Knowing about humans

Central to what humans need to know is about how to be a human and how to relate to other humans. So this part of my knowledge map is about knowledge related to humans.

I see three levels of knowledge here. First there is knowledge about one’s self, how to operate a human body, a human mind, and the skills it takes to live as a human. Second there is knowledge about how to interact with other, individual humans. This includes all kinds of relationships and how they work. Third, there is a level of society, which is how humans organise themselves on a larger scale.

knowledge map 2

In this post I’ll sketch out my thinking about each of these areas a bit more.

Self

So the first set of things that one must know to function as a human in the world, is about oneself. This includes basic skills like being able to walk and navigate, talk and use technology. It includes knowing about the needs of the human body and how to meet them, what to eat, how to prepare food, how to care for the body you have. Then there’s a lot to learn about your mind, emotions, motivation and how to keep that functioning well.

Next out it’s about finding resources. How do you get what you need? How do you ensure you have shelter, clothing, economic resources. Of course not all of this can be done alone, so the boundaries with my next categories are blurring, but there is a certain element of personal agency in gaining access to the resources needed to survive (and thrive).

And there’s the matter of what to do with your time. For this you need to understand yourself and what gives you pleasure or makes you happy. What activities are you naturally good at? What skills do you want to develop? What will you fill your 100-odd years of life with? You will have to make micro-choices each day about how to spend time, so you need to know what your options are and how best to make those decisions.

I think that this is the kind of knowledge that people are most engaged with every day, but it’s also a realm of knowledge that we neglect in education. (Perhaps this is a good thing!) Clearly the desire for this kind of knowledge fuels the self-help genre of books, and the advice in many magazines and online forums.

Others

After knowledge about one’s self, the next most important category is about relating to others. This (kind of) overlaps with the first category because it’s almost impossible to be a functioning human without interacting with other people. Maybe these two categories will merge at some point.

There is a lot to learn when it comes to relating to other people. First there are all the communication skills. Then there is understanding the various bases of relationships, what makes other people tick, what works and what doesn’t work in friendships, intimate relationships and with those that are just acquaintances. There is also the entire realm of parenting; raising little humans.

There is lots to learn about working constructively with other people. This includes functioning as a family, making and maintaining friends, and working as part of a team to achieve larger goals that you can alone. For each of these there is a comprehensive knowledge base and skills that can be developed.

Again, these are knowledge realms that people care about and can’t get enough information about, judging by the reams that are written and consumed, as well as the more formal research that is carried out. I think there are rich pickings here in terms of fine learning tools to support this kind of learning.

Society

Finally, the third level of knowledge about humans is how people function together at the level of society. That is, all the ways in which humans try to organise their interactions as a species. Here belong all the social institutions: legal systems, political systems, economic systems, religions and belief systems, education systems, nations, supra-national organisations, cities and settlements.

These are ways of organising relationships, not between individuals, but between groups or classes (in the set theory sense, rather than the political or economic sense) of humans. This involves knowledge about the fundamental mechanisms of alignment, co-ordination, resource-sharing, power and control. Somewhere in here is institutional theory and how human institutions form and dissolve over time.

This area of my map of knowledge probably corresponds quite closely with the traditional discipline of sociology, but by lumping all these diverse institutions together, we get to see the inter-relationships between them, the ways in which they support and necessitate each other. I also think this is about more than just academic observation and critique of such institutions. It’s also about how humans engage with these institutions and how we design and develop new, better institutions for the future.

So, that’s the big circle in my map of knowledge; the part that concerns humans and human relationships. I’ll expand on (and cross-link to) each of these areas in more depth in subsequent posts.

What do you think? Is this map making any kind of sense to you? What have I left out? Let me know in the comments below.

(The featured image in this post is by Free-Photos from Pixabay.)

A map of knowledge

Travel is made easier by good maps. This is true in the physical realm, but also in the realm of knowledge and ideas.

For some time, I have explored knowledge maps that others have created, with a view to finding one I can use for Fine Learning Tools. I want to be able to place the different tools in relation to each other and to help people to navigate their way through all the knowledge that is out there. (I know. It’s ambitious.)

To be effective as a map, I need something that is infinitely flexible. Knowledge will grow and expand in ways that we can’t predict, and so we need a scheme that will grow too. Of course it does not need to last forever, it can be something that becomes obsolete, and be discarded. I’m OK with that. Just so long as it lasts while I’m working on it.

I also want something that doesn’t categorize too much, because I am most interested in the connections between things. Distinctions between Chemistry and Physics, for example, are artificial. But there is something different about stuff I learn to cope with everyday life and hard science that I might learn for work I have to do. These distinctions should be captured.

