What is a platform?

Transcript of this 18-minute recording from 2015, which delves further into the concept of a platform as mentioned in a 2015 blogpost on developing as a critical thinker.

I want to tease out more of thinking behind calling the central piece of this schema below a platform.

Platform

This schema about the development of a person over time, as a combination of internalizing knowledge, perspectives, and habits—that’s the left-hand circle—, wider engagements in a wider social sphere—that’s the right-hand circle—, and their supportive platform. As it develops over time, the smaller platform becomes a larger platform as indicated by the curves from the bottom upwards.

A platform is something you can stand upon, something that supports you.  But, most importantly, it’s something beyond what is inside you—beyond your personality, willpower, drive, or creativity. (Some theory about human development underlies my emphasis here on something extending beyond what’s inside you; I’ll get to that in due course.) In a sense a platform is like what they call a private universe when you’re looking at conceptual change in science or conceptual change education (Annenberg Learner 2017). Conceptual change education says don’t just try to teach children the correct way of thinking about science—how the planets go around the sun and so on. Instead, recognize that students come to your classes already with a view about how those things happen. That’s their private universe. It may not be correct in scientific terms, but it needs to be recognized. The lessons need to allow students to discover how their private universe runs into problems and how the more established knowledge gives them some way out, some resolution of the problems.

But the platform is unlike a private universe in other senses. It extends beyond concepts, involving our bodily arrangements, strength, coordination, stamina, and so on. It also involves our systems of relationship with others. So it’s not so focused on concepts. Like the private universe and conceptual change, it’s something you build on.  But, unlike the private universe idea, it’s not something that is to be replaced eventually with a correct view. It is as if the platform were a private universe where we continue to have private universes; where we never get to the correct version.

Each of us has our platform for engaging in the world and for taking on new knowledge. The diagram above shows the platform getting larger. My comment about taking on new knowledge implies that the platform can be something that changes. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the same cross hatching at the bottom and the top in the schema so as to indicate that change is a matter of more than expansion, but the ways different things get added.)

Why does it have to change? Why, once put into place through our development as a child to adulthood, can’t it just stay the same? Why would someone—an outsider, a teacher, a coach, a colleague—try to foster change?

The first answer to the questions might be that is never possible not to change. External events happen, e.g., the financial collapse of the economy in 2007-8. Internal events happen, e.g., we age, get ill, recover. The first answer would be that we would pay attention to the way the platform can evolve and change in order to respond well to unavoidable change.

A second reason why we might wish to change a platform would be to counteract the limitations that we’ve taken on in our particular pathways of development—in our families, in our culture, in our peer relationships, in our gendered ways of working in the world. We might want to foster change to help someone (or ourselves) move beyond those limitations or to counteract them. (In that sense a platform in this schema might be thought of as a platform plus—we’re trying to emphasize its changeability; it doesn’t have to keep us in the same place; there’s role for teachers, coaches, and so on in fostering that change.)

What is this platform concretely? In a previous post (http://wp.me/p1gwfa-Ik) and in this diagram above I say we could think about it like a studio, where a studio is the space we create for ourselves in which to really pursue our own projects—the “room of one’s own” in Virginia Woolf’s words. A studio is also a place where we would apprentice with a master or a place where we collaborate with others on a project, inventing solutions or designs and so on. All of those associations of the word studio are apt.

In a good studio you would have some safe or secure base for evaluating the effects of engagements in the wider world and taking stock and learning from them—or healing one’s wounds after those wider engagements. It’s a relatively safe space compared to the riskiness of the wider social engagements.

To concrete examples of a platform I might add workshops and other ways of creating what I call a connecting, puzzling, and reflecting (CPR) space (Taylor 2018). I think there are many other examples of this process of platform building. It could include when students at the end of a course are asked to produce a plan for practice—how they are going to put into practice the tools and processes they’ve been learning, the knowledge they’ve been acquiring. And how they’re going to practice putting into practice; it’s surely not going to be perfect at first. Platform building might even just be keeping a journal or having a notebook with you. In short, there are many different tools and processes for making a platform a growing thing, a platform plus.

 

Let me go back to something I foreshadowed, namely, the theory behind emphasizing the platform as something beyond what is inside you. In that sense a platform connects with the idea that development over one’s lifetime from infancy is something always emerging out of dynamic interaction. My favorite author in this vein is Hendriks-Jansen in his 1996 book Catching Ourselves in the Act. In the introduction he talks about some very interesting robots that were being developed at MIT that he observed and then he talks about his view of the early infant gaining their view of self (p. 8-9).

