Education Needs Clarity

Beginnings: My Graduate Experience  (The 90s and the oughts)

My PhD was not motivated by a career path, but by my love of learning. Temple U’s Associate Professor Helmut Bartel (a proclaimed social constructionist) was an intellectual guide who helped me to recognize the relevance of social theories to my professional experiences; that is, I was by nature a pragmatist. Helmut left Temple before I could develop a dissertation topic and it was fortuitous because I needed to challenge myself to align my thoughts with new mentors. While trying to form a dissertation topic a professor said offhand, “It sounds to me that your talking about validity.” I read Messick’s chapter titled Validity in Linn’s (ed) Handbook of Educational Measurement. The references and the lineage of his ideas were all different, but the conversations where much the same and they centered around a pragmatic approach. The patrons of validity, Messick, Cronback and Meehl, were very clearly analytic in their thinking, but the logic of pragmatism was already deeply embedded in their thought.

Why Philosophy

My studies were in educational psychology, and I do find many discussion in philosophy to be tedious and boring, so why discuss philosophy.  Because, for everything we say, there are many things that are left unsaid and for everything we do, much of the reasoning is left unsaid and unquestioned.  The philosophy I discuss is about shining a light on practices to see what we are taking for granted and to understand what has been left unsaid. What we need is clarity, and that is precisely the purpose of philosophy in its analytic, neoanalytic and pragmatic forms.

Where is Validity in Educational Practice

How do you address validity questions that appear paradigmatically opposed to traditional empirical scientific practice? I begin with an adaptation of a thought who linage I trace Helmut. A successful paradigm change must account for the current paradigm in both its successes and failures in order to forge a true new order. The dominate and implicit practice paradigms today are still mostly based in a dualist objectivist analytic philosophy. Post-modern / post-structural and Marxis based critiques all excel at accounting for the ideological failures of an analytic approach, but not its successes. They fail to point to a way to move practice forward and seem to be losing steam, even as their critiques of analytic approaches remain valid. I think a better way is to consider pragmatism.
Pragmatism and Analytic Philosophy share a commitment to logic and the science method. What Pragmatism brings is a unity of science, practice and ethics (Boncompagni, 2001). Scientific practices are always situated in the midst of ethical horizons best understood as historicized ideological practices. This also matches my earlier experiences where I was working in disability services. The field was moving on from the least restrictive environment to minority rights and people first language. I thoroughly believe in the practicality of science, but science based practices were slow to adapt and often seemed to be standing in the way of ethically empowering practices. Obsessed with an unsustainable conception of objectivity, many scientists could not see how a lack of ethics impoverished science and made it weaker, not stronger.

Pragmatism to the Analytic and Back

I see the history of Pragmatism beginning with Peirce, James, Dewey and Mead, but it became overshadowed by the analytic approaches of European trained academics, especially those associated with the Vienna Circle. As problems were recognized in Analytic Philosophy there began a slow and constant evolution towards pragmatism. In Analytic Philosophy this included people and their ideas such as Quinn, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein. In educational psychology this included Cronbach, Meehl and Messick. This may not be exactly James’ or Dewey’s Pragmatism, but it’s much closer than the direction sought by the Vienna Circle or BF Skinner and I believe that a movement towards pragmatism continues today.

To understand pragmatic social science, let’s begin with Joseph Margolis’ claim: “language and what language uniquely makes possible in the way of the evolving powers of the human mind are emergent, artifactual, hybrid precipitates of the joint processes of biological and cultural evolution;” I see this as something like taking up the naturalism and social behaviorism of Dewey and Mead.  This approach may no longer provide  a foundation for infallible truths, but there is still room for an ethical, objective and empirically warranted practice. This social behavioral and empirical science should be distinguished from Skinner’s radical behaviorism in the same way logical positivism is distinguished from current analytic / pragmatic  approaches.   The knowledge radical behaviorism engenders, fails to adequately recognize the full nature of language and the social world it makes possible.  As a result radical behaviorism leaves knowledge as flat and shallow and more often results in situations (as Wittgenstein noted) where the educational problem and the method pass one another by without interacting. To be valid, empirical methods must reflect the contextualized, artifactual and ethical demands of the problems within a philosophically Darwinian framework of an organism’s adaptation to the social and physical environment. Adaptation is very personal and includes concepts like social poetics.  That is, I accept analytic tools and methods, but recognize them only within social ethical fields that are interpretive as above.  Just as analytic philosophy has moved back toward Pierce, James, Dewey and Mead, radical behaviorism can only be relevant by moving toward Vygotsky, Dewey, Wittgenstein and social poetics.


