CEPA eprint 3064

Construction and transference of meaning through form

Ackermann E. K. (1995) Construction and transference of meaning through form. In: Steffe L. P. & Gale J. E. (eds.) Constructivism in education. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale NJ: 341–354. Available at http://cepa.info/3064
Table of Contents
Constructivist teaching? A bind that is hard to handle
Conveying meaning through form: The designer’s dilemma
Using what one knows to make sense of the unknown? The learner’s dilemma
“I didn’t mean to teach and therefore they learned”: A partial response to the teacher’s dilemma
The clinical interview: A guided exploration through puzzling worlds
What is it that makes the clinical setting propitious to learning?
Who is designing what for whom? Who is learning what from whom?
Coaching, counseling, teaching: Extending the clinical setting
What I write is more than what I meant, and what they read is not what I expected: Partial response to the designer’s dilemma
Designing
The Readers, Viewers, and Users
The Role of Form in Meaning Making
Learning through design/design for learning: Partial response to learner’s dilemma
Design as the co--construction of mediational tools
No learning environment can satisfy all the learners all the time
References
There seem to be as many definitions of constructivism as there are minds to construct them. At least this is how it felt after reading the chapters by Duit (chap. 14), Saxe (chap. 15), and Spivey (chap. 16). Or perhaps there are as many questionings of constructivist ideas as practices in the field of education. For example, a teacher experiences a different set of constraints than a researcher or a designer, and these constraints in turn shape theories of learning in different ways.
Constructivist teaching? A bind that is hard to handle
Duit’s chapter eloquently reflects what I call “the teacher’s dilemma.” At the core of the teacher’s dilemma resides the question: How can a teacher give reason to a student (Duckworth, 1987) by appreciating the uniqueness and consistency of his or her thinking, while, at the same time, giving right to the expert whose views coincide with more advanced ideas in a field?
From a transfer theorist’s perspective, the answer to this question is simple: The students (or novices) need to overcome their current beliefs and embrace the expert’s view, and the teacher needs to explain the expert’s view in a clear enough way so that the students can understand it. If a student does not “get” the teacher’s explanation, the blame is to be put either on the teacher, who is not able to explain the matter clearly or, more commonly, on the student, who is not willing or bright enough to abandon an incorrect view.
From a constructivist perspective, things become more difficult. As a teacher learns to appreciate her students’ views for their own sake, and to understand the deeply organic nature of cognitive development, she can no longer impose outside standards to cover wrong answers. She comes to realize that her teaching is usually not “heard” the way she had anticipated, and that the children’s views of the world are more robust than she thought. The teacher understands that it takes much more than a good explanation to have learners change their views, and that learners have extremely good reasons to hold onto their working belief systems. As Duckworth (1987) put it in discussing the difficulties of applying Piaget in classrooms: “Either we (the teachers)are too early, and they can’t learn it, or we’re too late and they know it already” (p. 31). The dilemma of constructivist teaching appears whenever an educator refuses to impose outside standards, but still feels compelled to teach the subject matter. In this case, many teachers find their way out of the dilemma by guiding students into realizing their limitations “from within” or by themselves. They no longer tell students what they want from them, but help them discover it by themselves. Indirect teaching has replaced traditional methods.
Along with Bateson (1972c) and others, I believe that constructivist teaching is a bind that is hard to handle, and that, more often than not, the quite sophisticated tricks invented by well-intentioned educators can turn into highly manipulative enterprises. This is not to say that traditional teaching is the answer. Instead, I suggest that indirect teaching can empower students only if teachers are ready to recognize their own potential for manipulation, and willing to undergo the self-scrutiny and supervision necessary to minimize its impact. Helping others help themselves is harder than just telling them what to do. Constructivist teachers need to support their students’ initiatives by creating a “learning culture” in which the active contributions of every participant can become a valuable piece within a broader learning experience. They need to help the group of learners as a whole become its own critic, and learn when and how to overcome some perceived limitations. It is not excessive to say that, from a learner’s point of view, there are no such things as misconceptions. There are only discrepancies, either between points of view or between a person’s activity and some unexpected effects of this activity. A good teacher is one who enables students to generate, explore, and resolve discrepancies in a variety of ways.
In response to Duit’s chapter, I hope to address the paradoxical nature of constructivist teaching by presenting a limited yet rich case of indirect learning as it takes place in a clinical interview (in the Piagetian tradition). My partial answer to the teacher’s dilemma could be summarized as follows: “I didn’t mean to teach and therefore they learned.” I expand on what I mean by this in a later section.
