Edev_502 response wk1_2

You were right about me having a blast in these weeks. Still, a lot of the topic is very new to me, and I have to admit that I’m sinking rather than swimming. You ask about my take on the topic. Forgive me for writing a little essay here. I do it partly to clarify some topics in my own mind as well as hopefully to add to the wider discussion.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

This age-old pop philosophy question is usually answered in two ways. The crux of the debate focusses on the definition of sound as vibrations in the air or as the process of those vibrations being interpreted by (a human) receptor. I’d like to extend this debate to metaphors of information and knowledge.

Ultimately, every human action can be mapped in neurological chemical movements in the brain: every ‘learnt’ action defined as the (semi- to permanent) strengthening of neural pathways. At this uber-reductionist level, even if synaptic connections can be identified and wider schemes of action—to chemical movement predicted, it is doubtful that many would accept this mapping as the real understanding of human psychology. It is an understanding but at a different level, and any ‘meaning’ would be the understanding of the meaning at the chemical level. Roos and Hamilton, drawing on Wiener (Roos & Hamilton, 2005), distinguished this dualism thus, “the human mind cannot be reduced to the human brain”. Yet the mind/ brain separation is not accepted universally (Marshall, 2009).

The separation is at the root of Kop’s interpretation of Bredo, suggesting that “it is impossible for people to learn ‘in their head’” (Kop, 2015). Bredo laid out two sides of a complex argument and noted that one side (cognition as situated) assert that learning doesn’t happen as a result of purely internal processes. However, I view the situation cognition and theories of connectivism and materialism (where knowledge and the locus of knowledge are not separated) as being similar to the fallen tree ‘sound’ as vibrations. In other words, there is no requirement for a human or machine interpreter; information exists in the physical form. Taking this to the knowledge domain is, I believe, problematic, and Bickle’s (2003, cited in Marshall, 2009, p. 113; Bickle, 2005) claim that “much of psychology will ultimately be reduced to neuroscience” may well help us frame the debate between vibration and receptor, external or internal, cognitivist or social situative, more accurately.

My own novice view is that too many writers rely on metaphor to describe complex situations and forget that the metaphor cannot be either the same as the underlying process or give a full account. Even when Wiener (1968, cited in Roos and Hamilton, 2005) states:

“the transmission of an impulse across a layer of synaptic connections depends on a complicated pattern of responses, in which certain combinations of incoming fibers, firing within a certain limited time, will cause the message to go further, while certain other combinations will not” (p. 12)

the idea that meaning resides in synaptic connections is an assumption based on the metaphor (or supposition) that the brain has precise areas of storage. The notion of a storehouse has taken new forms in the computer age, but this and many more metaphors direct researchers’ attention perhaps more than they should. It may turn out to be a valid assumption, but even in 2015, studies in brain plasticity are highly suggestive of the malleability of physical areas in the brain and by extension the difficulty of making claims for the store metaphor.

In summary, I’d like to challenge Lave and Wenger’s (and by extension, all situated learning and all non-internalists’) view that knowledge can exist outside the human. One way of interpreting Lave and Wenger is to see the participant legitimately coming to terms with the learning object internally but that the learning object constitutes an ongoing method of formative assessment. In other words, the mental processes are still cognitive, but the situation provides the learning direction. If researchers and writers insist on the philosophical reductio ad absurdum notion that knowledge can reside outside a human, not only do they miss the point of what being human means, more importantly in this discussion about the value of learning theory*, they miss the actual object of study in the theory.

*I read this two ways initially: 1) what is the benefit of learning about theory; and 2) what benefits do theories of learning give students of education.

Bickle, J. (2005). Molecular neuroscience to my rescue (again): Reply to looren de jong & schouten. Philosophical Psychology, 18(4), 487–494. http://doi.org/10.1080/09515080500229969

Kop, R. (2015). Forum Board, week 1 discussion.

Marshall, P. J. (2009). Relating Psychology and Neuroscience: Taking Up the Challenges. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 113–125. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01111.x

Roos, B., & Hamilton, D. (2005). Formative assessment: A cybernetic viewpoint. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 12(1), 7–20. http://doi.org/10.1080/0969594042000333887

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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