Memes – A unit of culture

Hong Kong Education Comment

By Dr. Orville Leverne Clubb, Head of BTEC Centre, ITS Education Asia

This is 2nd in a series from Dr. Clubb. The 1st can be found here.

It is time to stop the mealy-mouthed euphemisms: ‘Nationalists’, ‘Loyalists’,’Communities’, ‘Ethnic Groups’, ‘Cultures’, Civilizations’.  Religions is the word you need.  Religion is the word you are struggling hypocritically to avoid.

-Richard Dawkins

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I was introduced to the meme while having dinner with my son who at the time was pursuing his linguistic degree. As a lifelong learner, after hearing about memes I surfed the WWW to find out what I could about the concept. I learned that the meme was conceptualized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” (free book downloads on the meme concept). Dawkins conceived  the meme to explain how cultural information spreads in a Darwinian fashion. A meme is characterized by being a small unit of cultural information that is self-replicating and its method of spreading is modeled on the behavior of biological genes.

The meme concept has developed a following and a field of study, Memetics, has been developed for studying the changes in cultural knowledge based on a metaphor of Darwinian evolution. The meme is encoded with the use of a language, ritual, etc.

Since memes are naturally selected from the cultural environment there is little room for us as an “individual” in a vast cultural evolutionary process which we do not control.  Memetics appears to suggest that humans are biological robots fighting for survival of their culture and DNA. This implies free will and consciousness is an illusion, and self is only a complex collection of memes that are copied from ones’ cultural environment.

As with natural selection, the meme concept has shaken the foundations of  theology since the concept suggests we are products of our environment instead of being created as a part of a grand divine scheme, and of course, Richard Dawkins is a famous atheist. Being an evolutionary biologist, he had great difficulty accepting the Christian belief that the book of Genesis was a literal factual account of the creation of the earth.  Myself, being from a Christian background and an American originally from Mississippi, I remember the emotional anti-evolution views of people around me. Fundamentalist preaches in the deep south believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the “sacred law” and every word is the truth.  As I heard a preacher once say: “It is as if the scriptures printed in the book were faxed down from God”.  As an adult I have accepted that natural selection happens.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is iconoclastic and still battling to lose the title “theory” and be considered fact. There was a celebration of the anniversary of Darwin’s 200 birthday in 2009, and yet the fight still goes on. The underlining concepts of evolution have proven to be persistent and are winning over more converts. A great discussion of the battle of divine plan vs. evolution is in the article Why the Feud between Darwin and religion?

Dawkins’ religious views have been labeled by some as Atheist Fundamentalism.  Maybe Dawkins beliefs have been modified by religious memes of his past. Dawkins is now calling himself a “secular Christian”.  In an article Is Richard Dawkins Close to Christianity? we see an explanation by Dr. William Oddie that Dawkins was brought up as an Anglican but turned atheist in his early teens after learning the theory of evolution. Being a retired academic I know that my views have changed over time with each year and new experiences. I have not totally given up my belief that there is a superior being that  bring order to the cosmos. Many of our past beliefs are past memes that stay with us to come back and haunt us.

In my previous blog I stated “In my next blog of this series, I will continue the discussion and go into the operations of memes and explore Virtual Tribalism.”  I will go into Virtual Tribalism and Social Identity Theory  in my next blog.

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Why Are Democracies Failing Us?

Hong Kong Education Comment

By Gary Hadler

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I recently read the article published on the BBC website Has British democracy let its people down? source: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-40245805 and wished to add some comment to this phenomena sweeping many democracies in the developed world.  The question really is Why are democracies failing us?”.  There seems to be an increasing trend that voting is creating outcomes that are not desirable for our countries.

The UK is a very good case study of this.  The Brexit vote was expected to fail.  Even those who voted for Brexit did not expect the vote to succeed.  After Brexit, there has been widespread voter remorse.  Many people who voted for Brexit have expressed the claim that they did so not really wanting the UK to withdraw from the EU but rather as a protest against the status quo and a desire to see greater controls over immigration.

Terresa May called the recent UK election with the justification being that she wanted a mandate to negotiate Brexit with the EU.  The voters have returned a mess as outlined in the article.  The UK now goes into the negotiations with an extremely weak UK government that will struggle to achieve much at home.  The small parties who control the balance of power and represent a very small part of the UK electorate now wield power over all the UK.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) which in recent times lost a vote for Scotland to leave the UK now wants to vote again.  The argument being that Scotland does not want to leave the EU and should not be forced to do so.  This suggests that the leaders of this party do not feel bound by the referendum they lost.

