Chapter 16: Rethinking the material, the social and the embodied for professional education

I don’t think that that’s [interviewing] a difficult skill. The thing that I think that most – like pharmacists who haven’t done it, that’s one of the most daunting things that they do at first, is going into someone’s house and interviewing them. But after they’ve done it for a while, the hardest skill is how to get out of the house because the patient’s there and they want you to stay there forever and have two thousand cups of tea and lots of biscuits (laughing). So sometimes it’s a very – and it’s an important skill to learn how to get out. How to say ‘the interview is finished now, I’ve got to go’.” (Pharmacy Lecturer)

Evidence from cognitive sciences, psychology, neurosciences, anthropology, cultural studies and many other domains shows quite plainly – human cognition and behaviour exhibit extensive sensitivity to context (Boivin, 2008; Robbins & Aydede, 2009; Streeck, Goodwin, & LeBaron, 2011; Smith, Barrett, & Mesquita, 2010; Valsiner, & Rosa, 2007). This includes the internal context created by other processes within the human body and brain (e.g., movement, mood, pain, feeling), and the external physical things and surroundings, the immediate social environment and culture. In contrast, when it comes to education, it seems that abstract and decontextualized theoretical knowledge and disembodied ways of thinking are often favoured. This fracture between how people really think and how they are taught to think creates a number of serious challenges. One extreme is that students simply do not transfer what they learn in educational institutions to the tasks encountered in workplaces and everyday settings (see Chapter 6). Another extreme is that people, including scientists, become victims of “the essentialism error” (Smith, Barrett, & Mesquita, 2010). That is, they tend to look for, and focus on, certain universal mechanisms, but fail to see and appreciate how these mechanisms are influenced by context.

Extensive evidence shows that many phenomena encountered in the world and in professional work – from genes and diseases, to daily social life and culture – are context sensitive and dynamic processes. Absolutist thinking simply does not work, and developing sensitivity to social and material contexts, and awareness of one’s own body and mind, are emerging as important educational tasks. But how do the social, the material, and the embodied enter professional knowledge work?

In this chapter, we explore more deeply some of the ways in which the material, the embodied and the social are intertwined with professional epistemic practices – knowledge, action and learning – and in particular, ways in which they are enmeshed with professional epistemic games. Specifically, we argue that professional knowledge work and knowledgeable action are constitutively entangled with embodied practices in the material and social worlds. Therefore, careful attention to the roles of matter, the human body and social others in situated professional work helps us to understand how to design productive activities and environments for learning professional knowledge and skills. What we care about most, is how to create opportunities for students to learn professional knowledge and skills that are simultaneously: rich in characteristic ways of knowing and grounded in characteristic embodied, material and social experiences of authentic professional work.

We start this chapter by continuing our discussion of the examples from the Pharmacy Practice course introduced in the previous chapter. In Section 16.1, we illustrate how teachers tackled the challenges of creating productive learning experiences for teaching pharmacy practice knowledge and skills, by designing learning tasks that focus on characteristic ways of knowing and acting in the pharmacy profession. They encountered challenges creating suitable, sufficiently authentic social and material environments for such learning, and this opens up some questions related to the social, the material and the embodied nature of professional actionable knowledge. We explore this topic in the rest of the chapter. Specifically, section 16.2 discusses how the material and the social are intertwined with professional actions and cognition. Section 16.3 then explores some dimensions of “the material” and “the embodied” knowledge and knowing that are constitutive of professional epistemic practices. Section 16.4 then turns to some dimensions of “the social” knowledge and knowing. Section 16.5 returns to the question of mediation, which we explored earlier (Chapter 8), and discusses how knowledgeable action is mediated by the social, the material and the embodied. Section 16.6 concludes by discussing some implications for teaching and learning. It specifically draws attention to a central role of professional capacities to create epistemic tools and artefacts for one’s own situated knowledgeable action – a topic that has received very little attention in professional education and one we return to at the end of the book.


Clark (2011) notes that “active externalism” or “active environmental engineering” is actually “self-engineering”. Or, as Wartofsky (1979) has it:

“…our own perceptual and cognitive understanding of the world is in large part shaped and changed by the representational artifacts we ourselves create. We are, in effect, the products of our own activity, in this way; we transform our own perceptual and cognitive modes, our ways of seeing and of understanding, by means of the representations we make.” (Wartofsky, 1979, xxiii)

In professional education it is not enough to learn to use epistemic tools and artefacts. Knowledgeable action also depends on an ability to construct them. We make our artefacts, and then our artefacts make us.

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 16 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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