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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Pattern learning: Pattern accumulation in a learning society

Global Strategies Project

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1. Reliance on conceptual solid ground

In a social condition of "structured fluidity", observers can no longer usefully assume that they are standing on solid ground around which events flow (for their intellectual delectation). Such an assumption merely temporarily defines the observer (or an aspect of his personality) as a rigid element in society, within which he is not currently undergoing a process of developmental transformation. In this sense observers are, momentarily, non-participants in the process of human and social development. Furthermore observation is only one step in the learning process, to the extent that it is useful to consider that observers, as observers, are effectively non-learners.

2. Significance through the learning process

It would seem that in a fluid environment, structured by degrees and kinds of comprehension, that a vital step forward is to switch from interpreting actions in terms of their significance for development to their significance as learning. It is strange that "development" is conventionality a process applied to, or undergone by "others" -- never by the "developers", despite their well-documented limitations. It is acknowledged that good teachers succeed partly because their attitude is one of learning with, and from, the student - to the point that "facilitator" is more appropriate than "teacher". The advocated change can then be represented by:

  • From: developers plus developees = developing society
  • To: facilitator-learners plus learners = learning society

3. Extending the concept of learning

For this change of interpretation to be other than cosmetic, the concept of "learning" must: (a) extend far beyond conventional forms of book learning and training; (b) be promoted as an activity of all social institutions; (c) extend beyond individual learning (in a learning society) to group and societal learning; (d) be accepted as intrinsic to all activities of all social institutions (not just "educational" programmes, but living as learning).

The first two points are well elaborated in the report of the UNESCO International Commission on the Development of Education (1972), concerned with the emergence of a "learning society" but from which the last two points are totally absent, since they do not refer to "development of individual education" (a well-defined answer domain) but "development as societal learning" (which generates its own answers) in a more inclusive sense. The importance of the third point has been discussed in an earlier paper (A J N Judge, 1982) in relation to the erosion of collective memory.

Rector Soedjatmoko of the UN University has emphasized this point (prior to taking that position) in relation to the "learning capacity of a nation": "The capacity of a nation - not just of its government, but of society as a whole - to adjust to rapidly changing techno-economic, socio-cultural and political changes, on a scale which makes it possible to speak of social transformation, very much depends on its collective capacity to generate, to ingest, to reach out for, and to utilize a vast amount of new and relevant information. This capacity for creative and innovative response to changing conditions and new challenges I would like to call the learning capacity of a nation. This capacity is obviously not limited to the cognitive level, but includes the attitudinal, institutional and organizational levels of society as well. It therefore resides not only in a nation's formal educational system, not only in the government bureaucracy, in parliament and the political parties, but also in the business community, in the media, the professional organizations, the trade unions, the cooperatives and the various kinds of voluntary associations within the society at large. It also includes the political public with its various political constituencies, consumer groups, and all other kinds of permanent and ad hoc pressure groups." (1981, p. 8283).

4. Societal learning

A Club of Rome report extends this notion to "humanity": "Our continued survival is testimony that humanity indeed learns...So we have to reconsider what is meant by the statement "humanity learns". Does the statement not imply - indeed demand - that learning occur at the right time and on a scale sufficiently large not only to avoid disasters but also to conclude a century, so much traumatized by successive follies, with a gain in peace, dignity, and happiness ?" (p. 118).

The report concludes however that: "The conventional, often unarticulated, conception of how societies learn... (is reduced to one of)...adjusting to and consuming the discoveries and knowledge produced in centres of expertise. The unavoidable consequence of this view of societal learning is elitism, technocracy and paternalism. What is omitted is the fact that meaning and values - decisive for learning - are products of society at large, not of specialized centres...(that)...tend to reproduce themselves according to their own internal logic. This autonomous and self-reproducing development accounts in large part for the fact that so much of societal learning is maintenance learning." (p. 8081).

