Chapter Six: Communing Bodies
As biological bodies we commune (share or make common our experiences) with other biological beings. An in our communing, we communicate. As soon as you read the word commune that probably felt somewhat unfamiliar when you think of communicating. I started thinking about this seriously while hearing a talk that Dr. Chet Bowers was giving at the University of Oregon while I was working on my Master’s degree. I was studying Curriculum and Instruction and focussing on Computers in Education. In his talk he was challenging many of the assumptions on which we were basing many of our theories and practices. Many people in the audience were unreceptive to his ideas. I have to admit, I was too at first. So I found a couple of his books and started reading. Dr. Bower’s explanation of the transmission model of communication is one of the ideas that resonated with me. The transmission model of communication (Marshall McLuhan refers to this as the pipeline model of communication) is the idea that we send words from speaker to listener. The words are encoded with meaning by the speaker, and decoded then by the receiver. There are, of course, many implications for how we think about teaching if we adopt this transmission model of communication. As a teacher I might believe that I can transmit the ideas of the three branches of government to a child and the child will receive the ideas and have something meaningful in her head.
While I won’t be able to spend more time on these communication models, I do want to share with you a more modern version of how communication works — and thus my word communing. As you will see, biological bodies commune in contexts. We share our context or invite others into the context in which we find ourselves so that we can commune together. This sharing happens with our bodies, not the transmission of information. We use action and language as a means of perturbing others’ neurons, so that they can experience our context, because as you know context is necessary for understanding.
Our story continues with language. Perhaps we could call this next section ‘Language Speaks Us’ to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. We are biological beings that dwell in language. And that language shapes who and how we are.
Teachers have to ensure that students understand the words they hear and the words they use.
Why is that do you think? Why is it so important that students understand vocabulary?
I think you know the answer to this already. You know that if students don’t know the vocabulary they are hearing or using, they won’t understand what they’re hearing, and they won’t remember what they’re hearing. The child who doesn’t understand the terms legislative, executive and judicial is unlikely to develop much understanding about government let alone remember what she memorized. If you hear an unfamiliar word, you won’t have the neuronal cell assemblies being activated to allow you to make sense of the word. You will attempt to use context clues, but sometimes that slows your thinking down to such an extent that you will not be able to follow, and perceive, what is being said. If you don’t have sufficient background experience to have created neuronal webs that can be activated when you hear a word, you won’t physically experience what is being said.
You’ve experienced this and you’ve seen this — sometime we refer to this as the blank look we see on peoples’ faces. Insufficient neurons are firing for the person to make sense of what is being said.
Here’s an example. You will feel this. I’ll say a phrase and you monitor your reaction. Let’s see if any neurons fire. Here is the phrase: He bit into the big juicy Carl’s Jr. chili burger and warm, spicy, sloppy, chili dribbled down his chin and onto his new white shirt.
Well, your reaction will depend on whether or not you know what a Carl’s Jr. chili burger is, or whether or not you have had chili, and whether or not you have spilled food on a clean white shirt.
Here is another sentence. Approximately the same number of words. I have taken this from one of my philosophy books. Monitor your physical reaction: “The assertion as an assertion of “a of b of H,” is the seat of truth. In the structure of proposition, i.e. of a simple truth we distinguished subject, predicate, and copula — object assertion and connective.”
You probably didn’t feel as many neuronal webs being activated, even though I am quite sure you are familiar with, or have at least heard, each one of the words in the phrase. Like the second grader, you could memorize the phrase and then write it down on Wednesday’s test. However, doing so wouldn’t indicate you have much understanding.
And, of course we have different techniques to help students memorize — such as using acronyms, or jingles, or rhymes. Some people have even come to believe that they memorize items or statements better if they see them, hear them, or handle them in some way. And that might well be the case. But as you know, memorization of statements does not equate to understanding. And, if schools are in the business of educating, which we presume they are, they have to do what? . . . . . . They have to concern themselves with understanding.
What follows next, right after this video, is a little game of sorts to show you the importance of having an understanding of vocabulary. Without understanding, your our ability to remember, and to learn, is significantly diminished. We often say, one learns to understand. However, I think you know now that we have to understand to learn.
The following little game will tell us a lot about the foundations of education and schooling. It will demonstrate to you why you might be succeeding in some subjects and struggling in another. It will also show you how some school environments are responsible for student success, and others might be hindering student success. It will demonstrate, in a very simple way, a clear difference between what good teachers might be doing, and what poor teachers might be doing. And, it will give you another clue as to how you can be educating yourself.
Word Game, Part 1
I have a little word game for you to play. I think you will find this to be quite a powerful example of just how important vocabulary is and what it is like when we don’t have neuronal cell assemblies firing.
There are two parts to this game. Before you start you will need a sheet of paper. On one side you can write down the numerals 1 through 20. You see, beside each numeral you will be answering a question. On the other side of the paper you can write down the numerals 1 through 15 in a column. In Part 2 I will ask you 15 questions.