Conveying meaning through form: The designer’s dilemma
Spivey’s approach to constructivism reflects what I call the designer’s dilemma. In her chapter, Spivey convincingly discusses how meaning is constructed and interpreted through form. She stresses the conversational nature of meaning making in both writing and reading, and mentions that the written text “exists” only insofar as it carries clues for reconstruction or interpretation.
The main issue raised by Spivey’s chapter remains, I believe, the classical dilemma: How can we come to a consensus about the qualities of a designed artifact (text, building, or computer-based microworld) if we do not endow it with an existence independent of the builder’s intentions and of a particular reader’s interpretations? How can we design an artifact (or build meaning into form) if we deny that, once launched, the built form takes on a life of its own, becomes the carrier of a set of identifiable features embodied in the artifact (and allowing for certain interpretations); and, ultimately, acquires an identity that transcends our intentions as authors, as well as any singular act of interpretation?
It seems essential for designers of, say, educational software to take responsibility for their products by not assuming – I caricature the constructivist stance – that students will use them as a Rorschach test. Sometimes objects are more than just evocative. Designers should, indeed, acknowledge that their products will survive after them, that they may be duplicated by hundreds, and that it is ultimately their built artifacts – rather than the author’s intentions – that will remain and become part of other people’s cultural heritage. If people shape their environment (we are surrounded by man-made artifacts), this environment, once built, becomes the projection or reflection of their collective experience, and the place in which we all have to live. Places have a “genius loci” (genius of the place), which constrains mental appropriation. More generally in human relations, it is vital to attribute autonomy to others and to things – to celebrate their existence independently from our current interaction with them. This is true even if an attribution (of existence) is a mental construct. We can literally rob others of their identity if we deny them an existence beyond our current interests.
In response to Spivey’s chapter, I elaborate on the designer’s dilemma by suggesting that a designed artifact does, indeed, transcend the author’s will and takes on an identity of its own. I discuss how such an idea can find its place within a constructivist framework. I suggest that reality construction is no doubt a mental construct, yet it fulfills a fundamental adaptive function. Asserting “existence” is one of the ways in which people impose their order on the world, hold things still, and build cognitive invariants, all of which are needed to cope with an ever-changing environment. The motto for my partial response to the designer’s dilemma is: “What I write is more than what I meant (to write), and what they read is not what I expected,” or “when the text (artifact) transcends the author’s will.”
Using what one knows to make sense of the unknown? The learner’s dilemma
Saxe is an anthropologist. His purpose is to describe knowledge as it develops within self-made learning cultures (of children or adults). This approach partially frees him from both the teacher’s and the designer’s dilemmas. Saxe’s fieldwork on street sellers in Brazil is a true celebration of children’s unique intelligence. It addresses what may be called the learner’s dilemma: How can learners build on their own limited knowledge as a means to access what is not yet understood? As Saxe himself puts it: How can learners use what they know in a given context as a way to make sense of another context, which is not yet familiar? A related question is: How do learners manage to create and use the resources around them (others and things) as a way to collectively outgrow each individual’s personal contribution? I respond to the contributions offered by the three authors by addressing some issues that I came across in my own experience as a researcher and a clinician. I hope to do the authors justice by keeping their personal interests in the discussion.
“I didn’t mean to teach and therefore they learned”: A partial response to the teacher’s dilemma
The clinical method of investigation in the Piagetian tradition offers a rich case to think about teaching and learning (Piaget, 1963a). In describing the type of interaction at play in a clinical interview, I hope to pinpoint why this particular kind of guided exploration can be an enabling experience for both participants. Provided it is well conducted, the clinical setting allows the adult to gain insight into a child’s way of thinking, and it allows the child to develop, probe, and express his or her own ideas about a phenomenon, which happens to be a good way to stretch the limits of his or her own understanding.
The clinical interview: A guided exploration through puzzling worlds
In my practice as a clinician, I have notice time and again that my intention was not to teach and yet (or maybe therefore) they – the children I was interviewing – learned. This apparent paradox is not accidental, nor should it be simply deplored. Instead, it provides a useful lens through which to view the deep nature of learning.
