On the problem of knowledge – part three: cognitive tools, language and the everyday #blogsync

mediation and languageThis is the third part of a contribution to the #blogsync Knowledge debate. In my first BLOG I offered a progressive view of knowledge and rejected Govian pedagogy and neo-traditionalism.

In the second BLOG I linked knowledge to skills (ways of thinking). In this BLOG I want to outline the view that language plays an important role in mediating: knowledge, thought and the everyday. I also want to talk about concepts such as “deep learning” and make the point that the “neo-traditionalist” view of knowledge does not account for the role of language in teaching and learning.

Language as a mediating tool

I have previously argued that OFSTED socially constructs teaching and learning in order to give their inspections some kind of credibility. One of the main tenets of social constructionism is that language does not create a simple representation of the world, the traditional view of language prior to Saussure, rather language mediates thought and constructs the experienced world.

For some reason whilst I was thinking along these line (as you do) I stumbled across an old Tom Sherrington BLOG on “closing the gap”:

…..students need to close the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback they receive.  In other words, ‘closing the gap’ means ‘acting on feedback’.  The mechanism for doing this is open to interpretation. Sounds simple enough but it was hugely impressive to see in action.

The problem with the “closing the gap” concept is that it begins to sound a lot like spoon feeding. At what point do you stop telling students what they have to do to improve? When should a student actually take ownership of their own learning and do some thinking? Prescriptive feedback can create very context specific language; in other words a private pedagogical language linked to a time, place and context.



Fig 1: Closing the gap or formalising spoon feeding?

Bruner and scaffolding

On a more recent BLOG Tom deals with this very problem more specifically:

Look at me: “Ich muss Hausaufgaben machen”. “Am Vormittag habe ich ferngesehen”.  Easy.  Students can practise these things repeatedly in the class giving the impression that they’re getting the hang of the structures.  BUT – take away the vocab sheet and what do you have? That’s the question.

I agree, that is “the question”. Often what seems a very good lesson is simply students repeating prompted information. Teachers know their learners and can simulate learning,  consciously or otherwise. Good teachers use language as cognitive prompts. “The question” is; do the students actually know what they are talking about. Or is it a case of Pavlovian learners responding to the sound of a cognitive bell?

The resolution to the problem is:

What they need to do, explicitly, is learn the vocab sufficiently so that they can put the elements together without help.  That requires a shift in emphasis: if the goal in the lesson is for students to aim at doing this unaided from the start, they will process the information differently to a situation where all they need to do is produce the goods from the sheet.   They need to develop the techniques for retaining key phrases, building up their internal resource-bank. That requires lessons with opportunities to wing it a bit, speaking unaided using what they know without the worry that getting it wrong might matter too much.  Great MFL lessons can do that as I’ve seen at HGS and KEGS.

Indeed key phrases are symbolic mediations between the learner and the learning. A problem can occur if key phrases become too context specific; in other words too private. The linguistic prompts required to access the knowledge do not exist when the context changes.

The problem is described here:

That approach should be built-in.  I once visited a primary school in a very deprived area in Essex.  The Year 1 teacher had been working on adjectives: the wall was covered in rich vocab to describe a villain in the story they were reading: scary, crabby, wicked, unkind, terrible, grumpy, selfish. They’d used them in their writing. But when the children were asked to describe the villain in the class discussion with books closed, they reverted to the basics ‘he’s bad, he’s old and mean‘ and simple things like that.  It was an uphill struggle.  They didn’t own these words; they needed to go much further to absorb them, internalise them and make them their own.

Transferring knowledge from one context to another

In the example above, the word selfish becomes linked to the specific learning context and has no meaning in any other context. The learner hasn’t forgotten the word nor have they failed to understand the meaning. The problem lies in the fact that the word has become associated with a very specific time and place.

From that perspective it’s not helpful to have overly prescriptive feedback.  Tom describes it here:

o – what to do? Do I give them more help? More scaffolding? I don’t think so.  Firstly I think I need to work with some students to improve the link from the surface learning to the underlying models; deeper models will lead to deeper recall.  Secondly, I think I need to do more testing for the recall itself.  Next week we’re kicking off with a short synoptic test; and we’ll do it again and again, each time reinforcing the conceptual models (the rearranging atoms) and the simple recall routines for each type of reaction: a bit of rote action!  That should help them relate to the models.  It works both ways.  They’ll get there.

Possibly but likely as not they won’t remember much of it for very long particulary if it is the re-contextualised knowledge of a field with it’s own specialised language (think sciences etc). The discourse required to re-enforce learning does not exist in the everyday.

There does seem to be something of a mis-representation of scaffolding in the passage above. Far from being a process of feeding back and helping students it is a process by which learners actively to take ownership of their own learning and use the concepts in new contexts. Exactly the problem Tom is addressing.

Bruner describes sit here:

The outcome of cognitive development is thinking. The intelligent mind creates from experience “generic coding systems that permit one to go beyond the data to new and possibly fruitful predictions” (Bruner, 1957, p. 234).