In the case of Mataric’s robots, the independent operation of four low-level reflexes within an office environment results in the emergent activity of wall following. There are no explicit instructions inside the robot to tell it to follow walls. No formal definition of walls is required to produce its behavior. The emergent behavior of the system as a whole is a result of various autonomous activities interacting with each other and with the environment, and not of a centralized system making decisions based on internally represented course of action or goals. The robot is therefore unlikely to follow a particular wall in exactly the same way on different occasions. Its route will depend on its approach in a specific instance, on noise its sensor readings, and on the numerous unspecified contingencies of a dynamic environment. But it can be relied on to follow the wall every time.

He then goes on to suggest how things could be added to the robots based on that reliable wall following, which would then add a higher level of behavior. Let’s skip ahead to what he says about the early infant (p. 12):

[H]uman infants, observed in their natural setting, perform activity patterns that are far more complex and far more varied than had previously been supposed… Many of these activity patterns would seem to be unique to human infants, and they appear to have [arisen through our evolutionary history] for their power to attract and hold the attention of adults. Their performance requires no inborn knowledge of the world. They can be shown to result from the interactions of simple reflexes and motor programs with a mother who is biologically primed to respond to her infant’s species-typical behavior as though it were intentional and purposeful… It has begun to be realized that the main “function” of many of the early activity patterns is the establishment of an interactively emergent, typically human scaffolding of mother-infant dialogue. Many of these patterns performed in early infancy do not survive into adult behavior. They seem merely to serve this bootstrapping role to launch the infant into an environment of adults who think in intentional terms, communicate through language, and manipulate tools and artifacts.

You have to read more of Hendriks-Jansen’s book to appreciate more of the theory. The contrast here is with ideas that suggest that the newborn is an immature version of what comes later; it has to mature. Hendriks-Jansen points out that the newborn does very well—even the fetus in the uterus does very well into own terms—it’s adapted to the place it’s in at that time. So instead of thinking that there’s some program inside, some unfolding that has to happen, some soul in the machine where the soul might be given at conception, some agent within the agent. (Often discussion these days has the agent within us being genes—we are just as Dawkins would say lumbering robots built around the genes which are the real essence of who we are.) The platform idea or Hendrik-Jansen’s idea are trying to create an image and then a research program around a conceptualization that doesn’t presuppose something inside us already running the show, even if its own immature version.

As I’ve said on other occasions it’s quite difficult for us in our language—at least in English—to talk about that. All our words, even this word agent means you’re doing something for someone else.  Similarly, an actor in sociological theory or a person (coming from the persona which was the mask worn in a Greek drama). Or subjectivity—we are subject to something or someone else, some higher power.

One last thing about Hendriks-Jansen’s theory—and this is another reason why it might be a mistake to have the same cross hatching at the bottom of this diagram as at the top—is that the idea that after you go through these developmental phases, you get to a place where you can let go of the earlier patterns. So the systems develop and give rise to further systems that can then be built upon.

One last comment. Could the term scaffold be an appropriate synonym for platform? A scaffold in one sense is the platform, ironically, where they would hang people. You would be taken to the scaffold, which was actually a platform; the scaffold was not the post that you got hanged from. In education we have a more benign view of the word scaffold—it’s more like a ladder. The teacher has to set up the ladder and lead you to the first rung. All the rest of the rungs have already been put in place and you then climb up it. That view of scaffold doesn’t have the self-driven sense of an extended person continuing to build upon their own platform (or on their own platform plus). Yet, suppose you had a view of scaffolding that allowed someone to be building their own scaffolding that they then used to continue to build their own scaffolding. (There are forms of scaffolding that are used around buildings, where you can jack yourself up—search for them on the web: it’s quite interesting to look at how they work.) So, if we could have that last sense of scaffolding, it would be like what I’ve been talking regarding the platform, the secure base, the studio, the connecting, puzzling and reflecting spaces, and more.

References

Annenberg Learner. (2017) “A private universe.” https://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html (viewed 28 Oct 2018).

Hendriks-Jansen, H. (1996) Catching Ourselves in the Act. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Taylor, P. J. (2015) “What is a platform?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaCyxw_tyvI (viewed 28 Oct 2018)

Taylor, P. J. (2018) “Connecting-Puzzling-Reflecting Space.” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/CPRSpace.html (viewed 28 Oct 2018)

 

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

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