To follow on last week’s discussion of vygotsky, another central tenet of Vygotsky’s work is that in order to understand development (and therefore learning), the researcher has to observe it in the process rather than in its products. He faulted the standard methods of psychological research of his day for focusing too much on training subjects to do particular tasks and then using those tasks to study cognition and development. His basic claim was that by the time the subject had mastered the task, the researcher had missed the development and learning and was now documenting some sort of fossilized action instead. He suggested alternative methods for creating conditions where learning, particularly the appropriation of meditational means and the development of concepts, could be brought into observation by the researcher working closely with research participants.
Those methods could be the subjects of future blog posts, but given last week’s topic of documenting personal sense making and how standardized ways of learning, testing, and research are not effective in generating or documenting personal sense, it’s interesting today to think about what sort of changes to research it would really take to arrive at rigorous ways of documenting the development of personal sense, including the role of emotions, values, beliefs, and biography in that development.
It seems that in part this kind of research itself still requires a substantial paradigm shift for researchers to stop “chasing” results/outputs as the key to understanding learning and to start encouraging this very chase itself as the subject of research. In our theory group right now, we are reading Jerome Bruner’s Acts of Meaning. Bruner outlines where the cognitive revolution veered away from being able to really understand the road map where development takes place, especially given the role of emotional patterns and their relationship to reflective states of mind. Bruner suggests that meaning cannot be pre assigned, so, like Vygotsky, he believes that meaning itself cannot be measured as an outcome of learning, but that learning can be seen in the process of making meaning. He suggests further that meaning making is different from information processing. This does not discount the importance of understanding how human beings process information. It does mean that education and learning have to be more than simply the business of training humans to use the tools that are necessary for life. Meaning, rather than knowing, should be the business of education as the ultimate way of “being.” This is very similar to Dewey’s arguments about the purposes of education in leading development. Like Dewey and Vygotksy, Bruner is talking about cultural shift in education, but also in research.
Bruner turned to the exploration of how everyday thinking tools (or meditational means more accurately) were appropriated for complex meaning making that included both public, shared meaning and personal sense. In Acts of Meaning, he describes the role of narrative, especially jointly constructed narratives, in shaping individual biography and identity over time. Retelling, re-narrating our experiences is in essence a reflective exercise in personal sense making, which also generates both public and shared meaning under the right circumstances. It is an exercise that brings to bear the very problematic of the so-called transformative education implicit in many of the other texts our group has been reading: the subjectivism, situatedness, and relativism circling human thinking and action and challenging the role of cognitive research. Accounting for such relativism and subjectivism not as gibberish or nonsense but as essential characteristics of human development, learning and behavior is to recognize the construction of meaning as transformative not authoritative. With that in mind, not only learning is a reflective state of mind but research itself should also be. What would a reflective research encompass? Perhaps it would be the type of research where its applied and flexible methodology consists of mediational means that lead to and promote a larger joint reflection between participants and researchers, allowing for a true dialogicality that moves quickly beyond the search for understanding of “fossilized” actions to the kind of active transformation of the research and learning situation that people like Dewey, Freire, and Vygotsky call for.
Such paradigmatic shift in the view of education and education research is nothing short of a “philosophical” debate between philosophy and science, our customary ways of knowing and seeking knowledge and how they came to be. The positivist characteristics of today’s research hindering the possibility for true dialogicality reflects nothing less than the human need to find some absolute truth and find it quickly. We can’t stand not knowing, not being able to trace down a beginning, middle and end for everything under some logical explanation. Embracing subjectivism and relativism as important pieces of the puzzle is recognizing there is no absolute truth when it comes to the human mind; it is to decrease the role of logic in favor of increasing the role of wonder in the process of knowing. This requires a cultural shift to assign reflective states of mind as the valued goal of education and research concerned with meaning making. Everything else would fall into place. Logicality can be unidirectional and give us tools for information processing, but dialogicality can’t. It requires exchange of reflections into retold narratives for it is the only way to unravel meaning making and acts of meaning.
Thanks to Susan O’Brien for her significant contributions to this post!