Saturday, May 17, 2008

common sense is astonishing (piaget)

When he was a small child, he was counting pebbles one day; he lined them up in a row, counted them from left to right, and got ten. Then, just for fun, he counted them from right to left to see what number he would get, and was astonished that he got ten again
- genetic epistemology
I think the key thing in this beautiful story about counting pebbles is the word "astonished" in the above quote.

I have no personal recollection of being astonished by discovering the law of conservation of pebble number. And yet experiments with young children show that before a certain age this is something they (meaning all of us) don't know. At some stage in our personal development we learnt this, internalised it and then forgot that we learnt it - and can't recall any sense of astonishment or not knowing something which as adults, seems to us to be common sense

This is why constructionism doesn't scale (yet) - or is dependent on a teacher being there who realises that what is obvious and common sense to them is not obvious or common sense to children. And then finds ways to spend time discussing and experimenting with these common sense notions with children - rather than just assuming that everyone "gets it". Or doing exercises which involve getting the "right answer". How many pebbles? Answer = 10. Next question. This applies to all knowledge, not just to pebbbles or number.

If we don't understand Piaget's genetic epistemology then constructionism or a deeper philosophical approach to learning won't scale. This explains why when a school leader with a deep understanding of learning leaves the site then the whole learning environment of the school often then changes back into something mundane. For those who remain, obvious things become obvious again and are no longer astonishing.

Note also that pebbles are free and that pebbles are not green machines. There are some things that software freedom and green machines can't do.

thanks to Edward Cherlin for the Piaget link


Tony Forster said...

You have moved from questioning what constructionism might be to ascribing a single cause for its not scaling.

The best test that constructionism has had is Logo. Maybe it failed to scale because Logo was too hard. Maybe it failed because it was too foreign. It certainly seemed to fail at the level of enthusiasts teaching teachers who teach students. Maybe the missing element was ordinary teachers lack of
understanding of what children found hard. But it could have been the tool (Logo) not being suitable. It could have been the system not recognising success when it happened.

Bill Kerr said...

I replied to tony on the list, here

Peter said...

I'm not buying the link between "free" pebbles and being in a state of having freedom with one's software. But if we accept this link then it is equally valid to state that if someone has and uses the power to make pebbles non-free, then the potential in those pebbles to provide constructive learning opportunities would be compromised.

Regardless, great post. I found your explanation of school leadership leaving often resulting in regression interesting. Thanks for passing on the GE link. Rich stuff here.

Bill Kerr said...

hi peter,

I'm saying that we need to untangle and clarify the meaning of words such as freedom and constructionism. And not only the meaning but also the implications and affordances in broader context. Part of that is looking at the negative aspects of these words as well as the positive.

does freedom mean we support hate speech and spam? do we see freedom as an unqualified good or are there constraints there too?

does constructionism mean that we can't know the real world because it is only constructed subjectively in our heads?

Piaget leads us on a delicious dance in relation to the latter question, seeming to lead us into idealism but drawing back at the last moment (?), I'm not sure

Is this something we should teach children? That number is an abstraction, that 10 is different to 10 pebbles. My hunch is that there would be huge benefits arising from teaching children this sort of philosophy but they would not be immediately noticeable.

"... knowing an object does not mean copying it - it means acting upon it. It means constructing systems of transformations that can be carried out on or with this object. Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality ... Knowledge, then, is a system of transformations that become progressively adequate"
- Genetic Epistemology

But in many cases transfer does not occur because it is not recognised how fluid and difficult to capture knowledge is - or we might be able to put ourselves as adults into children's shoes some of the time but fail to do this for most of the time

also see untangling constructionism

Anonymous said...

"Never underestimate the power of human stupidity." Robert Heinlein.

This is not on topic though it's a comment on the original post. There are some things that software freedom can indeed do that defy common sense. To wit, two recent blog entries (at the link below) are reminiscent of King Solomon's verdict to cut the baby in half. The blogger and the other man both justify their actions-- one for and the other against a third person, a woman who they both tear asunder.

P.Ipton said...

This introduction of the blog seemed a trite addition that was irrelevant. Nevertheless, I read the two entries and found that they address a couple of questions I've been pondering on since Bill's last post: Does freedom itself have constraints? Does constructionism mean we can't know the real world because it is constructed subjectively in our heads?

This blogger Davoswe was intent on teaching the other man "K" a lesson using a computer program. Time and time again, he puts himself in K's shoes to count the pebbles forwards and backwards. K meanwhile could be using another set of pebbles, and they are not counting the same set and making the same sense. Davoswe's subjective construction in the virtual world of the Internet is one that would have been possible by snail mail and the good old telephone, but with machine programs, created instant mischief. My two cents.