Chapter 17: Conceptual resourcefulness and actionable concepts: concepts revisited

Agi: … How ‘re they [students] gonna present their information to the rest of the class? How’re we gonna bring them together?

<…>

Jill: You could have a Jigsaw kind of thing happening.

Jill: Where you take, so if you’ve got groups, you’ve got everyone in their individual groups and then you switch it around so that you share it with the other people that were not in your (…) group.

Nat: That’d be good. I like Jigsaw activities.

Agi: I know ((reluctant tone)).

Jill: It could get messy, I know, I know, but just as theoretical – it sounds like it could work, but I don’t know in practice.

Agi: No, I like it though… [5 seconds] the other thing – ‘cause they could share their results in Jigsaw type of thing.

Jill: Yeah, but kids, I don’t think there’s gonna be that much discussion, I just think that’s gonna be more “show me your thing” and then ((shows writing gesture)) copy, copy, copy ((all laugh)). You know how it is.

<…>

Nat: I was just gonna say, maybe don’t give them a sheet till like filling a table or whatever, so they don’t just copy like – ‘cause I remember with – when we did jigsaw – like the kids’d actually test, like we were tested like when we did it in a tutorial, we were tested on it, so it wasn’t just (progression/procrastination). They must have actually done something.

(From pre-service teacher discussion of the “Jigsaw” technique)

17.1 Concepts revisited

As we said in Chapter 6, the meaning of the term “concept” varies quite widely, depending on who is defining the term and how they are using it. Schön (1963) suggests some possible meanings:

“I want to use the word ‘concept’ broadly enough to include a child’s first notion of his mother, our notion of the cold war, my daughter’s concept of a thing-game, Ralph Ellison’s idea of the Negro as an invisible man, the Newtonian theory of light, and the idea of a new mechanical fattener. These are all concepts as we ordinarily use the term <…>. Whether they are to be regarded exclusively as language, behaviour, images, logical terms, or the like, is not the issue. These are all ways of looking at concepts which may from time to time be useful.” (Schön, 1963, 4)

Given its salience in professional education – indeed in education generally – we need to look more closely at what this term “concept” means.

17.1.1   An example: ‘Constructivism’ in abstract notions, contexts and actions

Consider the concept of “Constructivism”, taught to pre-service teachers in a way that is meant to inform and guide their practice. What shapes does “constructivism” take in a teacher’s meaning making and action? A teacher may be quite good at giving a formal definition of constructivism – thus they may be said to have a formal (abstract) concept and be able to participate in discourse practices that refer to this concept. Alternatively, the teacher might good at understanding the sorts of pedagogical practices that count as constructivist – that is, they may be able to make sense of recurrent patterns and purposefully use pedagogical strategies in different teaching situations that belong to this category; but they may not necessarily be able to state what “constructivism” is. Thus, one may say that the teacher has a good functional (contextually appropriate) grasp of the concept “constructivism”. A third way is “to be” a constructivist teacher without consciously applying a specific set of constructivist strategies, yet nevertheless organising classroom practices in such ways that emerging patterns of situated practice can be recognized as “constructivist”. In this third case, “constructivism” can be seen as a situated concept that dynamically emerges in action from diverse context-sensitive interactions.

The distinction between these three cases is crucial. In the first two cases, one may see abstract (formal) and contextual (functional) concepts as “built in” recurring constructs that structure sensemaking and action. In the third case, the stability is not built from the situated concept that is used and imposed on actions, but is a recognisable pattern that (re-)emerges as relatively coherent from numerous fluid and context-sensitive interactions. For example, a constructivist teacher may “tell” students a definition or a formula, or use a textbook or other kinds of strategies and tools that are generally associated with a transmissionist pedagogy, while the emerging pattern of activity in their classroom would be still recognized as “constructivist” teaching.

What we have said about “constructivism” can also be said about almost any abstract actionable construct – such as “fairness” – or any practical concept – such as the “jigsaw” instructional technique. One may not be able to give an abstract definition of what is “fairness” in teaching, or in the provision of other social services, yet one may still know and apply a set of recognizable strategies that can be described as fair, such as: “always treat all students equally,” and “always recognize your own mistakes”. However, what does it mean to treat students equally if those students come from very different social and cultural contexts, have different motivations and aims, and have other reasons to act and think differently? What does it mean to act fairly when the situation encountered today is different from the one that was encountered yesterday? Rather different views of the concept “fairness” emerge in one’s ability is to make fair decisions case-by-case, moment-by-moment and to act fairly in specific situation-sensitive ways. Similarly, pre-service teachers, as in the example given, may know and be able to provide a formal explanation of the “jigsaw” instructional technique – “when you’ve got everyone in their groups and then you switch it around”. They may be able to identify some principles that make “jigsaw” functional – “ ‘cause they could share their results.” But they may still feel challenged to see how this instructional method will work in a primary classroom – “Yeah, but kids … It could get messy”. Knowing “jigsaw” “in theory” is different from knowing it “in practice”.

In short, if we look at concepts at work in fluent, knowledgeable, professional action, we soon discover that we need a more fluid, sensitive and dynamic notion of “concept”. Without having a sharper understanding about what sorts of constructs we are dealing with, deeper analytical insights into how concepts are learnt and enacted in professional practice become elusive. The rest of this chapter is dedicated to constructing and sharing such an understanding.

Some common notions of the term “concept” in the main streams of the psychological literature and in socio-cultural accounts provide a good point of departure. To give a shape to our discussion of concepts, we need to make distinctions along these two lines:

a) the nature of concepts: concepts as constructs of mind vs concepts as constructs of discourse (section 17.2); and

b) the generality or span of concepts: concepts as universal constructs vs concepts as situated constructs (section 17.3).

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 17 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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