Welcome back everyone,
Last day we ended by considering the power of language. I think it is worth being sensitive to language and the words we use.
So, where are we? We are thinkers. We are not simply technicians. As thinkers we resist unreflective compliance. We become clear on our values, and we recognize the perspectives of others. This becomes easier for us as we develop a greater sense of the ways we talk about reality.
Last week, as we moved into ideas of identity and language, we were challenged to consider the idea that our reality may not be the same reality as others. We were challenged to consider that perhaps there isn’t one way of doing things, or one way of perceiving things.
As you begin reading Smith’s “The Book of Learning and Forgetting” you will see that he contrasts two very different views. The reason I like this is because of its simplicity. We have experienced both the classic and the official theories of learning, and we have been exposed (and have lived) both. This helps us develop that polymorphic understanding. After you have read Smith’s book you will not be able to sit in a classroom or talk with other teachers and not recognize that there are particular narratives playing out. This is not to say that there are only two different narratives–there are many. But it simplifies things to begin with two.
As we listened to Ben Zander and Alfie Kohn talk about grades it becomes obvious to us that they are speaking out against aspects of the ‘official theory.’ Now, whether we agree or disagree with what Zander and Kohn have to say, we are coming to know that other perspectives do exist. It is worth remembering, in our philosophical pursuit, that we are not judging what they have to say, only allowing them to open up a realm of other possibilities for us to consider.
We also gave some consideration to the Failing Grade. Grace McPike gives us a deeper sense that there is a depth to “the grade” experience. The grade is more than a simple designation of an instructor’s evaluation. Students and teachers have bodily experiences when perceiving grades. Now, once again, whether we agree or disagree with how students do or should respond to grades, or how McPike portrays the experience of the grade, we have nevertheless developed a greater polymorphic understanding.
This phenomenological analysis I am offering to you may seem a bit unfamiliar at first. We have be trained to respond positively or negatively to what we have been told. But as thinkers, our initial task is to develop our polymorphic understanding. We look for the multifaceted way things (and events) can show themselves. We can see that the grade experience is multifaceted.
Positivism and Relativism
There is something that McPike mentions that might provide us another way of understanding some of the different perspectives we are being offered by Smith, Zander, and Kohn. She writes as her first paragraph:
We have all become accustomed to a world that incorporates failure into daily life. It is not a pleasing part of our lives, and we remember the hurt that each failure provides. Yet, we perpetuate failure and insist upon its necessity in the classroom, for in our schools we are concerned with the evaluation of the child. Our evaluators are grounded in positivism and relativism, and so, failure is built into the system.
There are three words here that I would like to think about: necessity, positivism and relativism. This is particularly interesting (at least to me 🙂 because it deepens our understanding of the narratives.
The idea that in schools some insist upon grading and failing as being necessary is part of an interesting narrative. I find it especially interesting when we emphasis the word necessary. Some would say that grading’s necessity is so woven in to our schooling narratives (perhaps I should start saying official narratives to follow Smith’s designation) that it is difficult to imagine schooling in any other way. We deepen our understanding here by realizing that grading, even in the many ways we might perceive it, is couched in ways of thinking (narratives) that allow grading to come into being. In other words, we have to think a certain way for grading to make sense. We have to think a certain way for grading to be intelligible. Don’t get too hung up on this. I will try to make this clear as we go. I will come back to these ideas often.
So, what about positivism and relativism?
Well there are different ways to think about both terms, so let’s simplify each for our own purposes. Simply put, we might say that positivism asserts that our assertions can be scientifically verified. In other words we can use scientific methods and scientific perspective (i.e. objective perspectives) to know whether or not our assertions are true. McPike juxtaposes positivism with relativism. I believe she means that that which we believe to be true or factual actually comes from tradition, culture, or individual experience.
It might be worth getting a bit more comfortable with this idea of scientific perspective. We can find a nice way to understand this simply by the way we understand quantitative and qualitative research. You read both, and you might take a class where you learn about both. And, you probably know that McPike is doing a form of qualitative research when she writes her phenomenological analysis of the failing grade.
Let me see if I can give you a simple way of thinking about the differences between quantitative and qualitative research as well as what might be meant as a scientific perspective. Let’s go to the race track to do this.
The Glories of Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives
When we do quantitative research, we step back and view things from a distance. We view things as if they were objects independent from each other. By standing back and viewing from a distance we can start to compare one object with another. We can measure those objects, and then compare the measurements we make. It is a bit like being at a race and being a spectator. I highlighted spectator because that is an important idea we will explore soon.
RedBud 450 Moto 2: Ken Roczen vs. Trey Canard
If you watch the first minute or so you will get the idea of viewing from a distance.