Then there is the challenge of including ALL knowledge. I don’t thing that learning is just about the stuff that has traditionally been the domain of education. It’s important to learn how to find a place to live, how to get on with other people, how to fly a drone (if that’s your thing) and how to calculate an integral (if that’s your thing). It’s all learning.

But I have yet to find what I want. So I’ve decided to make it up. Here goes….

I think that there are three levels of knowledge that is primarily about humans. There is knowledge about self, there is knowledge about self in relation to other individuals, and then there is knowledge about human society and how it is organised.

Then there are two broad areas that the rest of knowledge can be divided into: Nature, the stuff that operates outside of human influence, and Culture, the stuff that humans make up. There is also an intersecting layer between those two that might warrant it’s own category.

So my current map of knowledge looks something like this:

knowledge map 1

(Crude, yes, but I’m aiming at getting the ideas out there rather than perfecting my drawing skills.)

I plan to expand on these as I can, explain what I’m thinking of in each area, and then to flesh them out with appropriate Fine Learning Tools that I have found. I’m thinking of making an infinitely zoom-able map so that I can add things as I come across them.

So far, so good. Next up: a basic description of each kind of knowledge.

Please let me have your thoughts in the comments below. This is very much a work in progress, and I’d love to engage with your ideas.

(The nice image of the world map is by TeeFarm from Pixabay)

Our World in Data

How would you like to be good at predicting the future? I mean, ever since we consulted Oracles in ancient Greece we’ve wanted to know what’s going to happen. Pinker, in Enlightenment Now, tells us about research into what makes people good at predicting, that identified “superforecasters”. These are people who are better than “professional intelligence officers with access to classified information” and “not too far from the theoretical maximum” when it comes to predicting the likelihood of future events.

It turns out that superforecasters do well because they rely on the facts that they do have at hand. They follow a particular method in arriving at a prediction – starting with what they know about events that have occurred, and then looking at what might have changed and nudging their probability estimates up or down in response. They are not even particularly clever people, although they are “highly numerate” and comfortable “thinking in guesstimates”.

If you want to join their ranks, today’s fine learning tool is going to prove invaluable, both as a tool to hone your own numeracy and to supply you with base facts from which to start your estimates.

I highly recommend this particular fine learning tool, and yet it’s hard to tell you just what you will learn from it, because it covers such a wide range of topics.

Our World in Data describes itself as “a non-profit website that brings together the data and research on the powerful, long-run trends reshaping our world”.

It’s a labour of love that takes the best data available on topics of interest that range from population growth and literacy rates to the impact of micro-nutrients on health and the global cost of cigarettes. They then put the data into beautiful interactive graphs and support them with easy to follow blog posts that explain both how the graphs are to be interpreted and what the data is saying about the subject.

Some of the interesting things I learned (just this morning) from Our World in Data include that, as recently as 1800 only 12% of people on the planet were literate, while in 2015, 86% were literate; Iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable brain damage in childhood; and Ireland is the most expensive country in the world to buy cigarettes.

The site uses beautiful interactive visualisations to discuss the state of the world and how it is changing and it uses scientific literature to explain the changes observed in the data. If that sounds scary, it isn’t because each “lesson” is contained in an easy-to-digest blog post.

What I love about this website is that it is based on data and quite a lot of effort goes into making sure that it’s the best data available. Data is sourced from specialised institutes, research papers and international institutions or statistical agencies. Each visualisation comes with details about what data was used and how it was used. What this means is that in addition to what the site tells you about the world, it also teaches you statistical concepts and improves your general numeracy in the process. It serves a little meta-learning on the side. Which is what the finest learning tools ought to do.

Description A source of information about major world trends backed by data and research and nicely interpreted to make it easy to understand
Subject Major world trends, data use and visualization
Location https://ourworldindata.org/
Appropriate for Anyone who wants to be well informed about the state of the world and wants to improve their numeracy
Usability The blog format makes it easy to understand each topic. There are graphs which may be a bit hard to understand if you are not used to interpreting data presented in this way. It is, however, a good way to learn more about data presentation and graphs.
Craftsmanship Lovely! A lot of thought has gone into the visualisations as well as the text so that the topics are accessible and give one the opportunity to learn new visualization techniques. The web site is clean and simple to navigate.
Effectiveness The site is widely used. It has a nice interactive map showing how many people from each country used the site in the past year; on average, it’s more than a million people a month. This, by itself, doesn’t mean its good, but the people who use the site include students and school children, journalists, teachers, researchers and policymakers, looking for the data and research to inform their work. So that means that a lot of thinking people rely on the site for information. This link takes you to citations and references https://ourworldindata.org/coverage.
Cost This site is free to use and you can even use the data and the visualisations for free.