When you have your paper and writing implement ready to go, listen to the first audio file. As you listen, do your best to form a visual image in your mind. You will remember the answers better that way. I will read the statements first. After that I will let you know when I will be asking you questions for you to answer. All right, let’s go!
Word Game, Part 2
You probably did quite well on the first one. Now we will try part two. Very similar, but with a twist. Let’s give it a go!
So you probably didn’t do quite as well on the Part 2. Why? The sentences were very similar to the first set. But you probably noticed I changed things up a bit. I put in one made up word in each sentence. A word that I made up out of thin air.
Now, I think this is huge. Not that I can make up words out of thin air, but that we have such a difficult time creating mental images of statements when we don’t know one word in the statement. Usually students who complete Part 1 get anywhere from 15 to 20 questions correct. I usually find that students get 5 or fewer questions correct in Part 2. Why is that? Think back to what happened when you were unfamiliar with a word. You were probably trying to make sense of what the sentence meant. You were probably trying to recall the word from your past experience. It probably felt as though I was reading the sentence too fast because you had to pause to try to make sense of what was being said. While you were trying to make sense of this unknown word you probably missed the words I said right after saying the unknown word.
Not knowing one word in a sentence disrupts a person’s ability to make sense of what they hear. Furthermore, people will rarely remember any of the Part 2 statements for long. Interestingly, though, at the end of the day, if I ask you questions from Part 1, you will remember many of them. You knew every word and you were able to create visual images, and you remember those visual images for some time.
I had asked you, in the instructions, to try to create a visual image when you heard each sentence. You were doing more than creating a visual image though. When you hear words like ‘throwing’ or ‘standing’ or ‘eating’ the neurons in your brain that were wired together when you did these sorts of actions in the past are reactivating so that you actually feel the sentences with your bodies. But you don’t feel words that you are not familiar with.
Think now of the implications. Think of any class you took where you didn’t understand all of the vocabulary. Can you see how difficult it is to make sense of what the teacher might be saying? Consider the challenges for any second language learner. Not knowing one word in a sentence can prevent the learner from learning or remembering. If, for example, you are taking an math class and you don’t really understand the meaning of ratio, or axiom, or congruence, or integral, or any other term making sense of what is being talked about is almost impossible. Not knowing the vocabulary pretty much guarantees that you won’t do well.
How often have you been reading your class textbook and then when you get to the end of the page you can’t seem to remember what you read. So you read it again, perhaps highlighting some passages, thinking to yourself that you will come back to the passage and review it later. If you don’t know some of the words, it is quite likely that you will never make sense of what you are reading.
Think of the judgements being made about students. It may well be the case that students who are not doing well in class might simply be missing some vocabulary. And yet we have school narratives that suggest that when students are not doing well, it is their fault. They are not bright, or capable. We will hear that some students are unintelligent, or come from homes where they can’t learn, or that they don’t try hard enough. Sometimes we call that ‘blaming the victim’. The school environment might be such that the teacher isn’t providing students with necessary vocabulary support and bodily experience. It is not that teachers don’t want to provide the support and give students all the time they need. But, we will find out in short order that there are some school narratives that demand coverage, speed and efficiency. And those narratives don’t bode well for the student who requires extra time to learn. Sometimes the schedule is such that the student can’t learn and can’t keep up. The school schedule says, we have to press on. And for some students, it is impossible to recover.
“Language Speaks Us” the saying goes. The words you hear perturb the neurons in your body that then activate in such a way that you re-experience the neuronal webs you created in the past.
Questions Chapter Six
1. Please tell me the difference between your performance between the Part One of the word game and Part Two of the word game.
2. What would you say accounts for the difference in your performance? (Think in terms of neurons being activated).
Connecting the Word Game to the Causal Modality Layers
As you reflect on the three causal modality layers, perhaps you notice that this helps explain why it is so difficult to make sense of a statement, or to remember what was said, when you are unfamiliar with a single word in a statement. Not knowing one word can prevent all the necessary neuronal web assemblies to activate. Look at all the modalities that would come into play if we heard the statement, “Put the cup in the dishwasher.” The dishwasher context connects with the grasping modality (we would grasp the bottom of the cup to set it upside down on the dishwasher rack). This would also activate the proprioception neurons of bending down and extending the arm to put the cup in the dishwasher. We would sense that the cup is made of a solid material rather than paper or styrofoam. That simple statement, “Put the cup in the dishwasher” activates all those bodily experiences and understandings.
If you didn’t know what the word dishwasher meant, none of the other modalities giving meaning (context) to dishwasher would activate (come into play). No context, no proprioception, no grasping, no material, no purpose. No learning. No remembering. The response — a blank stare.
When you heard the word ‘boldendra’ or ‘yumanraman’, or ‘plats begolla’ the neuronal cell assemblies required to make meaning were silent. Of course some neurons were being activated. The ‘raman’ in yumanraman might activate neurons that helped you re-experience Raman Noodles. But none of the modalities required for understanding the phrase were activated.
