Thursday, 21 February 2013

On bodies of knowledge





A few days ago, somebody commenting here was getting ticked off with me because I would not readily respond to her hectoring tone. Specifically, she wished me to agree that I believed that there existed a body of knowledge which I had to transmit to my daughter and that this was part of what I meant by ‘education’. I did not answer her then for two reasons. First, because it is never wise to give in to bullying tactics of that sort; it only encourages such behaviour in the future. Secondly of course, the very question was meaningless, because all parents believe that they are in possession of a body of knowledge which they should pass on to their children. Whether they formalise their belief in words, makes no difference at all. They still act as though this was so.

Let us see what I mean by this. I used conversation with my young daughter to pass on knowledge and information that I felt she would find interesting or useful. For example, a walk in the country would give me the opportunity to teach her about photosynthesis, the food web and many other concepts with which I felt she should be familiar. I was talking last year to an extreme autonomous educator who found this quite at variance with her own views. She believed that it was unwise to direct conversation in this way, but that it should be allowed to develop according to the child’s interests and her own observations of what interested her. She told me that what I was doing was really teaching, which was quite true; I make no secret of it. The sequel, which came a few weeks later, was revealing.

The mother to whom I had been talking was, unsurprisingly, a keen organic gardener. She believed passionately in recycling and was also a fanatical composter. It turned out that she felt it a moral imperative to explain to her children why as much as possible should be recycled and to emphasise to them the finite nature of the Earth’s resources. So far, so good; many readers will no doubt agree. She never missed an opportunity to show her children why it made sense to recycle things and had recently explained to the nine year-old why it made more sense to put potato peelings on the compost heap, rather than throw them in the rubbish bin as many children might be tempted to do. Brownie point to mum for raising responsible and eco-aware children!

In the course of her explanations, the mother ended up telling the child, without being asked to do so, how the different nutrients such as nitrogen would then pass from the potato peeling to the soil and then later be used by other living things. It was at this point that I realised that here was a mother who had, albeit very gently, denounced me for using a walk in the wood as a chance for a biology lesson, who had herself been teaching her children, unasked, about the nitrogen cycle. There was not the least difference between my explaining photosynthesis on a family walk and her explaining the nitrogen cycle as an after dinner activity. In each case, we both felt that it would be interesting and useful for our children to learn about some aspect of the IGCSE biology curriculum and, without waiting for our children to ask or show any interest in the subject, we launched into lectures.

All parents do this sort of thing all the time. This is because all parents have a body of knowledge that they think should be shared with their children. If a child notices a bird hovering overhead, most parents, if they know what the bird is, will tell the child, ‘It’s a kestrel.’ They will do this, even if the child has not asked what sort of bird it is. They will similarly tell their children unasked a million other things during a walk in a forest. They might explain the difference between an oak tree and a hornbeam; they might point to a stag beetle and tell the child that it is the biggest English insect; they could tell the child how strange it is to think that the clouds in the sky are nothing but water vapour. In every case, the parent is passing on a body of knowledge to which she has access and her child does not. It is precisely the same as my explaining the formula for photosynthesis to my own ten year-old daughter; it is direct teaching.

All parents teach their children, often completely unasked, those things which the parents think would be nice for their children to know. They teach them. More often than not, this is done by means of purposive conversation, which is a very effective way of imparting knowledge to children. To pretend that just because they are not using blackboards and making the children sit down for a lesson, this makes the activity any less of a teaching session is mad. This teaching takes place whether the parent is a dedicated autonomous educator or a highly structured educator.

To return to and answer the person who was badgering me about this, the day before yesterday, the reason that I did not answer the question, was that the question itself was based upon a false premise. This premise was that some parents attempt to transmit to their children an objective body of knowledge and that others allow their children to discover the wonders of the world for themselves. There are no separate categories of this sort; all parents teach their children from a body of knowledge which they, the parents, wish to impart to their offspring.

30 comments:

  1. "Specifically, she wished me to agree that I believed that there existed a body of knowledge which I had to transmit to my daughter and that this was part of what I meant by ‘education’. I did not answer her then for two reasons." Ooops psychic failure. I am a male.

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  2. ' Ooops psychic failure. I am a male.'

    Statistics, rather than any lapse in psychic powers. More home educators are female than male, so when I had to use a pronoun; I naturally chose a female, rather than a male one. The English language lacks a gender neutral, singular pronoun and so mistakes of this sort are inevitable.

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  3. Yes, but the more argumentative ones are generally male. Surely, experience has shown you this? ;-)

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  4. "all parents teach their children from a body of knowledge which they, the parents, wish to impart to their offspring." This is ridiculous. You cannot possibly know what *all* parents do. Naturally you appear incapable of grasping the subtle but important difference between respectfully offering and sharing what knowledge one has in a mutually voluntary conversation, and a unilateral decision to impart certain facts to a child.

