How do we know?

Teksten nedenfor er lastet ned fra en gammel fil. I omtalen av ulike problemformuleringer i tre steg (S1 m    S2 osv) mangler en pil fram mot det siste symbolet. Det kan være greit å vite.

How do we know?

Reflecting on learning. Tribute to Don Schön.

 Jon Frode Blichfeldt, Work Research Institute/University of Oslo.

 (Extended version of lecture given at the Don Schön Memorial Conference, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Reflecting on Learning.” January 1999.)

On the death of Donald Schön, David Warsh, in his Boston Globe obituary named Don «The consultant`s consultant.»  Having known Don as a colleague and friend for more than fifteen years, I can identify with this phrase: A meeting with Don was likely to bring up something new, a new turn understanding my own practise. Not because he would excel in some good solutions, techniques or insights for me to apply, but rather because he`d be interested in my experience, getting into dialogues and mutual reflections on this experience, and thus facilitating my own learning process.

 And he would share, and quest his own experiences. Always on the outlook for something new, he was ready to listen, quest and learn from a wide range of professions and experiences, however small or grand, from a child or a professor. Rather than ask for recipes, for quick solutions, he would inquire into examples of ordinary conversation, into the practicalities of designing, making or fixing things, into the doers` naming of their doings.

He would argue that able professionals inevitably know more than they can say. He challenged professionals, consultants, teachers, architects, engineers, managers, lawyers, musicians to reflect on how it was that they solved their practical, professional problems. Not to have them standardized: In our age of computer-technology it might be increasingly important to understand the differences between skills that can easily be replicated and those that cannot. His quest would rather be a continuous quest to broaden and deepen the reservoir of knowledge through which professionals serve the community.

He put a lot of effort into the cause of general and professional education, proposing that professional competence could successfully be studied and taught. But to achieve this successfully he would urge that we look for organizational settings, for experiments and experiences dedicated to heal the splits between teaching and doing, school and life, research and practice typical of most institutionalized education.

In the middle of the 80ies a small informal group of six gathered discussing «learning and doing,» among us Don. Over the years we met a lot of times, in the Negev, in Boston, Philadelphia, in Oslo or in the Norwegian mountains. «Walks and talks» we called it, at times extending the group. Irregularly we have kept our dialogues going, comparing notes and practical experiences, exchanging ideas.

My last exchange with Don was on the regular discrepancy between ideals of educational reforms, or «espoused theories» and the actual performance on school-level, the «theories-in-use.» We compared notes, to a large extent coinciding – his on evaluating the «Annenberg Challenge» in US education, mine on the Norwegian national reform in upper secondary education. (R94).

He suggested the need of an intermediate «design theory»  – the theory of action implicit in detailed design, procedures, sequences, budgets, the specified plans for program implementation. Our discussions were never completed. [1]

In January 1999, a small conference to the memory of Don was held at the Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, where the group of six first met. The headlines of the conference were «Reflecting on learning,» tribute to Don Schön. The remaining four of our small group were giving presentations under different sections. What follows is an attempted extension of  my simple presentation on that occasion, the section headline being:

 How do we know?

Learning processes among children and adults.

 Preparing my presentation for this small memorial conference,  I asked several of my colleagues, well reputed social scientists, a rephrased version of the headline of the session: «how do you know?» Two out of three immediately answered «well…I don`t know:» The rest after some hesitation answered» well…that depends..what more specifically are we talking about.»

But of course my colleagues did know. We all know – or we think or pretend that we know, at least something. The world in which we live does make, at least some, sense. It somehow, at least partly, seems recognizable, adjustable, it might be manipulated and predictable. If not it would be insanity.

On several of my privileged walks and talks with Don we somehow went circling around the wonders of knowing and learning. Our attempts of explanation, however, always seemed unsatisfactory. We shared our experiences trying to teach students to inquiry, sort out, analyse and maybe even understand organizational practise. We observed that our theories on our doings didn`t work very well. It seemed like a calculus that doesn`t come out even, trying to grasp something that seems basically ineffable. I remember, at least on one occasion, we agreed that a concept of knowing and learning fully and totally understood, explained and predictive also would be a concept emptied, it would be self-destructive.

Looking for a reasonable way to answer the headline question: «How do we know?»  I found that somehow I would have to rephrase the question: «How would I go about trying to explain to somebody how I know?»  My next idea was that in order to do so, I would have to tell some personal stories of significance to my own knowing, rather than make excursions into relevant theories of learning.

I decided first to tell, and try to look into three small, very ordinary family stories. We have in our family, four kids, three girls and a boy, who is number three in the row. My stories concern our boy, not because it is more exclusive or important to be male, but maybe because I happen to be a male myself, and I think that is of some significance too. To these three stories I will add a fourth story, a «work-place-story,» taken from our research institute.

 These four small stories might be understood and interpreted differently. One reason for me to choose what you rightly might call ordinary and even banal small stories is the likeliness that you all might have somewhat matching experiences. Your understanding and interpretation of my stories might be influenced by these experiences of yours -hopefully having been somewhat evoked or reminded by these small stories of mine.  You might test my interpretations of the small stories against some of your own, and maybe join in, maybe finding quite different angles of making sense – or just discard them. I do believe that the process of somehow to be made aware so as to recall and explicate experiences as well as intentions through stories, are vital to individual as well as social being and development.

Somehow, while trying to extend my original presentation a little, I find myself making another rephrasing of the initial question, now asking: «How do we make sense?» Using the small stories as examples on «making sense.»  Thinking that in most respects I`m not a very extraordinary human being, my trying to make sense of some personal experiences might have some general bearing upon how we make sense. To a certain extent I might be about to to equate a concept of «learning» with a concept of «making sense.» This note, as written, might in itself be regarded as a small attempt to explore processes of «making sense.»


 This first story took place at bedtime, it was getting late. Our son, who was the age of between two and three years old, was eagerly doing some playing, not wanting to go to bed. It was a very ordinary scene, probably it had taken place many times.

 I was getting tired, probably also having some paper work still waiting. I was trying to entice him into bed. He didn`t want to be enticed, and I became more insistent that he should go to bed. He responded by  insisting too – that he wouldn`t. I was gradually loosing my temper, becoming angry. He lost his temper, becoming angry and – I suppose, somewhat scared. Finally I was yelling, he was screaming.  Then, just in a flash, I had a deja vù. I had experienced this before. I was a little boy screaming – some adult, probably my father, was yelling, I remembered the fear, the being- little – ness. This flash of remembrance was a strong experience there and then. Why should I behave in a similar way, not very agreeable, and certainly not according to what I wanted, or according to values I would have espoused if being asked? What happened next, I don`t recall, except that my anger immediately evaporated. I probably tried out some different (and hopefully more friendly and patient) approach there and then.

  The first story of the three is to me the most complicated one, the one giving most resistance to «making sense.»  At the same it seems the one most immediately making sense. Why does it make resistance, and yet make immediate sense?

Maybe it is because it points back to moments of my life where language and memory turn shady, moments before categories were established which could help me in sorting out and making sense. The story points to a period of life before «knowledge» – a point where we all somehow start.

Maybe the story makes resistance because uneasy feelings are being raised, the feelings of anger, of being scared, of feeling lost, frustrated or out of control. What «actually» might have happened those days from the perspective of the small child I once was, I don`t know for certain – maybe what I do remember is just those uneasy feelings.

Maybe the story makes resistance because of its complexity. It might address areas of philosophy, of myths, beliefs, areas where «angels fear to thread» as Bateson phrased it; areas where vast contributions of human scholarship indicates yet another turn rather futile.

And yet: I also have a hunch that those complex questions do address our simple lives, questions that somehow are reconsidered with every new individual, more or less their own way. And that might be a point too.

Any statement involves simplification. I have to simplify. Any telling is done from some vantage point of the teller. What I can tell, and thus somehow «know» from the first story, is the story as it appeared to me as a father, and now looking (and reflecting) at it from a growing distance. The characteristics of the appearance as recapitulated were:

a) As a sensation, there-and-then, it came suddenly and unpredicted. It had some quality of surprise. b) As a flashback or déjà vu it did involve memory, which could be quite deceptive, both on a long and short perspective. The long perspective takes me back to my own childhood, the short perspective, this flashback, was itself being stored immediately as a new memory. c) The memories were unpleasant (both seen at long- and short range). This unpleasantness might be said to imply some feeling of discrepancy, doubt, something being out-of-balance or inconsistent, maybe to be named fear or agony. d) The unpleasantness urged for correction, of action – maybe of fight or flight.. It probably did then, it certainly did now. e) The story involves relationships.

I think that stories told, stored, recalled and maybe reframed and rephrased, somehow mirror time and our endeavours to give some sense to our doings. As our former colleague David Philip Herbst phrased it: «It is strange how we might tell a story. There is always something before the beginning and after the end.»

My memory which also was a sensation «here-and-now», does refer to the past as a necessity. It somehow did happen then – way back. I know there is a connection, although I can`t link my reactions to any details from the childhood experience. The flashback released by my crying son and my own anger was important enough to be recalled. It wasdistinct enough among all the things that once happened, but had been forgotten, either because they were «automated» as part of routine, because they were not important, or because they were repressed. (According to psychoanalytic theory).

