ED 615 Week Eight (Fall 2020)

Hi Everyone,

At this point we have a pretty good idea that we don’t have representations of ‘things’ in our heads. Rather, we continually re-enact our past experiences, wired up as neuronal web assemblies, and create our own reality. We might think of these re-enactments as cognition. As cognitive/biological beings, we re-enact our history along with neurons being fired by the particular perturbations of the moment. In other words, I find myself standing in a baker’s kitchen. On the table there is dough rolled out thinly, butter slathered on the top, a rolling pin by the dough and a canister of cinnamon within arm’s reach. I see the dough on the table, I see that I am in a baker’s kitchen, I smell the butter and cinnamon, and I touch the flour. Atoms of light, and molecules (I will call them scent and touch molecules) make their way to my body perturb my senses — my body feels (senses) these little forces. My body feels these perturbations. Webs of cinnamon ‘smell neurons’, flour ‘touch neurons’, visual dough neurons, all fire in various places in my brain. Of course, the only way I can make meaning of what I sense is because I have neuronal webs (patterns) already established that allow me to even perceive the baker’s wares. There is much more coming from inside my brain that that which is coming from the outside. As these neuronal webs fire together I create a reality of seeing cinnamon buns being made. What I know to be in front of me never existed as one image as one might have thought from the camera obscura. My cognition is a re-enactment.

A cognitive being, with every perturbation, re-enacts its history along with the perturbations of the present moment. This re-enactment is my lived experience. The observer, on the other hand, does not know my lived experience but only perceived my behavior and how I cope within this particular environment.

If I had never seen cinnamon buns made — if my only experience with cinnamon buns was seeing them on the counter at Cinnabon in the Portland Airport, there is no reason to believe that I would fired the neurons necessary to re-enact cinnamon buns when I walked into the baker’s kitchen. If the right neurons don’t fire, the accompanying web of neurons that allow one to re-enact experience won’t fire. However, I probably have enough past experience, with dough, cinnamon, rolling pins, flour, etc, to weave together meaning. “They look like buns, they smell like buns, they taste like buns, they must be buns.”

This idea of re-enacting versus knowing ‘something’ is perhaps the most difficult idea we encounter. Everything in our discourse tells us that we know ‘things’ and that we can be told things. Our discourse tells us that we input information into our brain. Our schooling discourse suggests that we can, and by testing, have access to what students know. But we are not testing knowledge, we can only attempt to perceive students’ neuronal re-enactments.

And as for learning, if we don’t have bodily experience, we don’t create neuronal webs that provide us with the cognition allowing us to cope (behave in a seemingly appropriate way).


Part I The Referential Whole

Let me give you another example, in an attempt to reenforce the importance of experience as well as helping us consider how we might actually incorporate some of these ideas into our teaching.

I was making the point that your bodily experience informed your understanding.

When you first see the object below, it likely has little meaning. You are probably trying to draw on some contextual aspects to help bring some meaning to the object. In terms of neurons, you are probably not firing a web of neurons that help you contextualize this object. Perhaps you are looking at its properties. Perhaps, you say, it is made of silver, it is shiny, with a pin extruding from a rectangular box. You are bringing past bodily experiences to bear on the object. You have felt silver objects. You know from experience that since the rod sticking out of the rectangular piece is not sagging, the rod must be somewhat solid. Of course you would want to pick it up to feel the weight of the object. It might be very light, made of light-weight plastic. (How many of you have walked into a Costco or Home Depot and found that a large heavy-looking terracotta garden pot that is actually light and made of plastic?). And then how big is this object. Is it one inch, one foot, one hundred feet in length? You might be looking at the background, thinking that the object looks as though it is sitting on a carpet, which suggests that it is not terribly large.



I thought this would be a good object for discussion because I am fairly confident you will not be familiar with this. It is unlikely that you have had any experience with one of these. I have only had a couple of classmates in the past say that they knew exactly what this is.


No thing meaningfully exists independent of context. And context is informed by bodily experience.


I have an arrow pointing to the object below with a red drawing around it.


