Comprehensive Exploration, Comprehension, and Collaboration

06 January 2022 in Resource Center.

To better understand the kind of inquiry and action that might foster our comprehensivity, our aspiration to better understand it all and each other, we can examine alternative approaches. Comparisons between alternative approaches to learning may help us better imagine what might facilitate our comprehensivity. This resource reviews Ten Epistemic Virtues for comprehensive andragogy identified in a previous resource and then compares them to the Three Sisters Garden Metaphor for Learning of Barbara Wall and the Four Sets of Competencies for Learning from “The Design Way”.

Since this resource references the indigenous wisdom included in the Three Sisters Garden Metaphor (discussed below), it is appropriate to include a land acknowledgment: I write from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania which is part of the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape. I acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with their territory. I acknowledge the injustice of the state-sponsored genocide and settler colonialism that gave me the “right” to occupy this land without a meaningful reconciliation with the Lenni-Lenape. The governments of Australia and Canada have both organized commissions that have acknowledged the genocides on their territories and have made some attempts at reconciling with indigenous peoples. I regret that the government of the United States has not yet begun a meaningful process of reconciliation. Follow this link for some materials I organized documenting these genocides.

Footnote: Barbara Wall’s eloquent four minute introduction and land acknowledgement exemplifies and contextualizes these comments:

10 Epistemic Virtues for Comprehensive Learning

In the resource Dante’s Comedìa and Our Comprehensivity, a set of 10 Epistemic Virtues for Comprehensive Learning was presented. This schema for comprehensive andragogy (“andragogy” means the guidance of learning) is summarized in this short seven minute video:

We can organize these ten values into three categories, namely, exploration, comprehension, and collaboration, to better identify aspects of comprehensive practice:

All learning can be characterized as exploration. For instance, when learning by drill to reflexively act in specific ways, the space of possibilities we must explore and master is large enough that it takes many iterations to competently master any ritual. Comprehensive exploration refers to any learning that engages comprehensive values.

We have identified six virtues to guide our comprehensive explorations. We should aspire to adequate depth, breadth, and wholeness so that a survey of experiences, stories, hypotheses, and perspectives may provide an adequate basis for effective meaning making. In the resource The Whole Shebang, we learned from Jan Zwicky that our aha moments of insight (our experiences of meaning) may not reflect the truth. So, to complete an exploration we should attempt to identify gaps in our understandings, interpretations, communications, and intentions. Due to the possibility of unidentified gaps, no exploration can ever be be fully complete. However, we can obtain an adequately comprehensive understanding by (at least) briefly assessing and surveying the gaps to contextualize the meanings developed in our explorations. These first six epistemic virtues establish the ideal for comprehensive exploration in our proposed schema for comprehensive andragogy.

The next three levels in our schema (7, 8, and 9) all try to encompass our learning into formulations that offer structures for understanding the world and each other. Generalized principles are vetted abstractions that summarize broad swaths of our experience data. They represent a first-cut level of comprehensive comprehension. Such principles and abstractions can and should be put together into an integrated whole system, an integrity, to provide a contextualized system for understanding the world. Many of the all-encompassing theories that have been developed, such as quantum electrodynamics (QED) qualify as an integrity in our schema.

There may be other levels of structured big picture understandings like generalized principles and integrities. I propose that we define the highest level of comprehensive comprehension as the broadest, deepest, and most integrated form of question-structured story we can muster to provide a comprehensively nuanced interpretative integrity in support of our judgment. That is, the highest objective for our comprehensive learning is to support our facility for effective judgment-making.

Since it is impossible to know a priori the kind of comprehensive comprehensions suitable for the best judgment-making, the best we can do is try our best and reflect upon the results. Then iterate and try some more. Comprehensive comprehension is an ideal. As we practice striving for it, our understanding may clarify and we may learn how to routinely build comprehensive comprehensions at various levels.

Comprehensive collaboration, level 10 in our schema, can be engaged at all levels of comprehensive practice. Comprehensive collaboration is the recognition that all our learning is encompassed by our social fabric. The ideas of other people are essential to help us adequately test our meaning making with other experiences, stories, hypotheses, perspectives, and gap-seeing mistake mystique. No one working on their own can possibly identify enough considerations to fully complete a comprehensive exploration, let alone a comprehensive comprehension. We need the support of a community of fellow explorers. This collaborative character of comprehensive practice is essential. Even the most comprehensive exploration or comprehension that any one person can organize should be considered incomplete until an adequate engagement with collaborators tests and strengthens its ideas.

