Thursday, March 11, 2010

where are our smarts?

We think of intelligence and knowledge as being inside our heads, and yet that is only one theory. The following is from Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning and points towards an understanding of the craftsman's use of embodied knowledge, that of tool and hand familiar in its use.
Consider first how contextualism affects ideas about knowledge and how we acquire it. As Roy Pea, David Perkins, and others now put it, a "person's" knowledge is not just in one's own head, in "person solo," but in the notes that one has put into accessible notebooks, in the books with underlined passages on one's shelves, in the handbooks one has learned how to consult, in the information sources one has hitched up to the computer, in the friends one can call up to get a reference or a "steer," and so on almost endlessly. All of these, as Perkins points out, are parts of the knowledge flow of which one has become a part. And that flow even includes those highly conventionalized forms of rhetoric that we use for justifying and explaining what we are doing, each tailored to and "scaffolded" by the occasion of use. Coming to know anything, in this sense, is both situated and (to use the Pea-Perkins term) distributed. To overlook this situated-distributed nature of knowledge and knowing is to lose sight not only of the cultural nature of knowledge but of the correspondingly cultural nature of knowledge acquisition.

Ann Brown and Joseph Campione add another dimension to this picture of distribution. Schools, they note, are themselves "communities of learning or thinking" in which there are procedures, models, feedback channels, and the like that determine how, what, how much, and in what form a child "learns." The word learns deserves its quotation marks, since what the learning child is doing is participating in a kind of cultural geography that sustains and shapes what he or she is doing, and without which there would, as it were, be no learning. As David Perkins puts it at the end of his discussion,perhaps the "proper person is better conceived . . . not as the pure and enduring nucleus but [as] the sum and swarm of participations."
This passage helps to explain Maslow's proposition that those only having hammers will see all problems as nails, and may help some to understand why our schools need to be filled with tools of all kinds. With tools, we can turn our school cultures from idle supposition to discovery and creativity. To paraphrase Thomas Carlysle, without tools man is nothing, with tools, all.

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