Monthly Archives: June 2010

Lump it together and split the difference: taxonomy, folksonomy and the uses of genres…

On the back of a couple of Twitter conversations recently and borrowing my brother’s ipod (other MP3 players are available…), I have been thinking more about taxonomy and its bastard sibling, “folksonomy”.

A taxonomy is formal, top-down and rigid; a folksonomy is informal, bottom-up and flexible. Clearly, both have their uses – to identify books in a library one needs a common (and hence inflexible) system of classification – a taxonomy like the Dewey decimal classification, but to find books at home one might use a more manageable system (like/keep/recycle, perhaps).

The system you choose depends a lot on what your uses are.

In biological taxonomy, there is often a battle between lumpers and splitters: since the classification is a human construct (albeit one that aims to follow natural divisions), whether a population of organisms is a variety or subspecies or species is up for debate.

Splitters tend to argue that different types are separate; lumpers tend to minimise the differences. As an example, I used to work on bracken (many, many years ago!); back then, it was considered to be a single species with two sub-species and twelve varieties – all lumped together, in other words; I believed that now these had been split into two species and twelve sub-species – but I was wrong: the accepted taxonomy of bracken is that it consists of up to twelve separate species. In this case, the splitters have won.

Looking at my brother’s iPod, I saw that he is a splitter; I on the other hand seem to be a radical lumper. We classify the music on our players very differently, using the folksonomy. The genre field of the ipod database is where I noticed this. My brother uses hundreds of different genre – separating jazz, for instance, by time and location (“1960s West Coast Jazz”, “1970s UK Jazz”, and so on).

I use four different genre, reckoning that all my music can be classified by just jazz, rock, classical and folk. I tried to get it down to three, but however hard I tried I couldn’t pretend that a couple of the “folk” artists could be put into “rock”.

Whilst this reflects our outlooks – I would have problems trying to classify artists down to too much detail (would Dave Holland or John McLaughlin [warning – launches music!] be UK or US jazz? And is it jazz or fusion? Or jazz-rock?) – it also stems from the different ways we use our players.

I either know exactly what I want to listen to – in which case I will find the artist and the recording – or I play music on shuffle (by album), in which case I want a broad sample to choose from. I know the broad genre I’m interested in – jazz, rock or classical – and then I shuffle through albums until something grabs me.

My brother doesn’t shuffle at all: he uses the genre field to locate what he wants to listen to.

There are lessons in this familial divergence. The kind of classification used – whether a top-down taxonomy or a bottom-up or user-created folksonomy, and the fineness of the splitting or lumping – depends very much what the classification is going to be used for and who the audience is.

And coping with both a taxonomy and folksonomy (like iTunes does, through playlists) makes a lot of sense.

Organisation Yoga or Operational Ninja?

I have tried to explain the experience of working on consulting projects with people from Tuttle and what was created through the work here before, but with our continuing discussions and the launch of the Tuttle Consulting posterous site, too, I thought I’d delve a bit deeper. (This may well be cross-posted this over there, too.)

Over the past few weeks, we have tried to capture what it is we do – to cut out the consultancy crap, as <a href="Lloyd so correctly put it yesterday; because I for one have found it hard to actually describe. I needed to distil it down into workable, understandable concepts.

The words we came up with to describe our approach were "organisation yoga and operational ninja". This is what they mean to me!

The "organisation yoga" is the use of conversation to explore an organisation, its issues and their solutions: through conversation, to help people in the organisation come up with creative, collaborative and innovative ideas that they can take control of and run with – giving people the licence to think and create. That's why it's "yoga": it is a thoughtful, explorative process.

But it isn't just navel gazing: things have to happen. And that’s where the “operational ninja” come in. There are lots of tools out there – whole realms of new media bits and pieces waiting to be stitched together – to help weave the projects together, to generate a coherent, creative outcome.

For me it is all about change and learning: that’s where I’m coming from. Others have their own perspectives, of course: one of the truly valuable things of Tuttle Consulting is that there are people with all sorts of experience and understanding, coming with different outlooks, that we can draw on.

This means we have a very rich, deep offering.

This is of course a work-in-progress; I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this over the next few weeks!

Social Media and education: “constructing real time education”

I went a long to the Constructing Real Time Education #140conf London May Meet Up last Wednesday.

My main interest was in training and development, but I spent many months as a programme manager for a government curriculum change programme for schools a few years ago, so the focus of the meet up on school-based education didn’t leave me disappointed. I had also been talking about the development and potential of Agile Learning – how online tools and resources could be used in both education and training – so there seemed to be a lot of congruence.

Using a panel format, there were four short talks on different aspects of technology and its influence on education. First up was Bob Pinkett, who wanted to make two main points – firstly about the built environment and the potential folly of the previous government’s focus on the private finance initiative (PFI) bequeathing large debts for new schools to future generations (I’m not clear on the new government’s plans for PFI), and secondly about the divisive nature of the trend towards greater specialisation and selection, and the consequential effects on the environment (specialisation and selection require larger catchment areas for schools, and hence increased transport needs – Bob estimated that school students travelling to schools some distance away from their homes costs London £1bn).

Graham Jones said that schools are much more than the built environment: learning in school is a social activity. He reckoned that using new media provided new opportunities for social learning outside schools and across large distances, and that these would change the way we think about education – and possibly even the way children think.