Hopefully, this 10 Virtues schema for comprehensive learning helps us better guide our comprehensive initiative-taking. There is no reason to believe that this schema is the best possible guidance for fostering our comprehensivity. Most likely we will gradually discover even better ways to guide our comprehensive learning. The schema is offered as a starting point to begin developing our tradition of comprehensive practice.

What do you like about the Ten Virtues schema for comprehensive learning?

What strengths and shortcomings do you find in the 10 Virtues approach to fostering our comprehensivity?

The Three Sisters Garden Metaphor of Barbara Wall

To further examine the 10 Virtues model, to “kick its tires” so to speak, we might compare it to the Three Sisters Garden Metaphor of Barbara Wall as described in this seven minute clip from one of the Buckminster Fuller Institute‘s Space Camp educational programs:

Barbara Wall’s Three Sisters schema of learning sees corn as the scaffold of knowledge (philosophy) with beans representing scientific knowledge offering nutriment guided by corn for structural support. Squash (the third sister) represents the ethical space for intellectual pluralism to support a full ecosystem in reconciliation with spiritual knowledge grounded in squash’s role as moisture and weed control. The symbiosis of corn, beans, and squash represents a fully engaged ecosystem of the mind articulating a reconciled pluralism for the nourishment of the community.

To test the Three Sisters schema I tried to fit it into the Real/True/Ideal schema from “The Design Way” by Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman. My first attempt was to imagine corn as The Ideal, beans as The True, and squash as The Real. I’m neither comfortable with the scaffold for knowledge as The Ideal nor am I comfortable with the spiritual engaged at the level of The Real as the domain of ethics. Maybe swapping my mapping so that corn represents The Real and squash represents The Ideal works better? Maybe corn should represent The Real? Maybe the Three Sisters only imperfectly aligns with the Real/True/Ideal trichotomy?

How does the Three Sisters compare to the 10 Values schema?

I like the way the Three Sisters aim us toward comprehensive comprehension as a reconciliation. I love the way the Three Sisters metaphor invites a responsible pluralism in its emphases on diversity and reconciliation. I especially value how the Three Sisters identifies the lack of explicit inclusion of spiritual knowledge in the 10 Virtues schema (spirituality is included as experiences, stories, and perspectives, but it is a deficiency that, so far, no discussion of spiritual knowledge has been offered). I value how the Three Sisters metaphor emphasizes respect for human and non-human agents. Finally, I especially value the strong collaborative pull of symbiosis and reconciliation in the Three Sisters.

How would you compare the Three Sisters schema for learning with the 10 Virtues? How can the Three Sisters help us strengthen the 10 Virtues?

The Four Sets Schema in “The Design Way”

The Four Sets of Competencies for Learning schema is presented in “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman (see pages 229–230 and Figures 14.12–14.17). The Four Sets are the four quadrants formed by a horizontal axis ranging from the “Internal / Individual / Personal” to the “External / Social-Collective / Organizational” and a vertical axis ranging from the “Abstract / General / Theoretical, Strategic” to the “Concrete / Particular / Tactical, Applied”. In the four quadrants between the axes, we have the Abstract-Internal Mindset where our character lives, the Abstract-External Knowledge Set for our thinking, the Concrete-External Toolset for acting in the world, and the Concrete-Internal Skillset that informs our practice.

The Four Sets of Competencies for Learning Schema
(adapted from “The Design Way”)

The 10 Virtues schema divides comprehensive practice into exploration, comprehension, and collaboration. The Three Sisters metaphor provides a supportive alternative model for comprehensive learning. But how is the Four Sets schema to be integrated?

The Four Sets schema provides a model for human learning in any tradition. All learning makes the distinction between the abstract subjective and the concrete objective, between ideas that summarize and integrate large collections of experience data and the objective particulars that are abstracted. And all human learning is articulated by individuals in the context of their social milieu. The Four Sets schema starts with these two distinctions as independent axes and then defines the interstitial quadrants that lie between them as Mindsets, Knowledge Sets, Toolsets, and Skillsets. It is a general schema characterizing any human learning.