5. Maintenance vs shock learning

The basic distinction made in the report between the necessities of maintenance (adaptive) learning and innovative (shock) learning can be related to the alternation process (discussed in previous notes): "Innovative societal learning seeks to restore active learning to those in society conventionally confined to a passive role of assimilation". But whilst much research has been done on individual learning processes, hardly any is done on organizational or group or societal learning (Botkin, 1979, p. 137).

The key question then becomes: what is the individual or collective learning component of any activity? A major weakness of conventional concepts of development is that, outside the economic answer domain, there is no positive coherent image of what is being achieved by human and social development processes. In a learning society, however, it is "learning" which is being accumulated, where this can best be partially defined in terms of accumulation of recognized patterns. Discovery of the manner in which newly comprehended patterns interlock and constrain each other most economically, in terms of a meta-pattern, is the organizing constraint upon the accumulation process.

7. Learning through doing

Given the current passive, academically inferior status of "learning" (as part of the professor-student, trainer-trainee dominance mind-set), it should be apparent that a complementary active (learning through doing), conflictual (learning through opposing) dimension is inherent in what is advocated here. Learning is effectively being "defined" by the accumulation process in the zigzag ladder of dialectical alternation between perceptions of forms and process, which Bateson considers "basic to the way in which the world of adaptive action is put together." (1979, p. 201).

"I shall further suggest that the very nature of perception follows this paradigm; that learning is to be modelled on the same sort of zigzag paradigm; that in the social world, the relation between love and marriage or education and status necessarily follow a similar paradigm; that in evolution, the relation between somatic and phylogenetic change and the relation between the random and the selected have this zigzag form. I shall suggest that similar relations obtain at a more abstract level between speciation and variation, between continuity and discontinuity and between number and quantity" (p. 195).

8. Discontinuity of learning

Learning of this kind can only ever be partially contained within an organization or a paradigm, because of its essentially dichotomous nature. As Bateson says: "This view makes the process of learning...necessarily discontinuous...A world of sense,organization, and communication is not conceivable without discontinuity, without threshold. If sense organs can receive news only of difference and if neurons either fire or do not fire, then threshold becomes necessarily a feature of how the living and mental world is put together". (p. 202).

Learning is an ordered dynamic response to discontinuity and conflict between institutions and answer domains - a conflict which it engenders and by which it is engendered, for learning to continue. But learning is not an unconstrained process without limits, except in a purely gross sense. Due to the progressive interlocking of accumulated patterns into nested meta-patterns, as a solution to human processing capacity limitations, there is a form of directed, convergence onto a progressively clarified ultimate meta-pattern, towards which learning tends asymptotically, in that final (en)closure is never achieved (except possibly as an essentially transient, private, transcendental experience). Bateson describes this ultimate pattern as: "The pattern which connects (all living creatures) is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect". (p. 11).

Final enclosure evanesces in the paradoxical world of self-reference explored in a left-hemisphere mode by D Hofstadter (1979). Jantsch points out however that in life the issue is not control but dynamic connectedness. For him "Learning may generally be described as the co-evolution of systems which accumulate experience". (1980, p. 196). He cites Christine von Weizaecker:

"...co-evolving systems....play between adaptation and non-adaptation. Total adaptation and total non-adaptation are both lethal. In ecology, a niche fits the species sufficiently, without defining it; the species, in turn, fit the niche sufficiently, without defining it. What else is fitting, but not defining each other, than an emancipated relation".

9. Cognitive systematization

In order to clarify the implications of the previous notes for some integrated approach to human and social development, it is appropriate to consider the current status of cognitive systematization. This has been the concern of Nicholas Rescher who explores the reason for systematization in the cognitive domain and shows how this is one of the crucial features of the development of knowledge (1979). It is to be expected that the pattern of insights and conclusions would be relevant to development in general.

