Tag Archives: learning

Fluency is Belonging

localswimDR The gringo usually learns the unwritten rules of a place the hard way: he’ll be duped, cheated or swindled. He may be perfectly intelligent, know the geography, history, flora and fauna of a place, but his habits make him a stranger.

Habit has a simple grace that knowledge can only hope to describe. Studying the practices of local people in the way an anthropologist might will not make them one’s own. In fact, it’s just as likely to have the opposite effect, of objectifying and externalizing them. Unless a stranger becomes used to the ways and manners of others, or until their usages become his own, he will never enjoy the easy social intercourse the locals effortlessly enjoy. He will have to settle for making observations and taking notes, and conducting transactions of various kinds.

His lonely case is not unlike that of someone who has mastered the grammar but not the idiom of a language. At best he can correctly fill out forms (making verbs agree with subjects, changing tenses or moods, and so on). But ordinary conversation takes an ease and fluency that can’t be gotten out of a book or committed to memory.

That’s because real fluency is more than successful mimicry. It’s belonging.

From Aping to Asking

Joseph Jordania offers a clever but not entirely satisfying answer to the question posed in the title of his book Who Asked The First Question?

“The first human being.”

Did asking questions make us human? Maybe not exactly, or at least that can’t be the whole story. But to be human is to ask questions, and clearly the ability to ask things of each other — to request clarification, to invite others to join with us in some activity, to make offers and claims or demand reasons — is at the very core of human social life; and in primate cognitive evolution, asking or the power to ask must represent a significant turn toward the human.

A 2004 study of chimpanzee gesture sequences by Liebal and Tomasello suggests that apes do not request clarification in the way we do, from infancy, to help the other convey meaning or in order to negotiate meaning collaboratively. Asking for clarity, we recognize the other, show that we appreciate the role she is playing in trying to communicate with us, and we make meaning together; and just as importantly — and on a more basic level — we commit to the project. It’s not language use that differentiates us here; it’s the commitment (though I would not be surprised if these turned out to be indistinguishable and inextricable). The so-called “speaking” bonobo Kanzi will play with toys or participate in the preparation of food, but so far as researchers can tell, Kanzi lacks understanding that he is doing these things together with you: he is not jointly committed with you to the activity, does not recognize your role or support you in it.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

For Tomasello and his colleagues, our amazing ability to co-create meaning or even to coordinate through request and reply isn’t what ultimately sets us apart. The first human may have asked the first question, but the power of asking and language use itself is “not basic; it is derived.” “An adaptation for participating in collaborative activities involving shared intentionality” is the more fundamental evolutionary step, write Tomasello et al. in a 2005 paper on human cognitive evolution. “At some point — perhaps heralding the emergence of modern humans some 150,000 years ago — individuals who could collaborate together more effectively in various social activities came to have a selective advantage.”

Early human life, in this view, does not look so nasty, brutish and short, or at least not so nasty and brutish; and Tomasello is aware that he’s running against the prevailing “Machiavellian” account of human evolution. He offers a “Cultural account” of human cognitive evolution that “emphasizes … the importance of collaboration, cultural historical processes, and strong reciprocity based on social norms.” Putting the emphasis on collaborative give and take instead of on winner-take-all competition may not make sense of every step in our evolution, but it helps Tomasello bring into focus an important aspect of human cognition. Specifically, he argues that it was through collaboration (not competition) that we became highly skilled at reading and sharing intentions.

Although intention reading may be helpful in competitive interactions, it is not absolutely necessary — since in competition I care mainly about what you do. That is to say, in competitive interactions, the interactants do not have goals about others’ intentional states; the situation is that we both have the “same” goal (e.g., both want that piece of food), and the key thing is that I anticipate what you will do next. In contrast, collaborative interactions require interactants to have goals about others’ intentional states so that the requisite shared goals and plans may be formulated. Thus, in collaborative interactions, we are faced with the so-called coordination problem from the outset: to get started, we must somehow coordinate or negotiate so that we end up with a shared goal…Then, in addition, to collaborate effectively, we must mesh our action plans at least some of the way down the hierarchy — and this requires some communication about those plans, at least to some degree ahead of time.

