Saturday 1 November 2014

Learners as Objects

My recent posts about evolution, STEM and Learning Outcomes have all come from a book chapter I'm struggling with about 'objects' in education. I have argued for a long time now that we have become distracted away from looking at the 'stuff' of education - curricula, exams, textbooks, timetables, teachers, technologies, certificates and so on and instead focused on things we can't see like "learning". We will get (and have got) nowhere with "learning". Meanwhile managers of institutes basically screw up education by messing with its stuff, all the while rewarding themselves for it: publishers reap the rewards of textbooks, institutions parade certificates, gowns, and space-age laboratories like sweeties, teachers end up in the service of objects and objectives, not science, science itself becomes objectified, and technologies merely reinforce the power relations that maintain the stranglehold of managers. We are in trouble, and its partly because we have lost a critical grasp on real 'stuff' in education.

In pursuing this line of argument, and in thinking about the nature of objects, I have had to consider the extent to which learners are objects in education, or rather the extent to which learners have become objectified by the rigidity of the processes they are forced into. These processes, the learning outcomes, the assessment contracts, the timetables and subjects are all focused on maintaining the objectified learner as the essential value-bearing component of the educational apparatus. Suddenly, to say we are 'learner focused' becomes double-edged: we are "learner focused" because we don't see you as a human being, we see you as the essential component without which nobody gets paid. Therefore our processes must hook you, the object, into the institution in such a way that you find it difficult to escape, that you are confused enough not to ask too many difficult questions, that you are frightened enough of contravening the process rules that you stay compliant, and that you are maintained as an objectified unit to the point that you may be considered a 'success' and 'graduated' (processed to completion) by the system.

This is really shit, isn't it? Isn't this why education is usually terrible? Getting real about objects in education means taking this on and facing up to it. Having said this, objects are important; textbooks are useful things, and knowledge has a history compartmentalised in subjects which we at least have to acknowledge and negotiate. But objectifying learners is a bad thing. The "Learning objective" is learner objectification. It is the prescription of specific rules of engagement whereby learners are caught in the system and prevented from asking difficult questions which would break those rules.

How could it be different? The basic issue at stake in education is not learning but science. Scientific inquiry is a critical enterprise: not just critical of explanations emerging from empirical conditions, but critical of the empirical conditions themselves. Only through critique does knowledge advance. Students have the fresh ears, eyes, feelings and energy to see things as they are. Learner objectification knocks this out of them. Each learner, like each human being, is an ecology of sensations, perceptions, ideas, feelings and abilities, and each person's ecology is connected to everyone else's. Teachers engage in ecological projects, working within ridiculous institutional constraints that prevent them from doing sensible things. They should be free to act in ways with their learners which help the learner's inner ecology to thrive. That means not being bound by subjects; it means not being driven by assessment;  it means always remaining authentic and not suppressing any question however critical; it means challenging those in power. Could this work? Or is it simply educational anarchism?

My hope for a progressive education lies with the ecologists. There are ecologies of mind: some are monocultural and brittle; others are rich, diverse and flexible. There are probably parallels between mental ecology and personal virtue. The question is "Is there a way of measuring it?" This is not about IQ, or EQ or any other such nonsense. But it is about the different ways that minds operate, the extent to which they look on the world and perceive meaning, the way that ideas are picked apart and reassembled in dreams. It is about identifying that which makes us human and nurturing it. It is about seeing everybody as different, and yet part of a wider ecology. It is not about that specialism of education - creating failure. So my hope for a measurable ecology of mind is really for an education system which doesn't need to create failure to be viable.


cj said...

My sense is that in the objectification that the relational is ignored or glossed. There is little acknowledgement of the happenstance of good mistakes and learning from them. Stumbled on Volvovski, J., Rothman, J., & Lamothe, M. (2014). The who, the what, and the when : 65 artists illustrate the secret sidekicks of history. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. Great account of the "hidden" influences in "famous" people's lives. All of this is invisible to current systems, even though some teachers have profound effects on individuals.

Martti Puttonen said...

Critical wholistic stance to an individual' learning becomes occluded if a learner is identified as his or her mind activities without all kinds of her contextual actions and non-actions. The author himself is contrary of his interests of non objectifying learner reinforces this bad objectifying tendency in real practice.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Martti,

That's an interesting comment. I think we have to inspect definitions.

What is 'learning'?
What is 'mind'?

I criticise learning because it's unobservable, and we make a lot of metaphysical assertions about it, supported by pseudo-scientific 'evidence'

Mind is an out-and-out metaphysical concept. But it is also an ecological concept: I would uphold Gregory Bateson's view of an 'ecology of mind' (although I agree with Ulanowicz that Bateson never really specified what this was! - but we can do better).

The Batesonian mind is precisely entwined with the conextual actions you draw attention to. But to look at it like this is to inspect its relationality, rather than focus on reductionist components of mental processes.

best wishes,


Mark Johnson said...

Hi Chris,

I absolutely agree that the relational is ignored: this gets us into a lot of trouble!

Thanks for the reference - that looks fascinating. Educationalists should talk to artists - so much to learn!!

Martti Puttonen said...

Why to use this kind of a concept as mind, when a vast majority of lay people do not see mind as contextual and broad. They only see its dualistic meaning as inner and unobservable experiences. Othe concept might be individual behaviour or functioning.