What I love about this web site is that it presents information that is as close as we have to “factual” and thus encourages us to stop speculating, or making assumptions about the state of the world based on our own experiences or the state of the particular corners of the world we are familiar with. By being able to get a more global view of the state of things we can become better informed, and clearer about what is really going on. It’s a great tool for honing your forecasting skills, challenging your own assumptions and for settling arguments over dinner.

Our World in Data has a special section to track the Sustainable Development Goals https://sdg-tracker.org/ which is a good way to keep an eye on some of the biggest priorities for the human race and the planet. It also has a special Teaching Hub with resources for teachers https://ourworldindata.org/teaching.

A truly Fine Learning Tool and one well worth exploring.

 

(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.)

Learn to meditate with Insight Timer

Meditation is widely recognised as a tool for calming the mind and reducing stress, improving performance, personal growth, spiritual insight and even for healing the body. But the wide range of different meditation practices can be confusing and it can be difficult to know where to start to learn more.

logo-bell-nameInsight Timer (https://insighttimer.com/) is a meditation app that offers talks about meditation, guided meditations, a meditation timer and a community of meditators to help your practice.

The teachers on Insight Timer come from a very wide range of traditions including religious, secular and scientific. Apparently meditation is worth pursuing, no matter from which philosophical stance you approach it. This means that you are likely to be able to find teachers on Insight Timer that resonate with your own world view, no matter what that is.

Short description Insight timer is a set of tools to support meditation. It offers guided and timed meditations on a variety of topics and based on a wide variety of philosophies. It also offers audio lessons from meditation teachers. It tracks and reports on your meditation practice. There are groups that you can join to share message-based interactions with other group members. The app provides talks in 25 languages.
Subject All forms of meditation and meditation practice.
Location It’s available in both iOS and Android versions, and the web version is at https://insighttimer.com/
Appropriate for Beginner meditators who want to learn more and have guidance in establishing a regular meditation practice.

Experienced meditators who want to use guided meditations or the timing function for their meditation practice.

People who appreciate the opportunity to interact with others about meditation.

People who are curious about meditation and want to learn more or try it out.

Usability The app is easy to use. When searching for guided meditations or talks about meditation, you can filter by how long you have, by teacher, by specific benefits or by philosophical stance. When setting up a timed meditation you can select how long it should be, what ambient sounds you want, whether you want interval reminders and what signal you would like to end the meditation. There are no annoying popups or adverts, making for a genuinely peaceful and supportive experience.
Craftsmanship The app is simply and beautifully designed with lovely images and the interaction is a real pleasure to use. In using it for about six months I have encountered no bugs, so it seems a very stable product.

The experience depends to some extent on the individual teacher and, while I have encountered some that have irritated me, on the whole I’ve been impressed with the quality of the talks and the guided meditations. There are more than 1600 teachers to choose from so it’s not difficult to find someone who resonates with you. There are more than 7000 guided meditations and talks at present.

Effectiveness The app helps to keep you meditating regularly, and shows you patterns in when you skip meditations, so that’s useful. Having this as a mobile app means that it’s easy to meditate even when your normal routine is upset as you just need a phone, network and headphones to meditate anywhere. You do need a network though, unless you want to pay for the offline mode.

I could not find any independent research into the effectiveness of the app, but there are many positive reviews online. More than 2.3 million people use Insight Timer, and at any one time around 6000 people are meditating using Insight Timer.

Cost Insight timer is free with all the features described above. They have recently introduced an offline mode which enables you to download meditations to your device and listen to them offline for $41.99 per month. Other paid features are planned.

Overall this is a great app which will get you started with meditation and make it easy for you to keep to a regular meditation practice. I think it’s a worthy addition to our collection of Fine Learning Tools because it not only teaches you to meditate, but meditation itself then becomes a great tool for your own on-going learning.

One of the coolest features is a world map that shows you where everyone who is currently meditating is located. There is something heart-warming about knowing that you are part of a large and growing community all seeking a better way to live and seeing this pictured on a global scale is a great positive message.

meditating Jan 2018

 

 

Institutional Theory

Institutional theory tries to describe how institutions emerge, are sustained and change over time. Institutions in this context are distinguished from organisations. This may be best illustrated by an example: higher education in an institution, but a particular university is an organisation. The institutions is larger and conceptual, the organisation is a particular instantiation of the institution.