As you know, context matters and body matters when making meaning of a situation or for any artifact or process to be intelligible. Without knowing what a word means, you are unable to understand the context or to ‘feel’ the word. Your brain isn’t full of definitions so that when you hear a word a definition pops into your head. Our brains aren’t like computers (even though that is a metaphor that is often used). Rather, your brain is continually having you re-enact parts of your visual, motor system. Your entire sensory system comes into play. You re-experience past experiences to understand a word.
I started this chapter by talking about the transmission, or pipeline, model of communication. When we think of the transmission model of communication we can as ourselves, “What is it that people believe they are transmitting? Why do I hear people talk about inputs and outputs?” Historically, people have believed, and continue to believe in the idea of an objective reality. An important underlying idea behind the transmission model is that bits and pieces of that objective reality can be transmitted, through words, from one person to another.
That view of shared objective reality has, however, been long challenged. It one of the ideas that some of our most important education philosophers, such as Paulo Freire and John Dewey challenged.
Let our story continue by examining the idea of a shared external reality and the idea that we can have a mirror image of that reality in our minds.
Chapter Seven: The Spectator / Mirror / Correspondence View of Reality
Do we every really know reality?
Do you remember the video clips of the motocross riders and the bicycle riding where we had a sense of the difference between the spectator view and the lived view? We could stand back and watch the long boarder from a distance, as a spectator. Or we could imagine what the lived experience is. We could try to get closer to the long boarder’s reality.
Our story, up to this point, has considered the importance of the lived experience and the importance of that lived experience when we are trying to develop a depth and breadth of understanding. We determined that if schools are in the business of educating, then good schooling practices incorporate all three frames — causal modality, sensory, contextual.
But we have also thought a bit about the idea of language transmitting information or ideas in a transmission or pipeline model. This brought up the idea that there was an objective reality that can be shared through transmission.
What is meant by objectification? This is simply another way of say that experiences and our artifacts can be objectified — or turned into objects. You might be thinking, but aren’t all our artifacts objects? And that is a good point. However, we don’t always experience things as if they are distinct objects. For example, you wouldn’t pick up a child and prop them up beside a door as a door stop. And you probably don’t treat your pet as if it were an object. And when you are drinking your hot chocolate on a chilly morning, the cup is simply part of your lived experience. You don’t look at your favorite cup as a scientist might when doing a scientific experiment. (Now some of you will notice that as soon as we analyze our artifacts with our frames, we have objectified the artifacts. That’s what analysis does). But this does not stop us from recognizing that we have lived experiences with that which we analyze.
So, you can see that I am getting back to the importance of the lived perspective that I introduced in Chapter One. We need to include the lived perspective.
Why don’t we always include the lived perspective? Why don’t we alway consider the importance of the bodily senses?
There are a number of reasons for this. The one I will share here in my story is the ocular influence. What is ocular influence you might wonder? That is the privilege that has been given to vision. You will notice, by just reading and listening to what is being said about schools, schooling, teaching, and learning, that much of what is talked about is talked about as if we can ‘see’ it. You will hear about visual learners. You will hear about looking at data, people will say “I see what you mean.” When we talk about objects, what we refer to are typically what we can see.
The problem we encounter is when we adopt one perspective and forget that there are other perspectives is that we start to give priority to objectified experiences and forget about lived experiences.
In many schools, the lived perspective is disregarded. It has been forgotten because of an emphasis on a scientific causal modality (an emphasis on the efficient cause) and an objectification of experience, teachers, and students. The scientific perspective relies on objectification. Science relies on measurement, and measurement relies on objectification. We need to be able to turn things into objects in science. We wouldn’t be able to predict or replicate experiments if we didn’t. So in the case of science — objectification is a good thing. But is objectification a good thing when we are helping students understand?
Questions Chapter Seven
Question 1: Why is the spectator view important for scientific inquiry?
Question 2: Why do we not want to rely on the spectator view for all of our understanding?
Outside-in, or inside-out?
We have a long history of following a narrative that suggests that we have representations of the outside world that have made their way into our heads. We might call it the outside-in model. But as we are coming to understand in neuroscience research that a better way to think about the way you perceive the world is from the inside-out. That might sound strange at first. It is a bit counter intuitive. However, we perceive and we make sense of our environments as a result of what we already know. When you look at a cup there is six times more brain activity traveling from the inside of your brain moving to the receptor centers than what comes from the perturbations from the outside. We will get into that a more later as well.
The idea of Outside-In is important. I am thinking of the brain research done by György Buzsáki here. The thing that we will want to be weary of is not only the inaccurate ideas behind that which is outside our brains making its way inside through a transmission model. We also have to be weary of a picture view of reality that suggests that we can have a mirror view of that reality.
In schools we often 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 see, that we can manipulate, and that we can know. 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.
Furthermore, we talk about students having knowledge in their heads. Accumulating information.
The Question Concerning Reality
Our story must ask, where did this picture view of reality come from?