So as we watch this we can see when Trey Canard has the lead over Ken Roczen. We can see them moving in relation to each other. We can see where they are positioned on the track in relation to the finish line. Both Canard and Roczen are discrete measurable objects–we are spectators.
Qualitative research is a bit different. We try to enter into the experience of our participants. And, that experience is written up in such a way that we try to gain some insight into the lived, embodied, experience that we can then generalize to other situation.
Have a look at Ryan Villopoto racing at the Monster Energy Cup in 2012.
Again, a short viewing will give you the idea:
I hope you find these to be clear examples. There are many we could use. Here are two more.
Quantitative — observer perspective.
Video of the Year: Best Mountain Bike Shot Ever
Qualitative — individual perspective.
GoPro: Backflip Over 72ft Canyon – Kelly McGarry Red Bull Rampage 2013
In schools we talk as if experiences are somewhat disembodied and that we experience the world from the spectator perspective. We talk of objectified objects that we can manipulate. We even talk about students as being objects that we can manipulate. We call it classroom management–the process of ‘dealing with’ or ‘controlling’ things or people–manipulation.
McPike was relating embodied experiences. Kohn is encouraging us to consider the embodied experiences of students. And Zander is saying that if we realized we were making up our objective schooling experiences we could start to better align our embodied experiences to what we are doing in schools.
Let’s talk briefly about this idea of the spectator view. It is necessary for science. It can be problematic in schooling.
So what does all of this mean? It means that much of what we believe about teaching, learning and schooling is based on the idea that we can observe reality as if our observations were independent of us, objectifying it in such a way that we can then manipulate it, share it, and make predictions about it. We learned that current brain research doesn’t support that idea anymore (from the Eagleman documentary).
Did you ever make a camera obscura as a child?
You make a box with a pinhole in it, and then you can see the reflection of an inverted image of the outside world on a screen that you place on the inside of the box.
Well I think you will find this interesting. Here is John Locke, nineteenth century philosopher.
He spent a lot of time thinking about things. If fact, you can see that he is thinking right there in the picture. He is thinking to himself: “I wonder if I should have had that second bowl of clam chowder?”
In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke (1836) uses the metaphor of the camera obscura to help explain the idea of understanding. He wrote:
[E]xternal and internal sensations are the only passages, that I can find, of knowledge to the understanding. These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this dark room: for, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little opening left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without; would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.
Now, camera obscuras were big business, so to speak, back then.
They were used for work and entertainment. But, more interesting than the camera obscura itself is that that the metaphor of the camera obscura framed philosophers’ thinking. The idea of the spectator was enhanced. The idea of ‘images’ in our minds, our mind containing reflections of reality, etc., etc..
Of course Locke was not the only one who was influenced by the spectator view of understanding.
I think Stephen Mulhall gives a great indication of the spectator view in regards to some of the philosophers who have influenced our thinking:
The question of the human relationship with the external world has been central to Western philosophy since Descartes; and the standard answers to it have shared one vital feature. Descartes dramatizes the issue by depicting himself seated before a fire contemplating a ball of wax; when searching for the experiential roots of causation. Hume imagines himself as a spectator of a billiards game; and Kant’s disagreement with Hume’s analysis leads hims to portray himself watching a ship move downriver. In other words, all three explore the nature of human contact with the world from the viewpoint of a detached observer of that world, rather than as an actor within it. Descartes does talk of moving his ball of wax nearer to the fire, but his practical engagement with it goes no further; Hume does not imagine himself playing billiards; and Kant never thinks to occupy the focus of the epistemological tradition away from this conception of the human being as an unmoving point of view upon the world.
So, as we might come to think, our philosophers were spectators in the development of their philosophical understandings. The result? “[T]hat exclusive reliance upon the image of the spectator has seriously distorted philosophers’ characterizations of human existence in the world.” Mulhall continues to point out:
of course, no traditional philosopher would deny that human life is lived within a world of physical objects. If, however, these objects are imagined primarily as objects of vision, then that world is imagined primarily as a spectacle — a series of tableaux or a play staged before us; and the world of a play is one from which its audience is essentially excluded — they may look in on the world of the characters, but they do not participate in or inhabit it. Such a picture has deep attractions. A world that one does not inhabit is a world in which one is not essentially implicated and by which one is not essentially constrained; . . . But there are also drawbacks: for the model also makes it seem that the basic human relation with objects is one of mere spatial contiguity, that persons and objects are juxtaposed with one another.
I am trying to make a couple of points here: one, that we have become accustomed to talking and thinking about the world from a spectator perspective (especially in schools); two, we have broken up the world into small self-contained objects that can then be thought to have effects on one another in very narrow ways (simple cause and effect); and three, we talk as if we can somehow transfer, or input, these representations into our students.
