Saturday, May 10, 2014

Looking Along and At: Ways of Knowing

Tide's Out (Bae Caenarfon, Wales. M.A. Reilly)

I've been thinking about the many ways of (un)knowing and how, as educators, we respond to efforts like the Common Core and other attempts (national and otherwise) to categorize explicit knowledge as if it was a given Truth.  David Kettel in Cartesian Habits and the 'Radical Line' of Inquiry says that in thinking about Cartesian thinking:
a particular spatial image rules our imagination. This is the image of ourselves as looking on at the knowing subject as in every instance a determinate reality set among the realities of the world. This image offers a picture of the act of knowing, of the knowing subject, and of what is known, as such. Our habitual reliance on this image lies at the heart of Cartesian thinking.
Cartesian thought is what gets privileged when we codify, such as the 'content' of standards--making the knowing explicit.  Explicit or formal knowledge is rationalized, organized, and codified--usually outside of our everyday experiences. But there are more ways of knowing and things to know than just what people with power tend to codify (school-based reading, writing, and math and the associated products, such as teacher evaluation and high stake tests). In addition to knowing explicitly, we also tacitly know.  Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) contrast explicit and tacit dimensions of knowing as follows:
The Painted Essay for CCSS writing
Painted Essay Method from Vermont Writing Collaborative.
An example of codified method. 
Explicit knowledge, as we have seen, lends itself well to the process of teaching—that is, transferring knowledge from one person to another. You teach and I learn. But tacit knowledge, which grows through personal experience and experimentation, is not transferrable—you can’t teach it to me, though I can still learn it. The reason for the difference is that learning tacit knowledge happens not only in the brain, but also in the body, through all our senses (Kindle Locations 1012-1015).
What we call tacit knowledge, Keats called 'taking part in the existence of things'.  In Roger Deakin's, Wildwood: A Journey through Trees, I learned that there are woodland people who can "tell the species of tree from the sound it makes in the wind" (pp. IX-X). This way of knowing is not written down (codified) and taught, but rather is learned through experience often alongside a more experienced other. 

C.S. Lewis, in "Meditation in a Toolshed," describes two ways of knowing. He writes, 
"You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it" (emphasis added).  
The woodland people look along trees. They are immersed in the woods and what is important to know is contextual. Knowing about trees is not something they learn by only looking at trees.  Lewis notes, " can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another."  It is this communion of ways of knowing (looking along and looking at) that is most important--not a single way.  And it this communion that is largely absent from the efforts that arise alongside national standards. (Yes, I know the CCSS Is a 'state' effort, but it feels national, doesn't it?)  

And this is what gets missed when knowledge is codified and handed out like after dinner mints for the masses to digest. The messy thinking that happened to first codify gets left off the translation--as it must. Experience cannot be handed out. It must be embodied.  So there is often little experiential learning that gets occasioned when standards are to be 'mastered' especially when the standards are tied to high stakes testing or as José Luis Vilson suggests are part of a package deal. Vilson writes (from here): 

"The CCSS came as a package deal with the new teacher evaluations, higher stakes testing, and austerity measures including mass school closings."

So the authority that accompanies codification of knowledge, the looking at stance, becomes even thornier when multiple agendas converge and are packaged as being truer than our experience. Just think about how irrational it is when people who rarely (if ever) step foot in classrooms are creating and/or are implementing the codification of the 'true' pedagogy, alongside the 'true' content as measured by the 'true' tests. 
This is the true way teach. This is the true content to learn. This is the true way to know if students have learned the true content.  
With all this Truthiness, it gets a bit crowded. So many have game.  

And yet, in determining such Truths, you may find yourself largely missing.  
You are not an actor. 
You are the one being acted upon.  

A by-product that gets fed and populated alongside codification is the belief that the knowledge codified for us is somehow truer than what we experience.  This is the stuff C.S. Lewis told us was the rot.
"...we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything."

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