Thursday, December 11, 2014

One purpose to rule them all....

Tweets are nice.  Getting a vibe for where people's thoughts are at is interesting, especially if you aren't working within a vibrant research team.

This tweet (part of an apparently upcoming debate between Pasi Sahlberg, Graham Brown-Martin and George Siemens) is particularly ripe for  deconstruction.

The main thing I find interesting is the possible hidden assumption that education's purpose is 
Image from
1. singular,
2. frameable in noun-like language,
3. stabilizable.

Now obviously I don't think a tweet reveals any of these assumptions.  However, these assumptions do tend to come across in amateur educational discourse, and even at academic level discourse.

1. Singular & 3. Stabilizable
The history of education certainly suggests some sort of cyclical (or perhaps non-deterministic) pattern.  This suggests it is highly unlikely that education will ever tend to a single stable "purpose".  I personally take the view that education's purpose is non-deterministic, rather, I assume that it can be described a a cycle between (two) characterizable states.  I'd also add that there is always a non-zero chance of everything going-to-pot (complex dynamics).

2. Frameable
The other issue I really wonder about is the assumption that education's purpose is frameable in normal language.  By this I don't mean that the process or end-point orientations aren't frameable, just that you can't easily separate out process & state.  This leads to a bit of a conundrum: 
  • is it more effective to take a process approach, giving up a bit on end-point characterization ease and introducing functionalist bias, or
  • take a fully functionalist process approach giving up the ease of talking about "things",
  • take a fully non-functionalist process approach, like multi-level selection theory.
Mixing process & state is certainly unstable and enables intended and un-intended abuse. A fully non-functionalist approach is accurate, but perhaps unsatisfying for those that like descriptors (thing-talk).

Perhaps, when talking about education's purpose, the best we can do with common-language is to adopt the "tension" term.  Thus education's purpose is worded as some sort of tension between large-group orientation and smaller-group orientation.  As can readily be seen, leaving things this vague, while accurate, is unsatisfying.  Thus the fully non-functionalist process approach, while accurate, leaves one striving for more statist (thing-based) descriptions.

Here's a summary some ways to frame educational tension according to the three options to the stated conundrum.

Functionalistic Process Process + State Non-functionalistic Process
social equity ends large-group orientation characterized by behaviour which elevates the value of social equity
expressed dominance of large  group traits
contextualized academic/vocational needs/preferences small-group orientation characterized by behaviour which elevates the value of contextualized needs & preferences
expressed dominance of small group traits
What is obvious is that any process+state combination of explaining education's purpose probably requires more cumbersome language than the simple noun descriptions people seem drawn to.  Similarly people just aren't used to pure process descriptors.  Nor is a process approach economical in this case: there are just lots of (functionalist) sub-processes going on.

So, before debating what "schooling is for", it's probably best to talk about where along the process-state spectrum educational purpose can be adequately characterized for the depth of discourse sought.

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