Friday, 12 September 2014

Mind. Education. Learning.

There is confusion in educational discourse between a description of "education" and a description of "learning". This might be characterised as a confusion between sociology and psychology: Education is a sociological concern whilst learning belongs within the realm of the psychological study of processes of (metaphysical) adaptation. But what of "mind"? What of the thing that drives the whole show in first place? Educationalists rarely talk about this!

I think one of the reasons that mind gets left out of the educational picture is that the development of mind has got confused with the development of expertise within a domain of knowledge. Displays of subject knowledge are however tied to particular academic practices of meeting 'learning criteria' around which the whole University system has organised itself. Academic performances are not in themselves indicative of a quality of mind, although a quality of mind might be revealed through them (or not, as the case may be). But what are mental qualities?

This is a question I've been asking myself in thinking about Bateson's idea of an 'ecology of mind'. Bateson's description of an ecology of mind is rather vague - certainly open to interpretation of a kind of loose ecological thinking that sees 'interconnectedness' when he talks about the "pattern that connects" without necessarily inquiring into exactly what is connected, or even what a 'connection' or 'pattern' means. Bateson's books only offer tantalising clues as to what he was on about.

The Catholic Aristotelians of the scholastic middle ages took mind more seriously, building on Arisototle's distinction between the 'agent' intellect which actively makes things intelligible, and the 'passive' intellect which receives intelligible objects as a kind of 'in-form-ing' process (the passive intellect is conceived as a kind of plasticine moulded by sense data). For Aquinas, the mind must be able to form phantasms or mental images in order to be able to coordinate the operation of the active and passive intellect. The creation of phantasms is both essential to the identification of particulars of perception, and to the capacity to identify abstract things like mathematical truths. This philosophy no doubt influenced the early university curriculum (trivium and quadrivium), and the development of mind which it sought.

So here there is a domain of:
  1. passive intellect being moulded by sense impressions
  2. phenomena of the world which are perceived
  3. the active intellect which seeks to make things intelligible
From an educational perspective the way that we might compare different configurations of the mind and the way the passive and agent intellect work in different kinds of students important in thinking about how we might hope that the minds of students might develop. 

Although the idea that the passive intellect perceives by being moulded seems a little perverse to us today, it perhaps isn't that different from Hebbian mechanisms, or the effects of habit on perception. But with regard to this, one might expect a correlation between forms in the world and forms in the mind. I've started to think of this in terms of discursive paradigms of thought - so, for example, we might consider the difference between functionalism and critique as examples of different paradigms which are both mental attitudes which have been moulded by exposure to particular kinds of events and discourses. A 'reflective' attitude would be another example, produced by a different kind of stimulus. So these different attitudes might be diagrammatically represented:
Here 'mind' on the left is characterised by different paradigmatic views which are moulded by engagement with the external world of discourse on the right. 

But what of the agent intellect? This is some kind of reflexive mental process which is 'making intelligible' perhaps in the way that Katherine Hayles argues when she says (of reflexivity):
"Reflexivity is that moment by which that has been made to generate a system is made, by a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates." (in "How we became Posthuman", p8)

In the above diagram, this generation of the system occurs in the top right hand part of the diagram. It's connected to the paradigmatic forming of the passive intellect, and actively engaged in the world of discourse and matter. With this tripartite relationship, it is possible to see how concepts form, paradigms are established, people are moulded and minds may either become dulled or enlightened. In particular, the possibility of a 'knot' emerging between the active and passive intellect in relation to the world is perhaps an indication of a self-sustaining loop which would maintain concepts in consciousness.

Of course, the really interesting thing is What happens to students? Students often arrive at university with a disconnect rag-bag of knowledge. Using the above diagram, this might be represented as: 

Here the are clear domains within which there might be a self-sustaining dynamic, but there are aspects of practice and aspects of thought which are entirely separate and disconnected. When encountering this, what can/does a teacher do?

There are effectively two domains where a teacher might intervene: either in a logical way (top right) by suggesting new ways of looking at things (actually this is really a discursive intervention), or within the domain of practice. With the latter, the intervention of introducing new domains of practice, new experiences and so on can (and does) lead to new questions being asked, and existing paradigms being challenged. New interventions in practice also invite new logical explanations. The question is what kind of interventions? How might they be selected?

Between disconnected domains of understanding, there are limits which become evident in the way that contradictions emerge in student explanations. Limits define areas where students' experiences in the world have not caused those limits to be questioned. In other words, the limits of understanding are reflected  in limits around practical experience. The obvious thing for a teacher is then to start to probe new kinds of experiences which exist in the gaps between the practices with which understanding has become habituated. Psychotherapists do this when they probe the assumptions that are made about entities which have not been deeply inspected: "tell me about your mother"... and so on. But such interventions need not be so explicitly psychotherapeutic.

I find it interesting that the relationship between the trivium and quadrivium also maps onto the idea that teachers can only intervene in the logical domain and practical one of new experiences. The logical domain required new skills for thinking: grammar, logic, rhetoric. New experiences came from exposure to astronomy, music, arithmetic and geometry. Now of course, new experiences come from the Oculus Rift, biofeedback and so on. Maybe the old skills for thinking need to be rethought in terms of mindfulness techniques, or maybe the logic of limits which is revealed in the drama, art, music or mathematics. 


Martti Puttonen said...

Interesting elaboration about a teacher's role and means to enhance a student's learning into an authentic intentional human being in her own constrained social and all forces. I think that learning into discursive or other actions reguires to take open social domain taken as primary, as it might be possible through referential transcendental argumenting as the metacognitive human multilayered social world enables and coerces.

Gala Hesson said...

Great post. I am interested to know what you think about the Zone of proximal development in relation to this?

Mark Johnson said...

hi Gala,

That's a great question. I've not really thought about it and I'm not a Vygotsky expert, but they're probably related. Worth a new blog post!

As I understand it, the ZPD is late work, and he died before really digging into it. Given the depth of his work on thought and language, it is tantalising to think how he would have elaborated on it. As we have it, for teachers (and teacher educators) it's "scaffolding" - but what does that mean?

My suspicion is that like his contemporary Leontiev, Vygotsky is goal-oriented in his thinking about thinking and learning and uncritical of the role of observers. "What can the child do on their own/What can they do with help" implies a judgement from an observer about something "to be done": it's not neutral.

In my post I am talking about how teachers might encourage learners to see relationships between things. Performing tasks and achieving 'goals' is part of the process, but it is a means and not an end. The emphasis is on holism, not particular skilled performances.

but another blog post is required...