I was listening to a very interesting EdTechTalk discussion (audio here and transcript here) recently between Stephen Downes and George Seimens about (among other things) views on objective and subjective knowledge and its impact on teaching (transfer of knowledge vs. connective learning). Stephen Has written an article on this, which spurred George to write this response.
I encourage you to take a look at these, but I will summarise them here and in subsequent posts, discuss them.
Stephen Downes’ original article was An Introduction to Connective Knowledge, available as both audio and text here.
George Seimens response included the following summary of the original article:
In this article, Stephen tackles many broad themes: knowledge, meaning, truth, learning, and networks. Instead of casting the discussion in quantitative or qualitative terms, he opts for a third path (rightly so, in my eyes): connectivity.
George’s proposal to make this an EdTechTalk conversation was taken up for EdTechTalk Episode 34 here and a Transcript of the entire conversation can be found here. The initial focus was on objective vs. subjective knowledge – Stephen arguing that all knowledge is subjective and George maintaining that some knowledge is objective. The conversation then progressed into the impact of objective knowledge on teaching and education, and the impact and role of education in and on society. This vibrant discussion was summarised by each speaker as follows:
I think I’ll start by answering the last question which is, has this conversation helped. I think it certainly helped to the degree the original article that Stephen wrote that we didn’t spend enough time on really. How that article helped as well. And when I first posted on it, I said much of it reflects on what I believe in terms of a connectivist sense. Which is that knowledge itself is the process or learning is the process of network formation. Meaning and emergence and shared meaning and all of those things are a function to a large degree of the types of networks that we create and the manner in which we choose elements within our network. So on many levels I’m saying Stephen is right.
On some elements I’m saying too varying degrees because, like I said, the subjectivity notion that Stephen has expressed today, I’ve held as I said in my original post, I agree with that on certain levels. I disagree on certain levels because I do believe that there is an objective element and an objective reality that exists. And sometimes our learning structures have to align with that objective reality in order for us to do a service to our learners. In answering that first, yes it was an enjoyable discussion from that end and certainly any time you can get together with a group of people who share similar interests, there is always a learning experience.
I think that’s what Stephen talks about when he uses the term emergence and association to refer to the process of learning. I don’t have the quote handy here but he had a really good quote in there about how the point of association basically moves us towards that level of shared understanding. Meaning here is one of many ways. But meaning is an emergent phenomenon arising from connections between underlying entities. So the meaning that I derive comes as a result of extending the nodes in my network. So what is my main point though. My main point is that we are constrained in our philosophy and in our ideologies by the society in which we live. Part of education should be to alter the very constructs of our society. A part of education should create people who are better thinkers. It should create people who are willing to challenge the injustices that exist. It should allow equal access and equal opportunity to every learner regardless of disability, regardless of limitations. There are aspects to the educational process that do that. Those things unfortunately take a long long time. Often they can take decades, many decades in some instances for the constructs that inhibit effective leaning to be altered. However, while we are there we need to still serve those people who are entering that existing marketplace. We can begin to provide a basis for that philosophy and we can provide a basis for that theory in the manner that we provide education to our learners. We can inject critical thinking into it so that they are prepared in the future to tackle the bigger issues of their field or their domain. To right the injustices, to correct the wrongs of the world.
There are in my eyes though objective elements that exist and there ways sometimes that even though, especially in a connectiveness sense, my shift from the constructive viewpoints of life to the connectivist perspective resulted in realizing that there is an objective network that is created as I form and as I add knowledge to my own sense of continual learning. Through that process I’m actually creating an objective network that said something and hopefully aligns with the reality that exists outside there. Parts of those that network will be subjective, it will be filtered and interpreted using the perceptions, the notions that Stephen uses in his paper. Parts of it will be of that nature. Other parts will be sort of the emergent phenomenon of the network and some parts will be very objective and how it relates to the world that exists around it. Anyway, that’s just a very quick overview of my perspective and my value from the discussion.
Actually my position can be stated very simply:
- Objectivism is inherently false and cannot be made true by artificially creating smaller domains of discourse.
- If that is the case, claims to have objective knowledge are in effect the imposition of one set of values over another – it creates an instance of schooling becoming ‘us doing something to them’, or to draw a little bit from what Geogre said, it makes it ok to say that we are constrained in ‘such and such’ a way.
- Society functions better – it is smarter and more humane when values are not imposed.
Consequently, this leads to my conclusion about the nature of objectivism. We should not be making claims to have objective knowledge. What does that mean in learning? What that means is that we are not taking what we know and putting it into student’s heads. Learning is not a transfer of knowledge – it is a demonstration, an interaction. But the ultimate decision about what and even how something is learned is up to the learner. The best thing we can do is models what is believed and if we go beyond that, my view is that we are not only not teaching well, we are actually damaging the student, and as a consequence we are damaging society as a whole.
The thing that comes out most clearly in this discussion is that our understanding of how society works and our understanding of how learning works are inextricably conjoined – you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. That is an important thing to be thinking about when we are talking about theories of learning. Theories of learning that are simply accept that society is such a way are incomplete theories of learning because they don’t presuppose, as learning should, that we can be any better than we are.
Finally, Dave Cormier (a host on EdTechTalk) says:
go out and blog about this, talk to people about it, and give your positions out. This is the only way that these discussions are really valuable as they move towards action.
So I guess I am taking up that challenge, and I have started this blog to record my views on this topic and others. I will post a variety of my views on this discussion in a number of following posts.