Once the memory was brought to awareness, it might be reflected upon, acted upon. The pain, or dislike in the actual situation called for an immediate on-the-spot readjustment of behaviour. Such responsive processes are certainly commonplace (and close to Don`s concept of «reflection-in-action..») in child upbringing or problem solving. Such processes might spur a movement «taking a step back,» to «reflect – on» what was happening, so that future expectations and basic values might eventually be reconsidered. The reconsidering, the urge for a change or need for correction refers to some future; the intention or wish to avoid pain, to obtain a wished-for situation or goal, the realization of values or expectations and eventually a choice of action to get there. Would there be a «time» without our memories of the past, without our intentions on the future – and our storytelling to be aware of the past and possible futures?

Back in those shady days of infancy, in pre-language time, presence was about all there was, as was now the case for my son. There were but embryos, if any, of memory and future intentions, of deliberate choices of action. From the moment of conception as a personal primary distinction and then for quite a while, none of us could hardly do anything regarding «knowledge,» «learning,» «making sense.» We were given to the mercy of biological form and needs, of time and place, and most certainly of a mother and maybe a father. The differences (making a difference) thus made to our lives certainly were not differences enabling us to make deliberate choices of action.

Our «here-and-now» seems only a thin fluctuating borderline between the notion of the past, with its shortcomings – and the future with its expectations of healing or restoration, but basically with its uncertainties. Our present, as we come to language, seems somehow always «storytelling» or making conversations back and forth with and on what (and who) is at hand; this in order to cope with it, to make sense. The making sense of the present, choosing course of action seems to borrow from past experiences.

These past, and early experiences, the early distinctions (maybe even primary distinctions in the language of Spencer-Brown) do, as I understand it, provide each and every one of us with a personally woven garment, or a background painting of coherence, maybe a melody with its own beat and modulations, a personal behavioural world and logic which significance is not easily available – to be reflected upon and reconsidered. Its basic form, rhythms or texture were moulded in the shady days of early childhood, of becoming.

Metaphorically the threads of this garment or the colours of the background of the painting are found in our genetic heritance, the geographic and social circumstances under and into which we are born.

We develop some coherent rough pictures of our whereabouts. Like a tapestry of individual different colours and patterns, sounds and rhythms, where patterns might be said to vary or have similarities according to where and under which constraints they have been worked out; within families, socioeconomic strata, nationality or what we might call «cultures.» We might also name it a context or a collective from which our individuality develops. There are different (and somewhat similar or comparable) logics, smells, sounds – ways of behaving in different families. To some extent I do behave according to experiences that, at least to begin with, are beyond my influence. However, the behaviour might be regarded as adaptive in the sense that it tends towards a fit or variability in whatever context I happened to appear in.

This is my heritage, the weaving that is my garment, or the colours of my painting, my tune, as I venture further into the world. I might know nothing about my garment in terms of concepts, explanations or models. I might not know very much as it comes to «knowing about» or «knowing why» – but still be able to know a lot of » know – hows.» I might know how to sing certain songs, how to dance or walk in certain rhythms, use a specific vocabulary.  If beaten as a child, I know how to beat, if yelled at; I know how to yell, or maybe how to escape.

I do then, with the psychoanalysts, believe that our first weavings or garments serve as the background onto which new experiences are tagged, and consequently will be seen, and make sense and, hopefully, if the weaving turns out to be maladaptive, we are still able to change patterns. When patterns somehow don`t work and call for some change or reconstruction.

In order to actively reconstruct patterns, to make better sense, there is a need to have some of the original patterns explicated, pictured, and worded, to be reflected on so they may be put aside or reshaped.   And of course – some, probably most, of such patterns, will remain undetected or non-reflected all through our lives. They are just there as what is unconsciously me, and there is no reason to make trouble about them. I believe that children bereft of a coherent “weaving” at an early age, do have problems learning and knowing, finding their way later on.

And I also believe that my experience as a father is a kind of «re-entry» into my own painting, this re-entry releasing my responsibility and moral obligations, thus providing colours to the picturing of a new generation, although simultaneously working on my own – still becoming.

  Wondering and testing.

My second little story might seem simpler, although I`m not so sure. It shows, anyhow, how a child might test his environment in a less shady and emotional setting, than my first story, and gives some clues to my own understanding of a child`s development.

It was an ordinary, say Tuesday morning. I was walking our son of some three or four years old to the kindergarten. As very pedagogical parents we usually had the small kids open the new day on the calendar as part of the morning breakfast ritual. This was in order to teach them the names of the days of the week. So today was Tuesday.

 As we walked down the street, the little boy asked the first person he met: «What day is it today?» And it was Tuesday. He also did ask the second person we met on our way. And   it was still Tuesday..  Maybe we had met five or six people on our short trip to the kindergarten. They had all been asked about the day – and on the fifth or sixth confirming answer, the boy exclaimed very enthusiastically: «You know, daddy, it is Tuesday everywhere!»  He had learned something new.

 The characteristics of the situation might be compared to the first one. a) Like the first one – what happened was not expected. b) There was no immediate flashback or impulse towards action on my behalf. Maybe I had some curiosity and also a wish to interfere. c) This situation certainly also was relational.

In our very pedagogical instruction of weekdays we felt quite successful. You know, our son was fully capable of reciting all the weekdays in the right order: Monday, Tuesday etc. It actually did not occur to us that to him these names had no temporal reference at all. What actually went on in his mind I don`t know, but what I discovered that day, was that he probably had established his own, quite consistent system on the game of day-naming. Most probably his concept of the “day” was given a specific, very concrete place – on the wall in the kitchen. My guess is that he had some sneaking suspicion that this understanding was insufficient; days might also be somewhere else. He seems to have tested this assumption by sampling – and at a certain point this assumption was verified. Tuesday was not only in the kitchen, but everywhere. We could say that he still was able to keep his basic assumption and understanding of the day as related to some concrete place rather than time. He still did not know or understand.  Or did he? I am not so sure. Can any of you imagine time without reference to some concrete place?

Also in this story there is the asymmetric relation between the child and the grown-up, in this case the father and son. It could have been the teacher and pupil or boss and subordinate, or maybe a more symmetric relation of mates, colleagues.

I must admit, that walking to the kindergarten, the boy confidently asking some stranger  which day it was, I felt somewhat uncertain, impatient and embarrassed – and even more so as the question was repeated. By chance, or maybe as part of my somewhat changed behaviour due to the déjà-vu incident the year or so before, I did not intervene. Nor did I understand what he was up to. I might very easily have interrupted and stopped him – given him some “right” answer, or simply have stopped him because of my own embarrassment or uncertainty.

Most often I think we do, as authorities, stop them for one reason or another. We stop our children, pupils or subordinates as they are testing their assumptions, making sense. We do so because we have the answers, or maybe because we have fear of losing a privileged position. We believe that theory is some kind of privileged form of knowledge apart from practical experiences, and in educational situations to be possessed by those of us who, for some reason have been placed as «authorities» of some kind.

If now – I had interrupted my son on that occasion, I don`t think this would have had any significance as for his knowing, or understanding concerning week-days. But I do think it might significantly have reduced his confidence in actively testing, wondering, finding out. Sometimes the appropriate way of acting might be not to act, not to interfere.

There is an addendum to the story. As I jotted it down for the conference, I also showed it to our son, now 20 years old. Did he remember? Yes he did – but he also continued: «What you didn`t notice or know, was that later on, I continued this kind of testing time, but testing the time of the day, asking adults I met: What time is it? And it was never the same, it wasn`t everywhere at all, and it troubled me for a long time..»  So hopefully, my not stopping him the first time kept us both wondering.

Right answers.

My third story, has quite some similarities to the second one, but the relationship is extended to, and also includes our first formal institution for learning and knowing, i.e. primary school.  To me, this last story is a story of what Don and many others with him, have called «school knowledge» as confronted with more «immediate learning.»

The class of our son had been through a math test – and they should look through the corrections given by the teacher at home. Our son, now some ten or eleven, complained that one of his solutions had not been fully accepted by the teacher.

 The arithmetic problem not solved to the satisfaction of the teacher was as follows: In a soccer tournament there are 6 teams participating. How many matches must be played so that all the teams could play against each of the other?  What the teacher criticised was that the boy had not used the formula. He had simply named every team, listed them and counted them against each other. But he did get the right answer!

 I said I didn`t know any formula either, and I would probably have counted too. But to make it a little easier to count, I suggested I might have ordered the teams in a matrix of 6 by 6 and crossed them out? He did line up a matrix, naming the teams, crossing out, finding that the diagonal didn`t count because the team was playing against itself, and that the upper half of the matrix was redundant, just mirroring the lower half. And again I heard this little enthusiastic «eureka!»:  «You know daddy it is just like calculating the area of the square, only you divide by 2!»  And just by chance he also discovered the reasoning behind the formula on calculating the area of the triangle. A soccer tournament may be pictured by an even-sided perpendicular triangle.

 «School knowledge» much too often seems to be geared towards some final «product, «right answer» or fixed formula rather than to the more practical processes and rationality that is basic for systematization and categorization, actually do precede the categories.

The boy had approached the problem in a most practical way, setting it up, thus arriving at the right answer, as he did at the age of three – with a somewhat more dubious result, but with his curiousness and wondering somewhat intact. He had used his own way, his own naming to the process – it was his. The situation of testing in class, certainly involved an element of surprise, followed by the process of finding out.