Margolis, Joseph (2012-10-17). Pragmatism Ascendent: A Yard of Narrative, a Touch of Prophecy (p. 133). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Boncompagni, A (2011). Book Review on New Perspectives on Pragmatism and Analytic Philosophy, EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PRAGMATISM AND AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY, III, 2, 290-299.

Garrison, J (1995). Deweyan Pragmatism and the Epistemology of Contemporary Social Constructivism, American Educational Research Journal, 32, 716-740.

A Practice Perspective on the Quants and the Humanists

Lee Drutman responded to Timothy Egan’s New York Times Article about creativity and Big Data.

First TE says that companies like Amazon who are based on quantitative methods are not creative because they “marginalized messiness”.  LD responds that “(d)ata analysis and everything that goes into it can be highly creative”, meaning (I guess) that Quants can get down in the mess too.  Both are good points but miss another aspect that unites the arts / humanities and the sciences, and this is the heart of my argument.  They are both creating practices that effect our live in important ways.   The point is that we all create.  It’s not whether we are or are not creative.  It’s a question of what we are creating.  From John Shotter’s Cultural Politics of Everyday Life:

But now, many take seriously Foucault’s (1972: 49) claim that our task consists of not – of no longer – treating discourses as groups of signs . . . but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.

In other words, it’s not wether the Quants are creative, but do their analyses treat me as an object to be controlled, or do they treat me as a human being where the analysis respects my being.  That’s called ontologically responsible assessment.  Again, from Shotter:

I want to argue not for a radical change in our practices, but for a self-conscious noticing of their actual nature.

We should offer people clear and understandable analysis where they can make new connections, but also respects and is responsible to their rights as a person.  Yes, as Lee claims, the sciences and the humanities can work together.  But beyond that, they are both human based social practices.  If we see them as practices a la Foucault, there is much more in common than is different.  They are both not only creative, but they are creating.

Instructionism, Constructionism and Connectivism: Epistomologies and Their Implied Pedagogies

Ryan2.0’s blog recently hosted a discussion on different pedagogies based on Instructionist, Constructionist and Connectivist  theories of learning.  I tend to see these differences on an epistemological / psychological / psychometrics level.  (I’m an educational psychologist, not a philosopher.)  I think this line of thinking is helpful for exploring some of my recent thoughts.

First a note; I resist labels on learning theories.  A consensus may be developing, but there are so many sub-positions that if you look at 100 constructivist positions, you’ll find 100 different takes (as evidenced by many of the comments on Ryan’s post).  I just find labels unsatisfying as points of reference for communication in learning theories at this time; they convey too little meaning to me.  Tell me what you don’t like about a learning theory; I probably don’t like it either.

What’s the Point

Ryan’s main point is that all of these pedagogical position are evident in current education practices and we should think in terms of “and” not “or”.  This fits with my own view that paradigm shifts should proceed by subsuming or at least accounting for the successful parts of the previous paradigm, while enabling teachers and scientists to move beyond problematic aspects of older theories.  To really understand these different theories, it will be good to see how pedagogy changes as we move from one to the next.  My post here looks at each one of these different theories in terms of epistemology / psychology / psychometrics, and than discuss a place where implied pedagogies are relevant to practice today.

Direct Instruction

I’m not familiar with instructivism per say, but it seems similar to direct instruction, a pedagogy that is associated with positivism / behaviorism.  Direct instruction often uses empirically based task analyses that are easy to measure and easy to employ.  Applied Behavioral Analysis is a specialized operant behavioral pedagogy that is a prime supporter of direct instruction.  Many, if not most classroom use direct instruction in some form today.  It seems like common sense and many teachers may not be aware of the underlying epistemology.

One prominent area where advanced uses of direct instruction is growing is in computer based adaptive learning like the Knewton platform. Students follow scripted instruction sequences. A student’s specific path within the script is determined by assessments that follow Item Response Theory (IRT) protocols.  The assessment estimates a student’s command of a latent trait and provides the next instruction that is appropriate for the assessed level of that trait.  The best feature of Adaptive learning systems is the efficiency in moving students through a large body of curriculum or in making leaps in skill levels like the improvement of reading levels.  Because it is also easy to measure, it’s possible to use advanced psychometric computer analyses.

