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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Studying hard. Hard Studying.

Unpredictability and Indeterminism in Human Behavior: Arguments and Implications for Educational Research

1. Gary A Cziko, Associate Professor

This essay presents arguments for the view that complex human behavior of the type that interests educational researchers is by its nature unpredictable if not indeterminate, a view that raises serious questions about the validity of a quantitative, experimental, positivist approach to educational research. The arguments are based on (a) individual differences, (b) chaos, (c) the evolutionary nature of learning and development, (d) the role of consciousness and free will in human behavior, and (e) the implications of quantum mechanics. Consequently it is argued that educational research that attempts to predict and control educational outcomes cannot be successful and that educational research should focus on providing descriptions and interpretations of educational phenomena to provide findings that can be used to improve our understanding of learning, development, and education and to facilitate their evolution.

EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER April 1989 vol. 18 no. 3 17-25

I have to admit, in the interests of fairness,but I have not read this full article. Therefore, criticising it, or even critiquing it, is impossible. But, I have learned a degree of caution as I have progressed through my academic trajectory. A 'spidey' sense has developed as I peruse the journal articles, a sort of bullshit detector. I have also found the English glottal tut very useful, as an audible aide memoire - 'dont read anything else by this idiot' - and judging by the quantity of tutting reverberating round the library, a lot of people have also found the same thing useful.

Having said all that I should re-emphasize that I should not criticize the above work. And I know you all know this is coming, so here it is........BUT when I read an abstract linking such grand themes, I hesitate. I have, myself, as the joint second best academic in England, been accused, by mine own spouse, no less, of delusions of grandeur and overambitious thematic association, when I claimed that savanna chimp reactions to fire fire completely proved the theory behind "Civilization: why?". So when I read an abstract such as the one above that claims to link chaos theory, quantum mechanics, psychology, learning theory, politics, philosophy and evolutionary biology I do have to wonder about its specificity. And when I re-read the abstract, it seems as if the author is merely saying "I dont like education being directed by their approach, I'd much rather it was directed by my approach" the spidey sense engages and a large 'tut' issues.

Related to this is my enforced further readings on 'situated learning'. Once again, admonished by RHB NOT to arbitarily dismiss ideas, I have struggled through papers on 'situated learning', 'communities of practise' and 'legitimate peripheral participation' attempting to glean some insight. This has proven very difficult. For me, it is as if I have been forced to watch a series of Manchester United games and comment objectively on the football on display. And this is not a careless observation. Lave and Wenger base their theories of situated learning on observations of a number of apprenticeships, including the tailors of Goa and those of Yucatec midwives. Taken in isolation, both apprenticeships apparently provide examples that certain types of social engagements are models for how learning ought to occur. For example, in Goa, the master tailors and the apprentices together negotiate (or construct) a community of practise where the roles of each person is legitimate. Essentially, apprentices are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but are as active as the masters in constructing the community of practise. There is no didactic teaching, instead apprentices learn by engagement, and everyone's role is fluid and 'negotiated'. In short,the suggestion is that only if all parties are active in the learning process can proper learning take place and the types of social engagements they describe provide the (only) 'proper' context in which learning can take place.

These observations have led to a very successful business career for some people, advising business and organistaions on organisational structure. The idea, in a nutshell, is that by encouraging 'communities of practise', learning within an organisation or business is more effective.

This may appear to be pretty obvious and general,and it is, but if considered a little bit further (and I must, so you also have to) it implies that didactic approaches to education are less effective. Lecturing therefore, particularly, fact-filled top-down lecturing, is a big no-no because most classroom teaching approaches neglect negotiation. I have a number of objections to Lave and Wenger's work, but I will focus on just one.

While Goan apprentice happily works HIS way through a community of practice until HE becomes a master, happily co-constructing HIS!!! identity, and a Yucatec midwife merrily assimilates the knowledge of HER craft becoming highly respected members of their communities in the process, Wenger and Lave fail to mention the societies in which these idealised forms of learning occur. In practice, neither Goan apprentice tailors, nor Yucatec midwives have much choice of career, as both societies are highly stratified by caste and gender differentiated. This is not particularly a judgement on those societies, although I am happy to have been borne in neither, but how applicable to other societies, particularly Western societies are the examples given? The (short) descriptions do not include what happens to people who fail, or whether the practices the apprentices learn are actually the best way of doing things, or whether the boy borne to be a tailor would rather have been an actor. In most Western societies, we tend to choose our careers, our education and our gender identity, and are relatively free to leave "communities of practice" if we feel like, whereas Goan tailors and Yucatec midwives are not. Goan apprenticeship methods work because they have to, otherwise the people engaged in them dont eat. Seperately, Yucatec midwife apprenticeships work because it is uneconomical to establish a classroom dedicated to physiology and biology for the one trainee apprentice in each village.

After some reading, and much tutting, I have begun to conclude that the applicability is, at best, very general. Attempting to apply principles drawn from one set of cultural practises onto another entirely different culture always gives me the heeheegeebies, academically speaking. It is reminiscent of the way "primitive" peoples, or "Eastern philosophy" were romanticised by the West, and their lifeways generalised out of context, which led to unfortunate things like hippies. Anthropology is a double edged sword - it is important when studying the anthropology of 'others' to realise that we have an anthropology of our own as well.

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