Science, culture, education, and the brain

Science, culture, education, and the brain:
Loopiness, story telling, and conflict in inquiry ... and life

Paul Grobstein

4th Annual Springer Forum on Cultural Studies of Science Education

24 March 2010


"Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself"
... John Dewey, Experience and Education

"Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world"
Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics

"We live with stories ... If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives"
Thomas King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative


Science as life itself: an introduction to loopiness, story telling, culture, conflict, and inquiry

The brain as an inquirer: the nexus of multiple conflict detecting loops

  • Inside-outside
  • Unconscious-conscious
  • Inter-personal, inter-cultural

Expanding on the brain and inter-personal/inter-cultural loops

Implications for science, education, cultural studies ... and life

The task is not to get it right but to get it less wrong, not to disprove existing understandings but to recognize their context-dependence, not to discover what is but to construct from conflicting understandings previously unconceived alternative understandings.  The brain already provides each of us with the wherewithal to do this, individually and collectively.  What is needed in addition is only a shared confidence in and commitment to the process of ongoing construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, in "life itself" as an ongoing evolutionary process.  Education should model this confidence/commitment, and contribute to creating a new story.


alesnick's picture

a reaction and a question

I'm intrigued by the possibility that accepting "getting it less wrong" as a target needn't commit one to believe in "getting it right."  Getting it less wrong seems like an open-ended target, one that responds to problems and possibilities of the past, present, and future.  Getting it right seems to bring striving and exploration to an end/point/bullseye.  To take the work out of time in a sense.

My question is whether it's necessary or useful to talk about assessing inquiry skills in a formal ed. context.  In informal ed contexts, "assessment" is evolution -- it is what happens as a result of one's inquiries.  When we symbolize what happens in terms of "assessment mechanisms," isn't something really important lost in translation, and don't we take on problems that block future efforts to get it less wrong?

Paul Grobstein's picture

assessment in a less wrong world

Yep, an "open-ended target."  And point well taken re "assessment mechanisms."  I'd be quite comfortable with the informal ed context of assessment by evolution, ie one is measured by what one has demonstrably achieved, by how far one has gone in any direction from where one started.  What was on my mind was the transition issue.  Given the contemporary preoccupation with assessment and the existing practice of doing so in terms of achieving norm understanding, what could we replace the latter with?  Yes, down the road somewhere I'd favor letting everyone, both teachers and students, evolve in whatever ways the evolve.  In the meanwhile, I don't think we can ignore peoples' wish, not entirely unreasonable, to know what educational processes are designed to achieve and to have a way to evaluate whether they are in fact achieving that.     

Paul Grobstein's picture

Culture, brain, science, education: mtg thoughts

Rich conversation/exchange, both in/around my talk (as per notes above and links from there) and in the meeting generally. Many thanks to all involved.  Here a few things I want to continue thinking about, for anyone interested.  Looking forward as well to other reactions to the talk/meeting, to seeing what differences there are in our thinking, and what alternative new understandings come from that.

I was pleased people found interesting/useful the science as story/loopy science idea, and will myself find useful the distinction between those with "bench science" experience, for whom the traditional linear science doesn't work, and others, who still often see/teach science in those terms.  Maybe that should be part of an explicit rationale for laboratories in science teaching, to give people the kind of "bench science" experience that helps them better understand the nature of science itself.

As in other contexts, the "less wrong" and "conflict" ideas provoked concerns, the former because it seems to imply an available "rightness" and the latter because it brings up issues of competitiveness and concerns about how "incommensurables" will be dealt with.  Are there yet to be found better ways to express the underlying idea of less wrong in the absence of any right, and of conflict as generative/constructive/cooperative rather than dismissive/destructive/competitive?  Or perhaps, at least for the moment, one needs the push back against the words and use the resulting exchange to make the underlying ideas clear?

I was pleased as well that the constructedness of perception resonated with people.  And will add Schrodinger's "nothing is real unless it is observed" to my repertoire on this theme.  Also helpful for me was the suggestion that the construal of culture I offered was related to the socio-cultural perspective of Vygotsky and Luria, to a dialectical and co-constructive ("looping") relationship between individuals and societies.  That too I'll add to my repertoire on that theme.

What most interested/intriguted me though was less the reactions to my own talk and more the intersections between that and Ken Tobin's opening remarks, Wes Shumar's talk, the talk by Donna DeGennaro and Tiffany Brown, and the general discussion associated with each and all of those. 

My sense of a pattern in the intersections began with Ken's concern for finding "a fresh way to think about difference," a way that "invites in difference" rather than tolerating it, a way that would do away with the "ncessity for coherence," answer the question "what to do with difference?," and provide a new context for thinking about both culture and knowledge/inquiry. It continued with Wes's discussion of the anthropological distinction between observing things that are "other" and learning by reciprocal interaction, and of the capitalist propensity to commodify and objectify.  And it expanded with Donna and Tiffany's account of a classroom that began with well-defined traditional "teacher" and "student" hierarchical roles and evolved into a more satisfying and productive experience of sharing differing life experiences/expertises.

Wes suggested that he and I share a "skepticism of positivism," and I think that's true but that we share something more as well: a belief in/commitment to the benefits of thinking not in terms of subjects and objects and unidirectional causal relationships among them but rather in terms of mutually influential dialectics from which new forms emerge.  Ken and I clearly have a common concern for giving "difference" a central role in our thinking, not only about theory and culture but also about education.  I'd like to think that my talk about the brain and the constructedness of knowledge begins to help to do that by emphasizing the  tentativeness of all existing knowledge and the essential role of difference, intrapsychic, interpersonal, and intercultural, in bringing into existence new and less wrong understandings, both individual and social.

What helped to crystallize all this in my mind was some small and large group discussion about "norms" and "standards," both in education and in culture generally.  The idea that emerged is that we have learned to deal, if still somewhat reluctantly, with diversity as a starting point but that we still, both in classroom contexts and more generally, act as if what we want to achieve is commonality, bringing people from their diverse starting points to some shared degree of accomplishment/normalcy, lessening diversity and difference.  Maybe instead, in both classrooms and cultural systems generally, we should wholeheartedly embrace difference as the substrate for bringing new things into existence, and so not only welcome it at the outset but encourage its continuing development?  And use that as both the definition and the foundation of inquiry, both in the classroom and as a significant part of life in general?  For some more recent thoughts along these lines, see Cultures of Ability.

I'm intrigued by the notion of taking "open-ended co-construction" as the goal of life, of culture, of education, and of science classrooms.  And by the interesting new questions it in turn creates.  Could we develop assessment mechanisms to evaluate students in terms of their development of skills in this realm, instead of evaluating them in terms of their success at reaching some norm understanding?  In what ways would teachers/teacher education programs need to change, and how could one help them see the potential benefits to themselves in doing so?  In what ways would not only cultures but our ways of exploring them need to change?  And in what ways would inquiry, including research into education and into the brain, be different from this perspective?   Lots of grist for further thought and ... maybe even future social change?     

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