Background Independence in Education

I wrote this article earlier this year. It is a bit long, so below are just some excerpts. If you would like to read the full article, download a word document of it with this link.


Borrowing an idea from the field of physics, Background Independence can help to clarify the recent past, current and potential future states of education. Education today is dealing with an influx of dynamic approaches to the field from all directions. This wave of change within education is similar to what happened in Physics at the turn of the 20th century. Prior to 100 years ago, Newtonian laws of physics suggested that such physical concepts as position and movement were seen to be dependent for their meaning on the unchanging background of space and time. With the ideas of Einstein the fixed background was removed from theory and replaced with relationships. Space and time were no longer constants, and now thought to change along with and among everything else in the universe. The result is a view of the physical universe that is situational. The objects that used to be thought of as constants are now known to change, influencing and being influenced by all other objects in a Background Independent system. A similar idea currently resonates throughout education literature.

Structure and the Past

Just as the geometric shape of the universe was once considered to be static, so was the general form of Educational Structure. For the purposes of this paper, I have defined Educational Structure as the purely intentional side of Education; that which is prepared by design to maximize learning and that which supports this preparation. For a few hundred years until recently, transmission style training and classroom study was the generally accepted form of Educational Structure under which Learning in an Educational System took place. Here, Educational System can be understood as Educational Structure combined with Learning, or Educational Structure put into practice. Learning is defined as “a persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world”. (Driscol, 2005, p.9) What changed in the field of physics when space and time were realized to be dynamic is that space and time were seen to emerge from the Laws of Physics, rather than providing a background for them. Space and time were now understood not as fixed measurements, but as a result of the relationships in the physical universe. Similarly, over time we have seen how Learning, Educational Structures, and thus Educational Systems, are dynamic, emerging from the relationships in the learning universe rather than providing a background for them.

Learner and Environment

Important aspects from which meaning and shape emerge in a Background Independent Physical Universe are particular points of reference. Any particular point of reference and their situation (position and movement) creates relationships that gives value to structural things like space and time. In the physical world, this structure is different for different points of references depending on where they are and where they are going. In Background Independent Educational Systems these points of reference can be understood as Learner Environments. Educational Structure is different depending on relationships of Learner Environments. Learner Environments include such things as prior knowledge, physical surrounding, choice of study, access to technology, culture, personality, mood or anything directly but not exclusively related to the learner.

What is important to note at this point is that the Laws of Physics do not dictate what exists in our Physical Universe, but only what can possibly exist. The Laws of Physics attempt to state how physical things interact, not which physical things actually interact with others. The Laws of Learning (a term I will come back to later) would state the ways in which learning is possible. How learners learn in our actual world is as varied as the number of speeds you can possibly drive under the speed limit. And so are Learning Theories.

Symmetries and Learning

Learning Theories such as Behaviorism, Cognition, Constructivism all emerged gradually as a result of linking observed changes in individual learners with what was thought to bring about those changes. (Driscol, 2005) They, too, are a result of the situational nature of Background Independence, taking shape from actual world observation.Clusters of symmetries that collect and form broader Learning Theories can only supply Educational Structure with concepts and strategies to effectively blanket the types of relationships and situations from which they grow. For other situations, we need other theories. Symmetries of the past have been breaking because of that gradual change that has become rapid. All of the new relationships and situations that are facing us today have been created by dynamic, mutually inclusive Learning Theories, Educational Structure, Learning, Educational Systems and all other subsidiary objects in Background Independent Educational Systems. Consciously approaching education independent of any fixed background educators can ensure they are using strategies and tools situationally, with what little consistency a Social Science will allow.


Many of the concrete concepts of the past have turned out to be much more dynamic than previously thought. Despite tendencies these days to be enchanted with the future of education, we need to rethink many of our established practices to ensure that our path from the past leading into the rapidly changing future is a worthwhile one. One example of this is the role of the educator. To continue to treat teacher roles “as a single role, to be performed by a single person, increasingly defies the reality that is today’s educational system.” (Downes, 2010) No longer are “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” the only two options; there is everything in between. Teacher roles have started filling in the gaps on the new spectrum of what it means to be a teacher. And these points on the spectrum are best plotted by situation alone.

The environment of Intent mentioned earlier is certainly another important way in which education is different from Physics; there is no surrounding Intent (that we know of) outside of our physical universe. With this Intent in education comes a certain amount of choice and control. More than ever, learners have the ability to control their own learning, and to decide which aspects of their chosen education that they want to control and which they prefer to defer.

In education, all systems should be willing to shift as much intent as possible into realm of the learner itself. This tension between the Structure and the Learner is a defining aspect of today’s education, bringing us back to the point of not only how to define teacher roles, but also how we can define an underlying purpose in all Education Systems. 

Connectivism is an approach to education that has the potential to fulfill aFundamental Law role in the Structure of Education. As Structure becomes more and more Background Independent, a reliance on relationship tendencies (Laws may be too strong of a word for Social Science) can guide the path for educators and learners. Education Structure that reacts to the connections of individuals will allow for intent to permeate, learning symmetries to collect, learning theories to operate and for effective Education Systems to emerge from situation.

Background Independence is a suggestion about how to approach education, so that we can make better theories that do not merely blanket, but rather let education evolve under the situation of relationships.



One thought on “Background Independence in Education

  1. Pingback: Rhizomatic and Privilege; Questions and Commentary #change11 « A Point of Contact

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