Critiques of direct instruction can be similar to critiques of behaviorism in general.  Even though test developers are becoming more sophisticated in measuring complex constructs (eg. Common Core), the learning that results from direct instruction can still be seen as lacking in conceptual depth and in the ability to transfer to other knowledge domains.  It also doesn’t directly address many important higher level cognitive skills.


Enter constructivism.  I think of constructionism as beginning with Piaget’s learning through schema development.  Piaget’s individual constructive approach is expanded by social theorists and ends up with embodied theorists or in ideas similar to Wittgenstein’s; that knowledge and meaning are closely linked with how they are used.  Wittgenstein’s early work was similar to the work of logical positivists.  He eventually found that meaning in everyday activities is inherently circular and the only way to break out is not through precision, but to look for meaning in what people are doing and how they are using knowledge.  In some ways it’s like a return to behaviorism, but with a position that is more inline with hermeneutics than empiricism.

I recently saw a presentation of an instructional program (MakerState) based on the Maker / Hacker Space movement that functions much like a constructivist approach to education.

MakerState kids learn by doing, by creating, designing, experimenting, building…making. Our makers respond when challenged to think outside the box, to think creatively and critically, to collaborate with their peers, to problem solve, to innovate and even invent solutions to challenges they see around them.

This program can be founded on the same curriculum as that used in direct instruction when developing maker challenge activities and it can use this curriculum to scaffold maker activities with STEAM principles.  But the outcomes are open ended and outcome complexities are well beyond what is capable through direct instruction.  Learning by doing is more than just an aside.  Making knowledge concrete is actualizing it; taking it from the abstract to make it meaningful, valuable and productive.  But, is this the end of educational objectives; does success in life not require even more.


Enter Connectivism.  I associate connectivism with the work of  George Siemens and Stephen Downs.  I take this post from George as a good summary of Connectivism:

The big idea is that learning and knowledge are networked, not sequential and hierarchical.  . . . In the short term, hierarchical and structured models may still succeed. In the long term, and I’m thinking in terms of a decade or so, learning systems must be modelled on the attributes of networked information, reflect end user control, take advantage of connective/collective social activity, treat technical systems as co-sensemaking agents to human cognition, make use of data in automated and guided decision making, and serve the creative and innovation needs of a society (actually, human race) facing big problems.

I believe this take on Connectivism is modeled on computer and social media networks.  My own take is to include a more biological approach as another major node in connectivism: M.M. Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic known as a dialogic philosopher.  I want to draw this connection because dialogism is a reasonable way to make sense of everyday collective co-sensemaking activity by an organism interacting with its environment.  I see this as understanding the underlying way networks function when biological organisms (i.e., humans) are involved.

One of Bakhtin’s main ideas is heterglossia:

(A)ll languages (and knowledges) represent a distinct point of view on the world, characterized by its own meaning and values. In this view, language is “shot through with intentions and accents,” and thus there are no neutral words. Even the most unremarkable statement possesses a taste, whether of a profession, a party, a generation, a place or a time.  . . . Bakhtin goes on to discuss the interconnectedness of conversation. Even a simple dialogue, in his view, is full of quotations and references, often to a general “everyone says” or “I heard that..” Opinion and information are transmitted by way of reference to an indefinite, general source. By way of these references, humans selectively assimilate the discourse of others and make it their own.

Just as water is the medium that allows fish to swim, language is the medium that facilitates networks.  Rather than focus on words as the base unit, Bakhtin focusses on the utterance as his main unit of analysis.  This is from the main wikipedia Bakhtin article:

Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another… Every utterance must be regarded as primarily a response to preceding utterances of the given sphere (we understand the word ‘response’ here in the broadest sense). Each utterance refutes affirms, supplements, and relies upon the others, presupposes them to be known, and somehow takes them into account…

I see this as a detailed account of the Wittgenstein use argument that I used earlier.  I take from a psych perspective: The inner psychological world reflects and models the interaction we have with the world.  Because learning is facilitated by social interaction with other people in dialogue, our mind is structured in a dialogical fashion.  This is to see knowledge as existing not only through network nodes, but nodes that reflect dialogue and inter-connected utterances. (This is similar to structuralism, but goes well beyond it in its implications.) Even when we are learning through self study we structure that study in a dialogical fashion.  When we engage in soliloquy, we posit a general other to which we address our words.  Transferring knowledge is not just cutting and pasting it to another node in the network.  We must also adjust to new intentions, new references, and often to the tastes of a new profession or discipline.  I don’t know what the neurological correlates are to dialogic activity, but cognition at a conscious level (and some aspects of unconscious levels), I see the mind as structured by its interaction with this complex social / speech world.

