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.

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. http://lnx.journalofpragmatism.eu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/calcaterra-new-perspective.pdf

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

A Caveat to the Use of Theory

I must add a caveat to my last post.  I use theory in a pragmatic instrumentalist way, not in an absolute way.  Theory does have limits, an “everything in moderation” idea.  Alex Kosulin explained the potential problems when theory becomes over extrapolated in his 1992 Introduction to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language*

Tracing the evolution of psychoanalysis, reflexology, Gestaltism, and personalism, (Vygotsky) revealed a uniform pattern to their development, an aggressive expansion in a desperate attempt to attain methodological hegemony.  The first stage in the development of each of these systems is an empirical discovery that proves to be important for the revision of the existing views concerning some specific behavioral or mental phenomena.  In the second stage . . .the initial discovery acquires a conceptual form, which expands so as to come to bear on related problems of psychology.  Even at this stage the ties between the conceptual form and the underlying empirical discovery are eroded.  The third stage is marked by the transformation of the conceptual form into an abstract explanatory principle applicable to any problem within the given discipline.  The discipline is captured by this expanding explanatory principle. . . .At the fourth stage the explanatory principle disengages itself from the subject matter of psychology and becomes a general methodology . . . at which point, Vygotsky observed – it usually collapses under the weight of its enormous explanatory claims.

In other words; theoretical contexts are important and abstraction and extrapolation has its limits.

*Kozulin, A. (1992). Vygotsky in Context, in A. Kozulin (Ed.) Though and Language: Cambridge MA, MIT Press.

Thoughts on the “Last Professor” and instrumentality in education

Stanley Fish has again given us an interesting though in the NY time article The Last Professor.  It is a review of a book by the same name; written by his former student, Frank Donoghue.  The book is about a paradigm shift that is moving away from a traditional humanities education to a functionalists model that is taught by adjunct deliverers of information, not by teneured professors.  He traces the origins of this shift to such captions of industry as Andrew Carnegie and Richard Teller Crane late in the 19th Century.  

What is unstated in this discussion is a thorough understanding of changing conceptions of what constitutes a good education.  What is the proper purpose of learning, what is the proper subject matter and what is the proper pedagogy needed?  First, the humanities traditions were designed less for the idealized purpose of a non-instrumental celebration of the mind than they were to set apart an aristocracy of church and state.  As this aristocracy no longer exists (or at least is less obvious in its operation); so the purpose of education rightfully must shift.  Furthermore, I would look to someone other than Carnegie and Crane ( regardless of their influence and power) to understand what this shift might rightly look like.  So, let’s take each of these three questions.

What is the proper purpose of learning?

It is my belief (based on my study of Vygotsky, Dewey, Mead and others) that all learning is instrumental; that learning is for doing.  This is a broad view of doing.  In the humanities we learn to do things like think, communicate, synthesize our contexts with historical circumstances, and sometime we just learn how to be good students (whatever various people may consider that to be).  It can be expected that most people’s investment in higher education might be more narrowly instrumental (think engineering, biomedical or business).  Such an undertaking as gaining a degree demands a quick return on investment (if for no other reason than for loan repayment).

What is the proper subject matter needed today?

The humanities are as important for success as is an understanding of statistics and other mathematics.  But, it is still instrumental; learning for doing.  Tools like abilities in communication are needed throughout life, but it is not some esoteric idea of communication, it is communication as a mediational tool.  Many problems in communication occur not because people can not communicate, but they are not adept at adapting the skills they posses to the context and situation at hand.

What is the proper pedagogy needed?

The internet and social media are bringing down the walls of post-secondary institutions.  One result is that it is easier than ever to immerse students into the world.  It is now easier than ever to use new skills for mediation that is other than the satisfaction of teacher assignment; to use skills for various mediational purposes.


This does not address the tenure issue, but I’ll leave that for the next post.

An Introduction

My general intellectual concerns are as follows and these concerns will form the general topic of this blog:

Pragmatic Practice: Hermeneutic, Scientific and Relationally Responsive

Scientific Method in Practice

Measurement Validity

Distributed Cognition

Education as the Building of Capabilities

Pragmatic Practice: Hermeneutic, Scientific and Relationally Responsive

We all live in William James’ world of buzzing blooming confusion.  Lets call it practice.  We all want to be able to do practice better however, and that leads to two issues: a science of practice and education.  

Science often has sought progress by studying the natural world; what’s behind the vale of James’ confusion.  But, the better we can isolate processes in the laboratory, the harder it is to return those insights to practice.  I believe a science of practice is needed to study practice in its own right, to understand how the insights of laboratory science can be incorporated into practice.

I also believe that all education is about practice even if it is just about the practice of being a student.  Knowledge is also about practice.  We don’t acquire knowledge (although acquire may not be the best metaphor) just to be the smartest person.  It is so that we may participate in some practice.  So, education and a science of practice go hand-in-hand.

Hermeneutics is of prime importance to education and to a science of practice.  What is important in education and what scientific frameworks and questions can lend insight in a confusing world of practice are matters that can best begin with interpretation?  While studies in hermeneutics and the sociology of science indicate that interpretation is important in all scientific inquiry, it becomes of critical importance in the context of socially imbedded practice.

Finally, practices cannot live by science alone, no matter how hermeneutic.  Practice must also be dialogical.  Science helps where standardization is appropriate, but practice also consists of one time occurrences that are relational and are formed by people seeking to know each other and forms aspects of practice jointly.  Part of James’ world is not only confusion, but the buzzing blooming of life and people responding jointly to the circumstance of everyday life

Other topics to follow.  Also some book reviews; the location of many of my ideas.