As a researcher in genetic psychology, my explicit purpose has always been to understand children’s ways of thinking in different situations and at different moments of their cognitive development. I always wanted to find out what each child knows how to do when presented with a task I was also interested in what a child thinks he knows how to do, and how this evaluation in turn affects his behavior. I tried to capture both the hidden coherence behind children’s activity (third-person ascription), as well as the meaning that the children attribute to their activities and the world around them (first-person ascription). Above all, I was interested in the robustness or fragility of children’s views of a phenomenon, and in the conditions under which children were more likely to hold onto their current beliefs or let go of them. I used the clinical interview as a means to gain insights into children’s thinking. However, while doing so, I ended up stretching and transforming the minds I wanted to observe, as well as my own mind. I learned something about the children (and myself), and they learned something about their learning about the phenomenon under study. The very technique used to capture the robustness or fragility of children’s thinking turned out to be an ideal vehicle to foster learning.
What is it that makes the clinical setting propitious to learning?
The clinical method, as used for research purposes, usually involves two people: an adult, the researcher, conversing – and playing – with a child, the “subject,” about a phenomenon that is intriguing to both. The clinical transaction is clearly asymmetrical in that the players come to the setting for different motives. Mutual learning grows out of the researcher’s desire to understand a child’s way of thinking, and of a child’s willingness to “play the game,” because something seems exciting about the game to be played. The adult sets the stage and proposes the game, and the child disposes. A closer look at the nature of the interaction, however, shows that for the clinical setting to work at all, some kind of agreement – or contract – needs to develop along the way. Such an agreement to play together requires what Sullivan calls a consensus, or a consensual validation, through constant questioning or checking of the level of understanding or interest of the interlocutor. Both partners need to be deeply interested in pursuing the journey together (mutual engagement) despite their initial disparity of motives. What makes the clinical setting most relevant to learning is not merely the conversation about some puzzling phenomenon, but the mutual engagement to uncover the puzzle (a different puzzle for each player) through exploration and argumentation. The playing around is as important as the talking about.
Who is designing what for whom? Who is learning what from whom?
The clinician’s job does not begin with an informal interview. The experimenter first sets the stage in which the playing around will take place. To do so, he or she designs an experiment, or microworld, that is both conceptually rich and meaningful to the child. It can be a puzzle, a mechanical gadget, or a computer-based game. Once the microworld is designed, the clinician “guides the child through the problem, while being guided by the child’s own approach” (Piaget, 1963a).
It is not easy to teach anyone how to become a good clinician. A few golden rules are nonetheless worth mentioning. A clinician does not try to teach the right answer to the child, nor does she attempt to scaffold the child toward the view of an expert in a more or less subtle fashion. Nor is the purpose to judge or evaluate a child’s performance in relation to performances of other children who might come up with the right answer. If a child “makes an error,” which is to say if a child approaches a problem in a different way from adults or older children, the focus of the clinician is to understand the originality of that reasoning, to describe its coherence, and to probe its robustness or fragility in a variety of contexts. In Pask’s (1976) words, Piaget’s clinical approach (at least in its earlier form) represents a “conversational method for observing, probing, and helping exteriorize normally hidden cognitive events” (p. 12). Note that, in the later Piaget, verbal exchanges have been replaced or complemented by other means of expressing and modeling ideas. What a clinician typically does to capture children’s understanding of a situation is: (a) vary the constraints of the situation (i.e., “What you did until now is great. Now, what if we change the situation?”), (b) invite the child to make guesses (anticipations) and express these guesses in various ways (i.e., “What do you think will happen? Can you show me? Tell? Make a drawing?”), (c) have the child probe his or her guesses experimentally (i.e., “Let’s try and see what happens!”), (d) have the child explain why a given guess was confirmed or infirmed (i.e., “Did you expect what happened? What did actually happen? Can you tell? Show?”), (e) propose counter-suggestions (“Another child I saw yesterday thought that.. Do you think this makes sense?”), (f) have the child formulate his or her viewpoint to others, possibly younger children, which Pask called teach back (“Pretend you are the teacher. Could you explain what you think to a younger child? How would you explain?”), or (g) have the child design a setting that would help a younger child understand something (children as designers of games and software; Kafai Harel, 1991).