We do have a narrative here. The narrative says that there is an external reality (external to us) that we both have access to in the same way. Our perception of that reality can be broken up into discrete bits. If you don’t perceive some aspects of that reality, I can communicate it to you so you have it. Then you can communicate back to me showing that you now share that same reality.
How does communication work in this narrative? We call it the linear communication model.
Language — the linear communication model
Even language and communication is thought to be the manipulation of discrete bits of information.
From Winograd and Flores and the Correspondence Theory
The rationalistic tradition regards language as a system of symbols that are composed into patterns that stand for things in the world. Sentences can represent the world truly or falsely, coherently or incoherently, but their ultimate grounding is in their correspondence with the states of affairs they represent. This concept of correspondence can be summarized as:
1. Sentences say things about the world, and can be either true of false.
2. What a sentence says about the world is a function of the words it contains and the structures into which these are combined.
3. The content of words of a sentence (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) can be taken as denoting (in the world) objects, properties, relationships, or sets of these.
As you listen to the three different models discussed in the following clip, ask yourself what model seems most pronounced in school. Think also of the language supporting each model — for example sender, receiver, transmission, linear, encoded, decoded, communication system, interference, process, sent, received, message, verbal, nonverbal, contain, meaning,
Even though there are many educational theorists and educational philosophers who have espoused the need for constitutive or even transactional models of communication, I think it would be fair to say that the predominate narrative in the public school is the transmission model. You will recognize the narrative–the narrative talks about senders and receivers. Inputs and outputs. Exchange of content. These rely on the idea that worldly aspects can be objectified and manipulated. And, of course, graded.
When we grow up in the context of the transmission model, adopting the metaphors and ideas that give it meaning, it is difficult to think that communication works in any other way. We live within a language that has us speak and think the ideas of transmission.
This correspondence theory along with the transmission model of language has not only influenced how we talk about language, it has also had an influence on how we talk about memory. Or, perhaps, our ideas of memory has influenced the way we talk about communication.
Once again, Winograd and Flores:
The correspondence theory of language is one cornerstone on which other aspects of the rationalistic tradition rest. Rationalistic theories of mind all adopt some form of a ‘representation hypothesis,’ in which it is assumed that thought is the manipulation of representation structures in the mind. Although these representations are not specifically linguistic (that is, not the sentences of an ordinary human language), they are treated as sentences in an ‘internal language,’ whose connection to the world of the thinker follows the principles outlined above. pp. 19-20
We have been influenced by the three box memory model. But even the language depicting this model tends to come out of the rationalistic tradition that Winograd and Flores talked about.
Briefly, the Correspondence Theory
What is the type of thinking that one uses to design a curriculum, lesson plans, assessments, or assign grades ? Winograd and Flores (p. 15) depict this sort of thinking like this:
- Characterize the situation in terms of identifiable objects with well defined properties.
- Find general rules that apply to situations in terms of those objects and properties.
- Apply the rules logically to the situation of concern, drawing conclusions about what should be done.
When we read this, one of the things that might stand out for us is the idea of making representations of experience or reality. We call this the correspondence theory. The belief is that representations of reality can be made and then shared with others. In many cases this has become a natural way of thinking. We think of ‘the world’ in terms of identifiable objects and properties, systems and rules, all that can be represented and shared.
You are already very familiar with this sort of thinking. It is the foundation of much of our scientific experimentation.
“In terms of the scientific method we have, “(a) observation of a phenomenon that , henceforth, is taken as a problem to be explained; (b) proposition of an explanatory hypothesis in the form of a deterministic system that can generate a phenomenon isomorphic with the one observed; (c) proposition of a computed state or process in the system specified by the hypothesis as a predicted phenomenon to be observed; and (d) observation of the predicted phenomenon.”
What does this mean? Winograd and Flores explain: “The scientist first notes some regularity in the phenomena of interest–some recurring pattern of observations. He or she proposes a conceptual or concrete system that can be set into correspondence with the observations and that can be manipulated to make predictions about other potential observations. Conditions are created in which these observations can be expected and the results used to modify the theory. Scientific research consists of setting up situations in which observable activity will be determined in a clear way by a small number of variables that can be systematically manipulated. This simplicity is necessary if the modeling system is to make predictions that can be checked. p. 16
What does this say as far as educational narratives are concerned? All of these ideas are woven into some predominate narratives. You are probably somewhat familiar with John Dewey. Compare his “Complete Act Of Thought” with the correspondence theory and the scientific method. You will notice the similarities immediately.
So, is there a problem with this? Zander thinks so, Kohn thinks so, and Smith thinks so. Let’s see if we can witness some of the problems within the typical classroom.