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  5. 'Naturally you appear incapable of grasping the subtle but important difference between respectfully offering and sharing what knowledge one has in a mutually voluntary conversation, and a unilateral decision to impart certain facts to a child.'

    Yes indeed, this is quite true. Perhaps you would care to expand upon this a little and explain for us the difference between the two cases?

    '"all parents teach their children from a body of knowledge which they, the parents, wish to impart to their offspring." This is ridiculous. You cannot possibly know what *all* parents do. '

    There may, it is true, be some pathological cases, where a parent deliberately and perversely withholds information from a child. I have never encountered such a thing; but you are right, it may exist. What a dull and joyless expedition to the woods though, with such a parent! The child would be examining trees and even though the mother knew all the different types of tree; she would never volunteer so much as a scrap of information, unless specifically and directly asked to do so by the child. I cannot think that such parents are common, nor that behaviour of this sort in a mother or father would be particualrly praiseworthy or desirable.

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  6. Well perhaps I may illustrate it thus. Let us say I am out for a walk with a bunch of friends. One of my friends is a fount of knowledge on local history, one on architecture and one on wildlife. As we walk along, the conversation free-ranges across many topics. Stimulated by our environment and by whatever our conversation has touched upon or by whatever has happened recently that is in our minds. Sometimes someone may ask a direct question because it arises in their mind and this will lead in whatever direction it will.

    Every person is learning. What is happening is the intrinsically motivated process of identifying one’s impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context, of grasping relationships, differences, similarities in one’s perceptual material and of abstracting them into new concepts, of drawing inferences, of making deductions, of reaching conclusions, of asking new questions and discovering new answers and expanding one’s knowledge into an ever-growing sum.*

    This is an entirely different scenario to one where my friends decide whilst we are walking to take the opportunity to "teach" me. I am sure we are all familiar with uncomfortable interactions with people who keep on talking ignoring social cues that the other person was bored ten minutes ago. The person who wants to communicate some thing rather than just communicate. This type of conversation is not internally motivated by my desire to deepen and extend my inner conceptual map, stimulated by the complex environment I find myself in, it is driven by someone else's desire to create my inner map of a particular shape. If a child is on the receiving end of this and they are constrained from walking away from the person behaving in this way then they may become disaffected from the learning process altogether - which is precisely what happens to many learners in schools.

    "...some pathological cases, where a parent deliberately and perversely withholds information from a child" No I wasn't talking about withholding knowledge. I was taking issue with your assertion that all parents "teach". I do not believe there is such a thing as teaching in the sense you mean it. Nobody can teach anything to anyone who is not intrinsically motivated to learn it. And so there are only learners and the various strategies they may call into the service of their learning.

    You do seem to find it difficult to grasp that autonomous educators' interactions with their children are mutually voluntary exchanges of the type I first described above. The parent does not have a body of knowledge s/he wishes to impart, s/he only wishes to impart whatever knowledge the child is intrinsically motivated to learn. Yes it is true that whilst walking along their paths together either parent or child is often stimulated by their environment to share some information. If this sparks further question and conversation then that will ensue. If it does not, then both parties are happy to talk about something else entirely, neither feeling no compulsion to impart any particular set of facts to the other.

    I hope that clears it up for you.

    *“The Objectivist Ethics,”
    The Virtue of Selfishness, 20

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    Replies
    1. Love your description of the processes. And it's definitely a two way street. For instance, one of my children knows far more about wildlife than I do, so it's more likely to be me asking him the name of the bird or tree we just saw, than the other way round.

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    2. Ooh yes I know what you mean. My four year old is a bit of an art geek. I had to ask her the other day who painted "The Haywain". Good job she knew it was Constable, some nutter had written it was Turner

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  7. neither feeling *any* compulsion

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  8. "it is driven by someone else's desire to create my inner map of a particular shape." Perhaps a symptom of individuation issues on the part of the one wanting to do that shaping?

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  9. Ta Ra

    http://homeedlampoon.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/advanced-sarcasm-award/

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  10. '"...some pathological cases, where a parent deliberately and perversely withholds information from a child" No I wasn't talking about withholding knowledge. I was taking issue with your assertion that all parents "teach". I do not believe there is such a thing as teaching in the sense you mean it. Nobody can teach anything to anyone who is not intrinsically motivated to learn it. And so there are only learners and the various strategies they may call into the service of their learning.

    You do seem to find it difficult to grasp that autonomous educators' interactions with their children are mutually voluntary exchanges of the type I first described above.'

    Yes, I wasn't really describing what I thought a walk with an autonomous educator might be like; I was imagining a parent who did not make any spontaneous remarks to a child. It was a bit of fun.