Again, provided it is well conducted, the clinical interview allows both participants to learn quite a bit as a result of the interaction: The experimenter learns to invent and design a series of questions on the fly, and derive experiments as a way to uncover “hidden cognitive events” in the child’s mind. The child learns to explore a phenomenon, to probe and express his ideas in a variety of ways, which happens to be a good way to stretch his views (zone of proximal development). Both participants learn through a shared game of framing and reframing a problem, of taking alternative views, of modifying constraints, and of switching roles. Both learn because a space has been opened for playing around with ideas through different media, for different purposes, and from different viewpoints. As Pask (1976) put it:
Whatever the apparatus may be, it is jointly perceived by the participants and is open to shared manipulation. The experimenter poses problems, the respondent replies either verbally, or by manipulating the artifact…. The respondent sometimes appeals for help, and in this case, the experimenter might perform a demonstration, or point out a principle, or suggest some way in which the artifact could be modified. (p. 14)
Coaching, counseling, teaching: Extending the clinical setting
The clinical interview as a research technique has usually been described as being different from its use in therapy or education. I suggest to provisorily suspend these distinctions and to focus on what characterizes almost any form of a one-to-one learning-teaching transaction.
A first characteristic, shared by both research and therapy, is the obvious imbalance in the interaction: One player “knows better” or is more experienced than the other. Hence the question becomes: How to avoid manipulation? How to make use of the imbalance in such a way as to open possibilities for both players? How to handle the inequality without dispossessing the student of his or her personal world view? In a therapeutical (or educational) setting the overt purpose of the therapist (or coach) is to help the patient (or learner) reframe a problem (that has been recognized as a problem by the learner) in a more constructive way. In a research setting, this goal is not at the center, but occurs as a side effect. In all cases, failure and manipulation can occur if the coach, tutor, researcher, or therapist acts in such a way as to hinder growth (irrational authority), create dependencies, and generate insecurities, instead of allowing differences and planting self-trust. This being said, nothing is harder than to give prescriptions on how much advice, help, questioning, criticism, or encouragement a helper should be giving to the helpees in order not to disempower them.
A second characteristic of the clinical setting is the one-to-one nature of the transaction, which is obviously not the case in classroom practice. This duality is both a plus and a minus. The learner gets a great deal of personal attention, yet at the same time has little elbow room. One could say that the clinical setting is to a learning-teaching group (or culture) what a single parent is to an extended family. The advantage of the extended family is that each member can choose to whom they want to speak, and how much they want to know, at each moment. Similarly, a learning-teaching group becomes rich if: (a) “it knows” how to engage different people at different levels, allowing everyone to find their own level of engagement and style of work; (b) “it knows” how to balance hands-on activities with reflexive moments, personal reflections with collective elaborations; and (c) “it allows” each learner to exteriorize his or her thoughts, for themselves and for others – different kinds of others, with different interests and expectations. It is obviously difficult to turn a classroom into a child-centered, project-oriented learning culture. Yet it seems the only way to enable students to: (a) build on their own views without forcing them to conform to external standards, (b) use their own critical judgment as a way to discover the limits of their current thinking, and (c) become confident enough to seek for opportunities that allow personal growth through collective learning experiences.
What I write is more than what I meant, and what they read is not what I expected: Partial response to the designer’s dilemma
Design is the process by which a “creator” attempts to give form to a set of ideas. Habraken’s (1985) definition of design as “successive approximations to form” remains the best I have found to this day. To capture how designers proceed in the building of an artifact, it is useful to focus on how they establish a conversation with their own expressions or externalizations (sketches, projections, models, etc.) How do designers give form to their ideas, and how do these ideas, once embodied, expand and distort their initial intents (traduzioneltrahisone, translation/betrayal)? Can the built form, once created, become suggestive of experiences that the constructor did not anticipate? How is meaning reconstructed by a community of users?
Designing
Along with Spivey, I believe that designers not only build but constantly rebuild, or reinterpret, what they have done so far in the light of what they wish to accomplish. They switch roles from being the producers to being the critics of their own production. Every now and then, they “stop and think,” removing themselves from messing around with the materials, and they look at what they have done through their own or another person’s eyes. Putting on a critic’s hat makes it easier for them to attribute meaning to their own expressions: They become able to address them “as if they were not theirs.” I suggest that while interacting with their own forms, designers necessarily start a dialogue with a whole chorus of interlocutors, imaginary or real, to whom they dedicate their work. Such a dialogue can be mental or actual. As Habraken (1985) put it: “As soon as an idea takes shape, it gains both a physical and a social existence” (p. 47); we always address our work to others, real or imaginary, and we mentally converse with them (Valery, 1940). So the mind of the designer moves not only in and out from its own expressions (or materialization), but also from itself (to include viewpoints of others).
