PLATO: An Important Scholarly Initiative That Deserves To Be Widely Known

What happens when a problem on the minds of many thoughtful people intersects with the knowledge, skills, and research agenda of a large part of the scholarly community? An important question! There is the distinct possibility that progress will be made, but, alas, there is also the possibility that the findings and conclusions will be misunderstood or lead to unexpected and problematic consequences.

Think back to the 20th century. Among the military Allies, there was fear lest the Nazis and their Axis partners would triumph. As a consequence, an all-out effort was initiated to create the ultimate weapons of war—atomic weapons. In the hands of the United States and its allies, these weapons succeeded in shortening the war, but all of us on the planet have been dealing with the dangers of nuclear weapons and war ever since. Switching from physics to biology, informed scientists and administrators were eager to figure out the structure of the human gene; soon thereafter, the human genome project was conceived. The delineation of the human genome constituted a tremendous scientific achievement. It remains to be seen whether a deeper understanding of human genetics and the concomitant capacity to create or manipulate genes will be put to positive use, negative use, or both.

It is worth noting that, with respect both to atomic energy and genetic research, responsible scholars have led the effort to promote positive uses and to reduce the possibility of negative uses. These efforts must never be allowed to falter.

As we move toward the third decade of the twentieth century, the advent of new media has enabled the incredible spread of all kinds of information to virtually every corner of the globe—and perhaps beyond as well! Initially, with the advent of the internet, the World Wide Web, and a panoply of social media, there was euphoria about the formation of a population that is well informed, as well as the possibility of creating and distributing new knowledge at a record pace.

But again, things have not turned out to be that simple. Along with cascades of information have come cascades of misinformation. Along with so-called reliable news and scholarly sources, have come many outlets that traffic in fake news, disinformation, rumor, hearsay, and, indeed, numerous well-funded and well-targeted efforts to mislead and deceive consumers (of products, of news, and of both). And there is disturbing evidence that many, if not most of us, are more attracted to the lurid and lascivious than to the carefully resourced thoroughly researched, and cautiously reported news. Meanwhile, much of formal education—from primary grades through graduate studies, has been unwilling or unable to adjust to this radically altered informational milieu.

Against this attractive but also troubling background, the PLATO project has emerged. The creation of Professor Olga Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia and her colleagues at the University of Mainz, the PLATO project is a serious, multi-year, multi-disciplinary effort to delineate the contours of human information and its processing at this time; to identify the means for producing and conveying accurate information (positive learning); and, as well, to reduce, minimize, or even eliminate the creation and spread of disinformation (negative learning).

Inasmuch as the expertise being drawn on comes largely from the academic community, this enterprise is currently carried out by scholars across the relevant disciplines. However, if the project is to achieve success, it cannot simply involve communications to and among scholars. Its success will be decided by the extent to which students—and, ultimately, the general public—will gravitate toward and understand information that is reliable; and just as important, the extent to which these same human beings will withdraw from and reject putative information that does not stand the test of reliability, verifiability, and indeed, to use a much maligned word, the test of truth.

Let me switch focus for a moment. A quarter of a century ago, my colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, William Damon, and I first became interested in a scholarly and practical issue: Is it possible to be both creative and ethical? At the time, we outlined our goals to John Gardner (no relative), the wisest scholar-practitioner whom we knew. John Gardner mused for a while and said, “It will take you five years to figure out exactly what your issue is.” Gardner was right. It took about five years to define The Good Work Project, and now, more than two decades and ten books later, we are still pursuing what we have come to call The Good Project.

Fortunately, Professor Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia and her far flung network of colleagues have been more efficient. In the few years since the project was launched, they have both defined their goals and developed their data base to an impressive extent. In two books and in several conferences, Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia and her colleagues—now drawn from universities all over Germany and from other countries, including the United States—have delineated an increasingly clear set of objectives and outcomes for the project. And as exemplified during 2018-2019, they have launched and progressed with both a series of empirical research studies and a set of conceptual analyses.

In what follows, I touch on two issues: What should be the outcome of the project? And how can that end be achieved?

Outcomes/Deliverables

To achieve its current scholarly goals, the PLATO initiative should produce findings about how positive learning can be achieved within and across the scholarly disciplines and the range of topics in our world—and correlatively the best ways in which to expose, inhibit, and perhaps even eliminate forms of negative learning within and across the scholarly disciplines.

In a way this goal is similar to one that has been pursued for many years in K-12 education, as well as tertiary education. Under the label of “misconceptions” or “stereotypes” researchers have long documented the mistaken, incomplete, or misdirected ideas in various domains of knowledge. Familiar to many readers is evidence that, in the softer social sciences, students succumb to stereotypical thinking, rather than appreciating the complex interactions of variables within and across time. By the same token, within the physical and natural sciences, students often ignore or forget the variables that actually determine physical processes and results, or the interactions among variables that lead to non-intuitive results, favoring instead “folk theories” or “common sense” which, all too often, is actually “common nonsense.”

But this is the relatively low-hanging fruit. I have little doubt that we can improve student performances on examinations, even ones given some time after these students have studied for a course. It is also possible—and this is a more ambitious challenge—that we can develop an overarching theory that predicts misconceptions in school and delineates ways in which these can be reduced or eliminated.

Here’s the bigger challenge: All the time, in conversation, on the street, across traditional and new media, we encounter claims, counterclaims, assertions, and speculations. How might we equip students—indeed all of us (for, in that sense, we all remain students!)—to stop and step back and ponder, when we encounter a claim: What is the evidence for the claim? How was it secured? How can it be verified? What is the source of the claim? How reliable is that source (which includes candid and clear admission when that source has previously been in error)? Furthermore, when one of us has “seen clearly,” so to speak, will we be able to convey our conclusions to others in a straightforward and effective and convincing manner?