The UK just 12 months ago was doing quite well economically and had a very stable political future.  The pound was strong and people had certainty.  Now thanks to politicians who have pursued their own agendas, the country is in a precarious position. The elections/referendums pushed on to the population have resulted in outcomes that are not in the majority of people’s best interests.

The problem is fairly straight forward.  The politicians should be researching the difficult issues, taking expert advice and making informed decisions that are in the best interest of the country.  The elected officials should then explain the reasons for their decision.  The problem in my view is that because of mass/social media and the constant stream of news, public opinion polls etc politicians do not want to “stick their necks out” and take risks.  They fear alienating voters.  Thus it has become easier just to simply ask for a vote from the public.  This is then seeking people who are poorly informed to form a view on complex issues and vote in a “yes or no” type situation.  The reality with most complex issues is that they need compromise.  Black and white situations rarely exist in complex issues facing a country. Most complex issues are “grey” and require compromise and flexibility to provide the best outcome for a country.

My own view is it is not democracy that is failing us but the lack of strong leadership.  There appears to be too many politicians that have gained their power by compromise within their party and do not have strong principles or beliefs.  They are just like leaves in the wind.  People do not need to vote often.  Democracy works because governments change and this limits corruption and nepotism.  People need to have confidence that their leaders will make the correct decisions and lead…..

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BBIS2: Developing our Future Workforce – Innovation in Education

Hong Kong Education Comment

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On Thursday 8th June 2017, ITS Executive Principal Albert Ma presented at the second Better Business Innovation Series event – a cross-business chamber initiative which draws together experts in multiple fields to discuss, share and possibly collaborate on projects which benefit the future of Hong Kong.

This event focused on education and included a wide variety of speakers including Professor Peter Mathieson, Vice Chancellor, HKU, Carrie Yau, Executive Director, VTC, Brian Cooklin, Principal, Nord Anglia, Gary Wong, Founder, InspiringHK Sports Foundation and a host of others.

Albert spoke about how two of the key concerns for the future workforce from an education perspective are the type of education & quality of accreditations exiting education that students receives. If industry wants more it always has been able to and can continue to provide specific work-based learning. This then begs the question how to deal with these innovatively without dumping what we have – the transition is crucial.

We need variety of subject matter, variety of thinkers, modern skills, ability to learn, ability to analyse and problem solve, ability to move between group work and individual work. These can be provided by combining existing curricula with modern technology and supplementing in a learner-led way (with guidance). We should not only focus on the classroom but look to experiential opportunities both in the outdoors for resilience and team-building and into industry – if you want a prepared workforce you need to contribute.

We need to be able to trust that people have accreditations which relate to a particular level of experience and ability. This is a big problem with MOOCs which are nevertheless a massive innovation. Many curricula are examined which poses huge problems around security which need to be solved. This needs will and investment. The tech is there – we at ITS already do it.

So we transition by moving existing curricula into a wider variety of learning models, providing greater accessibility and improving efficiency with individualised learning. Overcome security with modern tech or moving to assignment based accreditation.

Essentially, that is how ITS operates and has done so for a while now. Our whole purpose was to move rapidly beyond the traditional forms of mainstream education which are rooted in the 19th century. If you’re interested in how we help students access qualifications in a modern way for the modern world, get in touch.

 

ITS runs a variety of IGCSE, A-level and BTEC courses both in its schools and online.

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Are Humans logical? – BREXIT, Clinton VS Trump …

Blogroll, UK Education Comment

By Dr. Orville Leverne Clubb, Head of BTEC Centre, ITS Education Asia

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As the methods of communication, knowledge storage and retrieval have advanced with modern ICT, the differences in cultures and the role culture plays in interpretation of our environment is becoming more and more apparent.  Two people from different cultures can see an event, or read the same written passage, and have very different interpretations of the meaning. Normally, most of us interpret the world through our learned culture which will have a group view of events on a spectrum of “good’ to “bad”.

Accessibly through the internet and the WWW has caused major international software developers to rush for software “localization” to deal with the different cultural perceptions of knowledge. One of the catalysts of this localization phenomena is that we have seen most major literate societies have their language systems adapted to ICT technology making the WWW access nearly universal. An example of this phenomena is reported in a 2007 BBC  article titled “YouTube Makes International Move”.  In this article, One of the  YouTube founders, Steve Chen, was  very proud of the fact that YouTube was “localizing”. In France for example, for YouTube there are only French items presented in French language that have been selected by French people; thus forming an exclusive French YouTube in-group.

I will give my explanation of this insular attitude and how the new social media and the online generation are using ICT in a series of blogs.

Extelligence is a term that was coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen in their 1997 book titled Figments of Reality. Stewart and Cohen define extelligence as:

            “the cultural capital that is available to us in the form of external media

(e.g. tribal legends, folklore, nursery rhymes, books, videotapes, CD-ROMs, etc.)”

