Constructivism: Ethics and gender implications for education
Gash H. (1993) Constructivism: Ethics and gender implications for education. Irish Educational Studies 12(1): 227–240. Available at http://cepa.info/3667
Table of Contents
Elements in the Theory
The Intra-Personal Dynamics of Change
Task 3: To prepare to defend oneself and one’s views
The purpose of this paper is to make explicit some ethical consequences of a theory of cognitive development, and in the process ’to specify some practical educational implications. Cognitive developmental theory could be described as a model of the changes which occur in construing different constructs. I draw attention to the use of the word “construe” since there is a history of complaint made against Piagetian and neo-Piagetian writing in failing to deal with emotion adequately and with being overly cognitive. Construing is intended to indicate my dissatisfaction with the Cartesian separation of emotion and cognition in construing about these issues. I will, however, continue to use words such as “concepts” which may carry overly cognitive connotations which are not intended.
Traditionally the concepts in cognitive developmental theory include those dealing with classification skills, abilities with relational concepts, the familiar conservation tasks, “formal operations,” and moral judgement (e.g. Flavell, 1963). More recently there has been a dramatic, extension of these areas of investigation to include, for example, aspects of artistic development (Pillow & Flavell, 1985), of metaphor (Vosniadou, Ortony, Reynolds, & Wilson, Brent, 1984; Lazar & Torney-Purta, 1991), gender (Bern, 1989), growth (Rosengren, Gelman, Kalish, & McCormick, 1991), the psychological causes of behaviour (Miller & Aloise, 1989) and of economic (Siegal, 1981) and political ideas (Hess & Tomey, 1967). Each of these areas of research offers much in the way of insight into the steps by which these ideas develop in the human mind insights which, it can be argued, ought to be most useful to teachers and others who work with children and wonder about children’s meanings.
This paper is about the ethical side of cognitive developmental theory, a side which is absent or has a low profile in the texts through which students come to know this theory. This is partly because these ethical issues arise out of careful consideration of the more philosophical side of cognitive developmental theory. These considerations are now firmly identified as constructivism by a number of writers including, Scan (1985), Von Glasersfeld (1987), Maturana (1988), Krippendorf (1990), Von Foerster (1981), Hoffman (1988), Hare-Muslin & Marecek (1990). It is to present these ethical issues to educators that this present paper is concerned.
Elements in the Theory
The fundamental mechanism which Piaget (1970) used to explain the process of thinking involves purpose, assimilation, and accommodation. This process is an experimental process which people use to maintain a balance between their past experience and their present ongoing experience. We interpret our ongoing experience through certain expectations which are determined by our past history, or to use a metaphor, people filter their experience. This is what Piaget (e.g.1970) called assimilation: interpreting experience in terms of existing structures. Changes in the fit between what is expected on the basis of past experience and what is experienced in terms of present experience lead to changes in cognitive structure, these are accommodations, and by dynamic interactions of assimilations and accommodations ideas are built. It is a function of education to facilitate this process.
Teachers are very aware of the different constructions which are put into events by their pupils. However, people are not free to construct as they wish, a person cannot get outside of experience. People can choose their behaviour in a limited way from the range available in their repertoire of actions. This may mean carefully planning what a person’s move will be when they next find themselves with a particular other; it may mean having to learn how to behave, a process which may be slow and difficult. However even when people plan what they want to say in an interaction, it can be difficult for them to execute the plan because feelings happen, they arrive, and may overwhelm. The degree of choice which people have is also socially constrained severely by the context in which they find themselves. In this manner people are structurally determined. For the present it may be helpful to construe freedom as an illusion, because in certain situations freedom is an illusion, a person may not be able to change.
Kelly (1955), p.21) has been helpful in describing freedom and determinism within construct theory:
We are left with one important kind of determinism, the control of a superordinate construct over its elements. …It should now become clear what is not determined. For one thing an element does not determine the constructs which are used to subsume it: …(This) type of independence or freedom is highly significant, for it implies that man, to the extent that he is able to construe his circumstances, can find for himself freedom from their domination.