I don’t yet have a good example of pedagogy that reflects this dialogic connective theory.  It would certainly be activity based and structured more like an open-ended apprenticeship and some sort of performance.  I’m thinking that some relevant learning objectives would include: higher order cognition in unstructured situations (e.g. knowledge transfer, problem identification and solving, creative thinking, situated strategic thinking),  intrapersonal dispositions (e.g. motivation, persistence, resilience, and metacognition like self-directed learning) and interpersonal skills sets (e.g. collaboration, effective situated communication, relationship development).

I think a key to achieving a higher level of connective pedagogy is valid assessment in an area where assessment has proven difficult.  Assessment in this context must also be ontologically responsible to the student.  The purpose of ontologically responsible assessment is not to rank, rate, or judge either students or teachers.  That is a task for other assessments. Instead, ontologically responsible assessment is a way of making ourselves visible, both to ourselves and to others, in a joint student teacher activity that conveys the students history and future horizons.  (Horizon = A future that I can see only vaguely, but contains a reasonable route to achieve, given both the student’s and teacher’s  join commitment to each other and to the path.  Education as a doable, visible, committed and ontologically responsible joint activity by student and teacher.

TI’m neven satisfied with an ending, but this seems like a good jumping off point for another post and another time.  I feel the need for input before going further in this direction.


#cck11 – The Role of Theory in the Human and Learning Sciences

This post is in response to Alan in the cck discussion forum, Learning Theories in CCK11.  It has mostly to do with how theories in learning and the human sciences differ from the natural or physical sciences.

I believe Alan’s assertions are right, that in terms of practice, theory in the social and human sciences plays a very different role than in the physical sciences. But, explaining this is getting me into the intellectual deep end of the pool – so, I’m going to fall back on the thoughts of others, specifically John Shotter, from his book: Cultural Politics of Everyday Life (1993, University of Toronto Press).

(W)e say our theories are true theories if the predictions we derive from them match  or ‘picture’ the outcomes of the processes we study.  So, although we can bring off some quite spectacular results in the sciences, it is just in terms of such results, not the whole structure of a theory . . .  Our knowledge, as Quine (1953)* said later, “is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges”. (Shotter p.74)

Two points: (1) This assertion is debatable, and although the social and the hard sciences share the problem space laid out here,  you can also say that this argument is superfluous in the hard sciences in terms of everyday normal scientific activity.  (2) But from the social or human sciences, this type of problem is much more of an issue.  In my experience, Skinner’s behavioral methods, while successful in the predictive sense, were most unsatisfying because of how dissimilar it was to normal experience.  In a sense, behavioral methods did not match with the complexity of experiential life, nor did they respond to what seemed to be most pressing in an ethical sense.

(T)he human sciences now appear to be increasingly irrelevant to our times,  to the pressing social issues of the day.  For they are quintessentially products of a moment in the history of the West, the Modern Age (Foucault, 1970), that is now passing, if not already over. (Shotter, p.1)

(A)s we begin to confront the others in the world around us as genuine others who possess an otherness worthy of our interest and respect (unlike the indistinguishable atoms in a natural science), so our ways of knowing must begin (and have begun) to diversify.  Now we need to know the nature of the backgrounds, the different forms of life from which our different ways of knowing emerge.  . . . It is to do with the fact that we have failed to grasp not only what it is that we must theorize here, but what the task of theory in this sphere is like.  Indeed as Taylor (1987:477) remarks: “We cannot turn the background from which we think into an object for us.  The task of reason has to be conceived quite differently.”  It must now be seen “as including – alongside the familiar forms of the enlightenment – a new department, whose excellence consists in our being able to articulate the background of our lives perspicuously” (Taylor, 1987: 480-1)** (Shotter, pp.2-3)

