Mixed Metaphors

Featured Image Credit: “Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass, by John Tenniel, 1871” in the Public Domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=238447

My own ontological perspective seems more post-positivist, that what we interpret doesnt preclude a reality that exists ‘when nobody is looking’. Were prone to making what might better be called falsifiable statements than statements of “truth,” in such a way that our descriptions merely symbolise what we think weve interpreted. For me, bias is a fact and, as we account for it, not necessarily pejorative. We value and strive to keep an open mind precisely because we do not have an empty mind but, rather, a finite mind.

Our collective world comprises interactive individuals, and upon this belief lies the basis for accepting constructivist accounts of knowledge and knowing. That our knowledge is “personally constructed, socially mediated, and inherently situated” (Clarke, 1998, p. 48) does not preclude an external reality – not for me, anyway!

If you’re curious to learn more, Avenier and Thomas (2015) make a fascinating distinction between the epistemic assumption of pragmatic constructivism, in which inquirer and inquired are inseparably intertwined, and Guba and Lincoln’s (1989) more commonly known constructivist perspective.

For years now, I’ve wondered whether learning is a metaphorical renovation. It’s no perfect comparison – no metaphor could be – but I like renovation for suggesting that something original remains, upon which we build, and rebuild.

… plenty of work ahead, though isn’t that kind of the point?
Photo Credit: Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

As it happens, renovation suits a perspective on learning called constructivism, which regards learning as an active process by which a person integrates new experiences with what they already know. This distinction between known and new knowledge has been an avenue for critiquing constructivism’s overwhelming predominance, as has the general notion that active learners mean passive teachers, as has the nuance of what ‘active’ even means – thinking about stuff or doing stuff. Other nuances distinguish something learned from something experienced or something internal, uniquely derived, from something external, accepted belatedly as consensus.

All of this implicates haves and have-nots, access to knowledge and experience, to schools and teachers. And all of this raises more profound questions, such as whether someone’s constructed knowledge interprets a shared cultural understanding or sets their own personally valid reality. If you’d told me all of this a few years ago, my metaphor would have just said thanks and carried on none the wiser. And I suspect that’s still the case for some people, at least for those who don’t read past third paragraphs.

In case you weren’t aware… constructivism is often paired in opposition to what are called ‘traditional’ approaches to learning – typically though not only K12 approaches to learning – as a response to teaching deemed too instructive and knowledge deemed too intrinsic. Deemed by whom exactly? Well, given constructivism’s widespread observance nowadays, that question may have fallen away from any one’s assessment to everyone’s assent. Take me, for instance, the renovationist – surely I’m embracing the current outlook, right, even just out of convenience? And what self-respecting teacher even breathes traditional approaches anymore, like constructivism’s lowly precursor, cognitive development, or education’s arch-nemesis, behaviourism? Surely for teachers constructivism is simply unquestionable common sense.

For me anyway, not sure for you, this pairing of perspectives is presented in a way that suggests an oddly false dichotomy, as if the sole alternative to the progress and change of singular constructivism is the oblivious rote bundled up in ‘traditional’ approaches: either the one or the other(s). Some teachers I know might rather say the one now is the other, the student-centred model of constructivism being no less standardized than the didactic teacher-driven system it supplants. Facing this either-or stipulation, some teachers I know might also detect no small antipathy for the traditional bundle, as if every teaching moment throughout the limitless bygone era preceding ‘today’ could only have been nothing but defective. It’s a miracle we’re even here to tell the tale. And if all these absolutes lay it on a bit thick, then I guess we agree that stark dichotomy makes for great fallacy.

OK, for good reason, I’m usually not too explicit, but just this once, let’s go:

Every person has a backstory that no one else can know completely, which means people’s lives are more complex than first glance suggests, which means an assumption made is an irresponsible leap to conclusions.

Every teacher has a unique perspective on learning because you’re not me just like I’m not you. And just like me, you apply your perspective in a classroom, at a school, with students you know better than I do.

If we’re able to grant each other a unique perspective and backstory, as any good constructivist ought to be doing, then how do we explain antipathy toward anything? The one appropriate response for a teacher would seem to be patient understanding.

Anyone in education today who’s been noticing fewer and fewer teachers learning to teach any differently, any one from another, may also have noticed that it’s all constructivism all the time, a clean sweep. Teachers today, like students of old, receive Freire-ian bank deposits to “Teach ‘this’ way – are you teaching ‘this’ way?” At the same time, these same teachers are told to “eliminate their bias,” at which point… I guess? may every unique perspective shine, as… creative? as they want to be helping students become – wait for it – self-regulated critical thinkers. It’s irony on toast.

Back in the day, before my self-declared renovationism, teacher educators took strides to inculcate in me and my cohort a constructivist perspective on learning. It probably helped me that I teach humanities and social sciences rather than natural sciences or math although I’m pretty sure I have a post-positivist streak somewhere inside me. In any case, I’m also willing to accept [ your perspective here ] because what a student and teacher decide between them to suit their circumstances… who am I to say? The most I’d offer is my two cents, and respect their place to decide responsibly for themselves.

