Nexus: the trigger for collective transformation

As featured in UWTSD Press Release 25.07.19

https://uwtsd.ac.uk/news/press-releases/press-2019/wales-nexus-conference-2019-1.html

Awakening

Days ago I attended the Wales Nexus Conference 2019 to deliver 2 papers. No ordinary event. This was special. Inter-disciplinary in purpose, but able to facilitate beyond the overlapping of ideas at discipline boundaries. At a time when we are subsumed by online connection, socially and professionally, increasing workload and growing concerns of the darker side of technological advancement, the conference offered respite access to a highly personal and tangible movement for collective human agency.

I have always perceived ‘education’ to be a composite discipline, but here I experienced the frisson of conjoined discipline-crossing ideas generation at grass-roots. Purposeful individuals and teams, not just experts in their respective fields, but an embodiment of freedom of expression, creativity, and love for life. Leaders, researchers and educators, passionately committed to ‘do’ things differently and to ‘tackle’ postmodern education concerns head-on. The word “Nexus” comes from the Latin “nectere”, “to bind”, with the same Latin root which gave rise to “connect” and “annex.”  Quite a number of us left the Wales Nexus Conference 2019, bonded by a global imperative, with widened perspectives, and the promise of ‘active’ collaborative opportunities to facilitate transformative change.

Collaborative & Connected Research

I have previously argued that ‘educators’ will play a crucial role in thwarting a dystopian artificial intelligence future. Experts around the world predict networked AI will amplify human effectiveness, but threatens human autonomy, agency and capabilities (Anderson et al., 2018). We, therefore, cannot sit back and watch over time, the demise of human relevance. Instead, we must collectively work to reorganise the economic and political system that will expand upon human capacities and capabilities. In education, at any level, this requires the active engagement of all disciplines, and it requires urgent focus, now. The campaign will require not just the conscription of passionate energies, but research-underpinned strategies and interventions that will outlive the reforms of the moment, that will sustain and extend the capacity of the human. A rebirth of ‘Education’ as we know it, underpinned by excellent research, will be a key to this global human campaign. Yet educators need to be afforded the space and autonomy from their increasingly pressure workload, to research, to think, to exchange, to facilitate, to re-kindle human connection, and co-create.

Language, creativity and critical thinking

Contributors to Wales Nexus Conference 2019 manifested a tangible appetite for collaboration and impact; a commitment to conjointly address postmodern education concerns. There was no fresh revelation that global institutions, economic and otherwise, agree on the core skills needed to survive, even thrive in the 21st century but recognition neither need nor aspiration alone will guarantee delivery. Although there is agreement technology must be embraced and used purposefully, not just shoe-horned into learning design.

Notable too was the consistent and conscious use of terminology across a breadth of disciplines (business, economics, technology, social inclusion, language and the arts) that embraced language, creativity, and critical thinking. Furthermore, stripping back to core ideas and motivations, there was a reveal of a shared “eternal vocabulary of a collective unconscious” (Brenner, 2013) from store within individual expertise, experiences and memories, now awakening to offer hints, clues and solutions to shared dilemmas. A desire for more fairly distributed wealth, health and happiness and a sustainable planet. Educators must be lead facilitators of creativity, compassion and co-operation, but recognisant that they are themselves shaped and directed by their own system’s failures. Educational institutions need to evolve beyond being certificate generators or administrators of performance assessments, predominately focused on the production of efficient workers, and more wholeheartedly embrace a higher societal purpose.

Cherish the depths of language

The Wales Nexus Conference 2019 tendered a heady mixture of art, language, philosophy, pedagogy and practice. Beautifully opened by Professor Mererid Hopwood, who immersed the congregation into the depth of language I scribbled down a reference to J.R. Jones on Wittgenstein, ‘the limits of my language means the limits of my world’. This statement, along with a reminder that listening is always an active engagement, and that listening in a language you don’t understand demands even more participation, for me set the tone of the event.  An incredibly insightful wisdom to infect participation in a multi-disciplinary conference.   An invitation to look beyond one’s expertise and the familiar, and enter new spheres of thinking. In my mind, beyond a bilingualism of language, but an opportunity to embrace scholarly multilingualism.

The definition of interdisciplinary research states it to be a means for “teams or individuals to integrate information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice” (CFIR et al., 2004, p2). In education, it is not that we have not bridged students and ideas across modules from different domains, and facilitated co-produced projects or challenges. Instead I wonder whether we do truly, time or resource deficient, embrace chances to inhabit multi-disciplinary perspectives. The language itself alone, in all subjects is important, and yet there can be as many lost nuances between concepts, abstractions and contexts. Humans have a natural disposition to connect with facts or ideas that we may find useful to our own disciplinary perspectives. Stepping into the unknown, donning new ‘shades’ of spectacles, attempting to see afresh the world from the eye/perspective of a completely new discipline is uncomfortable, yet far more powerful. Potentially this is one key to a less dystopian future. Today we are told of the power of AI to intercept our translations and communication; that we may even dispense of human translators, as algorithms now may more efficiently recreate language. Yet, we must fight to preserve the depth within our languages, so that history, culture, meaning and creativity may not be lost to cold computational efficiencies of the machines which produce outputs with a watermark of ‘googleability’.