We draw on context to make the object intelligible. But physical properties alone do not make the object intelligible. For the object to be intelligible we need to know more than simply its physical properties. Our neuronal re-enactments also re-enact the context in which we perceive an object.



As we watch the repair person handling the tine, we can relate because we can have used our own hands in similar ways. The picking up is familiar, the turning and twisting is familiar. The setting down is familiar.


We are gaining more context. But let us not forget that the context of hammering and vibrating is informed by our bodily experience. Hammering and vibrations are experiences that we know with our bodies. We have neuronal cell assemblies that help us understand hammering and vibrating. Ask a child what the word ‘vibration’ means (assuming they are familiar with the word), and they are quite likely going to show you with their body. They mimic the feeling of vibration.





So as you can hear, the Fender Rhodes has a unique sound–a sound very common in the 70s and 80s. A little hammer hitting the tine gives the piano its unique sound. The tine is similar to a string on a regular piano. But because the Rhodes piano is small and portable, it doesn’t use four foot strings. It is made with short tines of various lengths. When a hammer hits the tine, it vibrates, giving the Fender Rhodes its particular sound.

To this point we have contextualize the tine in a rather small “referential” context. We now know it’s shape, its size, what it is used for, how it is used, and the way some musicians and listeners have experienced the tine.

But there is more context.


The Referential Whole = The Context


For the tine to have a depth and breadth of meaning, we would have to understand (to have experienced in some way and then re-enact) its place in its referential whole. The referential whole points to all the different aspects that give meaning to the object. These different aspects are neuronal webs developed from our past experiences. We might call this an equipmental context. Objects and events are part of an equipmental context. Equipment doesn’t just exist on its own. A hammer doesn’t just exist as a piece of wood with a iron blob on the end. It is not meaningful simply as a result of its qualities. A hammer is meaningful to us because of nails, wood, tasks, buildings, our purposes, our abilities and skills, etc. A hammer is related to a context, or an experiential background.

Furthermore, these aspects of the context are aspects of experience–stuff we have experienced with our bodies.

Like the hammer, the tine is not intelligible simply as an object with properties and within a single cause and effect relationship (hit the tine with a small felt tipped hammer and it will vibrate). This tine is meaningful because of a whole host of other aspects that give the tine meaning. Without music, without metal, without tones and harmonics, this tine would not exist for us as it does. Without our bodily experiences with these things, we would not have the neuronal webs firing to have the tine neuronal web fire in a ‘meaningful’ way.

We could make a whole series of connections to this tine. For example this tine owes its existence to (to name just a few):


the Fender company
previous conceptions of pianos
damper felts
the size of our fingers
the portability of the piano
the scale
piano keys
screw drivers
nut drivers
the type of music to be played
artists who have used the Rhodes piano
songs that have the Rhodes sound
tone bar

For the tine to be meaningful, we must know more than simply knowing that it is hit by a padded piano hammer even though that is a rudimentary cause-effect relationship. Furthermore, this is just a quick list off the top of my head. Each one of these aspects could branch off into further references enlarging the ‘referential whole’ even more.

Our own personal web of relationships bring meaning to our tine. The more we know (the more we have experienced with out bodies) of the referential connections, the more meaningful the tine becomes. And, in terms of embodiment, each of those aspects that the tine points to (or point to the tine) have been made meaningful to us through our past bodily experience.

So there seems to be a depth and breadth (to use a spatial metaphor) to our perception and understanding. Not only that, it seems that we can perceive and know very differently depending on what context we bring to the object. Perhaps you are someone who has memories of one of your parents putting on the records of Morris Goldberg or Bob James and hearing the Fender Rhodes in their music. You might associate the music with warm feelings, or a living room with your father listening to the songs. Personally, I remember getting home at 2:00 in the morning, back from playing gigs, and having to carry the 130 lb piano out of the van and into the house in icy January Canadian weather. I also remember a lot of great times playing the Rhodes with various musicians. So when I pick up a Rhodes tine, I bring a context to the experience that would be difficult to share.