When strong feelings have been learned in particular contexts it may be very difficult to unlearn them. We are often prisoners of our past. We react to others in ways which have roots in our past in our childhood in school and at home. The early established patterns of relationship with others laid down in infancy, laid down with those significant males and females, parents, relatives and teachers, who were part of our earliest experiences – are the most difficult to alter, perhaps because they may be unconscious, but certainly because they form part of the way we expect things to be. They are intrinsically part of the way we are (see Gash 1992). Some may think that being structurally determined makes people predictable, and in consequence feel that a model of human behaviour, which includes the notion of structural determinism, is unacceptable because it is hard to predict what anyone will do in a given situation. It is, however, virtually impossible to predict what some types of structurally determined machines will do. I would like to illustrate this because the notion of structural determinism is a useful one in understanding how difficult it is for people to change.
Von Foerster (e.g. Segal 1986, or 1991) has contrasted trivial from non-trivial machines and illustrated the difficulty of predicting complex structurally determined systems. It is easy to predict what will happen when a light switch is turned on and off. Such switches have been described as members of the class of trivial machines. Non trivial-machines are quite different; these machines are completely determined by internal rules but it is very difficult to predict their output. The difficulty arises from the fact that in addition to responding to inputs, they then decide which internal state they will use to respond to the next input. People are like non-trivial machines in that they may decide, having responded in one way, that the time has come to change. The model of the non-trivial machine provides a way of seeing how something can be structurally determined by its history, and yet have freedom of choice in a way which makes it incredibly difficult to predict what an outcome will be for a given input. It is up to teachers to decide whether classroom learning is to be trivial or non-trivial, or, put differently, to decide how to balance trivial and non-trivial learning.
One implication of Piaget’s type of description of the process of thinking, of the way our understanding is determined by our past and our anticipations of the future, is that we all, children and teachers, experience different realities. For the teacher, this means that the experience by different people or children of any “event” may be quite different, indeed it becomes problematic to speak of events because the phrase implies a reality independent of observation by someone. There will probably be commonalties, but quite different conclusions may be drawn about intentions, about implications, and about the explanation of what happened. This means also that “right” and “wrong” shift meaning, different views are not necessarily incompatible, one view is not necessarily wrong. This is not to say that any interpretation is as good as any other. This constructivist position must be distinguished from a position of relativism in which“anything goes.” Von Glasersfeld (1987) has explicitly avoided the word “truth” and replaced it with the word “viability.” Issues of difference can be resolved by examining the process by which an idea was built and the assumptions which it contained. This is a process in which people can be helped with workshops or guided practice. All too frequently arguments involve trying to force one party to back down and accept the “truth” of the other party. This notion of realities allows recognition of the possibility that the process used by another and the emotional premises on which their process rests are different and hidden and require exploration to assess the viability of looking at the experience in another way. Maturana (1988) has given an account of one type of explanation on these lines – putting objectivity in parenthesis – “objectivity.”
To examine this process is going to require respect for the other, it is going to require cooperation, it is going to require a somewhat different emotional attitude to that which pertains in arguments in which objectivity is without parenthesis. If objectivity is without parenthesis, reality is the goal of argument, the intentions of the other are ignored, and the biological constraints under which we think are assumed as given, and there is no responsibility to the other’s way of seeing in the discussion. In another place Maturana (1990) spoke of tolerance as the suspension of negation. It will come as no surprise to people interested in peace that two types of processes have been described for interpersonal relations (Bateson & Bateson 1988). The words cooperative and competitive can be used to describe them. It will also be no surprise to people interested in gender issues to hear that in conversations women have been found to be concerned with establishing non-hierarchical relationship, whereas men have been found to be concerned with establishing hierarchical relationship (Tannen 1990).
It seems important to charge Tannen’s assertions with being models of stereotype, and to point out that such generalisations may be the case regularly but not exclusively. For example, are there categories of men and women for whom these stereotypes are not the case? If so, can one describe groups for whom her typology works and for whom it is not viable? I have described work to reduce such stereotyping in children which took place in Irish primary schools (Gash, 1991). In fact, it might be an interesting exercise for a group of preservice or inservice teachers to consider some of the assertions made by Tannen (1990), such as the idea that the purpose of conversation is to assert dominance for men and to establish relations for women. In all of this remember that patterns of relationship require two to play. The exercise of power requires submission and the loss of dignity. Power is not something one person has and which another person doesn’t have. Power is something one person gives another because they want something else. A question to ask in the exercise of power is what is it that the person who concedes power is achieving or hoping to achieve?
I would like to be more explicit about the connection between knowledge and relationship. As Kelly (1973) put it: “Man understands his world by finding out what he can do with it. And he understands himself in the same way, by finding out what he can make of himself.” What one knows affects what one can do in relation to the world and to others. What was implicit in Kelly’s writings about ways of knowing being ways of relating is easily seen in comparing aspects of Bateson’s theory and of Maturana’s theory. Compare for example Bateson’s (1972) notion of cooperative versus competitive relationship, and Maturana’s (1988) notion of objectivity in parenthesis and objectivity without parenthesis. It is illustrative that there should be such close links between what are essentially ways of relating in Bateson and ways of knowing in Maturana. The relation with others which is required by parenthesising objectivity is one of cooperation. It is one in which a person suspends negation of the other and seeks to make explicit what is involved in the position of the other. In this case knowledge is a cooperative venture because one acknowledges the practical nature of any set of operations presented as knowledge by a knower. By contrast the type of relationship which, is implicit in seeking objectivity (without parenthesis) is a competitive one. In this case the goal is to eliminate the weaker argument or force the other to accept the better one.
Having made explicit the connection between ways of knowing and types of relationship it is possible to link gender with each. It is a recurring theme that competition and annihilation are masculine ways of solving problems, and that cooperation and compromise are feminine ways. A number of comments follow. First, a cautionary one: there is a need to avoid stereotyping and not to identify these qualities with either men or women. Second, a hopeful comment the possibilities for mutual respect and for peaceful cooperation which grow out of this constructivist epistemology are clear. On the basis of this model one could anticipate that the course of future arguments would be altered if the implications of these arguments were actualised. To escape being trapped by our histories as teachers of pupils what is needed, I suggest, is practice in techniques which facilitate constructivist strategies in interpersonal contacts. (A number of workshop tasks are suggested in the Appendix to this paper).
Table of elements of epistemologies to summarise the dichotomy between reality and ’’realities”
Objectivity“Objectivities”Cognitive abilities assumed, their limits ignoredCognitive abilities acknowledged as limitingThings exist without our knowing themWe cannot talk about thingsother than by operatingWhat doesn’t correspond to reality is an illusionOne cannot know illusions until after they appearDisagreements threaten the known reality and entail conflictDisagreements imply different coordinations of distinction and imply possible coexistenceEthics of truth & dominationEthics of mutual respect
The Intra-Personal Dynamics of Change
How then can one teach people and children to learn to disagree agreeably? How can one introduce the idea that it is possible to see the world differently? It is arguably the case that, for the most part, people grow up to think about one true reality, and not to think about multiple alternatives when considering their experience. Indeed this is not just an argument, it is a condition of experience that we experience in a manner constrained by our history. We are constrained to interpret events in our lives in a practical sense. To introduce this idea gently in class, the idea of realities, one might reflect on the sorts of experiences which can be shared but about which it is difficult to be specific in language (see for example Boisot, 1987). Take aesthetic experiences such as a wonderful piece of music, or the sunset from the rim of the Grand Canyon, or the sunrise on Dollymount beach on Christmas morning. The difficulty of putting adequate words on the experience is evident, and the validity of different ways of speaking can be made explicit.
For another example consider the variability of sensory experiences such as the variation which occurs in taste before or after brushing one’s teeth with toothpaste. Wine or fruit juice. tastes quite different in these different tasting environments. In ordinary language there are sayings which allow recognition of these different realities “it takes all sorts to make the world.” Further, the amount of information which can be built into the experience of tasting certain types of wine by experienced wine tasters also provides evidence of the realities of the tasters. Again, one can contrast the views of managers and workers in business and one can see the different versions of reality which exist for these groups (e.g. Boxer & Kenny, 1990).
