Wednesday, May 28, 2008

genetic epistemology

Sometimes big words are important, not too hard to understand and they do throw a fair bit of light onto what educators do and how that might be improved.

When I read Mindstorms carefully many years ago I realised that Piaget's phrase made the distinction clear between open ended discovery learning and a more scientific approach that actually tried to tease out the evolution of knowledge structures both within a subject domain and the child. ie. both ought to evolve - our view of knowledge itself as well as its development within a child

What I wrote in 1991:
Piaget was not an educational psychologist but a genetic epistemologist. These obscure words are highly significant. Papert has recently moved to a new lab at MIT which has been named the Learning and Epistemology Group. Clearly epistemology is central to the concerns of Piaget and Papert. So, what is epistemology and what is genetic epistemology?

Piaget has recognised it as a mistake to separate the learning process from what is being learned. The study of what is being learned is epistemology. Hence, a genetic epistemologist is a person who investigates the evolution of the structure of knowledge in the minds of young people!

This is a much more dynamic conception than a traditional psychology of the learning process which passively accepts the traditional structure of knowledge as a given. Piaget and Papert are suggesting that there is a dialectical relationships between knowledge and people. Papert quotes Warren McCulloch tellingly to make this point:
"What is a man so made that he can understand number and what is number so made that a man can understand it." (Mindstorms, p. 164)
In looking at learning it is not enough to look at "learning how to learn" (ie. concentrate on the learner) but we need to study the basic structure of the subject itself. Papert investigates the basic structure of mathematics in some detail including a critique of the formal logical thinking emphasised in Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica and the "new math" of the 1960s/70s. In Piaget/Papert's view the basic structure of maths is derived from the thinking of the Bourbaki school: order, proximity (topology), combination (algebra).In Papert's view it is not natural that advanced maths ideas are inaccessible to most. What Papert has tried to do is restructure maths so as to accommodate the natural tendencies of the child. Instead of mathophobia Papert hopes to create a mathsland where it will be natural to learn maths, like learning to speak French in France.

Logo was designed with this philosophical/mathematical background in mind. Logo was developed as a language so that mathematically naive users could learn how to program and control the computer as well as more sophisticated users.
- Papert's ideas
Although, perhaps now out of date in some respects (eg. Bourbaki) this is still a very valid framework for a research agenda in a more general sense - that we explore the deep meaning of subject domains and develop better ways (in some cases using modern technology) for those deep meanings to be developed within the minds of children.

1 comment:

Tony Forster said...

love the cartoon
terms like "genetic epistemology" help us "chunk" ideas, they provide a common language for discussion. They are also very frustrating when you forget what they mean. Thanks for the timely revision.