Rescher identifies eleven definitive characteristics of systematicity: wholeness, completeness, self-sufficiency, cohesiveness, consonance, architectonic structure, functional unity, functional regularity, functional simplicity, mutual supportiveness, and functional efficacy (p. 10)). He points out, citing C S Peirce, that the need for understanding through a unified view of things is a real as any of man's physical cravings, and more powerful than many of them. The above characteristics "are constitutive components of that systemacity through which alone understanding can be achieved". (p. 29). The point of cognitive systematization in relational terms is that (a) it is the prime vehicle for understanding by making claims intelligible, (b) it authenticates the adequacy of the organization of knowledge, (c) it is a vehicle of cognitive quality control, providing a test of acceptability, and (d) it provides the definitive constituting criterion of knowledge (p. 2938). Similar points could be usefully made about the integration of development.

The alternative modes of cognitive systematization are distinguished by Rescher. These are foundationalism, based on a Euclidean model of a linear, deductive exfoliation from basic axioms and coherentism, a network model of cyclic systematization of interrelated theses (p. 39). The Euclidean model is typical of the logic governing formalized (intergovernmental) development programmes based on a set of principles. The network model is typical of the logic of grass-roots development movements. From the network perspective, the Euclidean model imposes a drastic limitation by "inflating what is at most a local feature of derivation from the underived (i.e. locally underived) into a global feature that endows the whole system with an axiomaticstructure". Thus although "a network system gives up Euclideanism at the global level of its over-all structure, it may still exhibit a locally Euclidean aspect, having local neighbourhoods whose systematic structure is deductive/axiomatic" (p. 4445).

The network model shifts the perspective, as Maruyama also notes, from unidirectional dependency to reciprocal interconnection, abandoning the concept of priority or fundamentality in its arrangement of these. "It replaces such fundamentality by a conception of enmeshment in a unifying web" (p. 4647), whereas the Euclidean approach gives priority to derivation from what is better understood or more fundamental.

Rescher notes (p. 5859) that the basic weakness in the latter approach was however demonstrated by Kurt Gödel (1958), who showed both that the consistency of any formal axiomatic system can never be proved, and that the deductive axiomatization of any such system was inherently incomplete. There are therefore always "true" statements in a given domain that cannot be derived form the chosen axioms. It would seem that this too has important implications for the limitations of development programmes elaborated on the basis of pre-determined sets of principles in some "declaration" or "world plan of action", especially since Rescher indicates the possibility of a breakdown of deductivism in the factual sciences as well (p. 176).

10. Limits to cognitive systematization

Rescher also provides a valuable analysis of the limits to cognitive systematization. He identifies three possibilities: incompletability, inconsequence (or disconnectedness, compartmentalization), and inconsistency (or incoherence).

With regard to the first, he notes that it is unrealistic to expect either attainment of a completed and final state of factual knowledge, or a condition in which all questions are answered. "Accordingly, we have little alternative but to take the humbling view that the incompleteness of our information entails its incorrectness, as well" (p. 1523). In a more highly developed future, fundamental errors will be perceived in present formulations and programmes - as can already be detected in the development strategies of past decades.

With regard to disconnectedness, the second possibility, Rescher argues that this cannot characterize the body of our factual knowledge as a whole which can always be joined by mediating connections of common relevancy (p. 164). The problem is rather that despite such causal linkage, there could well fail to be connections in meaning between two domains. The fundamental causal matrix in which all natural occurrences are bound together "might merely be a purely formal unity, lacking any sufficient substantive basis of functional connectedness." Nature might come to be shown as operating in an essentially compartmentalized manner. Furthermore, Rescher notes, gaps in the knowledge attainable at any time might in practice block realization of any underlying interconnectedness. This issue of compartmentalization is of course of crucial importance in the design of interdisciplinary development programmes, for which no adequate methodology has yet emerged, partly because of separative behaviour characteristic of disciplines.

With regard to the third possibility, Rescher sees inconsistency as lying at the root of the urge to systematicity. It is the very drive toward completeness that enjoins the toleration of inconsistency upon us. But rather than implying no system at all, any inconsistency-embracing world picture involves the toleration of ungainly systems of deficient systemacity (p. 1767). It is a question of degree.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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