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4 Final score

This publication is framed in a research programme aimed at inquiring into what constitutes 'lesson' in its pedagogical specificity.

In the particular research setting proposed – an analysis of authentic material in the form of a lesson's video recording and transcription –, I have found that this research programme necessarily implies taking into account issues related to the nature of knowledge and how people learn. In other terms, that one cannot (scientifically) talk about teaching without talking at the same time about learning and epistemology.

As the composition of a poem implies a poetic (i.e., a vision of poetry) on behalf of the author – be it explicit or implicit –, so teaching implies a vision of teaching on behalf of the teacher (and, actually, of the students). As any poetic involves considerations about the medium, its receivers and its fruition, so a vision of teaching involves considerations on learners and learning.

As my colleagues have noted in the previous essays, a lesson ('teaching,' I propose to say) is an act that implies an element of intentionality which is crucial to its specificity as a form of social interaction.

“The students are expected not only to be entertained by the film, but to learn something with it. This something must be more precisely identified by means of the pedagogy of the [history] class: it depends on the realized pedagogical intentionality of the teacher.” (Gruschka; my transl.)

“The educational intention which underlies the observation schema does not seem difficult to decode.” (Hollstein, Meseth, Proske; my transl.)

I do not believe this is a matter of discussion, along with the other necessary assumption that this intentionality is related – in terms of the purpose it presupposes – to learning on behalf of a group of persons involved in the teaching process [1].

Correspondently, a consistent body of research literature, especially in science education, often refers to teaching/learning processes.

In approaching the task of posing the foundations for a theory of teaching, we are then left with two issues. One regards assumptions about what we intend as the object of the teaching/learning (i.e., the nature of knowledge). Another one regards what we intend as 'learning,' or more specifically what we intend as the purpose presupposed in the intentional act of teaching.

My stance is that the latter issue is a question of free choice and implies therefore an ideology and a taking on of responsibility.

If on one side research has undeniably progressed our knowledge about what literature refers to simply as 'learning' (see, e.g., NRC, 2000 for a review of recent developments), on the other side it can be shown that this body of research necessarily makes more or less explicit assumptions as to what kind of learning one is aiming to.

In science education research of the last four decades, for example, the purpose of the teaching/learning process is with overwhelming frequency assumed to be the development of critical thinking and a disposition to questioning existing systems (of knowledge). It is with regard to this assumption that a constructivist approach [2] is then largely found to be the most effective.

Although it is still contended (see, e.g., Taber, 2002), whether it should be considered a paradigmatic (in the sense of Kuhn, 1996/1962) or research programmatic (in the sense of Lakatos, 1978) stance, constructivism in science education has been described as dominant (Erickson, 2000), if not ubiquitous (Jenkins, 2000) in the research literature.

Looking at theories of teaching and learning in historical perspective also demonstrates that the choice between alternative approaches is not a matter of research-based progress.

In fact, one finds that active, constructivist-like models (learning constructed by the learner based on prior knowledge, eventually with the support of others) and transmission, teacher centred models (tabula rasa/empty vessel models) have been concurring since as far as the record goes. This seems to support my position that ideology plays a crucial role in what theory one is willing to adopt.

Avoiding a thorough treatment, which would transcend the scope of this essay, suffice to mention approaches heralded, for example, by Socrates or Plutarch:

“For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect.” (Plutarch, Moralia [3])

While the behaviourist paradigm has suffered extensive criticism in scholarly literature (see, e.g., Chomsky, 1959, 1972), the debate is still lively (see, e.g., Cross, 1989; Wheldall et al., 1989, Parkay & Hass, 2000) and teaching methods marked by behaviourist-like, transmissive and empty-vessel models are still widespread in school practice (see, e.g., OECD, 2009).

As I have shown in the previous section, the kind of teaching displayed in our unit of analysis implies an – explicit or implicit – vision of teaching and learning which involves, inter alia, treating students' conceptions as fallacious and aiming at replacing them with 'correct' conceptions, as heralded (and interpreted) by the teacher. And this can evidently be directly related to empty-vessel models of teaching. An alternative vision of teaching would imply acknowledging and building upon the learner's personal conceptual and cognitive resources and empowering the learner by developing his/her critical and creative potentialities.