There is a narrative that suggests that we all see the world the same way. And because we all have access to the same reality, the narratives says we all should do the same thing, that we all can all learn the same thing. This way of thinking comes from a narrative about reality that became prominent at the beginning of the 17th century. The narrative involves the Spectator View. I think you probably remember the spectator view from an earlier chapter where I shared with you the objective and lived-view of the bike and motocross riders.
Where did that spectator view come from anyway? How would one come up with a picture view of reality?
(While an exploration into 17th and 18th century Enlightenment would be helpful, I think this short example of the camera obsura will give you some insight as to the point to be made).
The Camera Obscura (or the Pinhole Camera)
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.
People have been making camera obscuras for a long time.
At one time the camera obscura was even a form of entertainment.
Philosophers have even used the camera obscura in the development of their own metaphors to describe understanding. I think you will find this interesting. Here is John Locke, nineteenth century philosopher.
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 in Locke’s time.
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. What does it mean when we say the camera obscura framed philosophers’ thinking. This means that philosophers started thinking about things, such as ‘knowledge’ and brains acting a bit like the camera obscura. The idea of the spectator was enhanced. The idea of ‘images’ in our minds, our mind containing reflections of reality, etc., etc.. were established.
The idea that the mind and knowledge works a bit like a camera obscura shouldn’t surprise us. Even now people take technologies and liken the human body to them. You have probably heard, “The brain is like a computer.” It isn’t, but that is what many people will say.
Question 3: How did the camera obscura contribute to John Locke’s view of knowledge and understanding?
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.
It makes me wonder if Descartes had used the example of flying down a mountain road on a mountain bike, rather than a lump of wax, if he wouldn’t have thought about causation differently.
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.
Notice the point that Mulhall makes here. It is very important. He says: 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. Do you recall the hegemony of vision. This means that vision, rather than all the other senses we have, is taken to be the primary source of experiencing the world.
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, like pictures, that can then be thought to have effects on one another in very narrow ways (simple cause and effect); three, we all see the same reality; and four, we talk as if we can somehow transfer, or input, these representations into our students.
The spectator view, and visual induced objectification are foundational aspects of schooling.
We talk as if the images that we think we see are the same for everyone. Furthermore, we teach in such a way that we believe that, as a teacher I can point to a particular reality that I can then make you aware of. But our early discussion of our modality frames should demonstrate that we can all have very different understandings based our our previous background experiences. Our discussion of neuronal cell assemblies should demonstrate to us that our previous bodily experiences influence what we even are able to perceive.
What happens if we don’t share the same reality but teach as if we do? What happens if we teach as if every student can perceive the same picture of an external reality that we will then transmit? Would our expected learning results be somewhat hindered?
I would like to share with you a documentary that helps us question reality. It is call, What is Reality? The documentary is 59 minutes long, but my questions will only require that you watch up to 43:00 minutes.
Before you start watching the following documentary let me share with you the questions I would like to you to respond to:
Question 44: At 8:04 in the What is Reality? documentary we hear the statement, “For us to see clearly, many different systems need to be operating in concert.” Then, at 10:30 we hear, “Mike’s new eyes were functioning perfectly. And they were sending signals to the brain just like yours or mine do. But he couldn’t see his sons in any meaningful way.” So my question to you is, why couldn’t Mike May see the world around him the way we do if his eyes were working fine?
Question 5: At 18:53 we hear the statement: “When babies reach out to touch what’s in front of them, they’re not just learning what an object feels like. They’re learning how to see. They’re establishing pathways in the brain that’ll be used for the rest of their lives, because vision is a whole body experience. The data coming in from our eyes only means something if we can cross reference it.” What does this mean?
Question 6: At 30:39 we hear the statement: “
This is the thalamus, one of the brain’s major junctions. Most sensory information connects through here on its way to the outer surface of the brain, the cortex. So data collected from the eyes stops here before going to the visual cortex. Now, you’d expect a heavy flow of information from the thalamus to the visual cortex. And there is. But there’s six times as much traffic flowing in the opposite direction. And that dwarfs the amount coming in from the eyes.” What is the significance of the statement that there is six times as much traffic flowing in the opposite direction?” What does the city metaphor have to do with our reality?
Question 7: At 35:51 we are told about the internal model. What is the internal model and what is its purpose?
Dr. Eagleman takes viewers on an extraordinary journey that explores how the brain, locked in silence and darkness without direct access to the world, conjures up the rich and beautiful world we all take for granted. “What is Reality?” begins with the astonishing fact that this technicolor multi-sensory experience we are having is a convincing illusion conjured up for us by our brains. In the outside world there is no color, no sound, and no smell. These are all constructions of the brain. Instead, there is electromagnetic radiation, air compression waves, and aromatic molecules all of which are interpreted by the brain as color, sound and smell. Cutting edge graphics show that data from the outside are rendered into electrochemical signals inside the brain, which map meaningfully onto physical reality. Our experience of reality is an electrochemical rendition of the world outside. Visual illusions are reminders that what’s important to the brain is not being faithful to “reality” but enabling us to perceive just enough so that we can navigate successfully through it. The brain leaves a lot out of its beautiful rendition of the physical world, a fact that Dr. Eagleman reveals using experiments and street demonstrations. Each one of our brains is different, and so is the reality it produces. What is reality? It’s whatever your brain tells you it is. Distributed by PBS Distribution.