My background will change what the tine means even though the tine’s physical properties remain the same. Just as the images in the example share the same light wave lengths, they can mean something very different depending on the background.

Furthermore, each of those neuronal web assemblies developed through past experience wire up to each other.


Do you remember in the Reality documentary with David Eagleman, where the father was given sight but was never able to fully see? If you recall, things are more than the visual.

I like the example with the tine. The tine is unfamiliar enough that it seems to make sense that we understand an object by all the references we bring to it. And all of those references are a re-enactment of own neuronal webs.

But just think, every object we “see” that we understand is made understandable by our bodily experiences and references. And we might think of those each of those references as being a web of neuronal cell assemblies in our brain. Neurons in our bodies are perturbed (like the moving shadow across a frog’s retina) quickly firing a host of cell assemblies. When the particular cells in my eyes are perturbed by light, some cells setting off a horizontal line shape, others the texture of metal, others the rectangular shapes, the combination of these begin to fire that web of neuronal cell assemblies that has me re-experience (in my mind) the referential whole of my experiences with Fender Rhodes pianos. At times I pause, as if listening to a favorite song, letting my neurons fire, pushing deeper and deeper into my memories — my past experiences.

But if I didn’t have cell assemblies that had been developed in my understanding of pianos, even if I saw the tine with a piano, it wouldn’t be meaningful. Just as for Mike May,  objects are more than the visual. Furthermore, you couldn’t simply tell me what a piano was and expect that I would have an understanding similar to yours. Just as the blind man regaining sight couldn’t simply be told the names of his children. He couldn’t be told how to see his children. He didn’t have the neuronal cell assemblies that were available to see them by name.



Billy Joel – Just the Way You Are (Live 1977) [Official Video]



Why is any of this important? Because the narratives that prevail in schools don’t take sufficiently into account the way the body learns.


Part II

Neuronal Cell Assemblies, the Referential Whole, and Language

Language Speaks Us

Words fire neuronal cell assemblies. When we hear someone say cinnamon bun (two words in this case), neuronal cell assemblies in our brains are fired so that we feel the words. If I say, “warm sandy beach” to you, you will feel something very different that if I say, “frozen ice cube.”

We may not be able to change the system, but we can chance the words we use. Different words, different neuronal webs firing. Different re-enactments. Different realities.


The language of school

“What would happen if we removed the terms information and efficiency from our schooling vocabulary?” What if we didn’t have these words firing our neuronal cell assemblies? This raises the question of how our language shapes our reality–how our metaphors shape our reality. When I think about the good times I have had with my friends and family, or the enjoyable times I have had reading a good book or watching a great movie, I don’t think in terms of efficiency and information. I can say I have learned a lot in all of these informal settings, and yet not once did I have to reduce any of it to information and efficiency. The funny thing for me is now that the words ‘information’ and ‘efficiency’ comes to the forefront of my thinking, I start seeing schooling activities strangely defined by these ideas in very unfortunate ways. For example I have an article on my desk entitled, “The Negative Impact of Rewards and Ineffective Praise on Student Motivation.” Ineffective praise? Why? Think about this for a moment. Even the research has made assumptions regarding motivation and rewards and put the “effective” and “efficient” lens on it. When we think back to some of the alternative school settings, would it be fair to say the lived environment doesn’t emphasize efficiency and effectiveness? How about motivation. Remember Daniel Pink’s talk. Is motivation part of our experience or is it a construct from an external observer (recall the motocross example of observer and lived). Children go out and play. At what point do they start experiencing ‘motivation’? This is not to say that we can’t stand back wearing our goal oriented lens and look for actions that would seem to be motivated, or having our efficiency lens in place and look for efficiency. Are these constructs part of our lived learning experience or are then labels that have been created for observers. There is a difference. There is a difference between living in an environment and step back and analyzing someone living in an environment. Do the schooling narratives privilege the latter?

