Aristotle and Learning as Engagement in Particulars
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Most formal learning environments focus on transmitting disembodied ideas, abstracted from the contextual particulars that give them value. As educators work to communicate the “platonic ideal” of the construct (e.g., scientific method, mathematical formula, grammatical rule) independent of any potential context, they are stripping the value and meaning of that which is being taught. By operating under a bias that separates person, content, and context, they end up creating understandings that are free of any meaningful context with the misguided assumption that by not attaching them to any one context they will be more easily viewed as relevant to numerous future contexts. By creating a formal divide between content and context, person and context, and context and person, we undermine the very motivations for why the content being taught could have value or that the learner could apply what they are learning to create such value.
The irony is that educators then wonder why children appear unmotivated to learn after contextual application has been removed from the learning situation, and then assuming that the learner somehow will attribute the same functional value to the information, as does the expert, textbook, or teacher. Even when there is a contextualized appreciation for the use value of what is being learned, there is often little appreciation for why that will matter to the child’s future beyond the exchange value of a grade. What would happen if educators reversed the core assumptions, beginning with the interrelations of person, content, and context and then put emphasis on how to leverage success with particulars to generate appreciation of universals. According to many learning scientists, there is no such thing as universals, simply overlapping contexts that continually give rise or make relevant overlapping skills, practices, and conceptual tools (Greeno 1998).
It is a shame that educators did not heed Aristotle’s warning in 350 B.C. in which he argued: “Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience” (Aristotle and Irwin 1999, p. 93). At the core of the problem is the emergence of an educational system heavily influenced by dualist assumptions inherent in the works of Plato, making it seem reasonable if not expeditious to build lessons focused on transmitting abstracted universals into a learner’s disembodied mind. Beyond resulting in an incomplete appreciation for the use-value of that which is being learned, an educational system that treats abstracted universals as having inherent value independent of real-world application reinforces grades as motivators and for many is an inadequate if not demoralizing motivation for learning.
Grounding the Argument
As further grounding, the separation of individual and environment has a rich history tracing back to Plato’s dualism, in which mind and matter were speculated to be independent, absolute, and distinct, causing dualisms that many argue plague the present (Lombardo 1987). This polarization of learner from environment creates multiple problems that in effect isolate the self from its world, the body from its mind, the content from its context, and the parts from the whole – even while it is clear that, for example, the whole is often more than the sum of its parts. The history of such dualistic thinking reveals its inadequacies as a way of explaining thought and knowledge because it leads to the separation of knower and known, with one language to describe that which is known (content) and another to describe the individual doing the knowing (person), and still another to describe the places where knowing has value (context) (Barab et al. 1999).
Clearly, Platonic lines of thought dominate the field of cognitive psychology; the mind is viewed as existing separate from the physical world and it apprises itself of this other world through the examination of mental representations. Aristotle, in contrast, posited that the knower and the known are united in a functional interdependency. Aristotle distinguished the knowing mind from that which is known, but he also stated that in reality the two are inseparable. Based on this Aristotelian heritage, a line of thought emerged that challenged the analytic, static, and segmented thought of absolute dualism. From this perspective, knowledge, better described as “knowing about” is irrevocably tied to the situations in which it has value, and to individuals for whom it provides value (Barab and Roth 2006). While knowing about connects content and context, “knowing for” further unites person and context. In this way, and consistent with Aristotle, knowing is an activity (verb) engaged by individual with the orientation of achieving a specific goal, with this ecological positioning defining that which comes to be known.
For Aristotle it made little sense to separate the why, what, how, when, and where, especially when it comes to supporting the growth of an individual. This stands in sharp contrast to schools where the “what” is continually isolated from any real-world contexts of use (when and where), or from any motivation of the learner (why) out of a misguided fear doing so will undermine the acquisition of a robust conceptual tool. In schools, it is generally believed that generalizable learning must isolate the big ideas from any specific context so that it will remain transferable to other situations, and that only such “out of context” learning can lead to abstraction, generalization, transferable knowledge, and cognitive efficacy in future life situations. Instead, it leads to structural understanding of content (ability to describe its features), inert knowledge (ideas can be demonstrated on a test but are not used), and disengaged learners (students who appear unmotivated because they do not see the use-value of what is being learned).
It appears that the “academic and educational establishments are caught in a serious dilemma concerning the role of distance from experience in strengthening and at the same time weakening learning” (Lave 1997, p. 33). Importantly, context is not a simply a tool (con-text) layered on to help “unmotivated” learners (assuming such a label makes sense) engage in the distasteful act of learning. It is a lens for understanding what is the content, in that generalizable descriptions of the structure independent of its use in the world are very different than using it in the world – with both having value but being very different things. And, a system, primarily focused on memorizing static structures independent of use, undermines meaning and results in impoverished understandings and disengaged learners. An ecological perspective focused on context-in-use is consistent with an Aristotelian ontology (what exists), epistemology (how one comes to know about it), and teleology (one’s motivations for knowing), which, quite significantly, he viewed as meaningfully interrelated; a view that stands in sharp contrast to the more influential and easier to implement educational system that has arisen based on dualistic notions of the world. The argument here goes beyond treating context as content (a noun), but instead positions context as a space for transformative action where the learner applies what is being learned to realize personally meaningful goals.
From Abstract Nouns to Lived Verbs
Too often, educators position the content over the situation, and treat the learner as the recipient of pre-determined content, placing meaning in the content and not in what the learner does with it. From this perspective, integration is an afterthought, deferring the question of “transfer” to the future, and, thereby, skirting the responsibility of whether the learner can, or will be able to, engage the content being learned in situations where it is useful. In a very real way, and in part influenced by dualistic lines of thought, educators have put the cart before the horse. The content has become more important than what the learner does with it. In contrast, when one treats impacting the world as the goal, then the criteria for success becomes whether the individual can, and chooses to, leverage the to-be-learned content in ways that are relevant to goals that they view as important.