We can apply the Four Sets schema to our comprehensive practice by tuning in to its four competencies in each of our explorations, comprehensions, or collaborations. That is, we can strengthen our inquiry and action by including each of its four competency sets in our exploration. In addition, since the schema applies to every tradition that we are integrating, it can help us more fully examine these other traditions: have we looked for the character, practice, and tools, as well as the knowledge sets used in each tradition? Moreover, as we reflect on our emerging comprehensive collaborations, we might ask if we have considered and integrated the mindsets, skillsets, toolsets, and knowledge sets of our collaborative participants?

Another application would take each of our 10 Virtues for comprehensive learning and ask what knowledge sets, toolsets, skillsets, and mindsets can help us better articulate that value? For example, for the third virtue of “Experiences / Stories”, we can think about the knowledge sets of empiricism, story-telling, observation, interpretation, etc. We might then wonder about the concrete toolsets and skillsets that might foster our ability to tune into the relevant experiences and communicate them to our collaborators. Finally, we might reflect on the mindsets and character we will need to better organize our inventory of experience for our comprehensive learning. Similar analyses considering how each of the 10 epistemic virtues is connected to each of the four competencies might be illuminating.

Finally, we might apply the Four Sets schema to the practice of our comprehensivity itself. So, we might try to identify and situate the mindsets, skillsets, toolsets, and knowledge sets that are needed for effective comprehensive practice. This might help us develop and test alternative schemas for the practice of our comprehensivity.

What relationships and connections among the 10 Virtues, 3 Sisters, and 4 Sets do you think might better articulate our comprehensive practice?

If you were a steward for our tradition of comprehensive learning, how would you pass on to others the nature of our practice? Which aspects of the 10 Virtues, 3 Sisters, and 4 Sets would you use, if any? What schema of learning would you recommend to students of comprehensive inquiry and action?

Developing Our Comprehensive Practice

Comprehensive practice, as we have been considering it, consists of exploration, integrative comprehension, and collaboration. To better articulate these three aspects of our emerging tradition, we examined a 10 Epistemic Virtues schema for guiding our practice. To further explore how we might articulate our practice we compared it with Barbara Wall’s Three Sisters Garden Metaphor for Learning. Finally, we re-considered our practice and our values in comparison with the Four Sets of Competencies for Learning schema from “The Design Way”.

Hopefully, we now see better how to explore, comprehend, and collaborate comprehensively. We have made some progress developing our thinking about the nature of comprehensive practice. However, the various partially overlapping ranges of epistemic virtues, vegetable garden metaphors, and competency categories remind us of Robert Sapolsky’s dangers of categorical thinking: 1) we can miss the big picture by focusing on boundaries, 2) we tend to underestimate differences when two cases happen to fall in the same category, 3) we tend to overestimate differences when cases happen to fall on opposite sides of a boundary. Considering each distinction, each category in the 10 Virtues, 3 Sisters, and 4 Sets schemas can lead us to the blindspots and distortions identified by Sapolsky’s list of dangers.

Sapolsky observed that all thinking is built on distinctions. Distinctions introduce categories that can distract from the big picture and distort our thinking about the particulars. Distinctions are fraught with epistemic dangers. Some of us saw how Dante struggled to use distinctions to gesture toward the unity of God. Thinking and exploration depends on distinctions, yet these very distinctions warp our understanding. It is one of the most profound paradoxes of life and of learning. It is the reason developing our mistake mystique is so important.

These reflections suggest we should treat each schema as a helpful guide that might prove useful even though each is sure to include blindspots and other evils. A bold humility is required: the boldness to believe in our ideas and to develop them even though they are filled with potentially troublesome distinctions combined with the humility that recognizes that gaps, blindspots, and other dangers will challenge us. Comparing multiple schemas provides the tool of overlapping sets of alternative distinctions to help us understand more deeply, more broadly, and more integratively. It will require creative, dynamic application to use these schemas and their comparisons to benefit from their power together with caution to avoid their pitfalls.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 12 January 2022 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 46m video from the 12 January 2022 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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