Changing Schools; Changing Futures

But here’s the thing — the first step toward shifting a system is knowing what it’s meant to do.

The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauungbut is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear. (CS Peirce via Wikipedia)

I thank David Ng for pointing to your project, which I think I share though I have focused more on paradigmatic change rather than on Systems. Recently Ezra Klein debated Sam Harris on Charles Murray and the Bell Curve. Harris (supporting Murray) kept saying, “But you can’t argue with the science”. “Well”, I thought, “that is exactly where I would start my argument”. My project is to show that educational policies reflecting standardization, efficiency and the like, stand on a shaky scientific and philosophical foundation. It’s not just that it doesn’t make any practical sense, it doesn’t make any sense from a scientific perspective. Yes, I want to argue from the science!

First, what is the mind, what is cognitive development, and what role does education have in cognitive development?

“(L)anguage 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; . . .” Margolis, 2012, p.133).

This externalist view, shared not only by Dewey and Vygotsky but also by Nietzsche, Davidson, Derrida, the later Wittgenstein, and others, holds that thought is largely a product of human semiotic (interpretive and communicative) activity. As Nietzsche put it, “Consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication ….. Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; (Russell, p. 182)

Traditionally, social cognitive development was thought to proceed by the individual observation of models of behavior in an account that is consistent with both a Piagetian and a behavioralist perspective. Educational and philosophial theory on cognition now favor a different, more interactionist account.

(Vygotsky’s) stance significantly differs from Piaget’s analysis of an infant’s earliest attempts to grasp an object. In Piaget’s (1952/1963) account, first the child gropes, but gradually eye–hand coordination emerges so there is an increasing congruence between what the child sees and what he or she reaches for. This coordination of the thumb and forefingers continues until the child can reliably reach for an object and grasp it. The focus is on the individual interacting with the physical world.

Vygotsky (1978) also begins with an infant moving his or her hand in the direction of an object, but his discussion illustrates how even the most basic activity is social and cultural in origin. The baby’s movement means something to the mother; her response to an unsuccessful grasping movement establishes its function as pointing. Eventually, the child begins to understand that the movement communicates intention. The function changes from an object-oriented movement to communication with another person. (Kritt, 2013)

The (Vygotskian) point I’m making here (echoing both Margolis and Russell) is that the social nature of cognition is not an add-on to some ongoing process, but is present from the very beginning of our cognitive development as humans. Our fully developed cognitive structures are still based on and reflect this social nature. Likewise, learning is not an individual activity, but is deeply rooted in interaction and educational activity should emphasize interactions, whether it is peer learning or the teacher student interaction as found in the accounts of Plato.

A New Vision for Pedagogy

Here is a potential model for how school might proceed with a proper focus on student — teacher interaction as a foundation for pegagogy. (This is a paraphrase from a passage of John Shotter’s Cultural Politics of Everyday Life, 1993)

Oriented toward the future, students and teachers should focus their joint conceptual horizons at a point in developmental time that can’t be seen clearly today, but that one can be reasonable expect to achieve. 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. At its best, this 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 as students want to become and also to reflects the hopes of our teachers on that becoming.

Finally, what is the purpose of school?

As stated in Barbara Rogoff’s book Apprenticeship in Thinking (1991),

Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship — it occurs through guided participation in social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of culture. The sociocultural basis of human skills and activities — including children’s orientation to participate in and build on the activities around them — is insparable from the biological and historical basis of humans as a species. (p. vii)

This view is restated by Alex Kozulin in his book, Psychological Tools (1998):

From a Vygotskian point of view the child neither internalizes concepts in a ready-made form nor constructs them independently on the basis of his or her own experience. For proper concept formation the child should become involved in specially designed learning activities that provide a framework for guided construction.

The purpose of schooling then is to develop students abilities with the tools provide by culture and maximize the cognitive and social capabilities that we have developed as a natural species.

What is Wrong with Existing Systems: An Example

Lastly, what is wrong with existing methods that I critique like standardized testing as it is currently being used. (Emphasis here is not on the technical aspects of the science, and it is not anti-science even as it exists, but rather it is based on how the science is being deployed.) Standardized testing is an excellent way to test for knowledge memorization, and it has become much better at testing for skills, and knowledge and skill are a by product of intellectual activity. But intellectual activity does not result from knowledge and skills. I am making an analogy with the process of writing as presented by (Thomas and Turner 2011).

Why is American prose as bad as it is, even though we have more writing programs than ever? Our answer is that writing is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills. Writing proceeds from thinking. To achieve good prose styles, writers must work through intellectual issues, not merely acquire mechanical techniques. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and that skills visibly mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them. . . . Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities (p.2).

As standardized testing, efficiency processes and the like are currently being used, they are directing the focus of our schools towards knowledge and skills and in the process, it is standing in the way of intellectual development. The intellectual development of students and of our species is the proper focus of school. I hope that this helps to clarify the need for system change.

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