    It seems to me that the process that you talk of here is all but identical to that which took place during my own daughter's childhood education; conversations which might start from one point and then move all over the place, according to how they developed. I need hardly add that they were all voluntary, most conversations are. Sometimes, the adult is passing on knowledge, at other times, the adult and child are both stumped for the answer to something and have to find out about it later. I would say that a good 80% or 90% of my daughter's education at home took place in this way, by means of conversations that we both enjoyed and which led to new insights for us both.

    Where we differ, it seems, is that you believe that such conversations which form part of a child's education should be essentially random and haphazard, whereas I think it better that the adult guides them in certain directions. I am bound to say that yours is an uncommon view and one at which we shall have to look a little closer in the future. It may turn out that a random and haphazard education is better for a child than one which is planned and directed, but it seems unlikely. Certainly, we will need a little more evidence to support this notion than a few quotations from relatively obscure philosophers. But would you say that it is fair to say that this is the difference between our methods; that yours was random and mine was planned? To any observer, I suspect that the two processes would have looked pretty much the same and it would have been hard to see that anything in the way of a conventional education was being delivered.

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  11. "But would you say that it is fair to say that this is the difference between our methods; that yours was random and mine was planned?" No I would say the difference is that I had no agenda to teach anything. The type of conversations I describe are not random and haphazard at all, far from it, the child will pursue precisely the knowledge it needs at any given moment in any given environment in order to deepen and extend his/her inner conceptual map. This process may be unplanned by the adult but that does not mean it is haphazard and random. What *is* haphazard and random is how much content and in what manner a child will integrate pieces of knowledge that are selected for him by an external third party.

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  12. Ha, external party, not third party!

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  13. 'What *is* haphazard and random is how much content and in what manner a child will integrate pieces of knowledge that are selected for him by an external third party'

    This runs counter to the evidence and sounds more like ideology than anything else. Of course the content and the manner in which it is learned or acquired by a child is not random. A piece of information which is spoken clearly is more likely to be retained than something which has been mumbled. Information presented in a bright and attractive way with the print in bold fonts is more likely to be acquired by a child than the same information hidden away in a dense forest of ten point print with no illustrations. The way in which knowledge is slevted and presented to a child is of crucial importance when gauging how much is likely to be retained.

    Do you really mean to say that you believe that the form and way in which knowledge is presneted to a child has no bearing on the liklihood that it will subsequently be retained? I think we really need some evidence for this assertion. If I tell a child something while she is watching a favourite television programme, are you saying that there is no less chance of her retaining that information than if I tell her the same thing when the room is quiet and we are sitting on the floor together in a relaxed fashion?

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  14. "I am bound to say that yours is an uncommon view" Erm what? You don't talk to many autonomous educators then.

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  15. I wasn't making any comment at all about "how" information is presented. I was re-stating what I said yesterday and you agreed "Those who set out to "teach" must accept the fact that they have no way of either knowing or controlling what knowledge is integrated nor how it is integrated."

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  16. 'I wasn't making any comment at all about "how" information is presented. I was re-stating what I said yesterday and you agreed "Those who set out to "teach" must accept the fact that they have no way of either knowing or controlling what knowledge is integrated nor how it is integrated."'

    Quite a different thing from the process being random. Of course we cannot be sure which piece of knowledge will be learned by a child and retained; this is always a bit of a gamble. We can certainly increased the odds in favour of its happening though. This is precisely what much modern education is concerned with; finding better ways to enable people to learn and remember things. If the business were, as you suggest, purely random, then there would be little point in this.

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    1. A different anonymous21 February 2013 at 15:07

      But the 'process' takes place in the child's mind. The process of learning isn't the choosing and presentation of information to a child; it's the making sense of new information and its integration with the child's existing body knowledge in the child's mind. It doesn't matter how carefully you plan your provision, because if you have no knowledge or control over what information has been integrated or how it was integrated, you have no idea if what you go on to provide is relevant or linked to what they have already integrated so your provision is effectively random. You are throwing mud at a wall and hoping it will stick.

      A child's curiosity is linked to their existing knowledge and understanding, so they are best placed to choose their own curriculum. We can provide a wide range of resources and information for them to take advantage of as and when they are ready, according to their current level of knowledge and understanding. They should be shown the water, but not forced to drink.

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  17. '"I am bound to say that yours is an uncommon view" Erm what? You don't talk to many autonomous educators then.'

    Yes, when I made this statement, I was talking of people in general.

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  18. "This is precisely what much modern education is concerned with; finding better ways to enable people to learn and remember things. If the business were, as you suggest, purely random, then there would be little point in this."QED.

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    Replies
    1. And modern education is doing so well...

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