This can be a difficult idea to come to terms with. I remember as a student reading the statement in somebody’s book, “gravity is not part of the child’s ontology.” I thought, “what?” Children experience gravity. It took a while to start distinguishing between what we experience and how an objective observer talks about things. The child is not playing in the yard thinking, “okay, this is gravity holding me down.” The child doesn’t ‘think’ about gravity. Gravity does exist, of course. But it is the objective observer thinking about gravity who sees the child on the swing and then saying gravitational forces are at play.

I don’t want to belabor this point. But there is philosophical reasoning that suggests that it is during breakdown (when something in our experience doesn’t go smoothly) that things like gravity come to our awareness. For example, a hammer is “too big” when the space you are trying to hammer in is too narrow. Too narrow leads to breakdown. The size of the hammer all of a sudden shows itself.

This is the case with such things as efficiency. Somebody is standing back, looking at a situation from an objective position, and begins making determinations as to what is, or is not efficient, or need extra encouragement to reach goals.


A man wearing his efficiency monocle.

monocle guy



Does it seem to you that the language we use strongly influences how we see the world around us?

Think back to how Ben Zander deliberately shifts language away from goals and toward possibility. As he does this, you had neuronal webs firing that had you think of something more akin the Smith’s classic theory.

We watched this in session two. Just to think back for a moment.

Zander works to help us change our own metaphors of what we do in the classroom and how we treat ourselves and others. Listen to how he juxtaposes two different frames.



In Ben Zander’s talk we hear him contrast two frames (more on frames below) and metaphors. The one perspective, based on our current schooling, consists of downward spirals, goals, expectations, must, need, ought, blame, fault, threat. The second view (frame, metaphors) is based on possibility, vision, requests, apologies, bringing people up.

Both views are made up. According to Zander, we have the ability to chose one over the other. And that is what most motivational speakers tell us. We have the ability to alter our frame and metaphors.

Didn’t Frank Smith do the same? I think he did.

Is this one of the ways we might change schooling practices we are not happy with?

Perhaps this is how we begin to make changes in our own schools and practices. We manipulate the language we use. We manipulate our actions. To me this seems very powerful. Remove one word from your vocabulary and incorporate an alternative and things start to change.

Have a look at your district’s job descriptions. Have a look at the language that specifies what the position entails and who the person has to be to get the job. In many cases, you might be surprised, unless you already know that the official theory is at work.

Consider how changing the language in job descriptions could change the way we think of our work–and more importantly, how we are treated within institutional settings.

Consider how changing the narratives change the way we experience.


The Real Mission of the Mission Statement

Now, before I get into some specifics on the workings of metaphors and frames, I thought I would do just a quick search of school mission statements to see if there were any metaphors and frames that seemed to shape the thinking of the school. Quite honestly, of course, I don’t know any of the schools I read about, but I think I can give you a sense of how metaphors and frames might shape the reality of a school or district. Here is how I proceeded. I found a web site that listed the mission statements of 101 schools. I then did a word search using the word ‘work’. Of course there were lots of schools that talked about work in their mission statements:


Yokayo Elementary School: Productive Workers who perform collaboratively and independently to create quality products and services that reflect personal pride and responsibility.

Kimball Elementary School Mission Statement and Goals: Every student differs and must be challenged to work to his/her greatest capacity.

Tiskelwah Elementary: To be encouraged to work to optimum potential in reaching the academic skills outlined in the school curriculum.

Silver Oak Elementary School: to develop the intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities of each child to the fullest extent possible so that each can lead a productive worker, citizen, and individual in our society.

Knowlton Elementary: We provide experiences for students which build the real work world skills required for the future.

Crescentwood School: Practice a positive work ethic.

Shaffer Elementary: We are committed to educating students so that they have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be effective communicators, complex thinkers. responsible citizens, self directed learners, ethical persons, and quality workers. Establish standards that demand excellence and build a solid foundation for lifelong learning, workplace skills and citizenship

Cherokee Elementary School Mission Statement: Our mission is preparing our Cherokee students to become successful citizens and workers in the twenty-first century.

Silver Oak Elementary School is to develop the intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities of each child to the fullest extent possible so that each can lead a productive worker, citizen, and individual in our society.


It probably seems evident  that the purpose of school has something to do with work. Good enough.