The organization of schools mostly seems geared towards predictive behaviour and the elimination of surprise, to focus the final product or right answer. There are good organizational reasons for this way of organizing. First of all, as we do have mass education, working this way seems cheaper, as it is easier to standardize, and thus to measure – and also to use as a standard tool for certification, differentiation and selection into different streams, levels and careers.

But maybe this does not evoke good learning processes, or development of basic competences and skills. If my second story has some general bearing on the capacity of ordinary children to set up a problem, to work out consistent logics, to sort out, to test, the third story also indicates that often there is not sufficient space for experimenting and learning processes to take place. The focus on fixed formulae and categories somehow seems to be given priority at the expense of the more practical processes and rationality that are essential for systematization and categorization. Actually these processes are prior to the categories. School somehow tends to turn the process upside down.

I also do find it supportive to my understanding, that the boy before this would have had no problem recalling the formula for calculating the area of a triangle, as he some years earlier had no problems rattling off the days of the week. But he had no clear idea that there might be a connection between this formula and calculating the area of the square, that a triangle is a square cut in half by the diagonal. That`s why you divide by two.  Although I`m sure the teacher had told him.

With a minimum coaching we found another way of setting up the problem, still quite practically – and related to his own way going about it, finding out.

Usually there are lots and lots of ways of setting up a problem. There are no strict rules and theories for setting up a problem. But in order to apply rules and theory there is a need that you somehow set it up.

Among my stories, I am most confident with this last one. Maybe the reason is that I have lots and lots of experiences and examples from classroom observations, from interviews, talks, and seminars with teachers and kids.

And teahers often are quite aware of the contrasts between their «school-knowledge» way of teaching and the pupils` capacities of finding their own ways – at least when you talk with them for a while. I`ll have to tell one more story, one of my standard stories, to illustrate.[2] In 1972 I was, together with the late David Herbst, inquiring into new methods of math instruction in secondary school. We observed a well-defined Swedish experiment that had been going for some years based on self- instructive systems. Rather than having the professional researcher explaining the system he had constructed and was testing, we insisted observing some teacher of mathematics who had been using the system for a while, as he was using it practically in the classroom. After a few lessons, we observed that quite a lot of the pupils did not behave according to the system as scheduled. Instead they were asking questions out of order, messing around etc.

After our observations we asked the teacher: Now, what do you think of this teaching system, how does it work? Very politely, he answered that it was a good system, quite well planned and fairly easy to administrate. Then we confronted him with our observations of pupil a, b and c obviously not behaving according to schedule? He paused, looked at us asking: «Do you want to know what I really mean?»  He then explained that this system however neatly constructed might cause a problem, not only to the weakest pupils, but to the best ones. He explained that a lot of the pupils were able to learn most of the rules this way, but they were at a disadvantage setting up a problem. The system was too orderly. Problems, as personal experiences are quite often very disorderly. The pupils never got through the indeterminate phase of setting up a problem, building up know-how and confidence in reflecting and sorting out – of understanding.

Our orderly school experiences might lend themselves to be summed up i a few models:

I might follow Herbst,[3] and say that any problem to be known or understood, might be regarded as process in three steps:

1) You have a problem, (in the formula that follows named  «S1″) 2) you apply some method to solve it (in the formula named «m»), and 3) you get a result or an answer (named S2 in the formula).

When the problem is fully known, set up, we do know the right answer and the right method or formula to use we might formalize it as follows: S1(m)        S2.  As nothing is unknown it is ready for computerization.

If we do know how to set up the problem, and which answer we want, but don`t know how to get there, we might formalize it: S1 (?)       S2.

If we know which result we want, but do not quite know how to set up the problem or which method to apply, or we know how to set up a problem, but don`t know what do do with it, we might formalize this ? (?)       S2 and S1 (?)      ?

If we simply don`t know where to go, where to start, what to do, we might formalize it

? (?)       ?

As we get into this world our first basic «theories» or web of knowledge are brought to us and with us, and of course dependent on our active (but not very conscious) responses to different contexts and stimuli. But we don`t know, we don`t even ask. Then, quite early we are aware of immediate needs and slowly how to get them satisfied – or not. We start questioning, we`re sometimes all question marks. As ways are found to satisfy needs and wonders, things get «working», we are closing up question marks, getting what we might call «closed or coherent entities,» or what I described as some woven garment or painting suitable to tag new experiences onto. We know what to ask, and how to get something we like.

As we do «get to ourselves» by conscious experiencing, picturing, wording and constructing, incoherence is introduced, and thus new question marks, because we are constantly surprised encountered with something that has not made sense yet: Tuesdays seem not to be only in the kitchen. So – what can I do about that? Assumptions are tested, found useful, consistent or not in more and more areas, and in a continuous interplay between uncertainty, sorting out, being sure, finding new uncertainties and so forth. So knowing is, hopefully a continuous process rather than arriving at specific products. Which we also do, and which is important – but quite often our specific products or results are of short standing and not very interesting once we know.

A challenge to school organizations as well as coaches seems to be to keep some space for the surprise, for the unknown, and simultaneously allow for relatedness to former experiences and personal history.

I might also model my histories in a simple two by two matrix:  My histories might be said to relate to personal experiences, and ways of reflecting on these experiencing.[4]

So, we have two dimensions: Personal experience/doings on the one hand, and reflecting/putting words to these experiences and doings on the other:


                                   no                                       yes

                   no                                                   c

                             rote learning                       reflection without action


                 yes                                                    b

                              tacit knowledge                    reflecting on acting


When using such modelling, we should be very careful noticing that it might serve as a tool to help thinking and reflecting, but that it is not representing a truth in itself – and thus might also hamper thinking and reflecting.

In the four squares I suggest we might indicate different modes of knowing.

In square a we have experiencing, acting or practising without reflecting. We might, according to Polanyi,[5] name it «tacit knowledge,» what we do, skills we have achieved without being able to explicate how we do it – as seems the case for our early mastery of walking and talking, our «basic garment» as depicted in my first story, as well as rudimentary testing-out in the second and third. Or, we might just call it «hidden knowledge» or skills not yet put to words.

As we are approaching square b, we might enter what Don Schön called «reflection in action, or on-the-spot testing. Or rather: This continuous responsive process probably also «takes place» in the first square – as we gradually master our walking and talking. Putting names to these processes and experiences, having them explicated might take place while doing, but will at the same time present the first steps walking away, having distant looks, and towards a «reflection on.» It might be the starting conceptualization of what weekdays or time is all about – as a personally experienced testing.

The third square, c, might indicate taking even more steps back –  to reflect on the naming of actions, abundant in all kind of texts, but without necessarily being connected to experiences of the one reflecting. If, however, this naming is connected to, or stems from one’s own actions, the «no experience» dimension is invalidated, and we might have a continuous process from a  –       b    –     c

The lack of connection between naming and experiences seems to be a pitfall of most formal education: What is to be learned and memorized are authoritative summaries of theories, rules, instructions, conclusions and answers. We do learn the conclusions that Aristotle, Pythagoras, Galileo, Freud, Edison or Fermat arrived at, not their way of getting there, their questions, wonders and muddling through to some «eureka.»  When reading original (or translated) notes by great discoverers, I mostly find them far more humble and wondering than any authorized textbook displays.

If the relations are lost between the personal experiences, the process of finding out – and the naming found in the «world of theory», I fear that the sense of responsibility might get lost as well. We might «produce» students conforming to or following the dictum of any authority. This is what might be indicated in the last square, d. You might be able to produce the right answers, do the right genuflections – follow orders without reconsidering, just passively adapting, joining or following. As a monkey might be trained to fire an atom-bomb, but hardly be trained to understand what it is doing. In modern history Hannah Arendt has shown Eichmann as a prototype.[6] (I think we find him anywhere also today – anywhere and within ourselves: as nationalist followers, sectarian followers, maybe mostly as consumer zombies following the dictum from free-market globalism, or maybe a computer freak following instructions to the point where his communication is predictable, his thinking reduced to an algorithm, an artificial intelligence as it were.)

The «schoolish» focus on commemorating right answers to be tested and controlled, seems primarily to be a focus of disciplining, not one of understanding and making sense.  We might suggest a process like a  –       d   –      c.  Or maybe a kind of «doubly bound processes» where this a-d-c process designates the coping with whatever authorized scheme is at stake (whether it makes sense or not), whereas a parallel a – b- c process designates the making sense in everyday life – maybe even in contrast to doings in authorized settings.

We might object to the modelling, and say that the squares indicating no experience or practise in them selves seem fairly artificial or dubious. You don`t ever find living creatures without some kind of experiencing, without some basic fundament or web for knowing. I agree.

There seems, however, to be a lot of «learning» going on, especially in formalized education and teaching, without reference or relations to experience or practise of the learner, kind of overlooking it. As if the learner was an empty box to be filled, or a blank slate that has nothing to bring. So I do keep the model despite its shortcomings.

I think the school-knowledge problem just might be the lack of continuity from «square one» or «home base» if using baseball terms, the place we all start, and through the whole run. We also see that by keeping continuity from the first square of positive experience, we might wind ourselves out of the model as representing distinct categories.

That is: We always start with our tacit or no-named, personal garment slowly on-the-spot tested out; the way of testing rooted in the primary distinction of our individual conception and birth. A primary distinction, a mark distinguishes a space by being severed; something becoming inside, something outside, relative to the distinction. As an individual conceived and born by my parents, I was in myself a primary distinction – as were you and every one. We were given some space, and our very appearance distinguished that space. As we grew, (accomodated and assimilated in Piagetian terms) we became distinction makers as well as distinctions and a mark in a web of growing complexity. We, you and I were born to sense and to be sensed, to to observe and be observed, to be a mark and a mark maker.[7]

In our mark making we continue naming our doings, enabling us to reflect on a distance as it were. We might (as redefined square c of the model) have our reflections based on our personal experiences meet other categories, other experiences and garments so as to be part of wider discourses, maybe to establish new ones, to have our understanding and practises reviewed.

The organization of formal education and teaching somehow seems organized to imply that knowledge might be established (by starting in square d) rather as rote learning, just as our boy, might rote learn weekdays or triangle formulas – whithout much experience, and without much reflection. I like the Norwegian expression of «rote learning» much better than the English. The Norwegian word is: «Utenatlæring.»  «Læring» is of course learning, whereas «uten- at», means «without to» – so the word designates «without learning». The process tends to be restricted to a relation between the square c and d. Those of us who are good at the memory games and modelling of formal education (which could also be regarded as a practise in its own right) might move from the rote learning to really reflecting on these models. And I do think that a lot of what we are doing in colleges, universities and research institutions is what I call «ivory tower learning» – we are having theories, models and abstractions sort of talking with themselves, without ever getting our feet wet by the waters of practical reality.

 This little model does imply a specific problem that is being worked on, a skill being displayed: Whether it be a problem of arithmethics, the knowing of weekdays – or maybe the construction of a house. Talking about «how do we know» there is the question of «knowing what -» what specifically are we working on at this moment? Do we have experiences, practises to draw upon when trying to name it? Do we have a setting enabling us to have dialogues and experiments finding out?

There also is, I remind you, the dimension in our small stories that goes beyond the specific task or problem at hand: the question of relatedness, the relation between the little boy with a specific task or problem, a question at hand, and me – the father, or someone else who is the teacher, the coach, the foreman, someone to ask.

My first little story of relatedness might be seen as one where the relation to begin with was dominated by defensiveness, which is easily mutually escalated and preventive of any constructive learning, and which put a heavy responsibility on the task of the coach, the teacher, parent or consultant. [8]

 An “Ivory Tower” history – and possible recapitulation.

My last story is an example from my professional life, of my own reflective attempts, now in a setting where maybe «reflections-in-action» as well as «reflections-on-reflections-in-action» belong to our tasks: The research institute, and in this case The Work Research Institute, kind of being anchored in the third square, c, of the previous model.

At our institute we do spend a lot of time in the field – with customers, clients; together trying to figure out actual problems and questions, ways of addressing them. When doing so, we often use participative or action research methods, attempting to organize fields of dialogue, dipping our toes somewhat in practical waters.

Much of the work we do is however, reading and writing. We do make descriptions, and «tell stories», but as part of this, we also might ponder on questions of what is «real,» «true,» – or «how do we know,» or «make sense.» Some of which might be closely related to the main theme of this article. And of course such efforts might be regarded as a practise in its own right.

Such ponderings also might take place as part of histories, of exchanging notes.

My last story starts with my former colleague, Ragnar Næss, who is an educated philosopher (I`m not) having sketched a short theoretical article on a Russell – James controversy on «truth». This note he handed over to me for comments early one day. 

As a colleague, you try to be a good sport, responding, and I immediately scanned the article, finding it quite interesting. I gave Ragnar a comment, orally, the same day before leaving office.

My comments concluded that I had difficulties siding with any of the two philosophers but for different reasons than Ragnar. I tended to look for a connection between the two, arguing somewhat tentatively using concepts from systems theory and perception theory that he would know had caught my interest. After having given my comments, when packing my bag and putting on my gloves, Ragnar returned to my office saying in a friendly, reproaching voice:» Hey, listen! You just used my article as a Rorschach – test!» This comment immediately felt to my liking, and without giving it more thought at the moment, I replied kind of enthusiastically: «Yes, of course!»

 As the day calmed, I sat thinking – why did I like the idea of using his article as Rorschach- test? And why did he not seem to think that a fair treatment? He surely did not think of me as a good sport?

 I decided to write a more elaborated note on my comments given earlier that day – and I tried to formulate it as an example of what was aimed at in the original Russell -James article.

 What follows is this note – as the continuation of this fourth story. Dating some ten years back I have extended the note, having tied onto it some of my associations to the field of philosophy and others mostly as footnotes. Or you might just regard these as an attempt to put on some of the paraphernalia of our traditional Academia – theories talking to themselves.

I started the note by giving a brief summary of Ragnar`s note (which to my knowledge was never published):

A brief summary of the article and the note that Ragnar wrote on it.

 Ragnar wanted to look into the controversy between the two philosophers to see if it might have any bearing upon our own reflections on «action research.»

The point of departure in the article is the pragmatist view that the truthfulness of an idea is developed successively as the mind (and body I suppose) attempts copying the reality at hand. (James).

The opposite, as represented by Russell, states that the truth of an idea consists in no other thing but its agreement with an independent fact. That is: reality as it is – not as it seems.

This «no other thing» – clause is used expressly to exclude the possibility that it is the activity of the truth-seeker that somehow makes an idea true.

In a letter to Russell, James points to the need for intention and aim in order to establish an agreement. «An egg isn`t true of another egg, because it is not supposed to aim at the other egg at all, or to intend it. Neither is my toothache true of your toothache. I make the chain of empirical intermediaries do it (the intention or aiming). What does it in your philosophy?»[9]

Ragnar finds the «nothing-else» clause to be too strong, and he certainly does not find Russell to defend his case too well. The situation seems to vindicate James ‘view, that the formula should be «agreement between an individual’s intended reality with actual reality» rather than simply «agreement with reality.» The «seeking activity» as such (by Russel e.g.) seems an essential part of what we are looking for. «Intention» is thus presupposed – and we are led into endless debates where there seems to be no «idea verified in a number of steps» as the end product. James ‘seeking seems as much dependent on Russell`s seeking as vice versa.

But if the primary goal of thinking, as Ragnar states is, is to find «important alternatives to the situation of today,» and not to construct an account free of contradictions – then James is the preferred – as the best sport.

Ragnar then argues the need for philosophers to find a strong foothold outside the philosophical tradition – as the philosophical tradition seen as a cultural phenomenon reaches a paradoxical point at which further use of the tradition`s own tools necessarily leads to one`s leaving the tradition itself.

Reality as it is or as it seems.

For some reason I find philosophical discussions kind of fun.

As a dilettante in the field, I raise my voice very hesitatingly though. Whatever I might say is first and foremost based upon my personal experiences, my attempts to make a life up till now. Sure I`ve picked up some books, quotations and headlines in different fields as part of those experiences. But I never went through much education in this field, nor did I go through any systematic efforts to master the Philosophy proper. I never have considered myself within any «philosophical tradition.»

So far the excuses. I also take it though, that as a good sport, if possible, I show up anyhow – once something interesting has caught my attention -without making too much fuzz about excuses. When it comes to the controversy between Russell and James about truth and its implication for action research, I firstly have to admit that I never had the pleasure to meet them in original writing, but some of their achievements certainly are part of my personal lexical inventory.

Anyhow, this note at hand, written by Ragnar, might be regarded as a piece of «reality» that I do respond to, without too much knowledge of Russell and James. As I read it through, and the claims of what «truth» might be, a lot of ideas run through my head, true or not. My very reading elicits some kind of associative chains of thought, or what you might call it. And I`ll try to capture and follow those to begin with.

One of my first hunches is that I have difficulties siding fully with any of the two philosophers, but maybe for different reasons than Ragnar.

First of all I find that in order to philosophize, read – or do anything at all, there is the presupposition of my ability to perceive. Any philosophy has to make account for the faculty and psychology of perception.[10]

I tend to think that «activity» is absolutely necessary for perceptions to take place, and thus for further actions to follow. And then I take «activity» in a very strict sense -as any movement within a living body, also unintended. My vision is dependent, not only on the nervous circuits, but of the nystagmus of the eyes. These are microscopic movements that ensure that differences are produced as grist for my perceptual mill. (This also holds for the «firing» and «inhibition» of impulses in the synapses of the neurons of our nervous system). And of course my vision is dependent on ambient light – affordances – that there is something out there to be seen and detected in particular ways. (Gibson 1986)

This activity/movement/change seems a basic principle in the wiring of living system, that differences might be detected and responded to. We might say that our perceptual system is «hard wired» to detect changes. Basically this wiring seems to be given.[11]

Without my perceptual mill, no activities, no verification, no nothing. Philosophers of all times have had sayings on this, and in numerous variations: Not to be is kind of incomprehensible: To imagine nothingness you have to be there already, in the middle of the world -alive. To think at all is to say «yes» and confirm the factuality of sheer existence.[12]

So – as our perceptual system has been triggered and a difference is identified, what difference does it make?

I think that in all perception, «truth,» «ideas of truth», «knowing», «making sense», or what not, there has to be a most personal and individual side to it.

As James states: My toothache is my toothache. It appears in me as the difference between not– toothache (in which case I was not particularly aware of my tooth) and the definite existence of a toothache (and painful awareness of the tooth). I do not, however, at any point doubt my sense of pain. I find it definitely true. It is as true in the absolute sense as my being, my existence.[13]

Of course I do not intend this pain. Intentionality is no prerequisite for it to be «a thing in itself for me.» Nor for James, I suppose. I don`t choose it more than I chose to be born. It is there. It is true. In some respect this rather sounds like a «yes», and closer to Russell. This reality is at it is, it cannot be otherwise. (And as if my tooth were an independent part of me – myself looking at «it» half with a outsiders` eye)[14]

So – the pain just strikes me. But once struck with the pain it is there as a difference that makes a difference, and a lot of ideas buzz around in my head. If I never experienced it before, I might be very scared and think I`m about to die, I might think through a lot of remedies to get rid of the pain, maybe to pull out the tooth (and really have it an independent part of me – not to be worried about any more). I might look back to the immediate past and try to figure out something I did to deserve that pain.

From this point, as ideas buzz around, I definitely am about to leave Russell (As I read him from the article), and move over to James and his pragmatism: Verifying in a number of steps. And this verification seems hard to carry out all by myself.

As long as I keep my pain to myself, it also is certainly only true to me. Probably what we also might call a «subjective» truth. I take this to be an essential and necessary step in the verification of any kind of «truth.»

But I guess that my idea of pain is of a more doubtful validity in any absolute sense. As my trains of thought after having been triggered – might take any direction. The veritable status of my ideas seems doubtful. At this stage we seem to have entered the field of contingency: Human affairs that might as well be as not be.

Actually, the thoughts and ideas that are triggered in my head after the pain struck me, very quickly seem to become my vehicle for making this pain comprehensible, to have it make sense. From the perceived pain (difference), I make up a hypotheses (or «theory») according to which I might take action – to relieve my pain.

At this point, intentionality, or goal-directed behaviour takes over the process, also as far as explanations go. My acting will depend on my theory, whether it be that I`m haunted by evil spirits or bacteria or not. The pain that struck me might seem accidental or as an act of God to be endured and maybe even praised.

To make the pain comprehensible is of course to reduce that perception to something less accidental, to bring forward some control and thus comfort.

I might at this point go on to explain my trains of thought as an instance of a general tendency to be in harmony with requirements of the objective order, to establish, or re – establish some balance. A situation might be said to balance if our perception of «what is» coincides with what «ought to be.»[15] From this point I might disentangle the whole field of psychological attribution theory, which I do not intend.

Instead, I will note that at this same point of our toothache history, several theories, among them attribution theories might apply. And they all seem intentional. In the Popperian sense these theories of pain might be falsified or not (although the pain itself cannot). This falsification or verification implies some action taken, according to rules implicit or explicit on what is considered «true» or valid.

Both my pain (the difference) I perceive, and the following ideas or theories (differences triggered by the first difference) might remain in my head. It all might remain hidden as are my thoughts in general.. (I leave God out it).

In order to transcend what is personally perceived and thought of, that is for my ideas or theories to be falsified or verified, they must be uttered, worded, explicated – to be perceived by others.[16]

This also calls for a forum, for our perceptions to be uttered, to be reflected and decided upon, and as a next step in a verification process. This forum might be the family, in institutions, work-places, professional fora.[17]

We still seem under the reign of intention, where «truth» or what eventually «makes sense» certainly is matter of speech, dialogue, consensus, power – or what we might choose to word it.

As the activities in some forum make ideas come «true,» they do so at the expense of any «truth» in the Russellian absolute sense, even if we do arrive at some intersubjectivity in many cases (and maybe in more cases than we should). The whole field of sciences and scientific discourse opens.  Rather than attempting to map the history of science (which I couldn`t do anyway), I`d prefer to go back to our simple history, to my toothache, and what immediately follows my uttering, my explication:

As I yell out my pain in a forum with other people present, it is made public, maybe along with some of my attributions. The pain, and possibly some of the attributions and theories are not exclusively my own anymore.[18] I told someone my toothache story.

Now some ot the others might have had toothache too. My story evoke, reminds them. We establish some shared «truth» about toothache, because we are able to share perceptions – stories. These shared stories to me also have some «truth», but again, to me in a less absolute sense than my own experienced pain.

As I said, we seem at this stage to be on pure intentional ground, our intentions might at this point take different paths. And these different paths might cause us some trouble attempting to sort ot what is «true» or makes sense.

One intention might simply be to relieve pain, the pain being something to be escaped, and it might be done quickly and dirty. It might also lead to a search for further descriptions and experiments trying (in an Aristotelian sense) to achieve at propositions about toothache that always and necessarily cannot be otherwise. We might experiment with cause and effects according to precise definitions, eventually developing microscopic work, the cultivating of bacteria, x-raying, actually looking for the eternal truth of toothache.

This second path then, seems to be a way back to making nature comprehensible and predictable, once and for all. Very carefully splitting up the elements that build up the tooth, describing how it is constructed down to the most (and steadily more) microscopic detail.

In a way it seems that we by this path of intentions try to supersede the pragmatist prerequisite of intention and re – establish some corresponding «reality» out there to correspond with our idea. It would sort of be to bring Russell in again the back door.[19]

But as we were on intentional ground already – this bringing Russell in the back door won`t do. (During our process advanced technologies might be developed, certainly outside the body – but somehow it started with the pain inside).

And there seems to be a snag to this, as our investigating efforts are always in some language, and it deals with that which comes after the physical – even if «the physical» is our subject matter. We, human beings as perceptual system, as physical matter, are equipped to perceive differences. Then as events (further differences and distinctions) or history (and thereby time) rolls on, we start reflecting, theorizing. We might say that human beings seem to be the way Nature eventually is reflecting upon itself.[20]

What I`m trying to say, I guess, is that all our theorizing is dependent on our system of perception, and the fact that the world lends itself to comprehension, to be treated.[21] All our «theories» to obtain comprehensibility within our universe seems, in a certain sense a continuous flight from wonder, from uncertainty, from contingence. (And maybe eventually from our faculty of will, from ourselves as distinguishers, mark – makers)

But is not the comprehensibility of the universe dependent upon our comprehension of how we comprehend? And that this might be where Russell is brought back in – not by looking for correspondence «out there» but «inside here?»

I guess I am trying to arrive at «something» to be regarded as «true» – something that is just «real» in the Russellian sense, something that we all do share. And at one point I seem to end up on a kind of micro-level with the notion of a self-referential perceptual system. The activities and processes of this system seem to be geared towards the sustaining of the system.[22]

As stated before, however, the activities taken on by such systems take place as steps in an on-going history, thus producing what we call «time,»[23] and where intention and pragmatism, eventually seem to replace the «truth» in any absolute sense. This understanding seems not to be compatible with traditional ideas of knowledge, and kind of a return to «practise».[24]

Before leaving this last story let us finally get back to the practical micro level. As soon as this has happened, as I (and you) inevitably as «time goes by» explicate our pains, our perceptions, tell our stories and thus mix our histories with one another in a steadily changing context, the borders of what we might choose to call an entity, a system, let it be a person, a family, an organisation, a profession, a nation, seem to get increasingly blurred.

Approaching the macro level.

As these histories are being developed, we have left the micro level.   It seems rather conceited and futile to look for «basic» characteristics of these stories that we all share, that cannot be otherwise, and that are «true» – on a macro level. (Although this is vigorously claimed by nations, religious groups, economists, scientists of different brands etc.) This, of course, does not stop us from trying to tell and reflect on these histories in different ways, to keep categorizing, counting, testing out, and explaining what they are all about in a specific or a general way. But this does rather point to a level of «local theories» and maybe to methodological and theoretical attempts like those found within action science or action research.[25]

As we (and our development from stories to History) go on, the sum of all this takes us to the macro level, and we do, on this macro level, seem to hit upon characteristics that cannot be otherwise, that are «true,» that do represent a framework that we all share, no less than self-referential perceptual systems. They seem to represent some prerequisites that our activities and understanding depend upon, and that precede intention as much as our perceptual system on the micro level. What I have in mind, is the ecological balance necessary to sustain life on planet Earth. No life – no perception – no nothing. And our understanding of what rules this balance certainly is not complete (and should never be).

Somehow our actions in and comprehension of this world seem to reflect how we account for ourselves being able to perceive in this world, for what is taken for granted and «true» – for what makes sense (what the sense make?)

In our generation we have come to the point where we at the macro level are facing, not only the «limits to growth,» but the possible distortion of the very conditions for life to be sustained on this Earth.

As we do perceive clear signs that a sustainable ecological system is breaking down, this is necessarily due to our ways of «doing and knowing» in this world. To put it very crudely: As nature strikes back (we do have ample signs, and they cannot just be ruled out as «constructs» or doings), on the way we organize, the theories of our doings are invalidated. When (or if) we are about to choke our environment (and thus ourselves) we have the feedback that our epistemology is faulty. Our comprehension of how we comprehend leads to false activities as it does not sustain the system.[26]  Somehow we seem to lack feedback-loops enabling us to act according to our knowing.

Thus we seem close to Russellian ground again, a criterion that «truth» might be referred to, and which pertains to the sustaining of life, whether on a micro or a macro level. These levels as defined might also be seen as constraints within which we live our everyday lives. They seem to be what they are and cannot be otherwise. In our everyday lives, in the flux within these constraints our activities and local theories seem to be of a more temporal, discussable kind. We are on pragmatist and intentional ground, where our intentions and choices do matter -as the realm of social science.