“The motivations and skills for participating in this…’we’ intentionality are woven into the earliest stages of human ontogeny and underlie young children’s developing ability to participate in the collectivity that is human cognition.” In other words, we are hard-wired for soft sharing skills — born to collaborate. At only 14 months of age, infants “begin to understand full- fledged intentional action – including the rudiments of the way people make rational decisions in choosing action plans for accomplishing their goals in particular reality contexts and selectively attending to goal-relevant aspects of the situation.”

This kind of understanding leads to some powerful forms of cultural learning, especially imitative learning in which the observer must perform a means-end analysis of the actor’s behavior and say in effect: “When I have the same goal I can use the same means (action plan).” This analysis is also necessary before one can ask why someone did something and whether that reason also applies in my circumstance (“rational imitation”).  Without such analysis, only simpler forms of social learning are possible.

That is how, to riff on the horrible pun I’ve chosen for the title of this post, we manage to do more than simply ape the behavior of others; we learn by analyzing and asking. We can learn recipes and social rituals, make tools and share techniques, build bridges and launch sea voyages. We can inquire whether another’s reasons match our circumstances, and when we make that effort at rational imitation, we have only just begun to tap the power of asking. In order to ask why someone did something, after all, we must first see them as someone who has reasons: we ascribe rationality to them and to ourselves. You are someone who acts with reason, for reasons, and so am I. We are mutually accountable, so we can demand (or ask) that we bring reasons for our actions.

Why A Lake Superior Mining Indaba Is A Good Idea

Twice this week, first in reply to a comment on another post, and then in an email exchange, I half-jokingly suggested that we need to call a Lake Superior Mining Indaba – a big gathering of all stakeholders around the Lake Superior Basin to deliberate, listen and be heard on the future the new mining boom is already ushering in. I’d been following the African Mining Indaba underway this week in Capetown; and while that buttoned-up event — a forum focused primarily on private sector investment in Africa — isn’t exactly a model for the public gathering I picture, the Zulu word indaba and the images it conjures of people coming from all around the lake have stayed with me, and the promise of the idea keeps growing.

First, don’t let the Zulu word put you off. That’s just what got me started down this path. The concept it conveys is definitely not foreign to the Lake Superior region. Gatherings like these have a long history there. “The Sault,” writes Warren in his History of the Ojibway, “was a major summer gathering place for many native people in the seventeenth century,” well before the establishment of a trading post there in 1750; at La Pointe, where “a continual fire burned,” there was “a yearly national gathering” and initiation into the rites of the Midewiwin. In the 18th century big regional events like the Montreal trade fairs were as essential as more formal diplomatic forums in establishing and renewing the French-Algonquin alliance (though, as White shows, the regular accommodations necessitated by daily life were most important of all in perpetuating it).

A Lake Superior Mining Indaba, as I envision it, could combine elements of a Future Search conference, a bonfire celebration (like the Juhannuskokko at Misery Bay) a Pow Wow (like the Manoomin festivals in Ontario and Bad River), and a music or cultural festival.

Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the Indaba runs Wednesday to Friday, to be followed by a festival weekend. The conference brings together a few hundred people from around the lake to share stories and ideas and plan for the future. From more formal discussions and interactions to serendipitous, informal conversations, the conference would help people make meaningful connections, and build the kind of diverse, resilient network that’s needed to accelerate learning as the boom begins.

As I like to remind people, one of the busiest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. That calls for some concerted thinking about the future, as well as concerted planning and action.

The 90-day public comment periods like those we’ve seen in Minnesota for the Polymet project or the dysfunctional “community forums” Rio Tinto staged in Michigan – which I’ve written about before, and which have seen a falloff in attendance – are no substitute for genuine public deliberation. Nor do they allow for big-picture thinking or the kind of networked learning that a lake-wide Indaba like this could initiate.

Many environmental leaders in the region now sense the need for a cumulative environmental assessment – a scientific assessment of the effects all this mining on the US and Canadian sides of the lake is going to have on the waters and on the region as a whole. We also need a broad, cumulative assessment of where all this activity leaves people living around the lake, what direction things ought to take, and an actionable plan for how to get there.