Next, I did a quick search using the word ‘love’.


Westridge School Community, where children are treasured, is to foster a love of learning in an innovative, cooperative climate which empowers all students to be competent, productive, caring and responsible citizens.

Jamieson Elementary we are committed to each and every child. We are committed to encouraging our children to possess the following qualities: A mastery of academic skills and a love for learning.

At Pine Tree Elementary, we believe that each child is a valued and unique individual. We believe that our educational process should be student-centered and that Pine Tree Elementary’s mission is best achieved by an active partnership involving students, parents, and staff. Furthermore, we want each child to embrace the love, joy
and value of education. The following emphasize our beliefs: We want each child to embrace the love, joy and value of education.

William Penn Elementary School: to provide an environment where each child is treated with respect and love.

Rosemont Elementary: The culmination of our efforts is to instill in our students a lifelong love of learning.


And the list goes on. I don’t know about you, but I find it interesting that when we are thinking about frames it seems that the schools whose mission statements talked about having students being prepared for becoming productive workers didn’t seem to use the words leadership, love or joy. Now, this is not meant to be an exact science, and it would be unfair to generalize about anything here, but it might suggest that different frames (world views) might create different sorts of reality.


Reality: Re-enacting through Language


Do we create our own reality?

Metaphors: By considering metaphors (and frames) we begin to get a deeper understanding of why particular things show up for us, and why we perform particular tasks and perceive certain aspects of schooling.

Even though we touched on metaphor, I would like to go into this in a bit more depth with the intention of moving us toward understanding embodiment.


Part III

First Frames, AKA, Frames First

First we should try to develop a bit of an understanding of frames.

From Lakoff: in his own words or summarized



You think in terms of structures, called frames. . . . Every institution is structured by a frame, and a frame has two parts: frame elements and scenarios. . . . Every word in every language is defined within a frame. Metaphors are learned very early, by different parts of the brain being activated as we experience something over and over again.





As I think about metaphors and frames, the first thing that comes to my mind, when thinking of people who are masters of changing our metaphors, is motivational speakers.

Yes, how are motivational speakers (and theorists) using language to shift the way we think and act?

You have probably noticed that motivational speakers help us change our lives by having us change the metaphors that shape our own life narrative. They work to ’empower us’ so that we are not ‘victims’. They work to ‘direct us’ if we find ourselves ‘floundering.’ Now, for a moment, think of how a researcher might need to change the metaphors currently enframing us and provide us with new metaphors to help us adopt his/her new practice.


How about letting us in on the magic of frames?

I will allow George Lakoff to tell us more about frames in a talk that I include a little further on. But quickly, frames not only consist of metaphors (ways of thinking and perceiving), but also processes (or rituals). Faster: frames not only consist of metaphors (ways of thinking and perceiving), but also processes (or rituals).


Now, what I find particularly interesting, is when we look back to our initial questions (the ones you posed in week one), we can begin to look at the language and metaphors that support those artifacts and processes. Furthermore, we can also begin to notice that there are a lot of rituals that we follow to ensure those processes and artifacts come-into-being in particular ways. I think we would agree that much of what Frank Smith, John Taylor Gatto, and Ken Robinson point out are the rituals in place in the official theory of schooling. And Ben Zander picks a big ritual to make his point–the ritual of giving grades.

Ben Zander encourages us to change our frame of reference (as does Smith, Gatto). Each suggests we have to change the frames and metaphors to morph our our practices into something better. If we change the frames and metaphors, we begin to see the world differently.


How we perceive the world

or if we want to change the frame

How the world perceives us


or try these two:

How I control the world


How I am controlled by the world around me.

Recall Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Greg Bryk.


Much of our schooling practice has been based on the idea that there is an external true reality that share and that we aspire to know. This has been the case with philosophy as well.

This sets up a particular frame. It is a frame that suggests that reality is there already, we don’t create it. But is it that simple? Is our reality a mirror of what exists ‘out there’?

Recall the blind man regaining sight in the David Eagleman Reality documentary.