So what is the background of which he speaks.  Much of it is shared and social, such as how we use language, common social practices, shared ways of understanding and the openness of everyday life that allows us to find joint ways of creatively working together.  To a great extent, I believe that making satisfactory progress in psychology was stymied by (1) jumping to empirical explanations before adequate description had been achieved (in the behavioral period) and (2) by ascribing behavior to individual mental processes before adequate description (in the cognitive period).  In the first case the wrongly held assumption was that empirical predictive findings would lead to correct theory without having an underlying framework to organize our empirical facts.  In the second case, the wrongly held assumption was that all behavior was caused by cognition, when much behavior emerges out things like people interacting, social norms, common practices, socially based habits and the like.  In the first case facts cannot lead us to theory.  In the second case theory cannot organize our facts unless theory and facts operate in an emergent dialectical fashion, each shaping the other.  Speaking further of relationships, Shotter states:

(T)he unsatisfactory state of ‘theory’ in the understanding of what a personal relationship ‘is’, does not arise out of a continual failure to formulate ‘the correct’ theory, but that it arises out of a failure to understand what ‘theory’ in this area should be like.  . . . we can perhaps see that theory in the natural sciences and theory in the understanding and study of personal relationships must differ fundamentally (p. 184).

Shotter goes on to assert that theory in fact plays a very different role in something like the study of relationships.

(F)or we do not want ot predict (or control) behavior but to see the ‘connections’ between things, thus to understand what in the circumstances we ought to do (p. 185).

*Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

**Overcoming Epsitomology. In K. Baynes, J Bohman & T. McCarthy (eds) After Philosophy; End or Transformation? Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Successful Practice Requires Science and Aesthetics: Trusting in Data and Beauty

In Praise of Data and Science

MIT’s Technology Review posted the article: Trusting Data, Not Intuition.  The primary idea is to use controlled experiments to test ideas and comes from Ronny Kohavi of Microsoft (and formerly of Amazon).  The article can be summarized as follows:

(W)hen ideas people thought would succeed are evaluated through controlled experiments, less than 50 percent actually work out. . . . use data to evaluate an idea rather than relying on . . . intuition.  . . .  but most businesses aren’t using these principles.  . . .What’s important, Kohavi says, is to test ideas quickly, allowing resources to go to the projects that are the most helpful.  . . . “The experimentation platform is responsible for telling you your baby is really ugly,” Kohavi jokes. While that can be a difficult truth to confront, he adds, the benefit to business—and also to employees responsible for coming up with and implementing ideas—is enormous.

This articles further supports my thesis that Evidence-based practice, analytics, measurement and practical experimental methodology are closely related, mutually supportive, and a natural synthesis.

In Praise of Aesthetics

I do believe that, while trusting science is an important idea, that trust should also be tempered because it is a tools for decision-making and acting, not a general method for living.  A successful life of practice is a balance between the empirical and the aesthetic.  You could say that aesthetics, looking at life emotionally and holistically is the real foundation of our experience and how we live life.  Within that frame, it is helpful to step back reflexively and consider the use of empirical tools to benefit our experience, but without denying our aesthetic roots.  Wittgenstein wrote on this (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics).

“The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by” (Wittgenstein 1958, II, iv, 232).

For Wittgenstein complexity, and not reduction to unitary essence, is the route to conceptual clarification. Reduction to a simplified model, by contrast, yields only the illusion of clarification in the form of conceptual incarceration (“a picture held us captive”).

What I want is to have access to the tools of science and the wisdom to know when to choose their reflexivity.  What I’m against is;

the naturalizing of aesthetics—(which) falsifies the genuine complexities of aesthetic psychology through a methodologically enforced reduction to one narrow and unitary conception of aesthetic engagement.

#CCK11 Frames: The Tools and Contexts We Use to Create Meaning in Joint Action

This post follows a discussion from CCK11 MOOC, where there has been some talk about framing, context, and rationality.  Lindsay Jordan says:

Frames which seem pretty much the same thing as ‘context’ – am I right?

and Jaapsoft2, who says:

Context is a means to think about words in a rational way. Frames do have a physical, neural source. Reframing is a neuro-linguistic method where a situation or context is seen in another frame.

I agree, but I am going to think of words, word meanings, frames and contexts at 3 different levels, in order to tease out a deeper understanding of these concepts for myself.

First Level – Society

I going to think of frames at a societal level.  Frames at this level are not associated with our personal contexts, but they can be thought of as the contexts of our words and word meaning in a larger shared societal sense.  In example, the meaning of the word surgeon can not be separated from the concept of hospital, disease, as well as many other concepts.  All of these words inter-relate to create a frame that gives depth to our understandings and meanings, but it does so in a ways that is generally shared with other people around us.