The Readers, Viewers, and Users
The readers, viewers, and users are not in any way passive consumers, however. They engage designed artifacts by actively reconstructing them through the lenses of their personal interests and experiences. In the same way that designers are readers, readers are constructors. As Bordwell (1985) mentioned about film audiences:
I do not call the spectator’s comprehension “reading” but actively reconstructing a story through the lenses of their own experience. The spectator brings to the artwork expectations and hypothesis, those in turn being derived from everyday experience, other artworks, and so forth.... The artwork sets limits on what the spectator does. But within these limits, the viewer literally recasts the play. (p. 30)
Viewers impose their own personal coherence by rearranging and replacing clues, by filling in blanks or “creating phantoms” (adding elements), by ignoring clues (leaving out elements), by forcing causal-temporal connections, and by adjusting expectancies. As a story unfolds, they filter and mold incoming clues in such a way as to feed their current understanding (assimilation). They distort elements to fit their views, and they usually adjust their views only if a more exciting view is suggested by the materials. In the act of interpretation, viewers literally recast the plot. Many models of the spectator assume that a great deal of meaning making goes into guessing the constructor’s intentions. Along with Barthes (1977), and Iser (1978), I suggest that, in fictions at least, little attention goes into actually conversing with the author. A few exceptions are when, in a narrative, something does not work as expected, or when the spectator suddenly realizes that she would have done something very different from the author. At other times, when things go smoothly, the constructor fades away and leaves the spectator engaged with the form. The form has literally taken on a life of its own. A different model of the spectator is provided by Jenkins (1992), who studied how groups of youngsters reappropriate TV series (such as “Star Trek”) by collectively rewriting them. Rather than just conversing with the author, the spectator becomes, in this case, a true substitute of the author. The spectator replaces the author, and literally reconstructs the original by producing a new version of the text.
The Role of Form in Meaning Making
Constructivism stresses the importance of meaning in the construction and understanding of form. Yet by doing so, it pays less attention to the importance of form in the process of meaning making. Along with many constructivists, I believe that the very act of endowing objects with an existence independent of people’s current interactions with them is, indeed, a mental construct. It is an act of constructing invariants in Piaget’s sense. However, such a mental construct is of great use to anyone engaged in teaching and designing tools and places for learning. It is essential to remember that certain cultural artifacts or objects are, indeed, more enriching than others – allowing “users” to discover things by themselves, to set, pursue, and overcome personal goals – whereas others do not.
As an educator, I feel the need to carefully analyze how forms engage minds. Let me put it this way: I have noticed time and again that whenever I drive in the countryside on a foggy day, I “create phantoms” by turning the landscape into a Mediterranean scenery. One reason for this apparently strange phenomenon is that minds tend to fill empty slots, and my personal way of filling in slots, in this case, is to bring about a favorite childhood experience. Similarly, we know that a storyteller, or a teacher for that matter, who makes everything explicit, or tells too much, is usually disengaging because he literally prevents his interlocutor from thinking: Too much explanation leaves no space for imagining. We also know that a plot incapable of setting expectancies is boring, that surprise is important, and that an excess of unpredictability may lower interest. I could go on and on listing “qualities” of designed artifacts that tend to trigger certain categories of experiences. I find it useful to think of these “qualities” or affordances as actually living in the artifact. A good design could be characterized as one that “knows” how many complications, interruptions, and detours contribute to constructively delaying our progress or voyage. As Sternberg put it, “narrative text is a dynamic system of competing and mutually blocking retardatory pattern”; or, in Shlowsky’s words, “The narrative is less like an elevator than a spiral staircase which littered with toys, dog leashes, and open umbrellas impedes our progress” (cited in Bordwell, 1985, p. 38). What is true for a narrative is also true for other built artifacts, be they objects or places.
Learning through design/design for learning: Partial response to learner’s dilemma
The primary focus in educational research is not to study how best to transmit a given body of knowledge through instruction (the conduit metaphor), but rather to describe and provide settings (artificial or natural, computational or otherwise) that may help learners build on their current knowledge in a way that is meaningful to them (the tools builder metaphor). Piaget used to tell his students that: Each time you explain something to a child, you prevent him or her from discovering it. Papert’s (1990) contribution to Piaget’s constructivism was to specify some of the conditions under which such constructive learning is more likely to happen. He called his approach constructionism:
The word with the “V” (constructivism) expresses the theory that knowledge is built by the learner, not supplied by the teacher. The word with the “N” (constructionism) expresses the further idea that this happens especially felicitously when the learner is engaged in the construction of something external or at least shareable. This leads us to a model using a cycle of internalization of what is outside, then externalization of what is inside, and so on…. This does not suggest that instruction is bad or useless. Instruction is not bad but overrated as the locus for significant change in education. Better learning will not come from finding better ways for the teacher to instruct but from giving the learner better opportunities to construct. (p. 3)
To Papert, people best learn through constructing personally meaningful products, or products that express something of importance to them. Moreover, he suggested that people cannot construct something out of nothing, and that meaningful constructions require enabling tools and environments. “To the adage ‘you learn by doing’ we add the rider ‘and best of all by thinking and talking about what you do”’ (Harel & Papert, 1991).