Institution theory is best understood by extensive reading of the academic literature, but for those who want a quick access, here are some tools, none of them really fine:

The best source remains W. Richard Scott’s book: Institutions and Organisations, published by Sage. Here is the link to the 4th edition on Amazon. This is as accessible as any academic text in the social sciences (meaning not really), but it gives explanations of the concepts and how they fit together.

Author W. Richard Scott
Credentials Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University
Published 4th edition in 2013
Format Book
Length 360 pages
Accessibility Difficult: academic text

Wikipedia has a brief article on Institutional Theory, but it gives little more than the main points, together with some of the history and distinguishes between institutional theory and new institutional theory.

Author Wikipedia authors
Credentials Wikipedia authoring and review process
Published Last modified September 2016
Format Wiki
Length 838 words
Accessibility Medium: simplified academic text

The Theories Used in Information Systems Wiki has a nice, but brief, summary of the main points of Institutional Theory. It includes a list of articles in Information Systems research that have used Institutional Theory.

Author Academic staff and PhD students
Credentials Maintained by the University of Colorado and the Marriott School of Management of Brigham Young University
Published Last modified November 2014
Format Wiki
Length 2196 words
Accessibility Medium: simplified academic text

This ten minute presentation (slides and voice) by Michael Lower on Institutional Theory focuses on the similarity of organisations within an institution. Published in 2013, it’s a bit dry, but the explanations and structure are clear. The video forms part of the work towards a Doctorate in Higher Education Research Evaluation and Enhancement at Lancaster University.

Author Michael Lower
Credentials Faculty of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong,
Published Published in 2013
Format Video (slides and voice)
Length 10 minutes
Accessibility Easy: simple explanations

Mauro Guillén presents the third lecture in a series titled “The Architecture of Collapse: The Global System in the 21st Century” at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. This lecture: “Isomorphism, Impermeability, and Institutional Diversity” illustrates the application of institutional theory in understanding global change. He addresses the questions: Are isomorphic forces taking over the world? To what extent are nodes in the global system impermeable to these forces? What are the implications for institutional diversity?

Author Mauro Guillén
Credentials Professor of International Management and Director of the Lauder Institute at the U of Pennsylvania
Published Published in May 2014
Format Video of live, in-class presentation
Length 48 minutes
Accessibility Difficult: the lecture is clear, but requires a good grasp of the concepts, and concentration, to follow

There is space for some really good tools for learning about Institutional Theory, tools that are clear, accessible and yet meaty; tools that are structured to allow different levels of engagement with the topic. Such tools would be fine.

 

Learn a language with DuoLingo

duolingologo

According to language researcher David Graddol “Monolingual speakers of any variety of English — American or British — will experience increasing difficulty in employment and political life, and are likely to become bewildered by many aspects of society and culture around them.” I know that I am eternally grateful that the South African Christian National Education of the 1970s forced me to learn Afrikaans, whatever its dubious political affiliations. Learning another language gave me insight into just how different languages are, and how the world is constructed from the limits and expressiveness of one’s native language. Learning a new language can ease the transition into a new community, facilitate better communication and give insights into another culture.

I have been making more frequent visits to Switzerland (my partner is Swiss) and have been keen to learn one of the Swiss languages. I’ve decided to start with German because I did a year of German back in my university days and there are similarities between Afrikaans vocabulary and German, so I have something to build on. I looked at a number of tools to learn German, including lessons at the local Goethe Institute, and the text books that I still have, but DuoLingo wins hands down.

DuoLingo turns learning a language into a game. You select how much you want to do each day and then you get a reminder towards the afternoon if you have not yet “done your Duo”. I have elected to complete 20 points per day, which amounts to two short sets of exercises. Actually, I often do four or five of these; that’s how compelling the gamification is. It takes me from five to fifteen minutes a day, depending on whether I am revising something I know well or learning a new section. The great thing is that I can fit these short exercises in while waiting in a supermarket queue, waiting for a meeting to start, or waiting for the rice to boil for dinner.

I started this process with my partner about six months ago. We can track each other’s progress and since he is retired and has more time on his hands, he always puts in more time than me, which is an incentive not to fall behind.

DuoLingo makes use of pictures to introduce vocabulary, as well as written text. Sometimes you select words from a set displayed on the screen, and sometimes you have to type words in and actually pay attention to the detail of the spelling. I have had to add a German spellcheck to my keyboard on all my devices so that when I am asked to enter text I get some help. There are word matching exercises, spoken exercises where you learn to pronounce the German words and listening exercise where you get to understand the spoken language. There are also lots of translation exercises. This variety means that it is not boring.

There is instant feedback to tell you if you are right and if not, what the correct answer is. There is a lot of repetition, which is great because the words just sink into your brain without much effort and the more mistakes you make the more repetition there is.

