“Agi: Have you ever pulled apart a nappy?
Jill: No, I haven’t.
Agi: Does it come apart? Does a nappy come apart? ((…)) ((Turns to Research Assistant)). You’ve probably never cut one in half. Like, are there very distinct layers?
Jill: What happens if we (…) can’t find the layers?
Agi: Well, we’ve got to do this prior to … Ok, I will, next time (…) we come together (…) I’ll bring a nappy. (()) So, nappy ((writes it down)), cause it’s kind of – if we can’t get distinctive layers or if they can’t see it … [4 seconds].”
(From pre-service teacher’s lesson-planning conversation trying to design a lesson about material properties. Slightly abbreviated.)
18.1 Understanding epistemic resources
To illustrate our main arguments in this chapter, we draw on the same empirical source as we used in Chapter 17 – that is, the team of pre-service teachers who are planning an inquiry-based science lesson for some primary school children. In this chapter, the focus shifts from their discussion about Jigsaw groups to the core subject matter of the lesson they are planning. The lesson is about properties of materials, how properties of materials are important in everyday life, and how to “work scientifically”. The pre-service teachers have been given a brief “mini-unit” by their education lecturer. This includes a short description of possible activities and suggests using a baby’s nappy (diaper) as the object with which to demonstrate how different material properties are utilised in the design of everyday things. The “mini-unit” also suggests to the pre-service teachers that they could use a worksheet with a diagram in the lesson activities they are planning. The rest of the lesson details are left up to the pre-service teachers to design.
What kind of mental resources do these pre-service teachers need in order to design and teach this lesson successfully in a classroom which they have not yet seen, using a nappy which they have never cut apart, and a worksheet that they still need to create? Or let’s make it simpler: what kind of mental resources does one need to translate the idea of using a nappy, and the diagram of a nappy, into knowledgeable teacher actions?
In Chapter 17 we explained that actionable concepts are not stable, and that conceptual understanding is not something that is constructed from pre-existing constructs by a simple replication process: it is assembled by a knower. This means that a human conceptual system that supports action does not just have domain-related mental constructs – abstract, contextual or situated concepts – that allow a person to make sense from, and act in, the socio-material world. The conceptual system also has to have the kinds of mental constructs that allow the person to build knowledge – to make sense of, and act in, the knowledge world itself. In short, the human conceptual system is unlikely to function without a rich array of epistemic and meta-epistemic constructs that assemble those (abstract, contextual, and situated) concepts into an ecologically rational decision that supports competent action. Such constructs allow a person to align their existing conceptual understandings with social and material situations and actions.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence to show that, for making conceptual knowledge actionable, professionals need far more than just abstract concepts and far more than just the skills involved in habitual actions. They need epistemic resourcefulness in order to make concepts for and through action.
Source: These are extracts from Chapter 18 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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