, for example, Second Life to my list of literacies. So I need to be able to critically evaluate  which technologies I need and have a certain basic level of skill to learn how to use them.

2. Once I get into the networked world I find I am deluged with information. I have to be able to critically select what I need (from a range of media) – and once found I have to skim and scan (I have to be really good at this as there is so much information), understand, interpret, analyse and synthesise what I have selected – and come to some conclusion about whether it is useful to me.

3. Of course my information doesn’t just come from resources. The network’s richest resource is its people and this is where I have to apply what critical faculties I have to effective communication through first making appropriate connections and then through speaking, listening and writing. My ability to do this is heavily influenced by me as a person, my motives, attitudes and emotions – but critical skills also come into play in deciding who to connect with and which conversations to follow or not.  I think this involves some sort of critical awareness and acuity, and ability to use my past experience to inform my current and future practice.

4. Once the connection has been made I may have very limited visual and audio cues to assist me in developing the connection, so I have to be a good listener (hopefully an empathic one too). The ‘listening’ may be done through audio, but may equally be done through text. Critical listening involves ‘hearing’ beyond the words, and  understanding and accurately interpreting what is being ‘said’.

5. In responding to others, questioning is an important skill – to seek clarification, surface assumptions, elicit alternative perspectives and dig deeper. Robert Ennis (1962) suggested these 12 questions for critical analysis of an idea:

  • Is it meaningful?
  • Is it clear (as opposed to ambiguous)?
  • Is it consistent (as opposed to contradictory)?
  • Is it logical? (a conclusion will follow necessarily)
  • Is it precise (specific enough)?
  • Is it following a rule (does it apply a principle)?
  • Is is accurate (reliable)?
  • Is it justified (an inductive conclusion is warranted)?
  • Is it relevant (the problem has been identified)?
  • Is it taken for granted (an assumption)?
  • Is it well defined?
  • Is it true (whether a statement taken on authority is acceptable)?

Ennis, RH (1962) A concept of critical thinking. Vol. 32, No. 1,  pp. 83-111. Harvard Educational Review

These are the sorts of questions I need to ask, not just in conversation with others, but when interacting with any sort of information resource.

6. Following reading, listening and questioning, my response will often be written, but I have a whole host of technical tools which I could use for responding. The critical skill in writing is being able to compose a response which is articulate, which effectively communicates its intentions, which can be accurately interpreted and which demonstrates an ability to think critically (taking into account all the above).

7. In trying to read, write, speak and listen critically I need to try and  ‘think outside the box’. Jean Piaget sums this up nicely:

The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive and discoverers. The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered.

This has always been the case, but learning in a networked world increases the need to be aware of the limitations of ‘group think’ and ‘echo chambers’.

8.  Finally, my own experience tells me that in this networked world I have to be even more able to reflect on my own learning, to constantly question my own attitudes, thoughts and behaviours – and to be as ‘open’ as I can – for someone who always comes out of those tests as an introvert :-).

These are my current thoughts about what critical literacy means for me on the basis of my past experience and current practice.

Critical thinking

I attempted to attend the synchronous session today with Grainne Conole (on the Critical Literacies online course) – but I’m afraid I abandoned it when the audio kept cutting out and it was clear that I was not get the return on investment of my time that I needed. Shame – because I think it would have been very useful and Slideshare without the speaker never quite does it for me.

So I’ll move on.

I’ve done the description post (previous one) and now will try to do more of a  ‘take what you have and move beyond it’  type of post – as Carmen has done so eloquently (as always) in her post.

The reading list for this week is not completely unfamiliar to me: how to be persuasive (I scanned this but it didn’t grab me) critical thinking (I read this, but noted it’s date and know that there is more recent ‘stuff’ out there – will come back to this) studentguide to Freakonomics: rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything (Another quick scan but it didn’t grab me) How scientific peer review works (Haven’t even looked at this) The critical thinking community (Already know of this)

I’m sure this is very telling of my level of critical literacy! So to return to the Alec Fisher article which I did read – I felt it did not distinguish clearly enough between critical thinking and reflective thinking. I know of course that it’s not as simple as that and that there is overlap – but I like the work of Jenny Moon, which is more recent. She has written extensively about reflective learning. Two wonderfully helpful books are:

  • Moon J (2006) Learning Journals. Routledge Falmer
  • Moon J (2005) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. Routledge Falmer
  • And she has also written about critical thinking and tried to unravel the differences between them.

    Moon J (2005) We seek it here…a new perspective on the elusive activity of critical thinking. Escalate Discussion Series  See

    This is how she thinks about critical thinking and reflection

    We said above that deep reflection is similar to
    critical thinking but tends to be more often associated
    with thinking about the self and personal activities
    and critical thinking tends to be more associated with
    the need to arrive at a conclusion or judgement. (p.21)

    I can relate to this. I see reflection as internally oriented  and critical thinking as externally oriented and I also see them as being interdependent.

    So what has all this to do with critical literacies? And I’m wondering if in this course critical literacies is going to be confused with digital literacy or one of the other literacies that Grainne mentioned in the very first part of her presentation that I was able to pick up.

    I think we might need to start being clear about what kind of literacy we are talking about.

    Open learning advance organisers

    The opening synchronous meeting for the Critical Literacies course was very interesting, as unlike for CCk08 where we just pitched in and sank or swam, here we were given advice on how we might go about learning on this course.

    The overall message was the same. It is an open course. We can and should pick and choose when, where, how, what and with whom we learn – all as in CCK08. We can come and go as we want – but Stephen suggested that we take part in 4 activities:

    • Aggregate
    • Remix
    • Repurpose
    • Feedforward

    Aggregate: gather content using Google reader ( The course newsletter (The Daily) is an example of aggregation. I don’t use Google reader. Perhaps I should. I have found in the past that it just fills up with stuff that I never look at. Perhaps I am not using it correctly.

    Remix: Pick and choose from the content and find a way of recording/keeping track of this, e.g. using an online bookmark tracker such as Delicious, or create a blog, or take screenshots and post on Flickr or record yourself on video. I have a Delicious account, but its another thing that I tend to put stuff in and then never look at again. I already have this and two other blogs. I also have a Flickr account but I do not use it for work purposes. Me and video do not go together. I am camera shy!

    Repurpose: Recreate content for your own purposes. There are 4 major ways of repurposing

    • Describe/description – ( the simplest kind of critical literacy)
    • Infer/ argumentation, inference, drawing conclusions, responding – taking what you have and moving beyond it
    • Explain/ explanation – to go beyond appearance – identify underlying forces that make things the way they are
    • Define – to assign meanings to words (this is needed for all the others)

    All 4 things play a different role. They form all of your cognition – every sentence – everything you think falls in one of these 4 things.

    Critical Literacies are not simply critical – they are creative – they are about adding value to content

    Feedforward: Presentation of work and sharing rather than competing. Produce learning materials for other people to aggregate, remix, repurpose and feedforward, so starting the cycle again.

    This seems to me a useful way of thinking about how to work online.