6.3 Meaning in action and interaction
Earlier in this course you considered the importance of manipulating and articulating information in order to understand it. This kind of behaviour is at the heart of constructivist and social-constructivist theory. The idea that we learn and understand what we are able to organise and make sense of is not just a theoretical viewpoint, as the next Activity demonstrates.
Activity 22: Knowledge and information
Think about a time when you have needed to learn a lot of information, perhaps for some kind of test or examination. How easy did you find this? What strategies did you use to help you succeed? Write a short description of your reflections.
Probably the least successful method is simply to read through the information to be tested. More effective strategies include:
turning notes into diagrams;
reducing information to lists of ‘prompt’ words;
rearranging sets of key words to produce mnemonics;
various methods involving word association and visualisation.
Brown and Duguid (2000) make a distinction between information (a self-contained object) and knowledge. Knowledge ‘entails a knower’ and ‘the knower's understanding and some degree of commitment’ (Brown and Duguid, 2000, pp. 119, 120). The feature that these approaches have in common is that they involve an active engagement which turns information into knowledge.
Experience tells us that information which we do not engage with ‘goes in one ear and out the other’. Learning, then, is not a matter of receiving meaning; rather, it is a matter of making meaning. It is easy to think of situations where we explore and develop knowledge individually: we might walkthrough the streets of a strange town and begin to memorise certain routes, or we might solve a crossword or learn how to play a computer game. However, although we may do these actions individually, all of them have a socio-cultural component. When we explore streets, for example, we use knowledge about how towns are typically laid out, which we have learnt from maps, at school and from other towns.
Getting to know a town provides different depths of knowledge. Certain journeys – the route to your workplace, perhaps – you could draw as a map without difficulty; but other trips you might be less clear about, although you could make them without getting lost. In making these journeys, you have to pay more heed to landmarks and signs and be more conscious of making decisions as you go. You might not be able to claim to have all the knowledge ‘in your head’ – you have to share it with the urban landscape with which you are interacting. It is not, therefore, a question of bringing your knowledge to a context: rather, the knowledge comes into its full existence only in the interaction between individual cognition and context.
This idea, usually referred to as situated cognition (Roth, 1999), is not simply a matter of understanding individual cognition within a social and physical context. In Roth's view, ‘thinking seems to lie in the relationship between individual and the environment’ (Roth, 1999, p. 15), and he defines ‘environment’ very widely to include culture, history and the individual's prior beliefs. Brown et al. (1989) argue that since knowledge arises out of particular activities that cannot produce universal, equivalent (context-free) meanings, no knowledge can properly be considered outside of its context.
A key concept in this social constructivist view of knowing is interaction. In Vygotsky's (1978) view, learning is a product of the interplay between nature and history, biology and culture, the lone intellect and society. Up to now we have concentrated on the individual's interaction with wider social and cultural factors, but of course social interaction includes exchanges between pairs and among groups of people. In Vygotsky's terms, we develop what our individual senses tell us through our interactions with other individuals and groups. We do this by constructing psychological representations or developing new forms of behaviour. We learn and know through interactions with fellow learners and with those who know more than we do. In getting to know unfamiliar streets, for example, we might ask directions of a longstanding resident. Alternatively, we could share the journey with another relative newcomer to the area, with whom we can pool key knowledge (e.g. the way to the main street or the river) and thereby construct the necessary understanding.
It follows from this, then, that schools and other educational settings – which are places where interactions are intended to shape developing knowledge – are of crucial importance in the development of both the individual and society. Throughout this course we have argued that learning is not a matter of receiving meaning but of making meaning, and we make these meanings through the interaction between what our senses tell us and what we already know. Our familiarity with language, mathematics and science presents us with a choice of ways of making meaning. In the view of the course team, then, knowledge is far from being something fixed and static on the page of a book; rather, it is something that cannot exist independently of a knower and the act of knowing. And if knowledge is something that is always created anew in activity, then learning is something that never ends (Brown et al., 1989).
It is, therefore, very difficult to distinguish between learning and knowing. Commonly, however, the earliest stages of knowing are thought of as learning, and it is to young children's attempts at making meaning from their experience of the world.