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.

What is a Relationally Responsiveness Approach to Action (and Art)

“We must renounce our monological habits so that we might come to feel at home in the new artistic sphere which Dostoevsky discovered, so that we might orient ourselves in that incomparably more complex artistic model of the world which he created” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.272). Taken from the John Shotter Article (Draft), Organizing multi-voiced organizations.

The 20th Century’s industrial model of education thinks of us as living in a mostly dead and static world that only changes slowly, deliberately and in ways that we control.  Important knowledge is of the patterns and regularities that allow us to control change, to be the cogs that make the machine work.  But that does not seem to be our world.  The world Bakhtin and Shotter describe is dialogical.  Important knowledge is how to interact and create in a chiasmic world that is always changing; never the same from day to day, changing us as we change it.  Its is like writing a novel where all the characters act on their own volition, emotional and unpredictable, where life is an artistic creation in the highest sense.

How Dialogic Relationally Responsive Philosophy is Important to Learning

There’s been some discussion of a Harvard Business Review Article by Peter Bregman.  He describes a case where people were unresponsive to a new corporate learning process and he solved the problem by being flexible and allowing them to individualize the process.  Ken Allen was responding to this article which generated my though of how Bregman’ case was a good example of a relationaly responsive dialogical approach and I posted this comment.

Hi Ken

I look to dialogical philosophy (Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, John Shotter) not postmodernism to understand Bregman’s case.   (I’ve read critiques that the anguished postmoderns were as negatively obsessed with the lack of certainty as the moderns were obsessed to trying to obtain it.)  A dialogic approach looks at people as relationally responsive.

Instead of trying to solve problems exclusively by analyzing “patterns and regularities” for perfection, we must also live in “the context of peoples disorderly, everyday conversational realities. . . (where) to solve problems, our task becomes the more practical one of struggling to create new ‘pathways’ forward into the uniquely new circumstances we create for ourselves as we live our lives together”.

Quotes from the back cover of John Shotter’s book Conversational Realities Revisited

I had a mentor in college (Helmut Bartel) that once said new paradigms were only successful if they could account for the successes and the failures of the old paradigm, while moving beyond it.  That’s what I think the idea of dialogic responsiveness does.  In Bregman’s case we can see the failure of the company’s and Bregman’s first modernist approach and how Bregman succeeded by being more responsive to the involved people.  The recent idea of closing training departments can also be read in the same terms of the failure of modernism (prescribed ‘one size fits all’ instruction based on observed patterns and regularities) for the dialogical (facilitating the ability of people to work together to solve problems in people’s everyday context).

Thanks for your post.  I struggle to understand philosophy that I know is important, but I can’t alway articulate just how.  I just grown by responding to your conversation and I am learning in dialogue right now.  And, I think my brain is completely fried for the moment.