There are two things you learn if you ever grow-up. Firstly, there are no adults in the world; nobody who can look after us. We are it. Secondly, there is nothing inevitable about the way things are.
We tend to see events as the confluence of unstoppable historical forces. The left worries about neoliberalism. The right worries about regulation. All feel relatively powerless in the face of events beyond their control.
And there is a kind of truth to this.
You can’t go changing the world, just like that. If you could, it would be chaos. The world would be changing all the time and in as bizarre a multiplicity of ways as there are people to dream them up. So it’s a little like a system of self-protection.
In this sense, the world has something in common with our long term memories.
I used to think that the extreme limitations of working memory were a design flaw. If only we could expand that processing power, we could learn faster and with greater efficiency. If we accept that all academic content has to pass through the working memory in order to cause a permanent change in the long-term memory then this seems like a big problem.
But perhaps this is a protection mechanism that prevent chaos in the long term memory. This bottleneck for incoming information means that we cannot quickly and rapidly change our long-term memories and this may be a protective system. If we add evidence that learned content is strengthened through repeated retrieval, we can see a mechanism by which the mind sorts the important wheat from the ephemeral chaff.
Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga liken* the mind as an information processing system to the limited number of evolutionary moves that successive generations of an organism can make through genetic mutations. Again, this seems to prevent radical and harmful rapid change yet, over time, can lead to extraordinary feats of invention.
We may argue that the world has a similar kind of self-protecting capability. This could account for why bad ideas persist despite a lack of utility or evidence: Gaia, the small-c conservative. It is not that the way of the world is inevitable, it is more that it is stable.
So is this a counsel of despair? Hardly. If we look to the analogy of the mind for inspiration then two things become clear: Learning is hard but it is not impossible. We know that we can get around the limitations of working memory by drawing on knowledge we already possess and by breaking new knowledge down into manageable pieces.
So we can change the world, but only in limited and quite specific ways at any given time; something which is easier to do if we can draw on systems and models that are already out there.
And that’s what I’ll be continuing to pursue as we move into 2018. I will stick to my brief of education and I will advocate for small, clearly defined changes which I believe, if enacted over time, will make the world a better place.
*It looks like the mammoth and pricey ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ by Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga is currently available for free online here