Monday, 4 August 2008

Thinking about transitions between self organisation and self regulation

In a previous post, I noted that Carver suggests that self regulated learning and self organised learning are two different processes, and that different parts of the brain may be responsible – although this is, he says, a speculative proposal. If it is true, though, we cannot have a linear transition from one to the other – the process cannot reside in some intermediate part of the brain. We have the question then, of whether the change from one to the other is a discontinuous flip – perhaps once the self organised learner has found an attractor and reached a stable state, this triggers the self regulated process and switches off the self organising process. Gestalt psychology, and experience of "Ah ha" moments might suggest that this is the case. Alternatively, the change may look continuous – as the learner homes in on an attractor the self organising process may gradually tail off, with the self regulated process gradually increasing, and the overall learning process represented by the convolution of the two.

Under what conditions could self regulated learning take over from self organised learning. It seems to me that the essential condition for self regulated learning is to be able to conceive of the goal and a process for reaching that goal (?charting). Feedback then comes into play in monitoring the process and progress towards the goal. To be able to conceive the goal and process one must have some experience of it already; this is why I do not see how cutting edge research can be self regulated. But the experience may be vicarious, and it is this, I think, that makes self regulated learning in an educational context possible.

We also have an issue of goal definition. Does the process of reaching a goal help to define the goal? Or is a goal that we do not know how to reach, necessarily one we consider ill-defined? Or has this more to do with whether the measure of achievement is an internal subjective or external objective measure?

Consider the goal, “I want to get a 1st class degree classification”. This, looks like a pretty well defined and objectively measured goal. If I am the child of upper middle class, university-educated and employed parents, and am at a university surrounded by similar peers, with a close academic relationship with tutors and a well scaffolded course, then I have a pretty good conception both of what that goal means in terms of performance, and of what I have to do to achieve it. My parents, and many of my friends, and tutors have all done it previously and provide a model, or pass on tacit knowledge through practice, in Harry Collins’ terms.

If, though, I come from a disadvantaged background, with no parental experience of university education, and go to a university with a high number of other widening participation students, then the goal seems less well defined, despite the objective measure, since I am likely to have far greater difficulty of conceiving what it feels like in terms of the my performance, and even less of how I go about achieving it, however good the tutor and scaffolding on the course may be. Monitoring of both the process and the performance becomes difficult. I have to trial or sample different behaviours to find one that seems to be working, and my learning initially looks more like self organisation than self regulation. Even when I have found one, I don’t know whether it is a tried and tested behaviour that leads to the goal, or a potential dead end, so I am less likely to stabilise on that behaviour.

In the latter case, I am much more akin to someone who has what seems an ill-defined goal, eg. “I want to be happy”. I can conceive of being happy, but have no objective measures of happiness. I know a number of happy people, but they all seem to have achieved it in different ways, and there seems no fixed route to happiness. The best I can do is work on a day to day basis, making decisions that I hope will promote my happiness, and hope that the emergent state will, indeed, be happiness.

We can, I think, conceive of these issues in complex system terms by saying that self-regulation is only possible within the basin of attraction of an attractor. Social links with, and vicarious experience of people who have already achieved the goal and are already in the attractor, are a strong (?necessary) condition of being located within the basin. Thus, in social terms, the difference between one’s ability to self organise and to self regulate lies in one’s distance from others who have already achieved the goal: the widening participation student is likely to be using the same self organising processes as the Nobel Prize winning researcher – neither knows exactly what they are doing – both are self organising.

The requirement for proximity to someone who has already achieved the goal, ties in well with activity theory and the zone of proximal development. It also provides a role for the teacher, even in learner centred learning design and participatory, socially constructed learning – the teacher is someone who has already achieved the goal. If they expose their process of achieving the goal they can help attract learners into that behaviour ?an apprenticeship model of learning.

Key Reference:
Carver, C. S. (2004) “Self-Regulation of Action and Affect” in Baumeister, R and Vohs, K (eds) Handbook of Self-Regulation, New York: Guildford Press, pp13-39

No comments: