Dr. Judith M. Newman



Common Knowledge

[ Journal Entry ]

I started with the Edwards/Mercer piece. A summary of their argument: Knowledge is social and cultural; consequently context and continuity are fundamental considerations (resonates with Dewey); 'context' and 'continuity' are mental phenomena (sounds like Smith's demonstrations -- events, ideas become contextual only when they are invoked, when the "light bulb" goes on); one important function of schooling is 'cognitive socialization'—the development of 'common knowledge' a consequence of classroom dialogue; the talk in school is intricately embedded in the context; there are social conventions for presenting knowledge in school and for defining and solving problems (the conventions someone like Bigelow or O'Brien invoke are quite different from those of a teacher concerned only with transmitting information; some knowledge is 'ritual' and some is 'principled' (similar to, but not the same as, the distinction which Barnes and Boomer make regarding fact vs knowledge for action).

Where I had difficulty with Edwards/Mercer's work has to do with the 'conventions'. Not that I don't believe there are very definite conventions about what constitutes school knowledge and how it may be talked about—for example in most classroom settings the kind of conversation Bigelow or Kohl were able to have with their students would be unthinkable—I disagree with E/M's insistence on having the kids 'achieve' the accepted explanations of scientific phenomena—O'Brien's way of leaving students with the problem unresolved doesn't seem to be an option for them and I believe it will be until each student has the light go on and that may occur for different students at different times. As E/M report, their observations of British elementary teachers do try to carry out (at least did when they did the study—the results might look a bit different today 20 years later) a somewhat open agenda; however, in the end most resort to explaining the phenomena under investigation to the kids—they don't seem to be able to live with the ambiguity of the kids' theories or to be able to set up situtions, as did O'Brien, which would push against those theories.

Wells & Wells take a similar starting point—learning is a social transaction within an embedded context, etc. But they go further—"the guidance and assistance that the adult gives in such joint problem-solving situations needs to be responsive to the learner's own intentions and understanding, and pitched slightly beyond her current level of unaided performance (p:29). " [this latter is at the heart of Vygotsky's discussion of "zone of proximal development"—in which he contends that in a learning situation we're stretched when there is support to be able to do or understand something just beyond we were able to do or understand on our own. The transcripts illustrate situations similar to O'Brien's efforts to confront the kids' theories and to help them explore other possibilities in a way that engenders reflection on the problem.

In other words, the teacher is using conversation to nudge the learner to having the light bulb go on—but with a difference to E/M—in Wells/Wells' situation the goal isn't necessarily to "learn" the accepted explanation but to enable the kids to examine their own theories in order to recognize contradictions so that they become open to new possibilities.

As Wells/Wells put it "learning that is concerned with understanding—rather than with the memorization of isolated bits of information or the application of a simple algorithm—is not an all-or-nothing affair. On the contrary, it involves the cumulative construction of knowledge over many encounters with relevant problems, with the learner bringing what was learned on previous occasions to make connections with the information presented in each new problem and thereby making more and better sense of the phenomena in question (p:41)."

That takes me back to some of the instructional conversations on Friday. There were several situations in which I was asked for or determined that some specific information would be useful. The challenge for me was to keep the situation "complex" yet offer something that had the possibility of connecting. That meant being a "kid-watcher" so I could tell when I'd gone too far.

Edwards/Mercer push for teacher clarification of what they refer to as "common knowledge"—that is, they argue, in the end, for an instructional situation where teachers make explicit what kids may not be able to understand for themselves. While Wells/Wells are arguing strongly for collaborative inquiry even thought it might not generate the "accepted" explanations for pheonomena. It's one of those interesting tensions that's unresolvable.

There was some further discussion of the tension between students interpretations of the world and accepted "common knowledge" which Zahorik alludes to.

The resolution I've worked out for myself is to step back from finally "telling" folks about various theoretical arguments by inviting you to read widely. By engaging you in conversation with various authors I'm making sure that you have contact with the accepted "common kowledge" without having to be didactic about it. The group conversations will bring some general understanding of the issues. There are likely refinements to the arguments you may not fully understand but my way of dealing with that is to have you read some more.

The question is how could you do the same thing in your classroom?