Think of it another way. Let’s assume that a brilliant student manages to master a whole range of disciplines—to get top grades on the final examination in physics, political science, philosophy and poetry. How confident can we be that, removed from the classroom, the testing room, or the academy, this same student can be counted on to be skeptical about claims encountered in the media, on the street, or in the town square? Put differently, is positive learning in school sufficient to eliminate negative learning in the agora?

For me, those are the greater challenges for the PLATO project.

Towards a Synthesis

As a citizen of the world, I fervently hope that PLATO can achieve this more ambitious goal. But as a scholar, I also have concerns about the longer shadow of the project. Consider an analogy in the area of medicine. We have known for generations that aspirin can be helpful in dealing with many maladies. But the medical and scientific community still does not know just how and why aspirin works, nor does it have reliable knowledge on when aspirin can be counter-indicated.

By the same token, we might be able to have successful ways of encouraging positive and discouraging negative learning, and yet still not have a good theory of these two forms of knowledge. Nor is this theory simply of academic interest. If we understood better the nature and the causes of positive and negative knowledge, we could devise better pedagogical approaches and increase the chances of desirable outcomes. As the influential social psychology Kurt Lewin (initially, Kurt Levine) is said to have quipped, “There is nothing as practical as a good theory.”

By training, I am a psychologist, and I have written many articles and books with the word “mind” in it. I am also known as the creator of the “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” and I’ve tried to explain aspects of teaching and learning in light of “MI Theory.” But recently, when drafting an intellectual memoir, I realized that my own mind is actually a “synthesizing mind.” And that is what I believe would be needed and welcome as well by the larger PLATO project.

A few words about synthesis. By its very nature, the synthesizing mind needs to be open and broad. While training and practice in one or more disciplines is helpful, it can also be counterproductive if one sees the world just through the lenses of the scholarly disciplines—like the cobbler, who sees only the shoes (slippers, sneakers, boots, rainwear) of those whom he counters.

The synthesizing mind needs a broad goal — the kind of goal that John Gardner encouraged those of us on The Good Project to pursue. But that goal should not be rigid; as one progresses, that goal may well shift significantly. And in some cases, it needs to be changed drastically or even dropped—if the initial conception turns out to be misguided or erroneous.

The synthesizing mind also needs a method or perhaps an arsenal of methods. I know my synthesizing mind the best, and I recognize that I work by creating charts, taxonomies, diagrams, and other visual aids, and filling them with various kind of contents. At first this is a rather solitary undertaking. I spend many hours alone, with a pad of paper or on my computer, in my study, on trips, or even lying in bed with classical music in the background. But sooner or later, I share these short-hand summaries with others to see whether they make sense and to gather feedback, criticisms, and also alternative and perhaps superior ways of organizing the materials.

Of course, I realize that this is one man’s—one person’s—approach to synthesizing. There are no doubt many other ways, depending on the mind of the synthesizer and the goals of the synthesizer (and perhaps, of the entity or the enterprise that commissioned the synthesis). The importance is not the method per se but rather the achievement—the power, the utility of the effort at synthesis, the extent to which it is understood, and the extent to which it is usable by others. Though they may appear simple and perhaps even elegant in a certain sense, it took ten years to develop the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and it has taken ten years to develop the notion of Good Work—both of which can now be defined and summarized in a minute or less.

But synthesizing is NOT sloganizing. The synthesis only makes sense if it is backed up by as much evidence, as much learning as possible.

Which brings me back to PLATO. I recognize and applaud the amazing efforts of Professor Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia and her colleagues, many gathered so far in a series of scholarly conferences and in the aforementioned published volumes. I hope that Team PLATO continues to progress with the analyses but that the Team will also work, individually or corporately, on the synthesis. For if PLATO is to constitute a longstanding contribution to knowledge and practice, it ultimately needs and deserves one or more powerful syntheses.

Let me return to the challenge raised at the beginning of this essay. Knowledge is certainly to be preferred to ignorance. But knowledge cannot set up and expect to maintain boundaries. Neither nuclear energy nor genetic findings can be restricted only to those who will use that knowledge constructively. We need, somehow, to fashion a world where there is desire for the positive uses of nuclei, whether atomic or genetic, and revulsion at the negative use. By the same token, we need somehow to fashion a world that wants, that craves, positive learning and that rejects, in fact reviles, negative learning. And to do that, we need to educate, to cultivate, an educated citizenry. Otherwise the very insights and principles achieved by the PLATO project can be hijacked by those who would prefer to engender Negative learning!

Perhaps The Good Project, now a quarter of a century old, can provide some guidelines.

I thank Olga Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia for her careful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

References

Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, O., Wittum, G., & Dengel, A. (Eds.). (2018). Positive Learning in the Age of Information: A Blessing or a Curse? Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, O. (Ed.). (in press). Frontiers and Advances in Positive Learning in the Age of Information (PLATO). Springer Nature.

© 2019 Howard Gardner

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2 Comments on “PLATO: An Important Scholarly Initiative That Deserves To Be Widely Known”

  1. Nada Vukicevic October 8, 2019 at 3:20 pm #

    Dear Dr Gardner,thank you. Nada V

  2. Christine D Kunkel October 10, 2019 at 2:25 pm #

    Howard,
    As usual, you convey an important idea in a time that desperately needs your counsel. I was not aware of the PLATO movement, but I will now further study Professor Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia’s ideas and I will be sure to use them in my work as well as pass them on to others at Rhode Island College. Chris Kunkel

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