Second Level Personal Experiences

Our personal contexts do enter into our understandings through our past experiences.  You may have a different understanding of the word surgeon than I do.  We share a societal frame, but may differ on a personal level because of our unique experiences.

Third Level – Joint Action

When we are in a specific context and speaking to each other, we negotiate the meanings of our words and concepts to fit our context and intentions.  You might say that this is where our personal frames come together and we attempt to form a negotiated shared frame between us.  M.M. Bakhtin (I think) would say that interaction is where our unique frames, added to our intentions, come together to create meaning jointly as we act together.  I wrote about this before:

(I)n dialogue, once we have spoken, we have to wait to see how our utterance is interpreted by our counter-party before we can go on.  We can speak, but it’s like the meaning is in the hands of our dialogic partner.  I think it’s what Wittgenstein meant when he said that we don’t reach for certainty, but rather for the ability to go on and continue the dialogue.  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

In this way framing does not determine meanings, but it does set the stage, or maybe it’s better to say, it gives us the tools by which we can act together to create meaning in joint action.

This is also the conceptual space where reframing is able to happen.  Jaapsoft2’s reference come from a therapeutic technique of trying to find other frames that help us to think of our circumstances in new ways.  Goffman did this same thing when he pointed out that people with disabilities were stigmatized because of their deviance, but it was also possible to think of difference without a negative connotation.   However, at some level, we try to reframe things, at least in small ways, every time we speak together.  And that is just as I am doing now.

A Propagation Model of Learning and Acting

This post is to clarify some thoughts on a model of knowledge and development (adapted from Vygotsky’s model of an activity) that underly this previous post.  There are three inter-related components to this model: a subject, a mediator and an object/output all of which always operate within specific contexts and culture considerations.  They all orient toward activity, that serves as the unit of analysis.  This model comes from observing people.  All people are constantly active and involved in socially relevant activities.  In order to compete these activities they depend on many higher mental functions, much of which we often refer to as knowledge.  They are doing things like memorizing facts in preparation for a test, organizing projects for work, planning a family outing or doing the myriad types of activities we do everyday.  If you look at the surface structure of the knowledge involved, much of it may be similar.  But this is not the case if you observe how the knowledge is functioning in the activity.  Consider first each part of the model.

The Subject

The subject is a person with a history.  When you look at their development and participation in any activity system, you see what mediators they are able to use, what outputs they are capable of producing, and how all 3 parts of the model are related to the contextual factors at play.  When I think of the development of the subject, I’m thinking of the subject gaining abilities in using mediators, in producing outputs, and in working in different contexts.


I think of knowledge in activity for its mediational properties, that is, how it allows subjects to actively produce outputs.  I think it is more constructive to think of knowledge as enabling you to do something, as opposed to simply knowing something.  What exactly does it mean to know something.  Outside of the ability to act,  the meaning is nebulous.  Wittgenstein spoke of how language has more of a use than a stable meaning as expressed in this quote from John Shotter.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings . . .  (p.78-79).

Knowledge operates in a similar fashion in that it does not have an internal stability like a calculus, but has a use in enabling context specific activity.  Said in another way,  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote M.M. Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

Similarly, there is no reason to say that knowledge is embodied within specific content or concepts that would allow you to know something, but knowledge finds its meaning in its functional purpose within activity; knowledge is for acting.  When you demonstrate knowledge on an assessment, you are using knowledge to engage in an assessment activity, but that knowledge, though it may apear similar on the surface or from an abstract point of view, it is different and  differently formatted than it would be in different context and for different functional purposes.  What I am attempting is to flesh out Edgar Morin’s perspective when he says:

The need for contextualization is extremely important.  I would even say that it is a principle of knowledge (p.15).


Output is the primary focus guiding activity.  When assessing activity, looking at output is how we judge success.  We can only assess the developmental level of a subject or their ability to use knowledge by watching them in activity.  But, output is often found in the form of an artifact.  When we want to improve something, it is often the output that we want to improve.  This is usually done by furthering the development of the subject or the knowledge (mediation) available to the subject, but the improvement is usually seen in the object.

