20 October 2009

On inert knowledge

Two recent incidents;
  • A correspondent asked me where the "S.M.A.R.T." acronym came from. I didn't know, and that irritates me so I started to look. I still don't know the answer (suggestions welcome), although the sterling work of Mike Morrison demonstrates how hard these things are to trace. However, that is not the direct point of this post.

    My investigations naturally took me back to my shelf-full of teaching textbooks, and their chapters on objectives. And since I was looking for something other than what they were intentionally about, I saw them through different eyes, through a different frame of reference.

    And I found a lot of needlessly complicated distinctions without differences (frankly, I still hardly know the difference between a product and a process objective--and still less why it matters, or any evidence that it makes any difference in the real world) which serve no other purpose than to create "inert knowledge"* to be rote learned and tested as a proxy for practical proficiency which is so much more difficult to capture.

  • And a couple of days ago I did a brief session on referencing (podcast version here) in which I tried hard to stick with the principles and to play down the arbitrary elaborations of the rules. One student saw through this and asked why there were so many variants. I explained it in terms of the petty power of journals to dictate their own citation styles.

    "These people ought to get a life!" she declared. I replied, "They think they have."

    I'm not mentioning this merely because it is a rare example of me aspiring to an approximation to repartee, but because it illustrates what happens to fairly straightforward ideas when they get elaborated by those who have a vested interest in making them seem as complicated (or profound, as possible--after all, it's the same thing, isn't it? Isn't it?). 
Those of us who trade in such ideas and rules start to be absorbed in them and to take them out of context, so that we forget that the test of their value is their utility for practice, and start to believe that they matter in themselves. Then, if we aspire to some significance in the community of practice, we start to inflict them on the less well established members. And for them, entry to that inner circle comes to depend on their ability to say the right (indeed, precisely and dogmatically correct) things--with little attention paid to their capacity to practice.

Alongside this, the actual knowledge itself, which probably started out as being quite useful, is rendered inert and dogmatic.(See Peddiwell, 1939)

This is certainly the case in teaching, where the allocation of hours on teacher education courses no longer exhibits even the most tenuous connection with the significance or utility of what is being taught (and the practice of teaching modelled by the teacher trainers is not always up to the effective standard.)

But it has also become the case in relation to written expression--see this blog post on the deadening effect of arbitrary rules such as;
...The first paragraph of this essay contained five sentences, some run-on. The second paragraph of this essay was made up of only one sentence. It is my understanding that in many American High schools, this concise, accurate, and very clear one sentence paragraph would not be allowed in any student wiring (in English class or Science class) because it breaks a rule. The rule is that a paragraph has five or more sentences. WTF?.

I find this rule to be profoundly disturbing. [...] it does symbolize much of what is wrong about our system of education in general. This rule solves a problem (students not thinking enough about what they are writing) and in the process ruins the teaching of good communication. Similar arbitrary and capricious rule making plagues each area of our educational system.
There are various ways in which one might profitably "reflect" on this, from spluttering exasperation to a consideration of how it illustrates the perverse consequences of a "restrictive solution"... but all of them are likely to lead to the conclusion that the supposed "knowledge base" of a discipline has totally lost touch with practice.

I've touched on this before, from a slightly different angle (here).

There are a few more stages to this argument, but a blog post is not an article so I'll return to them later....

* Perkins D (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in J H F Meyer  and R Land (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge London; Routledge.


At 4:27 PM , Anonymous James Morris said...

Hi James,

Fishing around in my Action Research references, I dug up G.T. Doran (1981) "There's a S. M. A. R. T. Way to Write Management Goals and Objectives". Whether or not this is the original idea, it does seem to be how the idea got around. Like most educational developments in recent years, it started life in business.

I'd also like to share this with you: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25979808-25132,00.html
Quite a long-winded article, but has some interesting things to say about the rise of the expert.

That said, a team of experts has this week been completely ignored. Looks like the only experts that count these days are the ones appointed by your own party.

At 7:17 PM , Blogger James A said...

Thanks for the link (Furedi is something of a Marmite taste, but always stimulating)! I'll follow up on Doran but I think it predates him. Mager, perhaps?



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home