Distributed by PBS Distribution.
We each experience a different reality.
To say that each student has a different reality, and a reality different from our own, is easy to say but difficult to fully believe. It is for me anyway. I can start teaching a class and think that every student is hearing the same thing. I have to remind myself, when a student asks a question that they are perceiving something (re-enacting with their nervous system) quite unique.
You can imagine the way that two different students might experience any situation a bit differently — just as to go-kart racers experience the race differently.
I find this interesting because we get a glimpse of different visual perspectives. And, we get a sense of how the two racers (students) are interacting with each other and those around them.
Each perspective has a unique experience.
Trillium BMW @ GP Kartways 2012-01-29 split screen GoPro v2
You can imagine the way that two different students might experience any situation a bit differently — just as to race car drivers experience the race differently.
VSCDA 2019 ELVF Sunday Group 13 Formula Ford Feature Race
I found this example of a split screen race to show three different realities all playing out at the same time. I will say that the top left screen is student one, top right screen is student two, and the bottom half of the screen is the teacher seeing the interactions between two students.
Torslanda Gokartbana med GoPro-splitscreen
This race metaphor helps us consider the different perceptions of reality.
One thing that we notice is that each perspective shows something quite different — a different perspective. While these specific videos are from different races, we can think of each as any and every lived moment. Each moment of the race can be thought of as each moment in a classroom. A reward is given, a look is given, a command is given, a question is given. Each student is re-enacting in their nervous system a unique experience — each nervous system being perturbed by the environment and those around him/her in a unique way.
The camera obscura had many philosophers imagine that a fixed reality that existed outside of our minds was accessible to our minds or able to be perceived by our minds. But from what we know of the brain now, that sort of thinking is problematic and the narrative is incomplete. We don’t simply perceive, or have a mirror image or, that which is out there in the external world, but rather we create our own reality. Recall, “in any one moment, what we experience as seeing relies less on the light streaming into our eyes and more on what’s already inside our heads. . . . We all have this internally generated reality. Incredible as it may sound, this world lives inside your brain. It’s constantly updated by information from our senses. But moment to moment, what we experience isn’t what’s really out there. Instead, it’s a beautifully rendered simulation.”
Developing a depth and breadth of understanding relies on unique perspectives as a foundation of education. Schooling narratives have adopted the spectator view, and the belief that students and teachers have access to the same realities.
Chapter Eight: Industry, Business, and Rationalization
Our story of schooling, education and understanding would have to include a bit of history regarding the influence of business, industry, and rationalization. We know that ‘understanding’ is a necessary aspect of education, and thus presumably of schooling. The interesting thing to consider then if, and how, our schooling practices are enhancing the development of student understanding.
What you might not realize is that many of our schooling practices were taken directly from industrial / factory practices.
Let the story continue.
McDonaldization of Society
Perhaps you are wondering why I am standing here in front of this McDonalds. It is not because I am hungry. It is because I have a bit of a story for you that has to do with McDonalds. If I were to come up with a name for this story, it would be, The McDonaldization of Our Thinking.
Now, Professor George Ritzer, who is really responsible for this story, would call it The McDonaldization of Society. I say George Ritzer here because he wrote the book McDonaldization of Society. I am borrowing from him in this tale.
I should say, the reason I like the idea of using Dr. Ritzer’s research on rationalization, and using McDonalds as an example, is because of its relevancy as well as your familiarity with fast food restaurants.
Now, I am sure you recall that we did compare the Big Mac with Sushi in a previous lesson. The reasons for that comparison is really going to make sense now, because we are going to connect those initial discussions of “time”, efficiency, standardization and product management, directly to schooling.
We will start to not only see just how much our schools resemble McDonalds, but we are going to look more deeply into the historical roots of some of the rationalistic thinking that is foundational to schooling and McDonalds. We will start to understand ‘why’ many of our schooling practices resemble a fast food restaurant. The connection we are going to make is not to food this time, but to the way the food is produced and to the business operations. And, as you probably recall, when we created our Big Mac causal frame, there were aspects of time, efficiency, process and standardization that shaped not only the Product, but also the Materials and the Form. Understanding this background context is essential to our understanding of the similar foundational aspects that exist between schools and McDonalds.
Many of the same forces that brought McDonalds into existence are the same forces, or causal agents that are responsible for shaping our schooling environments. Now I am going to start with McDonalds here, a brief review of sorts. But as I said, there is a significant connection that actually ties schools and McDonalds together. That connection is the idea of Scientific Management.