(Note – Outcomes are often the final product we are trying to achieve.  The output should lead to the outcome desired, but this is not always the case.  Science exist in some ways to help us judge whether the output of activity are in fact achieving the outcomes we desire.)

Inter-relationship within the Model

The inter-relationship in this model are also critical.  In example, knowledge must be molded to match the capabilities of the subject to appropriately use the knowledge and both must be joined in a way to meet the output requirements.  Also, the subject must be sensitive to and must make all aspects of the activity conform to contextual and cultural needs present.  This is a complex model of activity and its complexity is one of the reasons that I have generally abandoned transfer as the primary metaphor in learning.  Instead I often think of a propagation metaphor.  What we transfer are seedlings or cuttings, but these are not useful in activity until they can be grown into mature plants within the garden that is the mature subject in the cultural context of this activity system.

#PLENK2010 Networks as Joint Social Spaces: A Foundation for Pedagogy

I. The Pragmatic Philosophy Part

According to Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, words are instruments of meaning, but that meaning is only realized in the context of their use, not from any kind of essence.  (See my previous post for direct quotes and a fuller treatment)  I believe this radical pragmatic concept also applies to logos – understood here as language, conversation, proposition, principle, reason, analogy, etc. . . , and I would include knowledge.  That is, knowledge is only fully understood and becomes meaningful in the context of its use and in its position between speakers.

II. The Biological View

Organisms interact and adapt to their environments through structural coupling (Recurrent interactions leading to a congruence between systems.), with other organisms through social coupling, and with other humans through linguistic coupling in a process of co-ontogenic (co-developmental) coupling (Maturana & Varela). Taking place in social network spaces, it explains our psychic experience as:

. . . the semiotic expression of the contact between the organism and the outside environment.  That is why the inner psyche is not analyzable as a thing but can only be understood and interpreted as a sign. (Volosinov as quoted in Shotter)

Furthermore, this sign is not in the head of an individual, but in the network that is the social space for creating joint expression and experience.  Our psyche is not in us, but is distributed throughout our cultural historical background and in our shared social spaces.

In this way, we are just like words, we develop (ontogeny) and are defined through our associations with others.

Because, who we ‘are’ between ‘us’, determines who and what we are to ‘our world’, (and who) and what ‘our world’ is to us. . . . And who we are to each other is up to us to care about. That is why it matters. (Shotter p. 206)

III. A similar critique of Education

Learning does not have a meaning that can be measured by a certification or a test of its essence, but it can have a use and it can take on meaning through the process of joint action.  Consider this description taken from Steven Johnson’s  Where Good Ideas Come From

  • A new idea is a new network of neurons firing in the brain.
  • But most such ideas are only partial.  They become complete when we work on them jointly with others.
  • The process of linguistic coupling extends and completes our new neuronal networks and joins them with other new neuronal networks.  These semiotic actions, when at their best, can seem mysterious or even divine in their function.

For something seems to be at work in the activities between people.  The activities are not just repetitive, they grow, they develop, they are creative, they make history; . . .  A ‘double divinity’ seems to be hidden in our joint actions; a ‘creator’ and a ‘judges’ that resides in the sensus communes, that is, ‘in’ its shared ways of ‘seeing sense’ and ‘making sense’. (Shotter, p.205)

IV. So – With a Full Understanding of the Importance of Networks and Community;

What Would Education Look Like?

I’ll answer this question by looking at some vision of education in my next post.

#PLENK2010 Is There “Meaning” in Connectionism?

In the comparison between connectivism and constructivism I’m searching for a different approach and more clarity.  The topic I will begin with is the place of mind, meaning, and interpretation as it’s found within the cognitive revolution and philosophy; and how these topics relates to connectionism.  Don’t think of this as established thought, but rather as an intellectual expedition trying to follow in the footsteps of some old textual mentors.

Meaning: The Basis of the Cognitive Revolution

Meaning and mind were listed as the central purpose behind the cognitive revolution in an account given by Jerome Bruner in the opening to his book, Acts of Meaning.

That (cognitive) revolution was intended to bring “mind” back into the human sciences after a long cold winter of objectivism” (p. 1).  “Its’ aim was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created  out of their encounters with the world . . . to prompt psychology to join forces with its’ sister interpretive disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (p. 2).  . . . And so today one finds flourishing centers of cultural psychology, cognitive and interpretive anthropology, cognitive linguistics, and above all, a thriving worldwide enterprise that occupies itself as never before since Kant with the philosophy of mind and science (p. 3).