Is a discussion on «what is true» or «what makes sense» just philosophical quiddities for especially interested persons?

I think not. The «State of the World» calls for rethinking our thinking and doing. A different – better (with respect to the survival criterion) comprehension of how we comprehend, of what we take to be true, calls for basic restructuring of «theories» and practises and better intellectual «toolkits» than what dominates our societies, in the field of economics, in the field of organisational theory, in schools, in workplaces. Or as phrased by our late colleague David Philip Herbst, suggesting that the predominant issue in a post-industrial era emerging, centres on «the dense interdependent ecology of life on this globe…There is no outside to man`s world. The existential loneliness of humanity is not overcome by space flights. Man takes his environment along wherever he goes. The system has taken the environment into itself. Each part has the rest of the system as its environment and each part is the environment for others».[27]

We need different intellectual tool -kits as well as different practises. We have just begun to work at it.

Epilogue. A note on «truth» used as a Rorschach -test.

 So far the more elaborated version of the comment I gave to Ragnar, having read his note that day. It is probably not evident why his somewhat frustrated comment on using his note as a Rorschach-test immediately felt to my liking.

This might give me a reason winding up with a last set of stories.

What is Rorschach- test anyway? Is there anything «true» about it? I suppose most people once seen it would agree that the «test» consists of ten pieces of cardboard paper with some symmetric, but otherwise rather cloudy figures on them, some grey, some coloured. Some might «know» that the figures originally were made by dropping some inkblots on a piece of paper, and then creating a mirror image on the two halves apparently by folding a paper. Some might think that this is a test to figure out personality-traits. Some even might «know» that this is done by having people give free associations to the cardboard/inkblot pictures as they are shown one by one by an analyst.

As I tasted the word «Rorschach-test» during that evening after Ragnar`s comment, memories from former use of the test became vivid. Once, as a young psychologist, I worked with an institution using Rorschach as one tool (out of several) for the selection of personnel in different industries all over the country. I tested relatively large samples during a year. I discovered during this work that answers to Rorschach «ink-blots» would vary in a systematic way between workers in mechanic industry of the flatlands in South-east Norway and process-industry workers in the mountainous and stormy North of Norway.

The flatland mechanics would display a lot of «F+» – answers, good form, being well structured, not much exciting, little action, possibly rigidity. Mostly the associations were given in less than 15 minutes or so. The answers of coastal mountaineer process workers were abundant with «m»s and «M»s – the first indicating inanimate (or minor animate) movements, the second animate movements. The answers boiled with all kinds of actions and explosions from machines and nature, animals, people and mythical figures. The associations were seldom emptied in half an hour, and might even go on for an hour.

I never investigated the differences any further, but would suggest that the answers either mirrored different experiences growing up under very different natural circumstances, and/or having very different work-place experiences.

 The idea of Rorschach is somehow that your associations to the pictures presented do mirror your personality to a certain extent. In some sense I think it does, as I think anything that makes a difference to us becomes part of our personal, living history, makes it different.

A perceivable difference, something we hear, smell, see, read etc., immediately becomes part of my story, my context as developed by now. It becomes part of the context for new distinctions and contexts. I «tag it» onto my history as it were, in order to have it make sense, to be comprehensible. I refer to it, compare, or match it to my story as it seems to me for the time being. Actually I seem to «match» it almost in a Russellian sense, to find out what is true.

Like a Rorschach test if you like, i.e as I experienced it through my practise. The workers were surely trying to make sense comparing these odd pictures to personal history, lexical repertoire, daily work and living. I mean – reading this note written by my colleague, I first match it to my own «story», or if you like, problem areas that occupied my mind at the time (and still do), like perception theory, ecology, systems theory – or actually anything that I might regard of importance for the time being. And also the very moment of reading might be included; I read it on the background of my present mood, my deadlines, the flux of everyday life. (Or maybe I just used the opportunity for a personal show-off rather than a contribution to collegial coaching, not being a good sport after all. Was that Ragnar`s hunch behind his comment -and which we never sorted out?)

Writing this, an accompanying and critical voice sounds in my ear: «What about the dialogue, shouldn`t you rather have entered it on the premises presented in the article, stick to the text, and stick to the rules? Professional or scientific discourse presupposes order and predictability. You cannot run a professional dialogue as a stream of consciousness where anything might matter? What about the structure and the arguments that were explicated through the article

My answer would be that only to a certain extent do I perceive and act in my daily life according to sets of rules and categories. I experience my life as a constant flux, with very few clear-cut borders. Although borders are also easily identifiable; and I have no difficulties recognizing things, relations, ideas as having some constancy, being «the same» or similar. Apparently, however, «order and chaos» seems to be there at the same time. This holds true even if I stick to the time-schedules in several respects – as I accept the explicit rules of the PC while writing this.

When I sit at my office desk, in meetings or at the PC, my thoughts do wander. My aching tooth, thinking of the expiring date of my loan , children’s activities, sex life, tomorrow`s party, the development of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and friends on both sides, all interfere with my seemingly regulated life – as professional work is supposed to be. On the other hand, this day`s meeting or field work, the report or article to be written within deadlines, the analyses to be performed, the financial basis for my project or worrying about friends in potential danger, is as likely to be interfering with my child-caring, with my sex-life and my sleep.

I believe that for me to identify borders and irregularities to be remembered, a prerequisite is a multitude of observation being thrown away, to be forgotten, redundant or irrelevant for whatever my aim might be at the moment. What is aimed at, the orderly goal of a professional dispute, the outcome of a certain task at a certain time, seems often simultaneously to compete, or fight with alternative goals. Seen in the perspective of any goal – the others might be regarded as noise, chaos, irrelevancies etc.

For my survival I have to make continuous priorities, to make choices. To give something a priority is to perceive it as a specific figure towards a background. This of course presupposes the background too. To perceive or make choices at all, there seems a need that something be suppressed to function as background, to be thrown away or regarded as not relevant for the time being, but also to be brought forward maybe as figure-ground reversal trying and testing new relations, allowing myself to be surprised. I find, as I go on in everyday life that I perceive through “whole pictures or stories” that are built up over time as fairly stable and I act accordingly. Some perceptions, acts, decisions, ideas, thoughts do «stand out» against the flux as distinctions or punctuations – thus becoming part of, influencing or altering these pictures or stories and thus our conception of time.

I return to the idea of how my perceptual system (and yours) is wired. As active perceptual systems that are ambient and ambulatory. Our environment presents itself in relations and coherent entities in constant flux, and we move relative to it, thus being able to pick up very complex information, to attain fairly stable «pictures» and «histories,» to play the games of time. [28]

I feel this is pretty close to some fundamental «truth,» something that we all share, something that cannot be otherwise. This «truth» is not concerned with contents of what might «make sense,» but on form – on how we seem to «make sense.»[29]

But our societies seem organized according to a fundamentally different understanding of «what is true,» thus, maybe ignoring and threatening the natural framework within which we live. We seem to be giving priority to dangerous ways of «control,» «planning,» ideological prediction (whether political, economic or religious), «effectiveness,» «economic growth.» We seem thereby to be reducing the free space, the accidental, the surprising, that participation, confidence, responsibility and life ultimately might depend on.[30]

Our efforts to develop «action research» or «action science,»  might be seen as small attempts to take this responsibility seriously – to deal with perceived problems, conflicts as they appear in our real world of constructs and intentions. To help develop organizations enabling their members to create organizational space for dialogue and participation, for alternative organizational setups, places to be surprised, «finding and sorting out.» Rather than just work out the theories of «ideal communication» and dialogue like Habermas, we should also put in some efforts giving people the space and possibilities to experiment and test the outcome, maybe to coach – not towards specific solutions, but in Don`s spirit towards new reflective turns.[31]

[1] A draft was written: D.Schön: Notes for a Theory-of -action-Approach to Evaluation.Draft.M.I.T. april 1997.  I our final report on the R94 evaluation I use parts of our discussion. J.F.Blichfeldt., T. Deicman-Sørensen, T.Lauvdal: Mot et nytt kunnskapsregime? AFI rapport nr. 7.98. Oslo.

[2] J.F. Blichfeldt (1973): Bakerst i klassen. Norli. Oslo

[3] P.G.Herbst (1975): Socio-technical Design. Chp. 13.,Tavistock. London

[4] J.F.Blichfeldt (1985): Lærer for livet? Universitetsforlaget.  When I first met Don in 1982, a first issue of this model was in my manuscript for this later book. We found interesting parallels to the thinking in his forthcoming book «The reflective practioner:»  I`m still reconsidering the model.

[5] M.Polanyi (1967):  The tacit dimension. Doubleday, N.Y.

[6] Hannah Arendt (1963 ): Eichman in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. Faber and Faber. London.

[7] The concept of «primary distinction» might be traced to different theories of «becoming» like worked out by C.S.Peirce, G. Spencer-Brown or D.P.Herbst. Their shared notion is the irreductability of triadic relations produced by making a primary distinction. From the notion of a primary distinction (pure spontaneity as phrased by Peirce), Spencer- Brown holds that any known logical system might be developed. G-Spencer-Brown (1969): Laws of Form. Allen and Unwin. P.G.Herbst (1976): Alternatives to Hierarchies.. M.Nijhoff.  N.Houser and C.Cloesel (1992): The Essential Peirce. Indiana University Press.