What is Scientific Management you might wonder? Well simply, it is making a science out of doing things. It is a process whereby we step away from our lived bodily experience and take on the spectator view. Then from our spectator view we turn that which we see into objects, measure those objects, compare those objects and ultimately manipulate and manage those objects. Voila, scientific management. Why use the term scientific? Well, as you know, with science comes objectification and measurement. To do science, we think of things as objects that we then manipulate and measure. We adopt a spectator view to do this. We will learn more about scientific management as we go, but being introduced to some of these ideas through Dr. Ritzer’s analysis of McDonalds simplifies our entry into some of these ideas.
When we start to examine schools more closely, and the way they were influenced by scientific management, we will shift our sights over to one of the most influential designers of schooling — Frederick Winslow Taylor. We can attribute the main ideas of scientific management to Mr. Taylor. By examining his work, in combination with he work and influence of people such as the Gilbreths, some of the American industrialists, common business men, and a whole host of compliant school men, we will begin to develop a depth and breadth of understanding regarding the connections between McDonalds and schooling.
Let’s start with Ritzer’s discussion of McDonaldization of Society. Imagine, you walk into any McDonalds fast food restaurant. There are some processes in play. Some you recognize immediately, and some you may not have thought about before. But once you become aware of them, you will recognize them. Ritzer defines these processes as: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. I will briefly say something about each one, but keep in mind that one of the most interesting things in all of this is how this form of thinking has reshaped the thinking and actions of many different human interactions— education or educating being one of them. But, as far as education goes, the influence of scientific management made its mark in the early 1900s. So we are not dealing with a direct causal agent here, as far as McDonadization goes, but rather contextual similarities.
Let’s go through the four processes described by Professor Ritzer. One, efficiency, we discussed that earlier. Because the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality, more efficient processes mean more product and more profit. Two, calculability. Calculability refers to the collection and use of data, automated data mining, and the mathematical computations that accompany data gathering. Of course data shows up in surveys, customer actions, social media, etc. Better data means, for McDonalds, better decisions as far as profits and marketability. Three, predictability. Predictability is something you are very familiar with. I think you will agree, that when you get a food item from McDonalds you can be assured, regardless of the McDonalds location, that you will end up with a food item that is almost identical to the same food item purchased at any other McDonalds. Whether you are eating a Big Mac in Salem Oregon, Seattle, or London England, a Big Mac is a Big Mac, regardless of the location. Not only that, if you eat an Egg McMuffin in July and then order another in December, once again, the Egg McMuffin will be the same. Then, four, control. The workers are expected to do the same things, cook the same way, treat customers the same way. The workers follow the routines and rules put forth by the management. Workers are trained to do a limited number of tasks, and are expected to perform those tasks with an expected level of competency, and workers are closely monitored to ensure they are complying with the expectations laid down by management.
Now here is a bit of history that you might not know. Ritzer tells us: “In 1958, McDonald’s published an operations manual that detailed how to run a franchise. This manual laid down many of the principles for operating a fast-food restaurant: It told operators exactly how to draw milk shakes, grill hamburgers, and fry potatoes. It specified precise cooking times for all products and temperature settings for all equipment. It fixed standard portions on every food item, down to the quarter ounce of onions placed on each hamburger patty, and the thirty-two slices per pound of cheese. It specified that French fries be cut at nine thirty-seconds of an inch thick. And it defined quality controls that were unique to food service, including the disposal of meat and potato products that were held more than ten minutes in a serving bin.
Grill men were instructed to put hamburgers down on the grill moving from left to right, creating six rows of six patties each. And because the first two rows were farthest from the heating element, they were instructed (and still are) to flip the third row first, then the fourth, fifth, and sixth before flipping the first two.
You can immediately see that the process is very structured and standardized. Think of this for just a moment. Here we have a manual that is written out in great detail, to exacting specification, the movements expected, the operations demanded, and the expectations of management to be followed by all employees has been concretized, externalized. Perhaps the fact that one has an employee manual is not so unusual. But what might make this manual unique is the degree of specificity and standardization of expectations. Now that was 1958. Let’s go a bit farther back in McDonalds history and consider the process. “The McDonaldization process” Ritzer tells us, “was created by two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, in their first restaurant in Pasadena, California, in 1937. They based that restaurant on the principles of high speed, large volume, and low price. To avoid chaos, they offered customers a highly circumscribed menu. Instead of personalized service and traditional cooking techniques, the McDonald brothers used assembly-line procedures for cooking and serving food. In place of trained cooks, the brothers’ “limited menu allowed them to break down food preparation into simple, repetitive tasks that could be learned quickly even by those stepping into a commercial kitchen for the first time.” Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society: Into the Digital Age. Ninth edition. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2019.