He goes on to explain his disappointment with computational models of cognition that were becoming ascendant because he saw them as replacing the construction of meaning with the processing of information, what he calls profoundly different matters.  He even laments the distributed, “bottom up connectionist networks” of his day (1980s) because he saw them as falling into the same sort of problems as the stimulus response models that had no place for mind and meaning.

The Construction of Meaning; not of Knowledge

To be clear, the constructing of knowledge is not the central concern in this version of constructivism, but instead it is with the construction of meaning in dialogical processes that occur within the interactions between people.  Knowledge, like it’s component words, can be thought of as fluid, and can change according to the context.  It was clarified by John Shotter who said in his book Cultural politics of Everyday Life:

The trouble is, in science as in logic (as also in psychology), because we mistakenly “compare the use of words with games and calculi which have fixed rules” (Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus, 1953, no. 81), we always think that words must have stable, unequivocal, already determined meanings.  But in the openness of ordinary everyday life, in comparison with the closed world of logic, this is precisely not the case.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings – think of words as instruments for use in the ‘making’ of meanings. . . .  (p.78-79).

Two additional points:

  1. This account is dialogic, but I don’t think it would require representations (Something I believe Stephen strongly does not believe in representation somewhere in the mind).  It draws on prior instrumental learning, but not as representation (as analogous to hard drive storage).  Instead it is instrumental and draws on conversational tools as habits or ways of acting.  It could be thought of in this way – our acting and (dialogical) thinking are becoming more complex, and this results in an increase in knowledge complexity as a byproduct of our thinking and acting.  (I pair dialogue and thinking because most thinking is language dependent and language is always directed toward someone even in the soliloquy of our inner speach.)
  2. It is in this sense that negotiation, as I primarily use it in constructivism, is a negotiation of meaning, not of knowledge or definition.  I think it’s better to think not of an argument or a competition, more as a method of discovery of meaning that occurs in a dialogue between people.  I think of this in two ways.
    1. First, the way in which language is used (acted out) is critical to the establishment of it’s meaning.  Bakhtin used a quote from Dostoevsky to illustrate this where the actors in a dialogue are limited to the same one curse word, but used six times where each word, as is uttered, takes on a different meaning; six different meanings for the same word.  Similar to what Shotter said, the meaning is not in the word but in it’s usage.
    2. Second, in dialogue, once we have spoken, we have to wait to see how our utterance is interpreted by our counter-party before we can go on.  We can speak, but it’s like the meaning is in the hands of our dialogic partner.  I think it’s what Wittgenstein meant when he said that we don’t reach for certainty, but rather for the ability to go on and continue the dialogue.  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

These textual friends are talking about everyday life, not science.  I think their point is that everyday life is the real world and science has its place only in supporting that everyday world.  Too often we try to elevate science beyond its instrumental purpose and think of it as the real world rather than the abstract shadow that it is.

A Temporary Conclusion

So. . . I think maybe that this idea of a meaningful psychology or a meaningful education is compatible with the  type of connectionism we are discussing, but it’s not for me to say, at least not on my own.  If it is, maybe it should prevail over constructionism because it can help us to leave constructionism’s baggage in the past and make a new start.  Anyway looking forward to more conversation next week.

Knowledge is Never Passed On, just Recombined and Repurposed in Intentional Contexts

From the blog of Valdis Krebs – TNT The Network Thinkers

A Network

A Network

Information does not want to be free.

It wants to be re-combined!

Above is the best recombination “machine” we have — the network.

I have thought about the value of network derived knowledge because of its’ proximity to the action it inspires and I have thought of the fact that it’s not just replicated and transferred, but that in someway it is relearned anew on each occasion – the reason the transfer metaphor is so problematic.  But, Valdis point out that network derived knowledge is usually  in someway also a recombination and that means it is truly “something new under the sun”.  Networks are so good at helping people learn because they are creating new knowledge for very specific purposes.  Just like our DNA is almost exactly alike, but we are each unique in so many ways – So too our knowledge, especially when it is created jointly, is also unique.  It reminds me of M.M. Bakhtin’s conception of language

Due to stratifying forces resulting from the dialogical contextual use of language; . . . language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents.  . . . Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life . . .

Similarly knowledge too is “shot through with intentions” and Contexts and it too has a socially charged and recombined dialogical life.