[8] Don Schön once phrased the threefold task of the coach this way:  a) It requires always substantive attention to the specific problem that is being worked on: the design of this school; the presentation of this videotape. The coach has to be able to demonstrate and describe in relevant ways about that.b) Moreover he has to be able to describe and demonstrate in ways that are particularized, to the difficulties and possibilities of thisparticular student at this time, to say the things, to discover the things, that will allow thatstudent to understand.c) To do it by building a relationship in which defensiveness is minimized. He can`t guarantee it, of course, because if i a person chooses to become defensive, in the end there`s nothing you can do about it. But the things that I do influence is the possibilities for defensiveness for others. (From a transcript made by Jan Carrick of Don Schön`s presentation to the 1987 meeting of the American Educational Research Association on «Educating the Reflective Practitioner.» See also the book: Don Schön (1987): Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

[9] As quoted from Ragnar`s note.

[10] This argument I once found in Lakatos, I (1970): Falsification and Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. In Lakatos and Musgrave (red): Critisism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge Univ.Press. 1

[11] The notion of differences making a difference taken from G.Bateson /1972): Steps to an ecology of mind.. Ballantine books.N.Y.  Keeping philosophical references in mind, it also reminds of Hegel pointing to activity or process as basic to the logic of the world, and that any concept,or anything brought to your mind only are perceived by their being distinct or contrasted to the opposite. (As referred in A.Næss (1962): Filosofiens historie. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo.  Other associations might go to the Gestalt school within psychology.


[12] These points in different versions were f.i. made by Berkeley, G.Berkeley (1965): Principles, Dialogues and Philosophical Correspondence. Bobbs-Merrill U.S. Or by Hume, who pointed out that the characteristics and idea of causal relationships in part are projected by the peculiarities of our own perceptual abilities. (And thus his analysis announces psychology, or what might be called the anthropological sciences as the basic sciences.)  As referred in A. Næss (ibid.)

[13] But it is not a «thing in itself» as Kant is often quoted. It is rather «a thing in itself for me» – as Hegel made his interpretation of Kant, and as a basis for his logics. (As referred in A.Næss: Ibid)

[14] Which reminds of Bakhtin – «the word in language is half someone else`s» Bakhtin,M.M (1981): The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

[15] See f.i. F.Heider (1958): The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Wiley

[16] These trains of thought might be very commonsense to philosophers. To my «knowledge» the Greeks philosophized in order to achieve immortality, and proceeded in two stages: First an activity being speechless (nous), and secondly the attempt to translate the vision into words. This attempt by the Greeks called «truth» – what is no longer hidden (a-letheia) – which does not comply with a theory of correspondence. (My «knowledge» in this respect mainly comes from readings in H.Arendt (1977): The Life of the Mind. Harcourt Brace, Penguin Classics and O.Eikeland 1990): Erfaring, Dialogikk og Politikk.. Dr.thesis. University of Oslo/AFI.

[17] At this point, language, the development and acceptance of rules for languaging and communication become important, and open vast theoretical fields of social sciences, of philosophy, political science, sociology, anthropology, language and communication. I will not even make a name-dropping attempt…

[18] At this point I might connect to Hannah.Arendt`s great work on «The Human Condition». Here she designs three fundamental activities: labor, work and action. Action is the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things. It corresponds to the plurality of men – we always live among men, and plurality is a basic condition also of speech – for remembrance and history. H:Arendt (1958): The Human Condition.. The University of Chicago Press.

[19] Or maybe fulfilling part of Hegel`s saying that «philosophical contemplation has no other intention than to eliminate the accidental. (As referred in Arendt 71 (ibid).)  This also often seems the case within «traditional science» – to be fully predictive, and eliminate the accidental. I would say that if all that is accidental be eliminated, stable and total order is there – and life is gone.

[20] This phrase might be traced back to the german philosopher Schelling. According to the Filosofisk Leksikon. Zafari, Kbh.1983 probably to his  work on System des transtendentalen Idealismus. (1800)

[21] Piaget, as cited from E.von Glasersfeld (1989): An exposition of Constructivism: Why some like it Radical:» In Davis, Maher and Noddings (Eds): «Constructivist Views on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics..» JRME Monographs 1989.  This notion also seems to fit very well with the ecological perspective on perception by J.J.Gibson (1980):The Ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mills. Boston.

[22] We are getting close to Maturana and Varela`s concept of autopoiesis. H.Maturana and F.Varela (1980): «Autopoiesis and Cognition: The realization of living..» Reidel. London

[23] Cf. J.J.Gibson (1975): Events are perceivable but Time is not. In Fraser and Lawrence (ed): The Study of Time II. Springer Verlag. N.Y.

[24] Ernst von Glasersfeld (ibid.) refers to the epistemological works of Piaget, from which he finds some basic principles of radical constructivism to emerge: 1a) Knowledge is not passively received  either through the senses or by way of communication, b) Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject. 2a) The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or variability. b) cognition serves the subject`s organization of an objective ontological reality. These principles are incompatible with traditional notions of knowledge, truth and objectivity, and require a radical reconstruction of one`s concept of reality. Instead of an  inaccessible realm beyond perception and cognition, it now becomes the experiential world we actually live in…

[25] Cf. Argyris, Putnam, McLain Smith (1985): Action Science: Concepts, methods, and skills for research and intervention. San Fransisco: Jossey Bass, also different writings of Don Schön(1983). The Reflective Practitioner..N.Y.Basic Books. In one of the Work Research Institute traditions, B.Gustavsen (1992) Dialogue and development. Assen-Maastricht:Van Gorcum, or summary- and introductionwise: D.Greenwood and M.Levin (1998): Introduction to Action Research..  Sage Publications.  Some of these different traditions might seem to fight for «purism» based on their own branch, a fight I am not joining. Wheras I think debates should go on, I find it more important what is shared between action scientists or researchers and how what is shared relates to other scientific discourses. Se also Eikeland (ibid.)

[26] This seems to correspond with Batesons (1972 ibid.) description of the dynamics of the ecological crisis. He finds that conventional (but wrong) ideas about the nature of man and his relation to the environment in the combined action with thechnological advance and population increase create systemic positive feed-back loops (run-away effect) and thus ecological crisis.

[27] P.G. Herbst (1975) Socio -Technical Design. p.205. Tavistoc k Publications. London

[28] J.J.Gibson (1980. Ibid.)

[29] The ideas of Gibson seem to me to be in good accordance with G.Spencer-Brown identifying the forms behind our thinking and doing. G.Spencer -Brown (1972. Ibid.)

[30] C.S.Peirce notes this as he goes on from the start of a generalizing tendency (like a primary distinction in Spencer-Brown`s sense) – and thus the starting of a tendency to habit and all regularities of the universe: «at any time, however an element of pure chance survives and will remain until the world becomes an absolutely perfect, rational and symmetrical system, in which mind is at last crystallized in the infinitely distant future.» C.S. Peirce (1891): The Architecture of Theories.. The Monist. Vol 1 no. 2.

[31] I do include Don Schön among the pioneers in this work, as I do David P.G. Herbst and Einar Thorsrud at the Work Research Institute.  Some of us try to give our next generation contributions like Dan Bar-On with his organization of dialogues and storytelling as a way to work through political and collective hostilies, or in less dramatic settings like schools and other work places.  Some might find a certain «anarchistic» flavour to our doings. I`d rather say we would always fight for the possibility of further choices, of option of «no closure» – in the Peircian sense. Our misplaced concepts of  growth, rentability and effectivity-driven societies seem diminishing these options, to be accelerating towards a closure that might come much sooner than Peirce anticipated.

Utdanningsforskning som mobbing?

Utdanningsforskning som mobbing?

Som yrkesutøvere, som lærere, skoleledere, snekkere, og sjukepleiere, forskere, saksbehandlere og politikere er vi opptatt av at det vi gjør virker, at det funker og sånn sett gir mening. Om noe virker eller ikke, oppdager vi først og fremst gjennom erfaring, ved å tenke gjennom hva vi gjør og har gjort: Fikk vi til det vi hadde satt oss fore? Er vi fornøyd med det vi ser? Hva slags tilbakemeldinger får vi fra de vi jobber sammen med eller for? Hvordan legger vi til rette for tilbakemelding fra de vi jobber sammen med når oppgaver er gjennomført og et resultat foreligger?. Det dreier seg om hverdagens årsak-virkningsanalyser av det vi driver med innenfor de rammene vi er blitt enige om, og/eller som omgivelsene gir mulighet for. Slik utvikles viktig og nødvendig kunnskap, diskutabel kunnskap.

Tilbakemeldinger skjer også i det offentlige rom, eksempelvis gjennom utdanningsforskning og forskningsformidling, gjennom faglige og politiske debatter. Det er tilbakemelding på armelengdes avstand fra det praktiske skolearbeidet.

Forskningen er ofte bygget på store, kvantitative studier, tester og spørreundersøkelser. Den gir gjerne generell kunnskap gyldig for dette store utvalget. Det er også kunnskap som alltid er diskutabel i forhold til metode- og teorivalg. Den er aldri «sikker» i noen absolutt forstand, den er diskutabel. Når forskningsresultater basert på store tall antas å ha sikker forklaringsverdi på små grupper, foreskriver spesifikke måter å arbeide på i daglig praksis, kan vi komme på ville veier. Man risikerer å ødelegge et nødvendig lokalt handlingsrom som er nødvendig for å kunne lære av egne erfaringer.

