“There is no graver threat to the process of discovery than that dread disease, ‘hardening of the categories’.” Bob Miller
The Regional and National ICTPD meetings this term are looking at “change” and “inquiry” respectively.
Kuhn reckons that “changes in how we use language about our worlds can reflect as well as contribute to changes we are bringing about in those worlds.”
Which makes me interested in how we use the language of “change” and “inquiry” in schools.
That refreshingly maverick thinker in the MoE, Adrienne Alton-Lee stalks through the Piagetian landscapes of constructivist pedagogies in New Zealand education (like a centipede with 98 legs missing) to claim that one of many disconnects between educational research and educational practice is
“the problem of overassimilation when novices use the same language but without the depth of understanding needed to engage in a way that changes practice” (p19, 2006 4th Annual Policy Conference: Policy Evolution 29 March, 2006
Alton-Lee frets over the way that novices take complex but familiar objects (external objects) and simplify them to fit into pre-existant categories inside their heads rather than changing the ideas in their heads to fit the realities of those external objects – that whole accommodation stuff.
Is she right? – do teachers (because of their “aging workforce maturity”?) veer towards assimilation in preference to accommodation when it comes to new learning?
Do teachers have a shallow understanding of the pedagogical implications of term like “learner centred”, “authentic” and “collaboration” in inquiry learning that mean we continue in the "same old same old" educational practices?
It is plausible that although Piaget may not have considered accommodation to present any great problem for children, adults are different. As adults does “hardening of the categories” mean we are susceptible to "overassimilation" when trying to make sense of research reports written by "experts"?
"Hardening of the Categories". Memory processes tend to work with generalized categories. If people do not have an appropriate category for something, they are unlikely to perceive it, store it in memory, or be able to retrieve it from memory later. If categories are drawn incorrectly, people are likely to perceive and remember things inaccurately. When information about phenomena that are different in important respects nonetheless gets stored in memory under a single concept, errors of analysis may result(1999)
The argument goes that as “surviving teachers” we have ways of understanding the world of school which work for us. We have no problem in assimilating new information and ideas which fit with our school-view, but our previous experience means we find it difficult to accommodate the new stuff. We fall back upon building on “craft” views of educational pedagogy.
For example it seems likely that our current affection for “Inquiry learning” in New Zealand schools relies upon an overassimilation of terms like "learner centered", "collaborative" and "authentic".
We claim to choose inquiry pedagogies so that students can understand both the process of learning and new content through their learning experiences. We favour the inquiry approach over direct instruction for the 21st century learner because we claim it is “learner centered”, collaborative and has an authentic context.
But overassimilation and a hardening of the categories means:
- we ignore the unease over learning outcomes in minimally guided instruction and inquiry learning, (Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark 2006).
- we neglect to acknowledge that inquiry can be dodgy in terms of deep, connected, and abstract learning outcomes because learners are trying to accommodate new content and new research processes at the same time.
- we turn our backs on the possibility that as well as suffering from cognitive overload, inquiry means students may not be confronted with the “to be learned” material,
- we disregard the research showing that in inquiry students tend to overemphasise the communicative activities over the other inquiry activities, and
- we avoid confrontation with research showing that 14 and 15yo learners have problems with all transformative and regulative processes associated with inquiry De Yong (2006).
Hardening of the categories means that a seemingly obvious term in “inquiry learning” like “learner-centred” is anything but.
For example researchers find when talking to teachers that there is little agreement over the meaning of the term “learner-centred”,
“Shallow understandings and conflicting practices abound. (p571) Paris and Combs’ (2006)..”
Paris, C., & Combs, B. (2006). Lived meanings: What teachers mean when they say they are learner-centered. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12 (5), 571-592.
I am avoiding slipping into a trough of despond over this whole “overassimilation” thing and inquiry by thinking about Robert Genn’s latest newsletter describing a correlation between ceiling height and creativity discovered by Meyers-Levy and Zhu (2007).
"The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing People Use," Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui Zhu, Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming Aug. 2007).
If we believe Meyers Levy and Zhu then it seems classroom design for preparing for the uncertain world of the 21st century learner will see the construction of cathedrals across New Zealand.
Am wondering if they will pick up on this cathedrals bit at the MoE’s 21st Century Learning environments for all learners conference at the Waipuna in June