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The Sue Cowley question: education, social circumstance and knowledge

Sue Cowley recently posted, on twitter, the question:

sue coley question

It reminded me of that famous Rousseau quote” (wo)man is born free, but (s)he is everywhere in chains,” .Or the Marx variant; “(wo)men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. Of course, apologies to Sue, I have put my own spin on it. I have assumed that “encounter” is referring to the circumstances of the individual in a wider social context than just a particular learning environment, or other. It is arguably one of the most important questions facing education today.

The answer to the question, in my view, is yes. The reason why, it is yes, is more complicated. It needs some unpacking and to venture into the world of philosophy. We are, as teachers, in the game of philosophy. Our business is, after all, knowledge.

I was recently engaged in a debate on the nature of knowledge or rather the knowing of it. A Platonic epistemic justification (the view ascribed to Plato on how we come to know things, whatever those things might be) for knowledge was offered. According to this view, knowledge is a true and justified belief. It is a favoured view of neo-traditionalist education bloggers more often than not accompanied by the language games so derided by Wittgenstein; if proposition “a” equals such and such then it is a true and justified proposition etc.

It is a view that has been debunked by everyone from, the aforementioned, Wittgenstein to Popper. The problem is seemingly obvious. Who decides what is true and justified in the absence of universally accepted principles? In fact, if you take the concept to its logical conclusion you slide into relativism. What is true and justified in Saudi Arabia, say, is not the same as in the secular West. Ironically, it is the kind of relativism that inspires such contempt from neo-traditionalists.

The solution offered by educational scholars is to re-look at social ontology, that is to say, the nature of knowledge as opposed to how we come to know it. This perspective offers the view that knowledge is in fact a social structure consisting of social groups, relations, cultural meanings and social agents. In effect, knowledge is not a proposition that we learn but a social structure that frames everything that we do. It is ontologically “real” and has causal properties.

The truth is then a proposition about the relations between how we come to know something and how it works in the real world. This is the position, as far as you can ascribe a position in an 800-word blog, of the neo Vygotskians: Bernstein, Maton, Moore and Young etc. who are the proponents of knowledge in the curriculum. Although it is an argument for knowledge it is substantively different to the one offered by Hirsch, Willingham etc. and the neo-traditionalist education bloggers.

An example of a knowledge structure could be feedback. It is possible to ascribe a proposition to feedback but not one that could be used in practice. There is no, one, proposition that can be said to represent “feedback”; practice is multi variant. It is also maintained and transmitted by numerous social groups: policy makers, researchers, school / college groups etc. As such, the nature of feedback knowledge can change as we learn new things about it. 

Echoing Wittgenstein, we could say that feedback is a knowledge construct that is understood only in the context that it is used and the circumstance that it is derived but also, echoing the social realists, it is a structure that resides outside the knowing of individual agents. In other words, yes, we encounter and interpret knowledge in the context we engage with it but also that as “we and others” encounter the same structure our interpretation will be constrained by it. 

In order to understand the discourse of education twitter you need to understand the fallibility of epistemology as a means of describing knowledge in social practice. Therefore, the answer is yes, we acquire knowledge according to the social circumstances, in which, we find ourselves never entirely free of the “chains” that shackle us nor to think “as we please”.

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5 thoughts on “The Sue Cowley question: education, social circumstance and knowledge

  1. Thanks for these thoughts – you can see why your exposition will be uncomfortable to neo-trads both in the blogosphere and also the halls of the DfE where they want to know, “what works” and in same way I assume they want to know, “what is true”. The idea that we have a socially constructed, dynamic and flexible construct will be anathema – this is hardly, “the best of what had been thought and said”.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes I’m also dubious about the concept that there is a best that has been thought and said. Knowledge is a dynamic construct there is a fine line between educating young people about cultural traditions and protecting knowledge domains simply because in the 19th century that is what was considered important.

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