Tuesday 5 March 2013

Teleodynamics and the Forms of Knowledge

It slightly amazes me that there is still such interest in Paul Hirst's Forms of Knowledge (my post on Hirst here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/hirsts-forms-of-knowledge.html attracts more hits than anything else on my blog!). Not that there's anything deeply wrong with the work - it's very good - but it dates from 1971! Has nothing changed regarding our thinking about subjects in the intervening 40 years? Yet, we see wave after wave of reform on the curriculum, assessment and school organisation. Reactionary moves like Free schools (which are rather costly!) seek organisational and institutional responses to autonomy over problems of the curriculum.

It's remarkable how some of these schools seem to be going after the 'Hogwarts' market - offering the kind of education that Michael Gove believes is good for us. This is a free school near me: http://www.kingsleadershipacademy.com/ I'm sure that the teachers are great and the kids and parents keen, but I find that everything about this, from the name of this establishment to the curriculum it offers speaks of deep confusion about education, curriculum, class, family and society. And that's not to mention the controversy about the incursion into the existing school and playing fields (see http://www.warringtonguardian.co.uk/news/9743569.Woolston_free_school_decision__called_in_/). But there's some heavyweight backing behind this...

Perhaps that answers my question: Hirst's work was at least a serious and thoughtful attempt to address the question "exactly what do we think we are doing with education?" What happened afterwards was generally characterised by a lack of thought: Thatcher, New Labour (education, education, education) and now Gove. How the years fly by!! Education has become a political football, like a child in a broken marriage, torn apart by political rhetoric when it just wanted to be left alone - and maybe loved a little.

I wonder if the problem we face is that Hirst's work wasn't good enough. It wasn't good enough to convincingly set the groundwork for a coherent alternative to the expedient likes of Keith Joseph, Kenneth Baker, Blair or Gove. The problems of education are caused by bad theory.

Can we do better? I think we need "critical holism" in educational thinking. What goes on the classroom is related to the question of how institutions are organised, how resources are allocated by government, how families cope with the pressures of raising children, how teachers cope with the pressures of bureaucracy, right up to the question of "what sort of a society do we want to live in?" Government supporters would say "Free schools precisely aim to increase flexibility and autonomy in the classroom by giving the administration independence". But a critical holist would say "Nonsense! What you've done is redirect resources from an established system to something untried for political short-term gain (and for the selfish gain of the sponsors of the free school institutions), with scant regard to the institutions that will suffer!". There's no critical holistic thinking there.

The greatest challenge for a holistic approach, however, is where to begin. Everything is connected to everything else; every layer of  the system, from the cognitive demands on learners to the financial strictures bearing on institutions is related to every other layer. Indeed, government thinking since the 1970s has tended to be a see-saw process of focusing on one level to the exclusion of the others: boxed-in thinking has dominated education (I see this not least in my own institution, where - as in others - 'retention' is discussed in a way completely unrelated to pedagogy or assessment, because certain issues are outside the remit of the committee concerned).

I think the best place to start is the most difficult. It's "teaching and learning". We are not at all clear what learning or teaching is. But uninspected assumptions here snowball into other layers of thinking. Is learning the acquisition of content and teaching its presentation? Surely not! Is it axons and dendrites making stronger connections with reinforcement? perhaps... Is learning adaptation? Maybe... but adaptation to what? Is the teacher the regulator monitoring communications of learners as in Pask's 'teach-back'? Maybe... But... there's something missing. We can't prove any of this. They're all just metaphysical assertions (even the axons and dendrites!). But they hide their metaphysical essence behind an image of scientific respectability (thanks, Piaget)

Teaching and learning is the most difficult question because it is the most metaphysical. But metaphysics is unavoidable. I think a scientific starting point should acknowledge the metaphysics explicitly from the start: begin with what we can't know and see the effect it has on what we do know. That means beginning with the void - beginning with absence. Then things can get interesting...

Hirst's forms of knowledge are stratified entities of 'discourse'. His distinctions highlight some essential qualities and irreducible natures to particular aspects of the curriculum: Maths is different from Art which is different from French. He may be right here, but he offers no account of how this irreducibility of the curriculum arises: he just asserts it.

But taking absence into account might do this. Deacon's work on 'Teleodynamics' suggests a way in which irreducible structures emerge from an interplay between internal 'present' mechanisms and absences which form the context within which those structure emerge.

 If something like the forms of knowledge can be shown to emerge from this kind of absence-driven process, then there are some important issues that can be addressed in the explanatory power of Hirst's work. The issue of reified knowledge is addressed because the 'reification' is seen as a consequence of an emergent mechanism. At the same time, that emergent mechanism is the learning process itself.

In other words, a critical holistic perspective becomes possible with the help of absences all the way through the educational system. The absences in the learning process shape the dynamics between teacher and learner. Whilst there is teach-back and coordination, there is also the emergence of irreducible structures (habits, concepts, etc) which carry their own absences. Irreducible structures at this level interact with larger-scale irreducible structures which are similarly emergent: the curriculum, timetable, institutional forms, etc.

The education system from this perspective is an emergent entity which is stratified and irreducible. Holism allows us to see the patterns of its emergence, deeper knowledge about which can give us an indication of the kinds of intervention we might make with it. But the ever-presence of absences means that the critical/negative aspect of continuous critique allows the never-ending probing of what's missing, the determination of shared absences, and the gradual unpicking of pathologies in the system.

The ultimate aim of a critical holist approach to education is the progressive determination of shared absence, achieved through deep systemic explanation and grounded critique. 

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