I think it is important to treat it as a game and not to get too hung up on getting every answer right. You learn from your mistakes. So I have taken the attitude of diving in and giving it my best guess when I don’t know the answer. I often get things wrong, but then those things get emphasised and repeated and I end up learning them. If you are too hard on yourself and get upset when you get things wrong, some of the fun goes out of it and I think it becomes harder to learn.

The apps have had some odd quirks, like when a spoken exercise takes a bit long to load over a slow connection and then misses the beginning of your answer, but in the six months I have been using it, these have improved, so there seems to be on-going work on these flaws. There is also a feedback option on each item so you can see where others have had problems and add your comments to improve the tool. But on the whole I think that the design is really good and the tools are easy to use. I use it on an android tablet and phone, and my partner on Apple devices and we have noticed some differences between them, but often these disappear with the next update.

There is independent research into the effectiveness of DuoLingo that you can read about here and here which supports that it is effective. From my experience, about half-way through the English/German course, I am able to hold short conversations in German, I can read German children’s stories and am following a far greater proportion of the text in magazine articles. It definitely helps that I am learning it with someone else because we practice talking to each other in German almost daily. The best part is that it has been almost totally effortless. It won’t make you an expert in the language, but it will get you to a level of being able to use the language, which is what most people want.

Of course the biggest limitation of DuoLingo is that there is not a course for every combination of languages. There are 81 courses in total (as I write this) and most are between English and another language. So it works fine for the most common languages, but there are many that are not covered.

Despite that limitation, I think that DuoLingo counts as a Fine Learning Tool, by all my criteria (summarised below). I can’t think of a better way to learn the basics of a language.

Criterion Comment
Short description Web or mobile application to learn a new language
Subject A wide range of languages (https://www.duolingo.com/courses/all)
Location Anywhere, depending on internet access and an appropriate device (computer, tablet or smartphone)
Appropriate for Beginner learners or those with some language skills who want to gain a practical working use of a language
Usability Easy interface, intuitive to the technology literate
Craftsmanship The apps and web site are well made and gamified, with thought given to learning processes and how the learning is “scaffolded”
Effectiveness There is independent research that asserts that these courses are effective
Cost Free

 

Reference book for visual artists

I have been teaching myself to paint and draw and one of the most useful learning tools I have is the book Collins complete artist’s manual (published 2011, by HarperCollins).

Description

Collins complete artist’s manual is a hardcover, 400 page book that guides you through the materials and techniques for drawing and painting. The book includes detailed information on supports, drawing media, painting media and how to lay out a studio. It also covers colour and compositions, and techniques for drawing and painting. A comprehensive index makes it possible to get quickly to specific information like “Should I varnish my acrylic pictures?” Most helpful are detailed explanations of how a range of pictures were executed. This gives the novice (like me) lots of things to try and because the book covers a range of styles, it is possible to find one that you can relate to.

Subject

Art, visual arts, painting, drawing, sketching, art media, art techniques, reference book, art supports, painting media, drawing media, colour, composition, studio

Location

The book was published in London. I could not find the book on the publisher’s web site and I could only find a later edition (2014) on Amazon.

Appropriate for

I used this book as a novice, but I find that I refer to it all the time, even having gained a fair amount of experience in art. It is beautifully illustrated (I am a visual learner) and well writtten, so it’s easy to follow. And the indexing and contents pages make it easy to find what you need to know. There are sections that you can work through sequentially that give you exercises to try, or you can just use it to learn more about a particular medium when you need to know it.

Usability

The book is fairly large and heavy, so I find it helpful to have a bit of free table space when I use it. It’s not good for reading in bed and can’t be held with one hand. The layout is good, with lots of white space and clear headings. The text uses some jargon, but the terms are explained, so its generally easy to follow. Some of the side panels use small fonts and are a bit more difficult to read (if you are over 50, like me).

Craftmanship

This book is beautiful with wonderful illustrations of art work, and delightful pictures of the clutter that artists collect. The layout is clear and aids understanding and the index, glossary and table of contents make navigation easy. The text is relatively simple, clear and easy to follow. The book has an impressive list of editorial consultants, contributing artists and art and technical consultants. The editor, Simon Jennings, has a track record in producing art publications.

Effectiveness

Is this book an effective learning tool? Well, I am not yet selling my paintings for millions, but that probably has nothing to do with the tool. I have learned a lot from this book and have been able to find answers to all the questions I have had so far. So I think that it is effective in that it has enabled me to finish projects, avoid common mistakes and gain inspiration. Reviewers on Amazon mostly give it 5 stars, so others have also found it helpful, but there is no definitive research into its effectiveness as a learning tool.