That’s interesting. Notice the connection between efficiency and the assembly line procedures. It is also interesting to note that personalized service was diminished. Let’s keep in mind, there was already a context in place that allowed the McDonald brothers to even think about incorporating assembly line thinking into their restaurant design. Another thing that we will witness in our historical studies is the way that ideas revolving around scientific management can flow out into the public — becoming part of the background context for other activities and endeavors so to speak. Consider this as you think of how background context can infiltrate our everyday experiences. Rizter points out “. . . meals at home often resemble those available in fast-food restaurants. Frozen, microwavable, and prepared foods, which bear a striking resemblance to meals available at fast-food restaurants, often find their way to the dinner table. There are even cookbooks—for example, Secret Fast Food Recipes: The Fast Food Cookbook—that allow one to prepare “genuine” fast food at home.Then there is also home delivery of fast food, especially pizza, as revolutionized by Domino’s.” Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society.
Professor Ritzer points out another effect of the fast food industry. He refers to it as vertical McDonaldization; Professor Ritzer refers to Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, speaking to the idea that industries servicing McDonalds have had to change the way they do things in order to satisfy the quantity demands. He says, “Potato growing and processing, cattle ranching, chicken raising, and meat slaughtering and processing have all had to McDonaldize their operations, leading to dramatic increases in production. That growth has not come without costs, however. As demonstrated in the movie Food, Inc. (2008), meat and poultry are now more likely to be disease ridden, small (often non- McDonaldized) producers and ranchers have been driven out of business, and millions of people have been forced to work in low-paying, demeaning, demanding, and sometimes outright dangerous jobs. Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society.
In what follows, we will learn a bit more about McDonaldization. In addition we will deepen our understanding of schooling foundations by digging in to Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s development of Scientific Management.
Let the Big Mac be our guide.
Questions Chapter Eight
Question 1: I briefly talked about scientific management. Scientific management is one of the foundations of schooling. In your own words, what is scientific management, and what does it have to do with the spectator view (or the mirror view of reality)?
McDonaldization Theory of George Ritzer
George Ritzer: On the Rationalization of Consumption
Question Set Number Two (Continued)
Question 24: How would you define McDonaldization?
Question 25: What are four components of ‘rationalization’ according to Ritzer?
Question 26: Give an example of each of the four components.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into history to see if we can dig up a few of the contextual aspects that brought McDonalization into existence.
To get a better understanding of McDonaldization, and the shared commonalities with schooling, it would be helpful if we took a step back in history and took a briefly considered the work of Max Weber. Max Weber is known as one of the principal architects of social science. Living in Prussia at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, Weber was dwelling in a time of rapid industrial change. This, of course, was the industrial revolution. As you will notice, the background context of the industrial revolution had a significant impact on the foundations of schooling.
In what follows here, we will get a brief introduction to Max Weber and some of his main ideas.
SOCIOLOGY – Max Weber
Max Weber & Modernity: Crash Course Sociology #9
Let us reflect briefly on a few points made about Weber’s ideas and how these ideas might be related to our own schooling practices. We do experience Weber’s concept of rationality in schools. For Weber, rationality meant calculability, methodical behavior, and reflexivity.
Calculability is deriving the outputs by knowing the inputs. McDonalds restaurants make Big Macs by carefully following regulated inputs resulting in an output of exacting standards. This differs from the way you might put together a meal on a Saturday afternoon.
Procedure, or methodical behavior, helps ensure standardization. The materials including not only food, but also equipment and machines helps the process.
Thinking reflexively is tantamount to keeping an eye on the Purpose and thinking of ways to improve efficiency.
The rise of Bureaucracy: Weber identified six traits that account for modernity’s rationalization and drive for efficiency. Hierarchy with specialized roles and chains of command held together by formalities, rules and communication. Detailed rules and regulations structure work and formalize the necessary technical competencies. This is done impersonally with little regard to the people being served.
Everyone is treated the same, disregarding their individuality.
Legal-Rational Legitimacy: a belief in the system. One follows the rules of the system because they are the rules. Procedures are in place that specify what is to be done and how it is to be done.
Charismatic-Legitimacy: Someone had to make the rules. People follow the commands of a charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders direct others to adhere to the rules.
Society is organized into power groups (political groups) to run the bureaucracy.
There are a number of elements that affect a person’s place in society as a result of social stratification: class, political parties, status groups.
Weber made the point that it is easy to lose reflexivity that gives meaning to one’s role. When this happens, people are moved mindlessly by the system, locked in routine. It is at this point that the system or institution begins to operate on its own. At the extreme, our lives become little more than a series of actions and interactions based on the rules by which the system operates. Thus the meaning one derives from being an active participant in establishing the direction of their own lives is lost.
Max Weber developed his theories within the context of the industrial revolution. And, if you recall, we heard about the McDonald brothers talking about their procedures as an assembly line. Perhaps we should take a quick look at factories.
Question 2: Now it’s your turn. Think of three specific examples in your life where you experience any of Weber’s aspects of rationality. In other words, tell me where you have experienced calculability, or procedure, or thinking reflexively, or bureaucracy, or everyone being treated the same, or legal-rational legitimacy, or charismatic legitimacy, or power groups. Don’t use McDonalds as an example.
With Weber’s work we get an glimpse into the theoretical aspects of Rationalization. Let’s deepen our understanding further by examining the influence of factories on our schooling practices.
Should we talk factories today? Why not!
