Constructivist Ship In A Bottle

M. Potter bemoans that

“Constructivists, analogously, do not realize the extent to which they work with objectivist ideals in objectivist contexts.”

I wonder if there are even more unnoticed leftovers hidden.

OK, concepts are no longer transported into the student’s brain, but only constructed there. But how does the “construction set” get into the brain?


Animation of a ship-in-a-bottle being builtThis is a bit more tricky (due to the bottleneck?) but somehow it must work, right? “new ideas must be integrated”; “learn by applying latent ideas and new ideas alike to the present situation”; “attempts to apply and test ideas, use them, relate them to each other and to life” — but the ideas are a fixed given?

It is difficult to let go the belief that there must be some atomic, pre-existing entities as the building blocks of knowledge. “we cannot face the implications that would arise, the darkness and the cold”, says Potter in a similar context.

And Stephen Downes’ response to this dilemma is difficult to understand: recognition! Two Catalan authors asked the ancient paradox question: How can we recognize a pattern if we do not already know that a specific configuration of connections is a pattern? His response is concise: “what makes something a ‘pattern’ is the fact that it is recognized by neural nets.” So we are still left with the problem of “recognition”.

I think that knowledge as recognition is easier to understand when we consider McGilchrist’s two modes. All news is first processed by one of them. But once it is recognized, it “feels” totally different because then it is stored by the other mode. At the very moment it is recognized, it becomes knowledge, and then the term recognizing makes no more sense for it. Similarly, all the notions of gradual, slow emergence of such patterns, or of “seeing” them, makes no more sense for the explicit knowledge now extant. This is, IMHO, why it is so difficult to make sense of the simple process of recognizing.

Thanks to G. Reinmann for pointing to Potter’s essay.

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3 Responses to Constructivist Ship In A Bottle

  1. Howard says:

    Hey Matthias;
    Thanks again for the prompt to think in a deeper way.
    First, I do believe that it is both-and instead of either-or. Even though I am primarily a pragmatist and functionalist (following James, Dewey, etc), that does not mean that there is not room for a structuralism like Chompsky’s (i.e. atomic, pre-existing entities or mental predispositions). Yes, many people change at the surface but maintain much of their thoughtless use of objectivist preexisting practice. I am reminded of my mentor’s idea that a new paradigm must illuminate new practices, but also explain and even sometimes incorporate older practices. I gravitated toward Cronbach and Messick’s ideas of test validity because they were objectivists (and a positivist in Cronbach’s case) yet their honest exploration led them to see assessment as grounded in hermeneutic interpretive processes. For instance, my problem with current high stakes testing regimes is that students can do little except repeat knowledge in a parroting fashion and over short periods of time. It is possible to assess in a more constructionist friendly way, but current methods belay their underlying objectivist thinking that leaves out valid hermeneutic processes and functionalist / constructivist understandings.
    Secondly (and sorry if I’m repeating myself from older posts), I believe that most mental processes are activity based; that our brain evolved first to provide locomotion, and activity is still at the core of our mental processes. Therefore, knowledge gets into the brain via social activity a la Vygotsky’s social genesis. Activity exist first as a sign under the control of others (like teachers) and only gradually is it internalized as a sign for oneself where it still often functions in the contexts of social practices. I don’t believe it is through any neural bottleneck, but rather through the broad avenue of our ongoing action oriented development.


  2. x28 says:

    Howard, thank you very much for your deliberate contribution. I like that you say “there is room for…”, and I like your idea that a paradigm should also explain older practices.
    I think that there IS room for activity based learning practices being explained by the connectivist explanation of knowledge as recognition: even if only because activity solicits suitable patterns to recognize. And the hermeneutic approach to assessments is perfectly compatible with recognizing.


  3. x28 says:

    Thanks to Stephen’s comment I realized that I was much too vague about what exactly is so difficult to understand. I have a big problem when I try to apply the idea of “recognizing” to normal knowledge i.e. ordinary, mundane, everyday knowledge at our disposal, like, for example “Paris is the capital of France”. When I recall such a simple piece of knowledge content, I cannot think of recognizing.

    The idea of recognizing is IMHO perfectly plausible when it is applied to knowledge that is nascent, either by gradual, slow emergence of patterns, or by just “seeing” these patterns. (And therefore I am not saying that there is a gap in what connectivism explains.) Upon thinking about Stephen’s comment, I see that the idea is also plausible for some kinds of extant knowledge. For example when knowledge is used to integrate other new knowledge: In learning the capital of the UK, I might use my knowledge of the property of Paris to recognize the corresponding property of London. Also, I might recognize someone else’s knowledge if I want to assess him as an expert colleague. Or else, if I suddenly start to doubt my knowledge and ask myself how I came to know it (and to believe it); then I might once again recognize.

    But these special examples again relate to new knowledge, and they are not examples for the vast majority of knowledge of the ordinary kind, which McGilchrist would call fixed. (Marx would perhaps call it coagulated or congealed; and Mittelstrass’ “knowledge to our disposal” = “Verfuegungswissen”, also comes to mind). That sort of knowledge, for me, does not feel like “recognized” any more. I hate to admit it, but it rather feels like “propositions filled into the brain”.

    I am not sure if I was now able to explain my difficulty. Maybe it is also due to my limited command of English as a second language. For us, the Latin prefix “re-” of “recognizing” has not yet lost its emphasis of “again”, and we keep forgetting that it does not mean “recognize again” (wiedererkennen) but also just “recognize” (erkennen). Unfortunately, this makes a big difference in this context.


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