On what is the demand for one reality based? It is that our need to belong to groups and to be understood is a consequence of the possibility that others will not share in our experience, because if we fail in this we will be truly alone, and quite possibly insane? Indeed might we not begin to think of insanity as forms of thinking which are out of touch with the accepted forms of thinking of the group or society? Is it that the group provides a sanctuary from the hazards of making sense of experience? Failure to make sense of experience is going to allow the sense of isolation to overwhelm. This is why excommunication, as practised by religious organisations, has such a powerful impact on believers. A secular equivalent is boycotting, used in Ireland by both social and religious organisations to isolate, to punish, and to demand obedience. The importance of conforming to the dominant group is underlined starkly in human history by considering what has been done to people who have moved from the modal cultural interpretation of their era – the tortured political prisoners through time, the ships of fools of the Middle Ages. There are also the mental hospitals of the recent past, of the present, and there are the Amnesty International reports. There is no doubt that those who express different realities can elicit very violent reactions from others. I suspect, though, that this type of violent reaction arises when it becomes clear in the dialogue that the existence of the difference is not being recognised: a corollary is that the view of the other is being pronounced illegitimate. When one reality is being put forward not as a way of looking at things but as the received view, then other views are wrong and their owners threaten this convention.
Returning to the question put above, how can one teach to differ deferentially, that is, in a way which does not demand obedience? In the Irish context Roy Foster has spoken about “an affirmation of differences which might lead to mutual acceptance” (see Kearney 1990, p.122). One solution is to make the epistemological notion of realities sufficiently concrete and acceptable that “mutual respect of differences” can occur both within teacher education and within schools.
Isolate a small number of arguments and identify some discourses which you avoid to “conserve” friendship. This is partly to find examples of different realities, and partly to allow emergence of the idea that being a victim in a power relationship is about conceding something to hold onto something else.
Identify significant arguments in your current experience. Select from amongst these and examine the different realities embodied in each position. How does power work in these arguments? What we have in a disagreement are two realities. If they try to resolve their disagreement with one insisting that his or her reality is the only one the other must capitulate.
What phrases do we use to deny a person the right to claim truth? e.g. “There are many ways to skin a cat.” What others?
What phrases do we use to try to get consensus? e.g. “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
What phrases do we use to deny a person “expert” status? e.g. “There are other ways of looking at that.”
At the same time how do we ensure that any view must be capable of exposure to assess its viability within its own premises? People may be mistaken, and only by analysing their statements or looking at their synthesis of their experience can they have an opportunity to think about the possibly reconsider their statements. Anyone can say what they want, but while there may be different realities, it is not every description of an individual’s reality which that individual will stick with, given an opportunity to re-examine it.
Task 3: To prepare to defend oneself and one’s views
Wisdom breeds in respect for the other, in the recognition that power arises through submission and loss of dignity, in the recognition that love is the emotion that constitutes social co-existence, honesty, and trust, and in the recognition that the world we live in is always our doing. (Paraphrase of Maturana 1988).
What phrases can you draw up to use to defend yourself in arguments? The task is to generate phrases which will acknowledge the potential validity of each different argument.
e.g. “This is the way I see it, you may disagree, but…” or “I have a different view, it seems to be based on different premises but…”
Is it not the case that all statements have to be regarded as valid. However even in statements which are later found to be invalid there will usually be important elements of truth in them, truth that is, for the speaker who made the statements.
Examine statements which you can produce to make in disagreements which allow mutual respect to remain, which suspend the desire to make the other illegitimate, in brief which are tolerant. How does one go about this task? Can one suspend one’s own system sufficiently to hear the other’s?
This paper is an extension of work presented at the Peace Studies Conference in the University of Limerick in October 1991 and is based on activities supported by the EC and the Department of Education (Ireland) under the TENET Programme at St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, (Director Dr. Hugh Gash). The opinions expressed herein, however, do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the EC or the Department of Education in Ireland, or of St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.
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