ResearchEd14: Michael Slavinsky and Alex Weatherall are the right kind of crazy.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

Chinese Proverb

I don’t know what a meeting between Michael Slavinsky and Alex Weatherall sounds like, but I imagine it would be a Google executive’s wet dream. At ResearchED Midlands, we were given a window into their world and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the ‘completely mad idea’ that they were proposing. They were cautious, and repeatedly asked their audience “Is this completely stupid? Is there any way that this will work?”

I don’t think that anyone was qualified to say, we were watching innovators at work, and it was magic. Slavinksy and Weatherall possess a kind of cleverness that I will never really understand. They take complex ideas and concepts and connect them like a crossword, but driving all of this is a simple and powerful idea; a goal of giving the teaching profession a very special gift.

The Problem

At last year’s ResearchEd conference Laura McInerney proposed a list of 7 Touchpaper Problems, which if solved would have a huge benefit on education. Slavinsky and Weatherall have chosen problem 4, ‘What determines the complexity of a problem?’

touchpaper-problems

They define complexity as made up of more than one part, and brought attention to the fact that many of the concepts that we teach demand requisite knowledge or understanding. At times in education, this is obvious and straightforward, for instance I should not teach my year three class about collective nouns until they fully understand what a noun is. But with much of what we teach, the underlying concepts are not as obvious. Thus: What even determines the complexity of a given concept?

The Completely Mad Solution

First, list every concept that we teach, in every subject. Then link together related concepts. Next, order whether one concept rests on another (i.e. the first concept is unintelligible without it). Finally, assign a value strength to the relationship between two concepts. So Romeo and Juliet would strongly rest on an understanding of tragedy, and Newton’s Second Law would be very strongly underpinned by acceleration (which in turn is underpinned by the concept of velocity etc).

neurone map

We would be left with a sparse and interconnected map, which I couldn’t help but feel would resemble those fancy pictures of neurone maps. Add in to this the notion of weighting the strength of the relationship between concepts (which sounds a lot like a firing threshold) and the analogy becomes even more striking. “Are you just going to end up mapping the brain?” I asked Weatherall. He shrugged, unintimidated by the similarity in task, “Not really. But we had to use software that was originally created for mapping genes.”

How It Would Help

Once the concepts are inputted, a computer programme does magic and processes the relationships, which would give teachers at least 3 really useful tools:

  1. It could create an index of complexity, and assign each concept with a number on this scale. So if you are teaching adverbial phrases, you would be able to check the complexity number and make decisions about how much lesson time this will need.
  2. It could order concepts to ensure schemes of work do not feature more complex concepts before prerequisite concepts.
  3. It could identify ‘threshold concepts’. These are ideas that, once understood, open the understanding for many, many more concepts. For example, I would suggest that the Inverse Law is a threshold concept in mathematics.

(Michael gives a better and more detailed outline of the utility of this project here)

Potential Problems (And Solutions)

It is undeniable that the results of such a map would be of huge use to the profession. But it’s obviously a huge piece of work to map all of these concepts. Weatherall suggested crowd-sourcing as a solution to this, and cited the Zooniverse project as an example of how millions of internet users have all played a small role in contributing towards a solution of an unfathomably vast and seemingly unending problem.

But I wasn’t convinced by this answer. The Zooniverse is popular because it’s about space and has stunning visuals of galaxies and stars and such. I’m not sure that this project would have that cool appeal. It would rest on teachers dedicating unpaid hours on laborious work for the benefit of the profession at large.

Then again, most teachers are quite used to doing just that.

There is a second, more fundamental problem which may prove to be completely irrelevant. This map rests epistemological and linguistic assumptions: that knowledge is defined by its coherence with other knowledge, and that all we need is better definitions and more foundational understanding to make the next learning step. Both of these are open-questions within the philosophical and psychological literature, and are likely to remain that way. It may well be that attempting to map anything leads us “down the rabbit-hole”, as Weatherall poetically put it. In all likelihood, however, these questions can remain academic, and won’t affect the overall map.

Conclusion

This was a fascinating talk of an embryonic project attempting to answer one of the most difficult problems in education. It’s perhaps unfair of me to assess it to the extent that I have here, but its importance and potential compels me to get it out there.

Is it completely crazy? Yes.

And that’s what makes it so exciting.

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