High responsibility

There are so many contributors to thank, and as one participant alone I can only report on a portion that I physically experienced, given the scale of the conference which embraced employability, learning and ethics in teaching and practice.  So what follows provides just a snapshot of my own personal reflections:

  • Neil Hapgood shared strong evidence on the impact of social media on the development of the igeneration. A pivotal point for many delegates, as it brought the dystopian crashing into the room. Young people, right now, are suffering. Technological addiction and its resultant ills, will not be addressed by giving way to unchecked technological supplementation. There is a pressing need for human interaction, and a wiser employ of technology.
  • Technology is but a tool, not a way of life or ‘thinking’. May we make best use of it to advance our learning, and allow it to augment not replace human value (Christian Stevens, Dr Christine Davies, Fred Okpala).
  • Dr Nisa Omar, visiting from the International University of Malaya-Wales, provided a great example of technology freeing up the educator for more value-added human endeavours with her prototype of an Operational Metric Assessment and Rubrics.
  • In any space that opens up in our loaded portfolios, may we fill it with active learning (Dr Nik Whitehead, Sue Maw, Stacey Coleman, Paul Darby & Dawn Jones, and Julie Hayward, Beth Cummings & Gareth Hughes) and external research and projects. That it be known, research-based learning is important for the development of critical thinking skills, in both educators and learners (Dr Nichola Welton & Dr Caroline Lohmann-Hancock).
  • Delivering beyond a tirade against the prevailing capitalistic economic model, Dr Sandra Dettmer, Shellie Holden & Katherine Clewett offered a ‘Creative Test Space’ that embodied the circular economy, aimed at minimising waste. Representing economics, business and the arts they exemplified the depth and power of a conjoined interdisciplinary approach for their students to facilitate a transition to a more sustainable sociotechnical system.
  • Alison Evans, representing Yr Athrofa shared plans for embedding creativity, innovation and enterprise in the new Curriculum for Wales, and claimed success would not be linked to the embrace of any one particular pedagogy, instead a commitment to a list of principles. This reminded me of the concept of ‘interthinking’ (Mercer, 2000) and consolidated my view that we need, as educators to take more collective responsibility to facilitate the way our learners can think, and talk collectively, irrespective of independent expertise and world-view. That educators need to take responsibility in developing a criticality to their own pedagogy and communities of practice, irrespective of discipline.
  • Some moments were simply profound and moving, the ability of Psychogeography to unlock the soul from within physical spaces (Paul Duerinckx). Tears were shed.
  • The final papers delivered by the UWTSD Faculty of Art and Design, despite being the last symposium of the day, would not fail to probe my senses, re-energise, and infect my being. Dr Julia Lockheart, Gwenllian Beynon, and Martin Bush delivered practical tools and advice that should be fast migrated across faculties. Rob Jones introduced us to the visualisation and sounds of the technological sublime, evoking awe and fear; a tool with which we may interrogate the established view of agency as controlled by hegemonic structures. A core message from this symposium of the beauty and potential of the human to conquer dystopia, so fortuitously timed at a tipping point for our race, that we shape or be shaped by advancing technology and the prevailing plutocracy. May we instead rebuke complacency and neutrality alike Gustav Metzger, as shared by Jeremy Gluck. The topic of Viscualcy, as presented by Professional Emeritus Howard Riley brought the symposium to an end, with the call for the revitalisation of the primacy of perceptual inquiry, and its potential for a more transformative education.

I left with the clear sense that true and impactful collaboration will need to evoke and draw from all the senses of what it is to be ‘human’.

Art is when you hear a knocking from your soul — and you answer.” Terri Guillemet

The world is what we make it

Post Nexus, I am further cognisant of the need for educators to be given the space to do the right and meaningful things well, I will now become a little more demanding. What we have the potential to achieve is powerful, if afforded the space and resource to merge, morph and unite, to be the critical researchers, role modelling the critical thinking and questioning citizen that we want to matriculate and develop into our learning environments.

I believe strongly that we can rise up as a collective and steer the course of our future. Education will help us re-tool for a more positive society, but it must review its position in the world, its place in the future. No more a production house for the economic system. To throw a plutocratic world dictating the fates of a divided and technology-distracted society off a destructive trajectory requires an education system that breeds and grows creative and critical thinkers. The system shalt not shape us, we are the system.

A final thanks to Professor Simon Haslett, Pro Vice -Chancellor at UWTSD and Victoria Watkins for all their hard work and ambition in facilitating the Wales Nexus Conferences. Thank you to Dr Antje Cockrill, for her Symposia chair and for generally being an inspiration.


One of my favourite author’s quotes that captures the essence of the event.

“The very nature of the universe invites you to journey and discover it. The earth wants our minds to listen attentively and gaze wisely so that we may learn its secrets and name them. We are the echo-mirrors of contemplative Nature. One of our most sacred duties is to be open and faithful to the subtle voices of the universe which come alive in our longing…Either we are in the universe to inhabit the lovely eternity of our souls and grow real, or else we might as well dedicate our days to shopping and kill time watching talk shows…. Ideally, a human life should be a constant pilgrimage of discovery. The most exciting discoveries happen at the frontiers. When you discover something, you transfigure some of the forsakenness of the world. Nature comes to know itself anew in your discoveries. Creative human thought adds to the brightness of the world.”

Extracts from John O’Donohue (2011)

Networked Earth Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

References

All presenters/abstracts noted, along with the full programme can be found at https://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/wales-nexus-conference-2019/

Anderson, J., Raine, L. & Luchsinger, A. (2018) ‘Artificial Intelligence and The Future of Humans, Pew Research Centre [online]. Available: https://www.pewinternet.org/2018/12/10/artificial-intelligence-and-the-future-of-humans/ [Accessed 12th July 2019].

Brenner, A. (2013) ‘The Inner Language of the Subconscious’, Psychology Today [online]. Availble: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/in-flux/201301/the-inner-language-the-subconscious [Accessed 12th July 2019].

Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2004) Facilitating interdisciplinary research, National Academies, National Academy Press: Washington.

Mercer, N. (2000) ‘Words and Minds – How we use language to think together’, Routledge: Oxford.

O’Donohue, J. (2000) ‘Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger To Belong’, Bantam Press: Great Britain.

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