To understand schooling narratives, we have to understand the factory, and the way factory narratives made their way into schooling.
Education has to do with the development of a depth and breadth of understanding. If the role of schooling is to help students become educated, we can presume that schools will help develop students’ depth and breadth of understanding.
So, you might be wondering, what does schooling have to do with factories?
What on earth would schooling have to do with factories? Is it in the narrative?
I guess I should start with the cookie cutter. I think we have all heard the saying that schools are like cookie cutters.
How Ann Clark Makes Cookie Cutters
This factory narrative is an important one because it is a narrative that drives a great deal of what and how we do things in school — even if we didn’t ever think of school like a factory. We would be safe to say that factory, (and I will include business), thinking is a foundation of schooling. It is not a foundation of education.
Let’s look into this more closely.
I will begin by considering what it is that allows factories, and factory assembly lines, to ‘come into being.’ This will have some significance to our understanding of schooling later on, but let us leave an examination of those connections until a little later. First the factory: Question: “What is necessary for a factory to exist?” We could, of course, come up with a very long list — raw material, equipment, a place to house the factory, skilled workers, etc. But that is only part of the story.
This is just a rough causal modality frame of a typical factory. But it does help us focus on a few of the necessary aspects of the ‘factory’. In this example, the Purpose of the factory is to produce a product. What is it that would allow the Factory Owner to even consider producing a product? The owner would have to have the necessary background context in place to think of ‘product’ and ‘produce’. For product and producing to appear, the contextual ideas of objects, efficiency, assembly, managing, production, etc. would have to be in play to bring about the idea of producing a product. Without these contextual ideas, the idea of producing a product wouldn’t come into being as it has. The materials are available to put the production process into play. And, the Form, in this case an assembly line, seems to make the most sense in terms of the efficient production of product.
Let us also consider an accompanying Sensory
Perhaps the most important thing to note when considering the sensory experiences and bodily motions is the repetitive nature of movement. One might say that the body adapts the to machine and in doing so becomes machine-like.
So, we see the factory and the things that make the factory what it is. Now, if somebody didn’t come up with the idea that objects could be assembled in pieces we probably wouldn’t have assembly-line factories. Also, if people were not able to objectify things, and think of things as objects, we probably wouldn’t have assembly-line factories. And, if somebody didn’t have the idea that efficiency was important, we probably wouldn’t have assembly-line factories (at least not in their current form). We might go deeper and ask, what it is that is necessary for the idea of efficiency to exist? And then, with efficiency, it might be desirable to ensure that the product is produced as efficiently as possible. In this case we might need a division of labor–a worker and a foreman/woman.
I Love Lucy
So, assembly-line factories didn’t just magically appear. A number of people had to see the world in such a way that objects, bit-by-bit assembly, and efficiency was intelligible. In a sense, these people had a way of viewing the world (a set of lenses so to speak) that made it possible for these factory ideas come into being. I suppose we could say that the ideas of efficiency, disassembly and assembly, and discrete objects had to be in place (part of our intelligibility) before we would have designed factories.
When we adopt a particular perspective, or, metaphorically, wear lenses of a particular kind, we are able to see the world in certain ways. In our assembly-line factory perspective, the world shows itself in ways that allows the factory to come into being. Again, if someone didn’t see the possibility of piecing things together bit by bit, or see ‘things’ in such a way that they might put together as discrete objects, we wouldn’t have much of a factory.
As far as the production of products, factories seem to make good sense.
But should schools adopt the factory assembly line model?
Let me share your response questions so that as you watch the following Modern Marvels documentary, you can answer the questions.
3. How are schools like assembly-line factories?
4. One of the ways we know that schools have adopted factory/assembly-line thinking is that we here the same words being used in factories and in schools. List 5 words that you hear in the factory documentary that are also used in school environments.
Modern Marvels: The Evolution of the Assembly Line (S7, E32) | Full Episode | History
Let’s apply the factory model to everything (or let’s not)
We have lived our entire lives with factories and factory thinking. It is difficult to even imagine how our lives could have been different. Perhaps I can give you an example of how the language and ideas of the assembly-line factory model can be extended to living things. I use this example because extending the ideas of factory thinking and production to animals is likely not something you have had much experience with. Here, in the following clip, we hear of animals being dis-assembled, we hear of automation, processing, uniformity, inspection, automatic scaling, individually monitored, production, precision, care, quality, etc. You will get the idea by listening to the first 5 minutes of the following:
5. In our last lesson we saw how the camera obscura contributed to the idea of the ‘outside world’ being mirrored in our heads. We also learned that many philosophers started to talk about knowledge as objectified. In the video below we see how animals are objectified and treated as objects. Please give me three examples of students being objectified (treated as objects) in school.
The factory model depends on manipulating objects. So what happens when schools adopt a factory assembly-line model? Knowledge is objectified. Assessments are objectified. Tasks are objectified. Students and teachers are objectified. And with all of that objectification, along with production models, we can end up with something we call Scientific Management. That will be the next chapter in our story.