Sunday, 25 May 2008

Random Evil and Learning

On Saturday, we attended the funeral for a friend who died as the result of being attacked as he walked home from a prayer meeting. The minister who led the service called it an act of random evil. Could we explain why this happened to a person who lived to serve others but who had now for a number of years suffered from different illnesses including diabetes and a stroke? Yes, there is a sense in which this was a release for him from the struggles of this life but even through his own health struggles, he had got out and done what he could to assist others to have a full life.

As I reflected, I realised that this man isn't the only person that I know who has been effectively dealing with others needs or things that appear to be wrong with our world that has been struck down or suffered a series of illnesses. In 1996, I attended the funeral of a man who had given his life to help people and who at 54 just after having completed his doctorate was struck down by cancer. More recently, a friend here in Wellington has had a serious illness which each year puts him off work for months as the side effects impact his ability to live. Yet again this man has a desire to reach out and help others. Others, we know who have effective ministries to others find that illness strikes at crucial times in their work. It is easy to ask why expecting that there is something that they have done in their lives. The cause and effect syndrome but is that really the case?

The morning, we read Mark 3:22-27 and Barclay's commentary on the passage. Barclay said that Jesus didn't debate the origins of evil rather he dealt with it effectively. What happened to Jesus?

This raises the question of what we are doing to counter evil or whatever you want to call those things that are going wrong with our world. What makes a person feel that it is right to strike another possibly leading to death? Why should people rise up in violence when somebody makes fun of their beliefs? Why is hatred so strong in some parts of the world? Why do world leaders have such strong distrust of each other? We can't explain all of the things that we don't like that happen in this world but there are some that we can deal with. So what are we doing about these?

To some extent, where there is an attempt to address evil or to provide help, there will always be pressure to resist. It seems to be the nature of this world. The question is whether we are prepared to maintain the effort despite the opposition.

My PhD studies relate to the identification of aspects that are critical to learning and then using variation around those aspects to help foster deep learning in the subject area. Although my focus is on learning in software development, I can see that the same principles can be used elsewhere.

A basic idea from a learning perspective is to use alternative presentations around a theme that help highlight the critical aspect for learning of the topic. In software development, we often want students to learn about implementing good solutions so in our teaching, we provide examples of good solutions. Variation theory tells us that this doesn't provide the contrast required that helps the learner understand why that is a good solution. What we need to do is provide examples of both good and bad solutions and demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. Sierra and Bates (2005) have a good example to contrast the difference between an imperative programming solution and and object-oriented solution. They don't just introduce the solutions, they take a narrative through which shows what happens when the solution later needs to be changed.

I look at video games and wonder what they are teaching the players. The scenarios, as I understand them, often involve destruction of something in order to make progress forward. There is no contrast with an alternative path of building peace and of assisting others. Should we be surprised that there is a belief that to hit someone without having a reason is acceptable in our world?

There are attempts to create games that portray an alternative view. These include:

PeaceMaker - http://impactgames.com

A Force More Powerful - http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/

Global Conflict Palestine http://www.globalconflicts.eu/

What happens when you have to examine the perspective of those who you see as your enemies? What happens if instead of enforcing your perspective on others, you have to understand their perspective and look for a common ground?

Let's ask serious questions about the Iraq conflict. Was President Bush correct in his summation of the situation? What were the alternative ways of dealing with the situation? Why do some of the middle eastern countries find the systems promoted by the United States unacceptable? Do we understand the critical issues involved here and the alternative ways of dealing with them?

There is some serious research needed here to understand the critical aspects that would lead to fostering different ways of thinking about and resolving these conflicts. Phenomenography takes a second-order perspective and explores how people understand or are aware of a phenomenon. Through applying this research method, it is possible to identify critical aspects that distinguish different ways of understanding the phenomenon. So far most phenomenographic studies have focused on educational issues but what would we learn if we were to look at social issues?

If we understood more about the different ways that people understood situations that they faced each day then maybe we could attempt to address some of the issues that cause so many problems in our society.

Reference

Barclay, W. (1975). The gospel of Mark (revised ed.). Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press.

Sierra, K., & Bates, B. (2005). Head first Java (2nd ed.). Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media Inc.

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