Does hatching an idea mean thinking outside the box? Photo Credit: cottonbro on Pexels

… which, by the way, is why I avoid being explicit: I’m not out to ‘explain’ anything, plus honestly, the cryptic stuff can be fun.

As a teacher, I’ll offer, propose, opine, draw attention to particulars, where appropriate, I’ll be a skill instructor, which is actually a principal focus across my subject areas. Skill practice can suit more direct teaching – demonstration, progression, feedback – yet even then I like questions that draw student awareness towards refining their own performance. Elsewhere, I’ve put it this way: help people make thinking a habit because we test and refine ideas by discussion and reflection, which are the purview of thinking. Thinking certainly sets at least some part of an idea’s value, and good thinking is informed by knowledge, practised with discipline, and weighed by healthy scepticism. So my teaching tries to help students to learn two things: (i) that they can think, and (ii) that their own thinking is a step toward their own decision-making.

Good thinking is informed by knowledge, practised with discipline, and weighed by healthy scepticism.

… which is why, to me, the humanities and social science renovationist, all this makes ‘explain’ a four-letter word.

Explanation is deficit-based, elevating the one who knows and diminishing the one who needs. At its core, this is neither shared inquiry nor the inherent practice of thinking but an untenable decoupling of one from the other. When the aim is thinking, explanation engenders no humility on the part of either person but ego and dependency on the part of both, enabling the one’s listening to the other’s telling. All this underscores ‘student-centred constructivism’ by virtue of the trust and rapport to be found, or at least to be founded, at the core of a meaningful student-teacher relationship.

Like I said to open, well and good to label my renovation metaphor as constructivism, if it helps someone characterise my teacher’s perspective on learning. As for me, setting aside overt social philosophy and acknowledging real concern over power and authority, the one –ism I can readily associate with the kind of learning I try to stir up is egalitarianism (… still working on the metaphor). As learning necessarily means teaching, even if it’s the same person doing both, we ought to ask from the constructivist perspective on learning what we think about its associated teaching.

That thing I’ve been noticing the past how-many-years about fewer teachers learning to teach any differently, one to another… maybe it’s intentional, and constructivism was only meant for K12 learning. Maybe telling candidates ‘how to teach’ somehow better suits their learning how to teach, especially in a brief, intensely packed 11-month program. I’ve literally watched instructors tell candidates, “Not like ‘this’. Like ‘this’. Teach like ‘this’.” Still, for me, not sure for you, telling isn’t teaching, telling is telling. And teaching is teaching, and as each will have its place according to circumstance, if they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word. So if the candidate who will someday perform my surgery or land my flight needs to be told something, then somebody better damn well tell them.

To professing constructivists worldwide, but really, to anyone staking a claim: proudly wearing the t-shirt promotes the brand label. If constructivism was intended strictly for K12 learning, not candidate learning… that’s something to clarify, and soon. And not just one way or the other but both ways because, until then, one outcome of telling people how to teach will continue to be the negation of opportunity for them to learn on their own terms in their own time in their own contexts.

Metaphorically speaking, of course… what here is the learning, and what is the teaching? Photo Credit: Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

To be fair, I’ve also been noticing nearly as often how-many-candidates with similar expectation, to be taught how to teach. It’s a passive perspective on learning that – no surprise – is unable to speak for itself, except maybe a little frustration: “Why do you always answer our questions with a question? Why is the answer to everything ‘It depends’?” So here’s maybe another indication of people’s past experiences with teaching that takes somewhat less account of learning.

Wow, and all this from a renovationist… you won’t likely hear from anyone else that constructivism isn’t part of the landscape, a huge part – even “hegemonic,” although also “absurd” – and growing. In fact, that’s been something else to make me wonder… whether twenty years hence, enough time will have passed for an espoused perspective on learning to actually inform our teaching. By the time they’re old enough to be teacher candidates, today’s K12 students may have finally brought with them the changes we like to tell each other we’re making on their behalf.

Click here to read Crossed Purposes

Author: Scott Robertson

Scott is a Canadian school teacher, a doctoral candidate in Education, an avid gardener, and a football (soccer) coach. He is also a Dad. Scott worked in high school classrooms for 17 years, teaching mostly Secondary English. He describes learning as a continual renovation: intentional self-reflection aimed at personal growth, alongside people who share similar aims. At the core of his lessons is personal responsibility, an approach to living with integrity by adopting the habit of thinking. It's a blend of philosophy, literature, grammar, history, and science, all tied in a bundle by classical rhetoric. His students often described his approach to be unlike others they knew—mostly in a good way—which prepared them for post-secondary school and adulthood, citizenship, and whatever else. Outside the classroom, Scott has been coaching football (soccer) since 1990 and still enjoys playing, too, except when he’s too injured—then he tries to play golf instead.

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