The problem of deep models of learning

I’m not sure what a deep model of learning is; I presume it is a re-enforcing of the context and a re-iteration of the relationships between  knowledge objects; whatever those objects may be (chemical, mathematical symbols, the dates of kings and queens etc). Even so “deep models” related to specific learning contexts  might not solve the problem, and actually exacerbate it, by making knowledge more intrinsically linked to the private language of the particular context.

Bruner’s solution is that students need to actively create, and own, the coding systems that explain phenomena.

Thus, children as they grow must acquire a way of representing the “recurrent regularities” in their environment. So, to Bruner, important outcomes of learning include not just the concepts, categories, and problem-solving procedures invented previously by the culture, but also the ability to “invent” these things for oneself.

Students embed learning into a more public pedagogical discourse. In the example above; it is the world selfish and not the context in which the word is used that is important. Students have to understand that the word selfish is not context specific.

Deeper learning or enhancing the relationships between the word and the context simply re-enforces the problem of private language. What is required is that the word selfish is re-learned in the discursive world of the everyday and then re-linked back to the context. The everyday re-enforces the learning. It is language that unlocks learning.

According to Bruner what is required are cognitive tools that are context independent:

Cognitive growth involves an interaction between basic human capabilities and “culturally invented technologies that serve as amplifiers of these capabilities.” Bruner would likely agree with Vygotsky that language serves to mediate between environmental stimuli and the individual’s response.

As Tom seems to identify (as far as I understand it)  without significant thought and focus on contexts other than the one being learned all deep learning really does is create more abstract linguistic prompts that are less explicit to the casual observer but still require a specific context to facilitate the recall of the learning.


Progressivism offers the view that the way to unlock learning is by providing more meaningful linguistic prompts that link learning to the discursive world of the everyday.

Of course you can teach long term term memory tricks but it’s hard work and it won’t last. The danger of focusing too much on specialised knowledge is that students leave school having learned little more than the private language of school linked to the arcane re-contextualised knowledge of professional academia.

A focus on more knowledge and deeper learning will simply make the problem worse.  Schools should be focusing on language and the skill of using cognitive tools to manage knowledge rather than the specialised knowledge of academic fields, if for no other reason, that there is little point in spending billions on an education system that lasts only as far as the school gates.


  1. CavMathsSkills vs Knowledge – Is it really a contest?
  2. Tom Sherrington: Some Knowledge-Skills Interplay
  3. Chris Hildrew: It’s not skills – it’s know-how
  4. David DidauSome dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’ and Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having
  5. Chris Chivers: The Search for Quality and Experiential Learning
  6. TDRE Boss: Knowledge vs Skills (An RE Perspective)
  7. Benjamin EvansFHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills
  8. Geoff PettyTeaching skills is vital: why God doesn’t agree with ‘Seven Myths about Education’
  9. Michelle Budge: Knowledge Vs Skills
  10. EdSacredProfane: Part 1 – A Progressive Perspective; Part 2 – Progressivism and the Primacy of Skills
  11. Andy Tharby: English teaching and the problem with knowledge
  12. Sue Cowley: Knowledge – The First Five Years
  13. Stephen Tierney: Education for Wisdom
  14. Nancy Gedge: A definition of terms
  15. Cherryl KD: Knowledge and skills and teaching

2 thoughts on “On the problem of knowledge – part three: cognitive tools, language and the everyday #blogsync

  1. Hi. Comment as promised. (Should I know your actual name – you know mine but I’ve lost track of whether we’ve met? I’m never entirely comfortable with anonymity…) Anyway, I don’t agree that the ‘closing the gap’ automatically equates to spoon feeding. With feedback of any kind there is a continuum – there are degrees between too little and too much. ‘Closing the gap’ is really just a form of teaching in my view; it is only spoon feeding if teaching is spoon feeding. I remember my English teacher telling me my creative writing needed more imagination; that my endings were ‘corny’. I had no idea how to change that; I didn’t get any guidance and my stories never improved. I needed more scaffolding – some clues – prior to being left to try again unaided. That would have been ‘closing the gap’. Instead I just got retrospective criticism that didn’t help. That’s what that post is about and what my diagram is meant to show – that we need students to secure improvement, not just tell them what they’ve done wrong.

    The example of ‘selfish’ as a possible word to add to some young children’s vocabulary was really about a lack of unsupported practice; students could use it when presented with it but not by themselves. Left to their own devices, they only used words they were familiar with, not the new ones. In this instance, ‘selfish’ is a word we use in everyday language so it’s possible to imagine some fairly informal ways to learn to use it; but in other areas of learning, that doesn’t happen and we need to construct more formal opportunities to practice – without the supports.

    As for “the private language of school linked to the arcane re-contextualised knowledge of professional academia” – I think that’s a rather distorted view of what we’re teaching. Academic disciplines are arguably the most coherent framework to arrange knowledge that we have and we probably don’t go far enough to empower young people to access the private language; they need more of it, not less? That’s my view.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    I won’t respond not because I don’t value your comments but I don’t suppose there is much mileage in a tit for tat.

    Different views are what blogging is all about and the BLOG’s are out there. for all to read.

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