Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Knowledge and Learning: Our Imaginary Friends

I have just now returned from giving a paper in part about the metaphorical narratives we use to describe education. Like my Implementing VC 2.0 talk, it depended in part on a body of theoretical, indeed epistemological concepts which the audience had neither the time nor the interest to engage with. I therefore glossed over them. But maybe it's worth jotting down a few ideas here.

Knowledge is an imaginary construct. It has no physical reality.

This is a fundamental fact over which we gloss so easily when we construct metaphors for education that involve pouring quantities of knowledge into the heads of students. Educationally-informed academics nowadays know to pay lip service to the idea that education conceived as the transmission of information from teacher to student is a Bad Thing. "Puts students in a passive role and contributes to student disengagement!" they chant. "Symptomatic of surface rather than deep learning" goes the hymn.

But how many realize that the notion that information is a commodity that can be transported from one head to another is simply an epistemological and semiotic impossibility? Knowledge doesn't exist. Or rather, it exists only in the same way as unicorns exist. Or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

There is a quantity of secondary textual evidence pointing, rather messily, ambiguously, and contingently, to certain possibilities ("The boiling point of water is 100 degrees Centigrade" is not in itself a fact, merely a reference to an imaginary "fact" seemingly simple, but easily messed about with. Just go up a mountain). There are real and observable behaviors which we take as evidence of "facts" (when I cook peppercorn sauce I put the brandy in before the cream as I "know" the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water. Actually, this is a huge leap of faith based on secondary texts and my repeated testing of the hypothesis, not knowledge at all). There is no "naked" fact: discrete, bounded, true.

If you think this sounds like a simplistic mish-mash of basic scientific method and undergraduate poststructuralism, you are right. It is elementary. So why on earth is it that so much educational theory and practice is predicated on the idea (or at least shorthand) that knowledge has an independent reification to the extent that it can be "generated" or "transferred"? Like electricity?

The misconception then infects our concept of "learning", if conceived as the acquisition of knowledge, the level and completeness of which acquisition can then be measured, validly and reliably, through assessment. But it's not that at all. Because knowledge isn't real, we can't measure it: instead we purport to use the proxy measures reflecting knowledge acquired (what the students say, write, think and do after having been 'educated'). But this misses the essential point that Dewey tried to tell us so long ago: what the students say, write, think and do is the learning: learning is the progress of the indissoluble transaction between "self", "society" and "world", all three of which are inseparable and labels for relationships of power and meaning, not things in and of themselves.

This is why I am instinctively drawn to online learning. The ability to more completely capture the "trace" of this transaction - debris of text, speech, images, music and whatever else that the learners leave as the process of learning unfolds is greater online than face to face.

This Christmas will be the first in which my seven-year-old son no longer believes in Santa. A beloved "fact" has bitten the dust. I can tell that by the trace, what he says and does. He no longer will lie in bed listening for bells and the sound of reindeer hooves, craning for a glimpse of Rudolph's growing nose.

Knowledge has been gained? No, in this case, lost: knowledge of a cheerful, unconditional magical gift-giver having been replaced by a complex, insecure, anxiety-filled understanding that what was previously a certainty is now contingent on (in his case) less-than-dependable parental relationships. Bittersweet, at best. Knowledge has proven to be an undependable entity.

But yes, Virginia, learning has occurred.


No comments:

Post a Comment