Let’s see some of this in practice.
Teaching is pretty easy for the most part, right? As long as we have clear goals, good objectives that are aligned to our assessments. Instructional material that is at the level of the student. Right? Or is this a narrative in need of some adjustment?
I would like to share a couple of videos with you. As you view these, I ask that you try to think about the narratives that are in place to have things come to pass as they do. For example, in one section you will see a student seemingly unable to understand that we are unable to see objects in the dark. Why? What is going on here? And how do we typically teach so that these (and many more) misunderstandings remain in place? What is our teaching narrative that has us presume that we can tell a student something and they will come to learn it?
I have already provided some background to the narrative — the spectator view, the conduit view of language, a storage memory model, a rationalistic tradition. These ways of thinking and talking about teaching and the world around us (our reality) are part of a narrative that is worth questioning.
Minds of Our Own
So let us begin with this: is teaching as easy as telling? Does the transmission model work? Can we be told something and then learn? Is this common practice–a practice that has us presume that students learn by being told–really effective (to use a scientific management term)? In this section I ask that we consider what is often considered to be a foundational narrative of teaching–that is telling (or transmission). A common sense belief is that if I tell you something (teach you something) you can understand it. And, as long as you work hard enough, and I ask you the right questions, you will give me the right answers — the answers I know to be true because I have access to an external reality that I have been sharing with you.
But what if I am trying to get a student to understand how a light bulb works. Presumably I should be able to tell the student, and then check the student’s understanding by asking the student how the light bulb works. Isn’t that how teaching and learning work?
What if I were to tell you that MIT and Harvard engineering graduates had difficulty doing something that is typically taught in third or fourth grade?
In this next section I share with you two one-hour videos called Minds of Our Own. If you can, please try to watch the first two documentaries. I think they will help you reconsider some of our most common school assumptions/presumptions that we have regarding teaching and learning. I think you will find the first two parts of this three part series called Minds of Our Own most interesting.
You will notice that the Minds of Our Own series has three parts: Can We Believe our Eyes; Lessons From Thin Air; and, Under Construction. I ask that you view parts one and two if you can: Can We Believe our Eyes and Lessons From Thin Air.
These are good, and will help inform our understanding of narratives. These programs explore the assumptions we hold about learning and suggest that some of our schooling narratives may be based on a series of myths. Interestingly you may notice that the series was made in 1997. Perhaps more interestingly, things haven’t changed much since then.
*** Please notice that each of the following videos is approximately 50 minutes in length. ****
Students do have very rich ideas about the world around them — their own view of the world — and these views are very difficult to change, even when faced with contradictory evidence from subject matter experts. Changing personal theories takes time. This should lead us to question the value of our narratives that suggest that we can cover large amounts of material quickly. So we might question things such as: Is covering large amounts of textbook material as valuable as we might think? Are we wasting our, and our students’, time by moving quickly through course material? Are children learning what we ‘teach’ them? How well do we really know our students’ background understanding? What is the connection between teaching and learning? Why do seemingly simple concepts defy intuition? Why is it so difficult for some students to ‘grasp’ concepts? Do we need to know more about the way our students think? Why is it so difficult for students to change their personal theories of the way things work? What do students really take away from our classes? Do we fool ourselves to think that students know more than they do by deliberately asking questions that we already know they can answer? These are the sorts of issues raised in the three Minds of our Own videos.
I hope you enjoyed those. I hope you were able to try to think about the narratives that might be in place and at work below the surface of the activities we viewed.
You can email these responses to me by Monday, November 9th along with your responses from sessions 4, 5, and 6? Thanks!
It would seem that there is clearly a problem when some of the Harvard and MIT engineering graduates did not know how to light a light with a battery and a single wire. Engineering graduates right? The Harvard researcher says, “It goes to the fundamental understanding of electricity.” He says, “If one cannot light a light bulb with a battery and wire, then everything built upon those basic ideas has problems.” Another researcher says, “We’ve always assumed that if teachers teach, students will learn. Yet another researcher says, “the traditional approach to teaching does not really take into account what children think and believe.” We seem to have a narrative that suggests as long as the expert is telling the story clearly, and the student is paying attention, the student will automatically build up the understanding that the expert has.
So, finally my question to you: what do you make of all of this? What can be said about some of the narratives in place? Can you think of any examples where schooling practices are put into place that rely on a narrative of telling (and we could add linear communication, and spectator view etc.) that simply doesn’t seem to be working? Is this a problem?
From the considerations from today, can you make any connections to what Smith has been saying?
Is there anything in today’s thinking that strikes you as particularly interesting? Problematic?
I hope you enjoyed considering these ideas today.
Until next time 🙂