In most formal learning environments, people learn a definition with the expectation that at some point in the future they will engage in a situation in which it has value and that the learner will apply it correctly. In contrast, Aristotle would start with the particular instance, holding schools accountable to supporting learners in making progress in these situations, and then supporting students in recognizing the universal that could be similarly “hired” to make progress on other related situations. The key, however, is elevating the value of the particular over the universal, the learner’s lived experience over the description of the general, and positioning the universal in the service of making progress in a situation that matters to the learner. When one starts with the specific instance or context, the universal does not come for free, but at least the learner is already invested in the why, which is more than half the challenge when it comes to education.
Uniting Person, Content, and Context
The most significant damage done by the separation of content and context is to allow an educational system to emerge that tacitly (and often explicitly) treats facts, concepts, principles, and skills as independent from those situations in which they are learned and used – with the misguided assumption that they will later be connected by the learner. This educational system emphasizes efficient means of “transmitting” content so that it can be demonstrated on standardized learning tests that necessarily strip meaningful context. However, and while transmission models are efficient for standardized-test preparation, they leave a quite problematic deficit in understanding. From the perspective of the contextual or ecological theorist, a key question becomes to define the “minimal meaningful ontology” for creating meaning and for supporting learning; that is, what is the least amount of “context” that needs to be available to engage a particular phenomenon.
When one artificially separates person, content, and context, the opportunity for meaning to emerge is removed, except in those cases where teachers manage to smuggle in examples and cleverly package them in ways that might be viewed as relevant by students. Instead, when one starts with the goal of uniting person, content, and context as interrelated components of the learning situation, meaning is already present, and the educational challenge is how to support the learner in then making connections to future contexts. Uniting person, content, and context starts with authentic motive, meaning that learning should begin with an invested learner who is working to make progress on goals that are meaningful to her. It is the learner in relation to a particular goal within a particular context that is important.
The environment, from a learning perspective, is most powerful when success within one context requires understanding universals – uniting person, context, and content. Imagine an educational system that started with the progress that people want to make, and that treated each person’s achievement as an act of learning. Such positioning begins to prioritize applied use over rote memorization. From an ecological perspective, the ontological characterization of what is being learned includes the person (themselves as successful doers), the context (those places where one is able to achieve), and the content (those tools that allow them to make progress) (Barab et al. 2010). In this way, an ecological characterization positions meaning not as contained within the static description of the universal independent of its application, but as a verb that is lived with meaning being created through the dynamic and emerging within the particulars. From this perspective, knowing involves making progress on a particular thing and needs to be judged on the work it does in transforming a known to a desired future state.
The move here is to position learning as an active or engaged process, in which one is envisioning possible future states and then working to integrate what is being learned to do work on the world in ways that, if successful, achieve the future state. Learning is about anticipating future states and governing how one integrates an appreciation of the universal to transform a specific instance into a desired future state. Particulars, as Aristotle posited, are not afterthoughts, but starting points for the design of an educational system or in supporting the development of a wise individual. Universals do not determine the outcomes they are designed to enable, but at the same time, it would be irresponsible to expect each individual to construct the necessary knowledge needed to succeed within a specific instance. Educators need not resign responsibility for helping learners integrate ideas into lives, nor ignore the influential role they can have in shaping possible futures. If the goal is to help learners succeed in life, learning ecologies need to support learners to become invested in the particular, envisioning possible users, and integrating them into situations to achieve desired future states.
Helping People Thrive, Not Consume Content
An educational system that started with particulars, concerning itself with the people doing the learning and the situations in which they were engaged in this doing, would be in sharp contrast to that which has become the dominant means of learning. However, for many learning scientists, starting with Aristotle’s belief in the power of the particular would have resulted in a much more engaging, relevant, and useful educational system than one that has privileged the transmission of abstracted universals. How one designs systems for learning would have looked very different and be more effective, if Aristotle, not Plato, had been more influential in shaping how one thinks about knowledge and learning. Prioritizing contextualized application over universal descriptions might seem inefficient, but it would be less of a lift then the current system in which society has to spend so much time and money working to reengage uninvested learners in appreciating why learning the content being taught in schools is good for them at some point in the future.
In a system that privileges particulars over universals, learners would experience the use-value as part of the learning process and would come to see themselves as capable of using that which is being learned to accomplish goals that matter to them. The less significant lift in this latter framework is to help learners then appreciate the cross-contextual value of the universal. There is little question that moving from nouns that are about the structure of the universal to verbs focused on learners leveraging universals to achieve goals that they care about would be a radical change to the current system. One could still define a universal set of ideas, skills, and situations that people should engage, but it would prioritize their use of them and how to embed them in situations with goals that they care about. In this redesign, the focus is on learners making progress in situations that they care about and for which universals have value.
Such a system would prioritize people thriving in particular situations, not on consuming content in ways that might have value in some future situation. Imagine if schools were laboratories for transforming particulars rather than factories for memorizing pre-determined structures. It would force administrations to justify the use-value of the content being taught, and it would position students with legitimacy for their goals, and instill ownership in the ways they used the universal to achieve their particular. There would potentially be less irrelevant content as it would become almost impossible to justify the progress as relevant or desired. By starting with the specific use cases that learners care about and the progress they wish to make in these situations, or even that the educators wanted them to make, one would begin to see the power of the situation and the learner, resulting in an educational system that valued making awesome people who can do great things over one that primarily cares about disembodied articulations.
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