George Lakoff on Embodied Cognition and Language


We have been considering embodied cognition and language. We have been considering how our experiences within particular contexts, experiences that are experienced through our bodies, shape our reality. To help us understand this in a little more depth I have included another talk by George Lakoff.

Now, the following video lecture is quite lengthy. But if you are able to view the first 30 minutes you will get the gist (I have tried to write out the main points below if you don’t have time to view that talk). It is insightful and can give you some further depth in how you understand education through language. If you think this will be of value to you in your graduate work, you may want to view the entire clip.


This video does not have cc but let me share with you the main points made by Lakoff:

We don’t see a common reality, we create it. We have a topographic maps in our brain. We have a number of maps of our body in our brain. These maps can pick out motion, distance, and other spatial relations. We can compute our image schemas with our embodied maps.

Neural binding allows schemas to connect.

You think with your brain. Most of it is unconscious. Why? Could all of your thought be conscious? No. Why couldn’t it? Because consciousness is linear. And the brain, in terms of the circuitry it has, is parallel. It has thousands of parallel connections going to all sorts of parts of the brain, like ‘to’ and ‘in’ and the bindings between them.

Also, when you make a conscious decision, your brain is doing it half a second before, unconsciously.

You are your cognitive self conscious, and most of it you don’t know about.

First there are frames, frames are combinations of these image schemas that we have. Frames have structure.

Chuck Fillmore pointed out that every word in every language is defined relative to a frame. If you take a word like waiter, or menu, you are going to evoke a restaurant frame—all the things you expect in a restaurant. You also expect a certain scenario and the elements in the scenario are called semantic roles—roles of the waiter, the cook, customer, etc.

Every institution has a frame. You know the elements, what happens in it, and what doesn’t happen in it.

The point of this is, the restaurant frame is made up of three other frames: the food service frame, the business frame, and the host-guest frame. When you go to the restaurant, you are the guest, and your are the eater, and you are the customer—three frames bound together — neural bindings between those three frames in different parts of the brain. When they are all bound together you get a restaurant. When they are not bound together you have different businesses, different food services, and host-guest environments, but no restaurant.

From this you get hierarchical structures. All words are defined with respect to them. When we say waiter, the whole restaurant frame comes up. These structures are build up of various image schemas, things and activities we do with our bodies. And these movements and activities have schemas. These physical image schemas can be then metaphorically placed on abstract ideas.

All thought is physical.

neural recruitment. When you have a certain structure in your brain, as you are learning, you activate certain structures in your brain. The more you activate them, the stronger the structures get. When they get strong enough they become permanent circuits. When you learn something new, the easiest way is to learn it relative to the circuits that are already there.

You can’t learn anything if there are not the neural circuits there in advance. The neural circuit that allows us to understand ‘in’ and the neural circuit that allows us to understand ‘to’ can be bound together to allow us to understand ‘into.’


So is there something here?

1) does context shape what we perceive?

2) do we devise a narrative to make sense of what we perceive?

3) did the context give meaning to Mrs. Jone’s actions?


Even though we want to be careful not to generalize too quickly, let us at least consider some provisional claims.

No ‘thing’ meaningfully exists independent of context. (Please keep in mind that meaningful means the way something means to us. This is not to say that something does not exist independent of us.)

No context is established independently of our physical body. The experiences we have had with our bodies gives meaning to context and ultimately the ‘thing’ itself.

We create narratives (re-enact stories) to make sense of (or justify) what we perceive and what we do.

Our language/narratives (including the metaphors we use) point to the ways we perceive the world and reveal our beliefs.

Now, you may be thinking of another political ramification when it comes to narratives (something I will point out now but will get into in more depth later). That is: those who control the narrative shapes reality and our perceptions. I guess we all knew that when we were told what and how to teach.

Furthermore, you may be recalling an argument Smith seems to be making. That is: learning, from the official point of view, is about memorizing and accumulating information. Teacher teaches, student learns. We fill the empty vessels with knowledge. The expert tells the story clearly, and the student builds up the knowledge (memorizing if necessary).

