A response to Stephen Downes


Stephen posted recently on meaning in language in a way that I don’t generally understand in conceptualizing education practice. He divides word use into units like token or types, similar to a computational method. He goes on to criticize constructivism saying:

This is also why constructivism is so hard to criticize. There are many different ways to make meaning. If you show that one way of making meaning is inadequate, then the constructivist always has another one to show you. After all, the theory (mostly) isn’t about some specific way of making meaning. It’s about the idea that ‘to learn’ is ‘to make meaning’, and these can be made in different ways

I generally think on a practice or pragmatic unit of analysis. Thinking of Bakhtin’s concept of Genres; recognizable ways of speaking, or Wittgenstein’s language games. Take the drunken artisans from Dostoevsky’s “Diary of an Author”, whose six characters repeat a curse word six times, but each repetition indicates a different meaning conveyed by the inflection and position of the speaker as well as the genre the speaker is referencing. Same word, but six different meanings. Meaning does not come from the words or from reference, but from re-cognizable practice. Maybe a pragmatic nominalism. Here’s something from an old blogpost of my I was thinking on earlier today but makes an example of how practice could constitutes meaning in assessment:

To see the future (think prediction), students and teachers should focus on their horizons. Horizons here refer to a point in developmental time that can’t be seen clearly today, but that I can reasonable expect to achieve in the future. Because many aspects of this developmental journey are both precarious and dependence on future actions, this joint vision can’t be wishful thinking, but must be clearly framed in terms of privileges and obligations. When it is treated this way, assessment is not a picture of student achievement, but is a methods for making both student and teacher visible to each other in a way that is rational, meaningful and conducted in an ontologically responsible manner; that is, in a way that is true to who we we want to become.

This references John Shotter’s “Cultural Politics of Everyday Life”.
The point I’m making is that meaning begins with assessment items and scores, but it does not become meaningfully useful until it allows student and teacher to “see” each other in their mutual journey toward an agreed upon horizon or end point and the privileges and obligations that makeup the path. This is where the general concept of assessment is fails because of the limits we place on the “genre” of assessment Another example is Vygotsky’s conception of a baby’s grasp for a rattle. The Mother interprets the grasp as a desire and slowly guides the baby into what the mother considers an understandable practice. I agree that there are too many conceptions of constructionism, and I like to ground it in practice which I fell is more secure, but still suffers in many ways from George Lackoff’s limitations of cognition and speech as metaphoric.

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