Leadership Mantras

The power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

There is power in letting go of power.
Let go. Listen. Learn.

The power of asking is nothing more — and nothing less — than the capacity for serious conversation.

Listening means hearing and heeding the other.

Before you say someone is in your way, ask where she is going.

Conversation will cure certainty.

To act is to try. To try is to begin. We are all beginners.

If you think people are waiting for your leadership, you need to do some catching up.

Respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing people ask of us.

…to be continued.

Creativity or Command?

John Hagel and John Seely-Brown have a new piece on CNN Money called “Welcome to the Hardware Revolution” that nicely highlights an issue I touched on yesterday: the limits that institutionalized power — or the ways we institutionalize power — can place on learning and innovation.

I suggested, in passing, that business organizations rely on hierarchical models of command-obedience in order to achieve efficiency; but that doesn’t always work to their advantage (and the performance advantage to be gained from scalable efficiency, Hagel and Seely-Brown have argued elsewhere, isn’t anywhere near what it used to be). What these companies may gain in efficiency they lose in creativity, learning and innovation.

Here is what Hagel and Seely-Brown have to say in their “Hardware Revolution” piece:

many of the executives we speak with list talent development and innovation as top priorities, but for all they push, progress remains a struggle. Part of the problem is that most businesses’ institutional structures, hierarchies, and cultures actually limit the connecting, exploration, tinkering, and improvisation that make learning and innovation possible.

Increasingly, the sharing of ideas and new developments are taking place outside big companies or officially sanctioned workflows and processes, in what Hagel and Seely-Brown call “creation spaces.” These are spaces — communities, networks and cultures — conducive to what Illich would call conviviality: places real or virtual, open and decentralized, where people congregate to share tools and experiment together, learn from one another, try new things, and be part of a community of people with shared interests.

The article goes on to recommend some basic questions business executives can ask themselves in order to improve their companies and move them toward creativity, or at least get their bearings. But there’s another question looming behind those: the question how (in a large and established organization) you go about institutionalizing the kind of practices you find in creation spaces. Eventually, something’s got to give; and if it comes down to a decision between preserving organizational hierarchies and legacy models of how stuff gets done or opening the doors to creativity — how many will choose the latter?

Maybe the choice is not as stark as my title makes it out to be. Let’s just say there are better ways to spur creativity than to command it.

Kant or Castaneda?

Fernando J. Grijalva and I have never met, but I hope we do someday. We’ve shared ideas, disagreed, and exchanged views, entirely online, usually in 140 characters or less. I consider him an intellectual companion, a “co-learner,” to use the word Fernando likes to use. Yesterday we shared an error.

It started when Fernando posted this quotation, attributed to Kant:

I was intrigued, and wondered what word Kant used here for “lives,” since that word (which, along with the nominative form “life,” never fails to intrigue me) seemed to be the crux of the thought. So I went searching, and in my haste I thought I found it in the Critique of Pure Reason.

Instead, it turns out, my quick scan of the Google search results misled me. This morning, when I tried to pick up the trail, my search led me not to the German text of Kant’s Critique, but to Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. Here is the passage in full. Don Juan is speaking:

‘I told you once that our lot as men is to learn, for good or bad,’ he said. ‘I have learned to see and I tell you that nothing really matters; now it is your turn; perhaps someday you will see and you will know then whether things matter or not. For me nothing matters, but for you perhaps everything will. You should know by now that a man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.’ (emphasis mine)

Reading this again after all these years – as a teenager I devoured Castaneda’s books, but as an adult I’ve never gone back to them – I am surprised and impressed by the power of Castenada’s writing; at the same time it’s hard to believe anyone ever mistook this stuff for anthropology.

While I wouldn’t put it past the writer who made Don Juan out of whole cloth to have channeled or lifted something from Kant, here he sounds more like he is channeling some mix of Erasmus and Nietzsche.

Quoted out of context, the line about the man of knowledge sounds like serious philosophy, but turns out to be pseudo-anthropological fantasy (which may, in turn, have something philosophically serious to offer). In context, it’s not quite the lesson in pragmatism Fernando thought it was. So, for now, unless someone can find the sentence in Kant, Castaneda should get all the credit.