Learning, from the classic point of view, is about adopting new narratives. Allowing neuronal webs to form naturally. We are always learning new narratives, whether from friends, parents, and authorities. We become the narratives that we adopt.


If the classic theory is right, teachers have to be in the business of helping students weave together neuronal cell assemblies and create narratives (and even change the narratives they currently hold–though that can be very difficult). Maybe impossible–though I hate to think so.


Now, these are some pretty big claims. It is not the narrative I was told when I was studying to be a teacher. And even now I feel as though I have to force myself to bring the ‘narrative argument’ to the forefront of my thinking. And as much as I may be convinced of the classic view, as soon as I enter the classroom, the official narrative encourages me to think in terms of providing information to students. And I if I do it well, following the appropriate objectives and skillfully assessing, I should be very successful at providing the information that will have students learn what I have taught.


Part IV

More Pigs?

Categorization and Classification


We have been thinking quite a bit about language, metaphors, and frames. We have been considering how these aspects of language shape how we perceive the world around us and how we live within that world. Hopefully you are becoming a bit more sensitive to the educational metaphors that seem to shape your own thinking. Hopefully you are starting to ask, as you think of activities (such as having your students line up to move from one class to the next), what sort of language or presuppositions encourage us to do this.

There is one more framework (or way of manipulating our perceptions) that I would like to consider today–that is the use of categories. We are all familiar with categories: those classes or divisions of people or things regarded as having particular shared characteristics. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines category as: any of several fundamental and distinct classes to which entities or concepts belong.

When we read this we probably have the impression that categories are simply divisions of some sort of pre-existing reality. Categories really exist independent of ourselves and we simply plug in the things or people as appropriate. But is this the case? Are categories simply made up to suit somebody’s purpose? And if so, are our educational/schooling categories simply made up to suit some peoples’ purposes?


Are you familiar with Michel Foucault’s work. Some of you may be. He was a French philosopher, historian, and social theorist. I was reading one of his books the other day–“The Order of Things.”

Foucault begins the preface of his book considering how the ‘familiar landmarks of [our] thought,’ the order and meaning we give the things we encounter, is something that is unstable.




What an interesting idea. We think of things, and those things we think about seem to have meaning and order to them. But Foucault is suggesting that these things are unstable. Let’s focus on classifying.




We classify–and those classifications provide meaning to a context. But seldom do we ask who is doing the classifying or where the classification came from. It seems at times as though our classifications came out of some external truthful reality. Take our classifications of animals, for example. What Aristotle began (with his classifications of plants and animals) and Cesalpino deepened (with the advent of the optic lens), Carl Linnaeus revolutionized and finalized (at least for us, as things stand) with his 1735 Systema Naturae. Finally, a standardized naming system for plants and animals.



But things could have been different, and perhaps in the future they will be. For us, the way we think and talk about animals is largely a result of Carl Linnaeus. But Foucault is struck with another idea. He is struck by the idea of how things are not as stable or secure as we might believe. He writes:

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges . . . . [A]s I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.

This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

I love this idea. Even the metaphors Foucault uses–landmarks of our thoughts, bearing the stamp of our age and our geography. The feeling that classification systems breaks up the ordered surfaces and planes of our thinking. Imagine how different, as suggested by this encyclopedia, animals could have been perceived.

Think how different things might have been for us if Bloom hadn’t wielded his mighty taxonomy.


Foucault continues:

But what is it impossible to think, and what kind of impossibility are we faced with here? Each of these strange categories can be assigned a precise meaning and a demonstrable content; some of them do certainly involve fantastic entities – fabulous animals or sirens – but, precisely because it puts them into categories of their own, the Chinese encyclopaedia localizes their powers of contagion; it distinguishes carefully between the very real animals (those that are frenzied or have just broken the water pitcher) and those that reside solely in the realm of imagination.


What do sucking pigs, sirens and stray dogs have to do with schooling and education?




I find this interesting, especially when thinking about schooling and education. I find it interesting in terms of how we might question how we understand education. If categories are made up, why were they made the way they were? Were they designed to suit particular people and situations–some powerful schooling emperor? Perhaps the “Efficiency Emperor.”