In their book, Stewart and Cohen contrast extelligence with intelligence.  They define “intelligence” as the knowledge and cognitive processes within the brain. Further, they regard the ‘complicity’ (partners in crime) of extelligence and intelligence as fundamental to the development of consciousness in both evolutionary terms for the species and for the individual. ‘Complicity’, as used by Stewart and Cohen, “ is a composite of complexity and simplicity and is used by individuals to express the close and interdependent relationship between knowledge-inside-one’s-head and knowledge-outside-one’s-head that one can readily access.” I believe that the internet, the WWW and its stored information now makes a universal reservoir of extelligence or supratelligence which I wish to define as an online reservoir of multicultural extelligence. 

An interesting idea is the meme which is defined as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.”

An individual’s intelligence about his environment are learned by an individual in a culture by way of family, friends, peer groups, formal education, club, associations, religious groupings, etc. A member of any culture will use both intelligence and extelligence of his cultural environment that fits into his belief system as “truth”. These newly formed beliefs may or may not have factual backing to prove that something is true.

This intelligence saves us time by us behaving as defined for us by our own beliefs. This behavior is normally without major reasoning and near automatic. By the word “belief”, the individual bases his way of thinking on faith in his beliefs rather than on truth and trying to resolve the case using reasoning with empirical facts. There is evidence that suggest that once we form a belief or point of view that we do not easily change our minds. There is an old Emory University study that provides us with the following:

“The investigators used functional neuroimaging (fMRI) to study a sample of committed Democrats and Republicans during the three months prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2004. The Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they had to evaluate threatening information about their own candidate. During the task, the subjects underwent fMRI to see what parts of their brain were active. What the researchers found was striking.

‘We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning (my italics),’ says Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory who led the study. ‘What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.’ …”

The researches concluded: “The study has potentially wide implications, from politics to business, and demonstrates that emotional bias can play a strong role in decision-making, Westen says. “Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts,’” We see examples of this emotional based judgment in BREXIT and the latest US presidential election.

There is agreement among the members of a culture to what are their values and norms which can change very radically from one generation to another. An example would be what is acceptable language and material in today’s mass media. We find many words used and things depicted that would have never been allowed in mass media of the 1950s and 1960s.

In my next blog of this series, I will continue the discussion and go into the operations of memes and explore Virtual Tribalism.

Lee Clubb is Head of BTEC Centre at ITS Education Asia which runs one of the world’s first fully online live classroom BTEC courses to create a completely virtual blended learning environment.

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How well would YOU do on your A-levels now?

Blogroll, Hong Kong Education, UK Education Comment

By Danny Harrington, Founder & Director, ITS Education Asia

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I loved this in the popular UK newspaper The Independent last Friday. They posed the question and put in a set of 15 A-level questions that students will be facing this month. I’ll be the first to admit I did not do very well despite the fact that I took some of those subjects and went on to study at the University of Oxford. But should I be surprised?

Actually no, and for a number of reasons. This is important because as adults, and especially as parents, we sometimes forget that the world our children face is not the same as the one we faced. In fact, the generational difference is now probably about as big as it has ever been in human history because the pace of change is at its fastest. When it comes to education this is as true as in any other aspect of life. As parents we need to listen to up-to-date professional advice, look at the published research and critically evaluate it.

There is often a misconception that exams today are “easier” than in the past (like when I took A-levels in 1988). People often point to grade inflation as evidence of this. But grade inflation has occurred across multiple curriculum changes at a fairly steady rate so this is clearly more complex. I’m always bemused as to why no-one is prepared to suggest that maybe younger generations are “better” at exams. Certainly more young people have access to education, more are supported in working at school rather than getting out and into work (those jobs don’t exist anymore), there is no reason to be surprised that the longer a population works at something, e.g. exams, the more competent they become. At the end of the day, I couldn’t do many of the quiz questions so how could they be easier?

Of course there is the question of specialisation. I have not had to study those subjects intensively every day for the last two years. It raises interesting questions, though, over the purpose of education if I have forgotten that stuff or never even been taught it and yet function perfectly well in the world. This I think is where we get the most differentiation in the quality of schools. Too many people point to the resources – the computer suites, playing fields, building quality, theatres etc – and these are nice to have but they do not educate children. Teachers and parents do. And the most important things we can teach them are not so much the curriculum content but the skills of how to learn, how to get on with people, how to lead and follow, how to problem solve, how to be resilient. So good schools are those which encourage community and foster a love of learning.

These are the important elements that our children need to get on with life and lead it in a rich and varied and fascinating way.

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