6.1 Knowledge and society
If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.
Sir Isaac Newton (Letter to Robert Hooke, 1676)
At the foreground of this final part of the course is one of its more important themes – that knowledge is something held, developed and perpetuated both by and in the context of communities, societies and cultures. Newton's declaration to Hooke (above) supports this view of knowledge, in its acknowledgement of his debt to the many other scientists from whom he learnt and on whose work he built.
Scientific knowledge arises out of a community of scientists. This is not just a matter of adding new knowledge to old; scientists have developed ways of thinking and investigating which have provided them with the intellectual tools for making discoveries and extending knowledge. Present in scientists’ intellectual toolkit are such implements as:
deductive and inductive reasoning;
the principle of objectivity;
procedures for formulating and testing hypotheses;
identifying and controlling variables.
A human grouping based on particular forms of shared knowledge may be called a culture, and the kinds of intellectual supports listed above may be known as cultural tools. Mathematical cultural tools range from counting and tallying to geometry, algebra, calculus and beyond. Linguistic cultural tools include both spoken language and literacy. Within these two categories, we find familiar ways of talking, listening, reading and writing – in the form of reference books, novels, speeches or classroom ‘storytimes’ – as well as an understanding of the meaning of variation, the rules of group discussion, argument and debate. The grid pattern, laptop computer, curriculum documents, and the ‘professional’ language that enables practitioners to carry out their work in early years education, were all cultural tools. The list of language-based cultural tools seems endless, since language can be a medium for countless ways of thinking and interacting in many other knowledge frameworks.
Activity 21: Using different tools
Look at the cartoon from Wragg (2004, p. 125) below, which first appeared in the Times Educational Supplement. What cultural tools and cultural knowledge do you use to make sense of it?
Both the language and the use of stylised drawing to convey information are cultural tools. Another is this particular way of conveying a (very) short story through a single image, accompanied by a line of text. We recognise the characters as ‘cavemen’, possibly from television documentaries or school history (where we may also have learnt about cave paintings or drawings). However, more likely (especially when they are depicted in this form) we recognise them from such cultural products as Stig of the Dump or The Flintstones.
We also recognise more modern cultural or social constructions, such as the use of mass production techniques and the status of one member who is obviously ‘the boss’. Part of the cartoon's humour is derived from the way that people who are obviously from a prehistoric culture are apparently acting as though they were from a modern culture.
The cartoon's original audience, school teachers, will have felt its resonance with their own contemporary culture, where it is ‘correct thoughts’ rather than original ideas that are recognised and rewarded.
The socio-cultural perspective we are developing throughout our discussion has profound implications for early years practitioners as educators. It implies that, to understand the ways in which we learn and construct knowledge, we must be aware of how knowledge and learning are socially and culturally constructed. Of course, our socio-culturally constructed view of what education is influences the way in which schools and other educational settings operate, and this in turn influences our view of what learning and knowledge are.