1. Is it possible to apply the basic principle of “emulating Nature's best biological ideas to solve a human problem” to an area of the social sciences, (in this case learning to read)?
2. What does it mean to adopt an “interpretive perspective” in scientific endeavours?
3. What’s involved in interpreting the human problem of learning to read from a biological rather than a psychological perspective?
4. What does a “biological perspective for addressing the problem of learning to read” look like?
In this post I’ll address Questions 1 & 2. In future posts I will address Questions 3 and 4.
Q1. Is it possible to apply the basic principle of “emulating Nature's best biological ideas to solve a human problem” to an area of the social sciences, (in this case learning to read)?
The short answer is a very definite ‘YES’! My reasons for this are two fold:
(i) It is essential for the maintenance of participatory democracy as we know it. Most educational scientists from modern Western democracies agree that high levels of reading ability are an essential prerequisite for supporting and strengthening the forms of participatory democracy we value. As Giroux recently argued, “we need a vision of schooling dedicated to the cultivation of an informed, critical citizenry capable of actively participating and governing in a democratic society”. (Giroux 2010) Without a citizenry of effective, critical readers, realising this vision becomes extremely difficult.
Given this relationship between literacy and democracy it is imperative for our schools to produce graduates who are highly effective, productive, critical readers.
How else will they be able to sift truth from spin when evaluating the messages political parties are continually disseminating?
(ii) The exponential rate at which information is increasing, and the need for readers who can quickly understand and critically evaluate the truth-value of the multiple textual messages with which they’re being continually bombarded, is fundamental if democracy is to survive.
These two reasons should trump those who argue that the aim of education is to produce graduates who can work in ways that maximize profits and thus ‘keep us economically competitive’.
Q 2. What does it mean to adopt an “interpretive perspective” in scientific endeavours?
What does “interpreting the human problem of learning to read from a biological rather than a psychological perspective” actually entail? At the risk of oversimplifying a complex multifaceted process it simply means an educator like myself has to stop talking and thinking about the broad concept of “learning” using psychological discourse most educators have been trained to use, and instead try to talk and think about learning using the discourse of biology.
In order to do this I had to immerse myself in the discourse of those who wrote and researched in the fields of biological and cultural evolution especially as it pertained to the development of the special cognitive abilities that distinguish homo sapiens from other primate species.
After months of false starts and dead ends I slowly identified a subtle but significant difference between the psychological perspective with which I’d been imbued as a consequence of my academic training and years of professional involvement in education, and the biological perspective of those who wrote and researched in the fields of biological and cultural evolution.
It was this: Whereas psychological discourse tended to define (and thus frame) learning as a change in an animate organism’s behaviour “caused” by contiguously occurring external factors and events, the biological-cum-evolution discourse I immersed myself in framed human learning as a ‘special kind of learning and knowing which is ONLY available to our species’.
(Deacon 1997, Feldman 2008, Donald 1991, 2002, Fuster 2000, Iacoboni et al. 1999, Ramachandran V.S (2003), Tomasello 1999, 2003)
Framing human learning this way triggered this question in my mind: “Why is this kind of learning and knowing so special for our species”? The result of addressing this question had far reaching implications for the resolving the original human problem I set out to address.
OK. What’s So Special About This Kind of ‘Learning’ and ‘Knowing’?
Biologists argue it’s “special” because it’s what distinguishes homo sapiens sapiens from all other forms of life on our planet. Not only that, it provides our species with two unique cognitive abilities. It enables us to:
i) create complex knowledge (or “meanings”) using abstract symbol systems.
ii) apply this knowledge (or these “meanings”) to the everyday problems of species' survival and communicate and discuss them to others.
Not only are we the only species of living organism on the planet which can construct abstract meaning using a diverse range symbol systems but we can store these meanings in memory, revisit them, manipulate them, extend them, refine them, build on them, and then share and communicate what we've constructed as a consequence of all these processes with other members of the species.
This (biological) way of framing learning was an “aha” moment for me. I realized that psychological discourse I’d habitually used for all of my professional life had subconsciously coerced me to think about “learning and knowledge” as some kind of reified “stuff”. The range of cognate nouns I’d continually used to discuss, communicate, and think about the end product of an act of learning such as “propositional knowledge”, “understanding”, “information”, “know-how”, “expertise”, “comprehension” etc. continually reinforced this underlying conceptual metaphor. These terms represented “stuff-like” concepts. Learners had to “acquire” and “internalize” them. Biological discourse was subtly (but significantly) different. Biology framed learning and knowledge as the “end product of a process of ‘meaning-making using abstract symbol systems”.
While this may seem a trivial exercise in semantics to some, the ramifications (for me) were deep. For example it forced me to make a significant shift in thinking about learning. Rather than subconsciously thinking about learning and knowledge as some kind of “stuff” which exists in the world and which the learner somehow had to “acquire”, I began thinking about learning and knowledge as something which was constructed by a learner using symbols. This in turn triggered a tentative hypothesis that this sort of cognition was so successful in empowering our species, that evolution selected it as form of species-survival behavior.
In my next post , I will address Q3 above, namely "What’s involved in interpreting the human problem of learning to read from a biological rather than a psychological perspective?”
(NOTE: I will list all my references after the final blog in this series