Chapter 11: Inscriptions shaping mind, meaning and action

…it gives them the opportunity to basically put one lesson plan on one A4 sheet of paper. Yeah. So that’s one A4 sheet of paper <…> So they intellectualise and then mentally go through the whole lesson. This is what needs to be prepared. This is the knowledge and the content that we need to implement during class and these are the kind of steps that we need to take in order to teach it in a 45 minute period… (An Education Lecturer explaining a lesson plan created by a preservice teacher, see Figure 11.1)

How does a piece of paper become an intellectual device for constructing professional knowledge and supporting knowledgeable action? How do inscriptions (constructed by students as a part of their learning or by professionals as a part of their everyday innovative work) allow practitioners to bring together various pieces of knowledge and ways of knowing – into a coherent actionable idea that can support knowledgeable action?

As Roth and McGinn (1998) point out,

“…inscriptions, like words, are semiotic objects ontologically independent of their referents. For each case where a relationship exists between an inscription and a natural phenomenon, that relationship was established through a considerable amount of situated, lived work. <…> such work establishes the rules and conditions by means of which an inscription can be said to represent a natural object or phenomenon.” (Roth & McGinn, 1998, 41)

Professional work and knowledge inscriptions stand in a strange relationship to one another. Work produces actions, but does not necessarily generate inscriptions or other external representations that stand for, or in some other way represent, this work. And when work does generate inscriptions, how it does so is not well understood. Professionals just do it. Whereas, knowledge that comes into this action becomes far more visible when it acquires a symbolic form, inscribed in external media. Most importantly, such knowledge inscriptions acquire their value in professional work not only for what they represent and stand for in an objective decontextualized and disembodied sense, but also, and particularly, for how they can be brought forth and enacted in knowledgeable action in a subjective contextualised and embodied sense.[1] If we take seriously the potential of professionals to engage with innovation and the generation of knowledge that can be shared, then we need to understand how professional knowledge products inscribe and bring forth meanings.

We take the semiotic perspective and explore how inscriptions mean what they mean and how they become an integral part of the signs through and with which professionals learn and construct actionable understanding. This semiotic exploration extends our discussion in Chapter 10 of how inscriptions function. In combination, these two perspectives provide insights into how the diverse inscriptional tasks that are given to students, through drawing on pragmatic and semiotic features of inscriptional work, provide possibilities for learning, knowing and creating new knowledge – in external media and/or in the mind – that is ready to be woven into knowledgeable action in professional settings.

We acknowledge the diversity of situations and ways in which professionals engage with knowledge work and share practice. In this chapter, we primarily focus on those kinds of professional tasks that relate closely to professional innovation and the construction of shareable professional knowledge products. It is not that we see innovation and inscribing as kinds of knowledge work that stand apart from other professional work. Rather, we focus on innovation and knowing through inscribing because they are increasingly seen as a desirable, perhaps an essential, part of everyday professional work and professional education. In contrast, how professional knowledge is inscribed, or should be inscribed, in order to scaffold learning and allow actionable meanings to travel, is not widely understood within many professions.

[1] To be clear, we are using ‘objective’ here to mean ‘independent from the mind’ (of a creator or user of the inscription) and ‘subjective’ to mean ‘dependent on the mind/mental resources’ (of the user or creator of the inscription).

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 11 of Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (forthcoming, 2015). Epistemic fluency and professional education: innovation, knowledgeable action and actionable knowledge. Dordrecht: Springer. This is a close-to-final draft. Please check the final published version if you are going to quote it. The book  is available from Springer’s e-shop.

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