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Language, Communication, Education and John Seely Brown via Hitchings and Tyneside

The meaning of words and learning, from how we learn to speak via Hitchings, John Seely Brown and the Open University MAODE module H800.

I like that thought that ‘All knowledge is, we believe, like language’.

Whether we are educators or not, we all have experience of acquiring or possibly learning a language. I was brought up in the North of England by aspirational Geordies who between them wanted to instil ‘correct’ spoken and written English. Woe-betide the child who spoke with a hard ‘a,’ spilt an infinitive and sprinkled their conversation with ‘sorts of … ‘ or ‘you know.’ I’m surprised none of us came out with a stammer. Could this be why my brother bit his nails all the time? He held onto his Geordie accent despite his parents best (or worst efforts). Which has me thinking, we’ve had a Royal who stammered, is there one who used to bite their finger-nails?

Language, and our choice of words and the words that are coined and come into common used are vital. I STILL get into conversations over whether it is ‘E-learning’ or ‘online learning’, and as they are the client you can imagine which way I tip.

‘Its constituent parts index the world and so are inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced’. Brown et al (1989)

This indexing of the world makes for a fascinating book. Hitchings on the English Language gives a wonderful insight not only into the way ‘English’ developed, has changed and is changing … and why words matter.

‘A concept, for example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in new, more densely textured form. So a concept, like the meaning of a word, is always under construction’.

Think of conceptual knowledge as similar to a set of tools.

‘People use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and the tools themselves’. P33

I like this idea too, that we can equate words with tools and vice-versa. They are components that enable communication. And communication facilitates learning.

But of course ‘How a tool is used will vary by context and culture’. Brown et al (1989:33)

Wherein lies the inherent problem with language, whether it is translated, or especially if you think you are talking the same language … but are not because your take and comprehension of a word or set of words is different: should, would, will, can, maybe, perhaps … all words that combined with a look, and body language may make someone believe they mean ‘yes’ or they mean ‘no’. So do you, in such situations act or do nothing? Language can have us sitting on the fence. Is this what academics do? Forever transitory between the commercial world where decisions are paramount?

‘Enculturation is what people do in learning to speak, read, and write, or becoming school children, office workers, researchers and so on’. Brown et al (1989:32-33).

I loathe the word ‘enculturation’ as I only ever come across it in reports/conversations such as these. As all learning, in all its stages becomes readily available and transparent I wonder if such words, indeed any jargon or acronyms are justified? It is possible to be intelligent without cluttering your sentences with ‘big words’ or sounding patronising. Try it; it’s habit forming. Like all education.

‘Given the chance to observe and practice in situ the behaviour of members of a culture, people pick up on relevant jargon, imitate behaviour, and gradually start to act in accordance with its norms’.

I read, unless you are born into a middle class family of snobs who deny their roots.

Ambient culture over explicit teaching

‘When authentic activities are transferred to the classroom, their context is inevitably transmuted; they become classroom tasks. The system of learning and using (and, of course, testing) thereafter remains hermetically sealed within the self-confirming culture of the school’. Brown et al (1989:34)

Wherein lies the discord in many school classrooms

The students’ lives are so far removed from the school experience that they cannot behave. They could and will only learn if they do so within the context of their family lives. How many families sit around together, in front of the piano, or radio, or TV, let alone at the dining room table? Children don’t sit still, physically or mentally. They occupy their own space both online and off. No wonder they take laptops into lectures. And can they blog, and send messages while sitting through a lecture? Probably. They could even stream it live to someone who can’t make it … or just record it for later consumption (or not). Not being the operative word, what they can grab of it in transit is probably as much as they’ll take in first time through. Just plain folks (JPFs)

I love the idea of JPS

‘Just plain folks’ (JPFs),’ we are told, ‘learn in ways that are quite distinct from what students (in the classroom) are asked to do’. (Jean Lave’s ethnographic studies of learning and everyday activity 1988b). (Weren’t JPS a brand of cigaretter, famously branded gold and blank on Forumula 1 Racing cars of the 1970s?)

JPFs are best off as apprentices rather than having to make qualitative changes in school. Brown et al (1989:35)

This is what we do. We label, we index, we give things names. We categorise whether or not there is truth behind the category. I debunk ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ as concepts wherever I can as false, yet we know what is meant by it, as with ‘Generation Y’ or the ‘Facebook Generation.’ We cannot have a conversation without such terms.

What as a teacher do you make explicit and what implicit?

The problem is that to overcome difficult pedagogic problems you make as much as possible explicit – this is not the way to teach.

Indexical representations which ‘gain their efficiency by leaving much of the context underrepresented or implicit.’ Brown et al (1989:41)

i.e. what you leave out is perhaps more important than what you put in.

Which explains the problem with Wikipedia – it aims to be universal, comprehensive and definitive.

It wants to be the last word on everything, even if the last word is always the next word that is written. From a learning point of view I’d like to launch a moth-eaten version of Wikipedia, the Gouda cheese version that leaves stuff out, that is nibbled at and full of holes.

Why?

Because this will get on your goat and prompt you to engage with the content, to correct it, to fill in the gaps. Can someone write an app to do this?

To go in and remove sentences, replace the right word with the wrong one, a wrong date/place with the facts currently given?

‘Communication is essential to our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where the words we use have come from?’

Henry Hitchings poses this question on the flyleaf of his gloriously informative and entertaining book on the History of English ‘The secret life of word. How English became English.’ Hitchings (2008)

REFERENCE

Hitchings, H. (2008) The Secret Life of Words. How English Became English.

Brown, J.S., Collins.A., Duguid, P., (1989) Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1989), pp. 32-42 American Educational Research Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176008 . Accessed: 05/03/2011 13:10

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