Along with Papert, I believe that learners should, indeed, be encouraged to give form or expression to their ideas. I like to imagine/design environments in which the children can become imaginative designers. I envisage constructive environments in which they can pursue personal projects, reflect on what they are doing, give form to their thoughts in a variety of ways, and, last but not least, “compare notes” with others (i.e., different kinds of others, with different expectations and levels of understanding).
Design as the co--construction of mediational tools
For a personal project to become meaningful, it certainly needs to satisfy the builder’s aspirations. Yet even more important, it needs to be acknowledged, or perceived as meaningful, by those of importance to the builder. People are immersed within their culture, and they learn through sharing their ideas and projects with others. A learning environment remains limited if it does not provide a place or “forum” where learners can exchange ideas, practices, or products, and where they can build mutual understanding (or at least acceptance) by switching roles, taking others’ perspectives, arguing, convincing, and explaining. People’s active participation in the construction of cultural artifacts – which are no less than the reflective or evocative projections of a group’s shared experience (mediational tools, objects to think with) – represents a deeply self- orienting activity, and it is present in any community. Learning occurs when novice members are encouraged to participate in a community’s core activities – and provided this community has been elected by the child. The novice’s participation, at first peripheral, then gradually needs to move toward the center (Lave & Wenger, 1991). We are aware that different communities of practice, or learning cultures, adopt different criteria for validating ideas and practices among their members. Similarly, different cultures encourage different styles of exploring, debating, and arguing. No matter what form the validation takes, it is a crucial ingredient to knowledge construction.
To say that knowledge is constructed through experience does not imply that people should or could ignore what others, before them, have said or written. Any object of investigation is partially defined by the stories that others, before us, have told or written about it. Even our own lives often appear to us in the way we, and others, describe them to ourselves. As Bruner (personal communication) once mentioned: “Stories happen to those who know how to tell them.” We cannot detach our personal experience from all the stories that we tell about ourselves (and others), and that others tell about us. In other words, we are so deeply embedded in our culture that we view the world and ourselves in terms of how others perceive them. Such an idea is not contrary to a constructivist perspective, yet it calls for specification:
Constructing our own knowledge does not imply that we need to reinvent the wheel at each step, or that we should ignore the lessons drawn by more experienced others. Culture works as a teaching machine, and we learn from interacting with both the world and others. The artifacts that others have constructed literally become our worlds. As a result, our personal contributions take roots within the culture and return back to it.Learning through direct experience (actual manipulation of “real” objects) is not always possible or desirable. There are situations in which it is clearly advantageous to mediate one’s experience, either by acting in a simulated world (a substitute for the “real one”), or by operating mentally (not acting out). Sometimes we want others to tell us what to do. An ideal context for constructive learning is one that enables learners to decide when they need guidance or alternative views, and when they prefer freedom to explore. Learners should also have a say on what kind of guidance they favor at a given time, and be able to change their minds as they go along.
No learning environment can satisfy all the learners all the time
We are only too aware that different people need different kinds of support, at different times, in different tasks. This is true for a variety of reasons. Some people are more “advanced” than others in a given field. Within a same level of expertise, different people may develop personal styles of mastering complexity, overcoming obstacles, and evaluating their own and other people’s activity. All these differences play a central role in the kind of holding system that people favor. Good teachers, as well as good coaches, therapists, and mothers, seem to know what balance of freedom and guidance is better for a learner, at a given time, and they are flexible enough to offer different kinds of encouragements, and “elaboration spaces,” as needed. They also know, in a deeper sense, that no single person can satisfy all the needs of all the learners all the time. This is why they naturally distribute their knowledge within the culture at large, and make use of the resources around them. They give up personal control by creating a community around themselves and their students, in which all can feel comfortable. A good teacher sets the terrain for meaning making by designing elaboration spaces that are secure yet allow for exploration, expression, and sharing of ideas, projects, and products. A classroom becomes a true learning culture if it provides every participant with some ability to contribute to his or her growth.
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