The bias in learning – and vice versa

If there’s one thing us social constructivists have learned, it’s that learning is not good. Necessarily. We do so love to claim that it is though – both directly and indirectly, explicitly and implicitly. We like to overlook that learning is a function of bias also. And vice versa to be fair. Whilst each of these words has an innate (well, formed but fairly uniform) association of positivity or negativity, they are both, both. You might even say that they are two sides of the same coin.

Jonathan Zerzan, an anarchist philosopher, similarly argues that technology is generally seen as neutral. As a tool. A function. It is therefore impossible for us to see it, as a whole, as a movement, as something that could be good or bad. And so we don’t question it as much as we should. It’s in this attribution of moral value that I wish to paddle.

If your social group influences you to be less lazy, more committed to work or education or to being kinder, that’s a bias. You have been biased. It may even lead to you being reinforcing that bias with others. Exchange bias for learning in those sentences and – grammatical awkwardness aside – they still work.

Manipulation and deceit are similarly attributed. But what is management if not manipulating someone’s behaviour? What is maintaining a positive outlook so as not to affect your colleagues or friends or family other than deceitful? You may well find those concepts difficult to accept, or even offensive. But from the most annoying angle possible, that reflects your (to be fair, learned) interpretations of those words.

So what am I getting at? Put simply it’s the semi-philosophical stance that nothing of this world is all good or all bad. And if it is, it isn’t for long. And so we must be wary when we attribute inherently positive or negative sentiments to words and concepts. If nothing else, we reduce their utility. But also, through this assumption, we limit our ability to see the negative in the oft presumed positive. And we miss the positive in what otherwise would be seen as negative.

If I manipulate a friend to be more open minded and forgiving towards a burgeoning romance, under what conditions/motives would that be considered a largely negative thing to do? If I maintain my own doubts about that relationship, but feel it not a situation where additional pessimism is required/balanced/fair, is that good or bad deceitful. See what I mean?

But back to learning and bias. Ultimately it isn’t the word that is good, bad, indifferent or ugly. It is largely the direction in which it travels (e.g. the progress it seeks), and the source it comes from (e.g. the motive that drives it). Much like progress. Progress towards what? And why? To what immediate satisfaction and to what long term end? All fun stuff to consider.

Dare I even try to make this relevant to the real world in any way? I’ll have a pop. When we talk about what people are learning, we refer only to the positives. Of personal growth, technical specialisation, soft skills all leading to a full and bright career. But what are the negative things we’re learning. The bad habits. The toxic cultures. The unreasonable expectations. The destructive behaviours. The things to ignore. The things to prioritise.

So when looking at someone’s behaviour or performance, as disarmingly self-critical as this may get, we have to ask where these less productive behaviours have been learned. And how we, as colleagues, are reinforcing them. With a little power comes a little responsibility. Responsibility to own up to our negative influences. To see both sides. And to see them as made from the same material. More tenuous coin references in case you weren’t following. If you want to understand someone, consider the metal that makes them, from both sides (and all the others). Consider our influence over others. Consider what people shouldn’t be learning from us, but are. To what bias we’re creating, and whether we can steer that towards the more positive side of things. Or at least try to with better odds than a simple toss of a coin.

The bias in learning – and vice versa

Contextualised harmonisation and other paradoxical buzzwords

Harmonisation. The final frontier. A dream of efficiency, economies of scale, standards, consistency, uniformity. Yes. I used the U word. This wont end well.

For once I can see where this one is going before it’s written. So to celebrate, let’s discuss before we discuss. Firstly, a more direct criticism of the lust for harmonisation and the assumptions within it. Secondly, a cognitive short cut we get caught in all the time. Put simply, I refer to forgetting the root, the intention, the principle. It’s the kind of critique that invites being called idealistic, by people who love strategies and fail to see what I would argue is the most important function of a strategy (or theory of change to make it all MEALy). To maintain principle. To reflect and relate the current and the real back to “first principles”, root causes, problem analyses, overarching goals, global objectives – all of that good stuff.

Starting with the first point. Harmonisation presents a fallacy of efficiency. It is the Prius scenario. Once made, formed, forged, the efficiencies seem undeniable. Until you look at production costs (to the environment). Once, and only once, all is harmonised can the efficiencies be realised. Rarely do people appreciate the cost of that process, of harmonisation. Show me a budget line that pays for harmonisation and I will believe. And all this would be less pertinent if funding were not famously fickle and specifically short term.

Then consider what is lost in terms of uniformity versus bespoke. At its simplest it’s a dynamic of efficiency over fit. Over relevance. And arguable economy over effectiveness, in purely outcome-related terms for the people being served. You can argue increased efficiency means that you can reach more people with the money saved. If you can access that money. And also if you can accept lower quality for the sake of larger quantity.

So lastly on the first point, within this idea of efficiency comes a paradox in terms of harmonisation. Internal (to the organisation) efficiencies suffer in the name of external (inter-agency) ones. Harmonisation happens within projects, programmes, countries and organisations usually long before inter-organisational efforts. Harmonising with external actors, if requiring any change, can only realistically occur by de-harmonising internally. Perhaps not for the full gamut, but on some level. And that’s something we rarely admit to.

Stepping back a level comes point two, which revolves dangers in the use of language and – of course – buzzwords and fuzzwords. If we’re not careful, the focus on the packaging becomes all. The initial intentions (originally misspelled as mistensions which – as a word – I have quickly grown to love), rationales and principles are watered down, if not lost altogether. And this very beautifully goes directly Cornwall and Brock’s article. That participatory methods were driven out of trying to enhance political agency (or at least to reduce its inhibition). But by focusing on the methods, the principles of participation have been co-opted to actually reduce political agency by emphasising everything at the ‘community’ level.

I’m second guessing a little here, but I believe the principles of harmonisation to be about creating efficiencies, so that humanitarian response is cheaper (read : goes further), and held to higher common standards (read : enhances the experience and impact on the people being served). It’s about the experience of people affected by or at-risk of experiencing crisis. Serving them more and better. Shifting the narrative to being first and foremost about harmonisation is an immediate dissociation from this because it inherently inhibits contextual adaptation. Something that most agree is the way to make a response the most appropriate and really participatory possible.

It’s pretty impossible not to see roots of harmonisation coming from industrial and commercial processes, whereby creating efficiency without losing much in the way of quality seems to be the real goal. And so this concept is wedged into a different world. It is retrofitted as the solution to entirely different challenges, complexities and potential rewards. And that is as familiar as it is frustrating.

Whilst I’m not going to go into it here, where I see value of harmonisation, is in approach rather than detail. And only in a way whereby the harmonisation itself is not the goal. Where harmonisation makes sense (and it sometimes does) – fill your boots. Where it doesn’t, we have to remember to recognise that, and remember why people bothered to coin it in the first place. But to use it effectively, we need to apply harmonisation in a non-uniform fashion. The benefits don’t outweigh the negatives in every situation. So, in conclusion, I’m advocating for the contextualisation of harmonisation. And we have to wonder whether that’s harmonisation at all. And especially whether that will tickle the taste buds of those with the cash monies.

NB – despite avoiding words such as ‘beneficiaries’ (assumptive), ‘targeted populations’ (aggressive and controlling)’, ‘community’ (condescending along lines of using ‘tribe’), I still fumble and tumble over words to describe people. Calling them ‘people served’ feels crass. People affected by or at-risk of experiencing crisis might work. Or PAAEC for ridiculous. Either way, sorry none of it works.

Contextualised harmonisation and other paradoxical buzzwords