Terry Freedman described the possibilities and opportunities for teachers and their need to prepare for the future. Terry described how many young people are grasping the potential provided by the internet and setting themselves up as entrepreneurs whilst still at school – he told of a school student he had met who had taken clothes she designed in a school project and set up an e-business to market and sell them. There is a rapid adoption rate amongst young people – they are at home using new technologies – and teachers run the risk of getting left behind. Terry reckoned that the focus on targets and the push for measurable results – usually in exam league tables – means that teachers often don’t have the space to think: using technology to provide this could actually catalyse some change, too.

Last up was Pat Parslow, who works in learning and collaboration. He spoke about the need for teachers to grasp the social issues that arise in a changing society, and the danger of meeting historic rather than current – or future – needs: the education and legal frameworks are probably not best to meet tomorrow’s needs. Pat gave the apparently popular practice of “sexting” explicit pictures between adolescents as an example: this breaches laws which could lead to underage children being placed on the sex offenders register. Society – that’s us – need to allow both students and teachers the space to make mistakes, in both life and learning. As well as risks, though, the huge amount of “distributive knowledge” and other resources represent a vast resource. When you can watch or listen to lessons by the world’s experts, why would you not? One of the activities that Pat felt most useful was the development of a personal learning network using online tools as a support for learning. [I have been meaning to write about PLNs for a while – but I am not sure I quite understand what they are – there seem to be so many alternate definitions that I just got confused! I should resurrect that and give it another go!]

These four short, very different, talks gave us the introduction to the broad area for discussion; but it was the audience discussion itself that really took off and made the evening so valuable. The participants (by this point we weren’t an audience!) had a lot to discuss, and the debate moved around lots of different issues, including

  • the potential conflict arising from teachers’, managers’ and society’s desire to control and manage when social media and other tools push users towards freeing up learning, sharing and collaboration
  • teachers’ reward systems and the ability for students to rate their teachers – but of course students may not know who the good teachers really are until many years after they have left school (and exam results may also be inadequate indicators!)
  • the difference between learning and teaching; in the future, mentoring, curating or facilitating might be more appropriate verbs than “teaching”
  • the university system was set up 800 years ago and carries a lot of structural baggage – Graham pointed out that professors have “chairs” because historically they literally had a chair, whilst the reader – a lower ranked academic – read out the professor’s words to a possibly illiterate audience
  • the balance between the need to control to deliver whatever curriculum society thinks is necessary, mediated by management and bureaucracy, against the freedom the best teachers – “mavericks”, according to Pat – and their students need thrive
  • the fact that whatever we – a bunch of (let’s face it) middle aged, middle class men and women – think, young people are going to be out there trying these things out for themselves [it was telling that of course there weren’t any school students at the meetup to tell us what it was really like…]
  • they will also be able to do this wherever they are – the built environment of the school full of the classrooms in which learning takes place is probably a really outdated metaphor, because people can (and surely do) learn wherever they are, and, at least in developed nations with mobile communications, they can access this huge pool of resources and teachers

It was a wide-ranging, involving and exciting discussion, and we were rightly brought down to earth by the closing comments from a teacher who had for many years taught secondary pupils who were excluded from formal education for a variety of reasons. They were often illiterate – how would they benefit from this revolution in education? Even if they have ready access to the internet, they probably can’t read effectively and are not engaged in education – the future we had been painting involved self-motivated learners, and those who were left behind by today’s teaching methods would probably be further left behind by future methods, too.

All in all, it was a really good evening: challenging and engaging. But of course, there were as many questions unanswered as those that were tackled – we could have gone on and on. And whilst a self-selected group of interested people can discuss the wealth of issues surrounding education and the potential created by the internet, what can we actually do to bring about change in the education system? There was a desire to discuss this further, and someone threw out the challenge that if we really want to make a difference, we should bring Michael Gove along to another session and create some concrete plans. His ministerial email is; now all we have to do is plan another meetup. Now that would be constructing the future of education!

A Biased View?

This week’s Reith lecture by Professor Martin Rees dealt in part with society’s inability to adequately assess risk.

I was reminded of this when reading in the Economist about suicides at the Foxconn plant in China.

Foxconn makes electrical components for many electronics companies, including Apple. The launch of Apple’s iPad in the UK last week led to many stories of conditions at the Foxconn facility, a vast complex employing about 400,000 people, and its high suicide rate. Such stories appeared in the Daily Telegraph (the headline: “A look inside the Foxconn suicide factory”), the Guardian (“Latest Foxconn suicide raises concern over factory life in China”), the Independent (“A gadget to die for? Concern over human cost overshadows iPad launch”) and the BBC (“Foxconn calls on monks and counsellors to stem suicides”). There have been a lot of articles.

The general tone was that the conditions in the Foxconn complex were such that many people resorted to suicide from despair of working there.

The thing is, according to the Economist,

The toll (a dozen this year) is lower than the suicide rate among the general population in China.”

And according to the Telgraph (in a different article)

Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, said that the suicide rate at the Chinese factory – where 12 of the company’s 400,000 employees have killed themselves this year – was lower than the overall suicide rate for the United States.”

I am not making any comment on the working conditions in the complex or anywhere else. But it seems that perhaps we need to inspect our own cognitive bias, and Foxconn should maybe be lauded rather than criticised.