Forskning, som utdanningsforskning, antas av mange å gi «sikker» kunnskap om hva «som virker» eller ikke. Slik er det sjelden. Noen anvender «forskningsfunn» som  autorisert brenne til å fyre opp ulike faglige og politiske bål. Nylig fikk vi et eksempel på hvordan forskning og forskningsformidling nærmest kan brukes til å mobbe både en enkelt skole, skoleledere og skolepolitikere.

I dagsrevyen 22.1. refset pedagogikkprofessor Thomas Nordahl norsk skole for å ha «satset på det som ikke virker.» Som en nasjonalt ledende skoleforsker var han hentet inn av NRK til kommentar, tilsynelatende om norsk skolepolitikk. Jeg stusset, for å uttrykke meg forsiktig, over innslaget. Ikke  så mye over kritiske påstander om norsk skolepolitikk. Men over hva jeg der og da opplevde som uvederheftig bruk av forskning for underbygging av slik kritikk, og ikke minst over hva jeg oppfattet som direkte mobbing av en enkelt navngitt skole og ledelse på tynt grunnlag.

Nordahl viste i innslaget til en av tidens internasjonale guruer i skoleforskning, New Zealand – professoren John Hattie. Han slo rapporten «Visible learning» i bordet som det kunnskapsbaserte beviset på at «norsk skole hadde satset på det som ikke virket.»

Det autoritative ved undersøkelsen ble understreket ved at det dreiet seg om 800 studier og millioner av elever.

Som noe over middels interessert i norsk og internasjonal utdanning gjennom endel år, hadde også jeg vært innom studien da den kom for et par år siden. Etter å ha skummet den, la jeg den til side. Jeg la den til side fordi den ikke syntes å fortelle meg mye nytt, de positive funnene litt selvsagte: At relasjonen, forholdet mellom de sentrale aktørene lærere og elever er viktig for læringsutbytte. At det viktig å være tydelig i forhold til oppgavene man jobber med, med tilbakemelding om hvordan det går og hva man har fått til og ikke. Den gode læreren er trygg og har rom til å improvisere innenfor en tydelig struktur. Med andre ord hva våre lærere, skoleledere og skolepolitikere stadig prøver å få til. Jeg la også studien til side fordi den syntes å ha åpenbare metodiske begrensninger.

Det følgende baserer seg på førsteinntrykket av studien (kjapt ettersjekket litt over nett). Det er et forsøk på utdype litt hvorfor jeg la den til side. Og av hvorfor jeg stusset over Nordahls presentasjon.

Hatties studie er en metastudie. Altså en sammenfatning av mange andre studier. Ikke bare det, det dreier som en metastudie av 800 metastudier – med omtrent 50 000 underliggende enkeltstudier. Om hva som er effektivt for læringsresultat, hva som virker. Her er det mange armelengders avstand!

Studiene som er undersøkt synes i hovedsak gjennomført i USA, Storbritannia og New Zealand. Altså samfunn med utdanningssystem nokså forskjellige fra vårt. Ikke uinteressant av den grunn, men også med noe begrenset overføringsverdi. Det er bare spørreskjema- og statistikkbaserte studier som er brukt. De ulike studiene virket å være kategorisert etter tematikk, der de undersøkte temaene framstår som «variable.» Statistisk samsvar innenfor den enkelte studie så ut til å være viktig for plasseringen langs en dimensjon  «virker- virker ikke» i forhold til læringseffekt. Sånn sett vil en tematisk studie som viser at noe «virker» i noen grad nulle ut en tilsvarende studie som viser at noe «ikke virker.» Så er det teknisk mulig å rangere de tematiske kategoriene ut fra mål på samsvar.

Såvidt jeg kunne skjønne var de fleste sammenhengene som ble vist og rangert som «oppsummeringer av oppsummeringene», svake. Altså at det knapt var noen registrerbar sammenheng mellom det temaet som var studert og læringsutbytte. Ikke så rart kanskje når man summerer opp funn fra ulike studier, der det formodentlig vil være variasjon både i hvordan «læringsutbytte,» eller mål på resultat (avhengig variabel) er definert, og hvordan de faktorene man ønsket måle effekten av (uavhengige variable) var definert. Bruk av begrepet «variabel» som noe  man avgrenset kan måle med tilnærmet kontroll og oversikt syntes tvilsomt i denne type metastudie. At kontekstuelle forhold, sosioøkonomisk bakgrunn, omgivelser og lokale særtrekk i liten grad synes å gå inn i analysene bedret ikke forholdet.

At undersøkte temaer med tilnærmet null påvist sammenheng med læringseffekt likevel rangeres, kan nok sees som en svakhet i Hatties studie.

Dette hindret ikke Nordahl i å liste opp tre «variable» som etter Hatties studie «ikke virket» – og som norsk skole «har satset på», iflg skoleforskeren: De tre «variablene»  var «Aldersblanding,» «Ansvar for egen læring» og «Baseskoler.»  Alle ligger nær bunnen av Hatties temarangering.

La oss se litt nærmere på disse tre»variablene». «Aldersblandede grupper» gis svært dårlig rangering, nr.131. Det «virker ikke,» sier Nordahl. Men det er ikke det studien viser. Tallet for samsvar ligger på 0.04 – hvilket betyr at man verken kan si noe om positivt eller negativt samsvar. At denne kategorien ligger blant de dårligst rangerte tilsier altså at man gjennomgående ikke ut fra studien kan si noe om hva som ikke «virker.» Bare at det ikke kan sees noen sammenheng med læringsutbytte. Noe som forøvrig også gjelder for klassestørrelse, hjemmelekser, eller beklagelig nok: lærernes utdanning og fagkunnskap.

Vi må omtrent hele veien si: «tja – det kommer an på.» Jeg kjenner til små fådelte skoler i Norge hvor aldersblanding synes å ha vært naturlig og velfungerende i generasjoner. Det er heller ikke vanskelig å finne skoler, kanskje særlig hvor dette har vært uprøvd tidligere, hvor erfaringene har vært tvilsomme. Aldersblanding er vel heller ikke noe «norsk skole har satset på,»  snarere noe som i alle år har falt selvsagt når elevgrunnlaget er lite, eller – som i dag, skoler er gitt mulighet til å prøve om de ønsker. Med vekslende erfaringer rimelig nok.

En annen av Nordahls og Hatties «variable» var «Ansvar for egen læring.»  Jeg kjenner «Ansvar for egen læring», AFEL, som et noe særnorsk uttrykk, fremmet av psykologen Ivar Bjørgen i 1964. Det er mye brukt i norsk skole og åpenbart forskjellig forstått og anvendt. Hvordan kan dette uttrykket framstå som en kontrollert «variabel» i en metastudie av engelsk-amerikansk forskning? Det gjør det vel heller ikke. Det virker som om Nordahl deler misforståelsen av begrepet med en del lærere – som har trodd det betyr at læreren skal abdisere. I praksis stiller nok AFEL store krav til både til tydelige rammer, tilbakemelding og oppfølging. Ikke noen norsk skolesatsing har, det jeg kjenner gått inn for utydelige rammer og abdisering i forhold til tilbakemelding og oppfølging av lærere. Det virker som om Nordahls tavleoppføring av AFEL forutsetter negasjonen av Hatties kategori «teacher clarity.» I så fall en snodig manøver.

Nordahls siste «variabel» var «baseskoler.» Heller ikke disse synes å virke. Igjen: Hatties undersøkelse sier ikke noe om hvorvidt «det virker eller ikke.» Det kommer an på. Og igjen er vel den indre organiseringen av skolen, i for eksempel baseskoler – noe sentrale retningslinjer gir anledning til å prøve ut innenfor gitte rammer. Ikke noe som er obligatorisk – og i den forstand noe «norsk skole har satset på.» Det er heller ikke en organisasjonsform som har vært i bruk særlig lenge. Kuriøst nok, var en av dem som tidlig tok til orde for en tilnærmet baseorganisering , nettopp skoleforskeren Thomas Nordahl.( 2002) .Myndighetene fulgte i og for seg opp hans anbefalinger – som en mulighet.

( Knyttet til Søgnen- ut valgets arbeid. Se dokumentasjon). Kanskje var innslaget med skoleforskeren klippet til ugjenkjennelighet av NRK. Slikt skjer også. Dagsrevyinnslaget var illustrert ved en heller tvilsomt klippet sekvens fra en navngitt norsk skole. Skolen framsto, egentlig udokumentert, som eksempel på en skole som – i likhet med norsk skolepolitikk satset på noe som «ikke virket.»  Det samlede inntrykket mitt var en reportasje der forskning kom i skade for å fungere som mobbing av en enkelt skole, skoledere og norsk skolepolitikk. At slik mobbing lett kan svelges ukritisk også på antatt velinformert hold, ser vi eksempel på i en kommentar av forskningsjournalist Vassnes i Klassekampen 27.1. Det er trist om mobbing skal virke. Jon Frode BlichfeldtDette innlegget er publisert i Utdanningsforbundets medlemsblad «Utdanning nr.8, 2011