In education/schooling we have our own categories, landmarks of thought, ordered surfaces and planes. Let me further my thinking with a concrete example. I will use a personal example that happened while some of you may have been working on your undergraduate degree..


When our college of education was preparing for our NCATE accreditation a few years back we were expected to demonstrate that we were proficient in a number of standards. Standards that fall into particular categories are stated and evidence must be provided to show that the categories under scrutiny are thoroughly accounted for. We have to show the accreditors evidence for such things as “Conceptual Framework,” Candidate Knowledge,” Diversity,” “Qualifications of Faculty,” etc.


Our College of Education conceptual framework had been formalized as such:




I know that it is probably difficult to see (or read), but that is not what is important here. Let me continue: A number of years ago, when we developed our conceptual framework, it was expected that a conceptual framework such as this was vital to successfully achieving accreditation–VITAL.


One’s conceptual framework is the foundation upon which one bases his/her actions. This is important. Right? During the accreditation review, faculty were expected to be able to talk about the framework. Students were expected to be familiar with the framework. We put posters of the framework on our college walls. We included them on our syllabi.


So what is the point Dana?


What I find interesting, and the piece that connects to Foucault’s writing, is a conversation I had a short time ago. I was informed that after 2015, NCATE examiners would no longer concern themselves with conceptual frameworks. What? How can something so educationally vital one year be completely disregarded the next? (Of course this is just one example. You will have many of your own that you will be able to pick out of your teaching or personal lives.) Next year the categories will ensure we dance a different dance. It is always worth asking who is playing the music at the time. (“Hey, Did you hear that Pearson Publishing is playing tonight!”).


Here are some of the connections to our work that I make from this (and you will see that this is also one of the main points that Smith is making in his Book of Learning and Forgetting). The categories that we adopt tell us what is important, how to look at things, how to interpret our work, how to think, how to plan, etc. etc. I should highlight that:


The categories that we adopt tell us what is important, how to look at things, how to interpret our work, how to think, how to plan, etc. etc.


At one time in some far away land, it could have very well made sense to categorize animals into a category of ‘belonging to the emperor.’ Especially if the emperor is in power. And at one point, for NCATE, it might have made good sense to think that the adherence to conceptual frameworks was imperative.

(Now I am not coming right out and saying it, but you might be thinking about all the categories that we have in place in our own public schooling institutions).

(And I am not saying this yet, but I bet Gatto and Smith believe that there are other categories that would be more significant for educating than the ones currently adopted by schools).


Back to NCATE: So, why the change? What is missing? Values? A clear understanding of what eduction means and how to achieve it? On another point, why is it that, seemingly out of nowhere, all of a sudden it was imperative that technology be incorporated into every classroom and every teacher requiring competency to use it? Why do accrediting agencies, at the moment, expect alignment, critical thinking, and a sensitivity to learning styles, and not a sensitivity to feminist issues, oppression, corporeality, empowerment, and how happy students feel? When will the standards start talking about homelessness or the environment? Oh, I forgot, homeless people don’t have powerful lobby groups speaking on their behalf.


I am not trying to be critical of the choices, but as educational philosophers, and askers of questions, we should at least give some thought as to how categories might frame our current practice–especially if the categories are made up. In addition we might begin to consider how one might develop some clarity on the purpose of education so that the categories are developed from an educational standpoint rather than a political (or as Smith might add, a psychological and historical) standpoint.


Response Question

Can you think of any examples of language worth changing or adopting in your classroom or your own life that would make life better for you and your students?

If you do have some ideas of particular language changes you would implement, how would you be able to remind yourself regularly that you are making this change? In other words, how do you adopt/make change without falling back into the old language and perceptions?



I hope you enjoyed thinking about today’s ideas.

I will leave you with, what I think is a funny thing that a student told me one time: a number of years ago a graduate student of mine just finished reading Lakoff and Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By. She started paying attention to the language being used all around her. She told me the book was revelational for her–she finally understood why her husband was always wrong. He was using all the wrong metaphors!


Have a great day!