Following diSessa (1993) and Smith et al. (1993), for example, the teacher might aim at creating a learning environment (classroom norms, inter alia) in which the students feel encouraged to express their intuitive conceptions and explanations and build upon these productively to develop novel knowledge. This in turn implies viewing students' personal conceptions not simply as flawed ideas which interfere with learning (so-called misconceptions [4]) but as manifold systems of primitive conceptual elements ('phenomenological primitives,' in the model proposed by diSessa) which, appropriately organized, contribute to the development of expert understanding. A similar argument about students' personal epistemologies has been presented by Hammer & Elby (2002), who refer to 'epistemological primitives.'

While research on cognition and instruction can indeed inform the way pedagogical purposes are most effectively pursued, there is little it can tell about what these pedagogical purposes should be. This is the matter of a cultural and political stance (cf., e.g., Osborne & Dillon, 2008), i.e., of an ideology of (school) teaching.

That the assumptions at the base of a scientific theory may be a matter of free choice is, of course, no big news. A notable example among many is Euclid's fifth postulate on the intersecting of parallel lines. In his two treaties on Ethics (Nichomachean and Eudemian), Aristotle uses the alternative between the Euclidean and the non-Euclidean triangle as his principal example of ethical choice (cf. Tóth, 1997). For Aristotle, this choice (προαίρεσις) depends solely on the subject of the ethical-political praxis.

Depending on whether (school) teaching should be aimed at the “indoctrination of the young” (Crozier et al., 1975, p. 162), educating the population in order to “keep them from the throats [of the tyrants]” (Emerson, 1957, p. 193), training disciplined citizens – 'docile minds' we might well paraphrase – in order to maintain the existing structures of power (Foucault, 1975), or, instead, at developing individuals able of devising independent explanations of the world, challenging authority, questioning doctrine, searching for alternatives, using their imagination and creativity, we shall be led I believe to devise rather different theories of (school) teaching.

In the latter case, we might want our theory to suggest, for example, that a history class should imply reflection on how historical evidence is to be assessed, on how a fixed set of historical documents may allow for multiple alternative explanations, on how to corroborate explanations in terms of historical argumentation, on how to participate in a historical discourse with peers (cf. Wineburg, 1991).

In the latter case, we might want our theory to be inspired by experiences such as one so reported by Bruner (1959, p. 187-188):

We hit upon the happy idea of presenting this chunk of geography not as a set of knowns, but as a set of unknowns. One class was presented blank maps, containing only tracings of the rivers and lakes of the area as well as the natural resources. They were asked as a first exercise to indicate where the principal cities would be located, where the railroads, and where the main highways. Books and maps were not permitted and “looking up the facts” was cast in a sinful light. Upon completing this exercise, a class discussion was begun in which children attempted to justify why the major city would be here, a large city there, a railroad on this line, etc.

The discussion was a hot one. After an hour, and much pleading, permission was given to consult the rolled up wall map. I will never forget one young student, as he pointed his finger at the foot of Lake Michigan, shouting, “Yipee, Chicago is at the end of the pointing-down lake.” And another replying, “Well, OK: but Chicago's no good for the rivers and it should be here where there is a big city (St. Louis).” These children were thinking, and learning was an instrument for checking and improving the process. To at least a half dozen children in the class it is not a matter of indifference that no big city is to be found at the junction of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. They were slightly shaken up transportation theorists when the facts were in.

  • [1] If this group should include both a person identified as the 'teacher' and a distinct group of people identified as the 'students,' as for example in theories related to so-called critical pedagogy, or only those identified as the 'students,' is also a matter of perspective
  • [2] Be noted here that constructivism as a theory of learning is to be distinguished from constructivism as a theory of knowledge (see, e.g., Taber 2002). Inter alia, the former does not imply, as does the latter, cognitive relativism
  • [3] Quoted in Kidd (1992), p. 50
  • [4] On misconceptions see, e.g., Krebs (1999) and references therein
 
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