Poise, Part 1

Knowledge entering the brain, gravitationally

Curriculum is an interesting thing. Anybody who's worked as an educator knows the endless debates about what to teach people and how to teach it. Debates which extend well outside the school walls into the wider community and also into academe.

Some older private schools cling to a notion of curriculum that is some sort of audition for Monty Python's Upper Class Twit Olympics. The various incarnations of Ladette to Lady certainly haven't forgotten that in the good old days a good school was first and foremost about ensuring one did justice to one's breeding, with the rampant overbites and gout of parents and teachers obvious evidence that this was an area they knew something about. The Ivy League universities in the US and Oxbridge in the UK are so openly about getting ahead socially, despite the often fantastic academic work being done at the same time. And despite recent attempts to bring some fresh meat into the Windsor clan, you can see with the offspring that if you limit yourself to fillies of good aristocratic lineage, such as Diana and Fergie, the best you can hope for is maybe 3 genes' difference between mum and dad, rather than only 1 or 2.

It's all just as depressingly hopeless in the noble bastions of public (non-private) schooling. There's nothing like wallowing in your own stereotype and learning to love it. All the strategic barbs about disciplining the great unwashed and ill-bred become badges of honour. It is true that education is a a bit of a social leveller, but it's quite something else to make education predominantly about levelling. There was a time when a 'comprehensive' school was comprehensive in every sense of the word - a comprehensive mix of students of all level of ability and wealth, with a well-rounded mix of subjects. Today it has just come to mean that the school is another local branch of Centrelink.

Personally I don't think you can progress an inch with the idea of education and curriculum unless you drop once and for all the idea that knowledge is some disinterested activity, 'about' things. The old schools in some ways had it right when they tried to work on the whole person, taking it as being as much about building a person's entire character as it was about firing atomised bits and bytes into their neurons. But that sort of thing almost always ends up as deportment-type snobbery, with character coming to mean the characteristics of the rich and powerful of the time. And you can't build character effectively anyway if you don't recognise that school is linked to everything else going on in society, and no matter what you do there, if it isn't reinforced elsewhere you're pretty much pissing into the wind.

Knowing has for some time been lumbering under a model of an empty head carrying a sponge-like brain, which absorbs bits and pieces entering through the eyes, ears and other sense organs. So the entire relationship between knowing and living has been trimmed right down to this idiot cognitive schema. From there if you wanted to talk about education you went either of two ways. Either you argued over which bits of knowledge to fire at the brains each day, with an always growing list of candidates, from the old 3 Rs to road safety and drug education. Or, with the recognised exponential growth in knowledge, you shift to teaching 'tools' to sift through this increasing mountain of data. (Or you do both, as most schools and even universities now do.) In both cases knowledge is a disembodied set of bytes, bits and books which the student orbits with more or less engagement, depending on whether you think there are still critical knowings (the 3R approach), or whether you think it's all just about equipping them with tools to navigate with at whim, at which point the engagment is all in the student's choice of knowlege (often skateboard websites or Facebook).

If you back up from the cognitive brain-and-knowledge ideas about knowing, it actually all starts to look a bit easier. For example we all need to know all sorts of things, every day, just to function, like how to drive, work household appliances, use EFTPOS, do up our shoelaces, raise kids, etc. Most of the things we need to know how to do we never learn in school. Learning is happening all the time, every day, we couldn't function without it. But it's not a cognitive process, it's not something your brain does, it's something all of you does, in interaction with the people and events around you. The embodied cognition people like Andy Clark are belatedly showing in academic terms what was bankrupt in cognitivism all along, that knowing is not a disinteresetd brain thing, it's an activity, within a wider pattern or context of living.

To know is a completely practical and physical set of skills. Doesn't matter if you're learning how to fit a tap washer or how to do quantum electrodynamics calculations, it's always a set of practical skills to achieve a practical outcome. Anybody who's studied at a 'higher level' knows this, although retrospectively they'll usually label what they do as some sort of cognitive feat. When I did honours in superconductivity in my first degree, nowhere along the way did we depart from practical skills - learning how to calculate crtitical temperatures was just as practical a thing as grinding and firing the superconductors themselves, it's just that in one case it was bits of paper and computers and in the other lab gear. Tracey Kidder's many books all attest to this so beautifully - his The Soul of a New Machine is a perfect example of how building an incredibly complex thing, like a compter, is actually just a whole series of completely practical activities, folded together in so many layers that the outcome looks 'abstract' and 'complex'.

If this wasn't true there wouldn't be anywhere near enough geniuses born to get a thing done.

Now, if knowledge really is just about practical activity, learning how to make (usually small) changes to activities we're already doing, what are the implications for education? I'd argue what a good education teaches is poise. Of which more next time...


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