Desiring a Radical Dialectic Change in Social Reality Necessitates Enduring Misunderstandings

Why is there nothing as practical as a good theory? Why do I mention annoyingly named theories like “Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete” or Engestrom’s Learning by Expansion? Am I playing, look what I know? No, two reasons require such specificity. The first is the gravity of what I have been explaining on this blog. As an avid reader, I get that these truths sound a bit like the plot to a B-Grade thriller. But sometimes the truth really does trump the acceptable storylines of even an imaginative fiction writer. Trust me, you are not the only one with an “Are you kidding me?” response to all these revelations. Especially how all these links to Soviet pedagogy and psychology and philosophy just keep appearing. Since that is not what I am looking for, the constant appearances must have something to do with creating a consciousness in the West useful to those who want to keep and expand political power.

More importantly though is the second reason. A theory can get included in the coursework of a college or university where it affects the beliefs of people who in turn mold the minds of the next generation. You may have guessed I had one of those old-fashioned, first-rate, liberal arts educations. And I loved it. Well, maybe not Aristotle so much or Spinoza but all in all it was broad and deep and gave me a solid base in adult life for recognizing when I am reading a false explanation. A faulty argument. A pre-arranged set of facts to bolster a case that actually was not supported in the least. But the typical college student now or teacher or principal in graduate programs or professional development are much less likely to recognize they are dealing with a theory that just isn’t so.

Theories allow widespread collaboration in pursuing radical social, political, and economic change without most of the participants recognizing the actual intent behind the theory. You thus can get a widespread organized implementation without much of an actual conspiracy. Darn useful especially when all this is essentially going on an taxpayer expense. So no teacher or principal or even the mendacious supers being inflicted on too many school districts is likely to have studied Soviet Philosopher, Evald Ilyenkov, or why the Soviets created Developmental Instruction after Stalin’s death.

Ilyenkov’s reimagining of Dialectical Materialism through his Ascending Theory and his idea of “theoretically guided education” that would “teach children to think” comes in through activity theory and making Understandings the focus of the classroom and assessment. No further need to know where the theory came from. Or even that it is a theory designed not to reflect reality but to change it.

But the purpose for the creation of the theory still matters even if it remains widely unknown. Well until this and earlier posts. But it matters that the Professor most identified with Cultural-Historical Activity Theory in the US, Michael Cole, who worked with Engestrom at UC-San Diego, wrote the Preface for Ilyenkov’s classic activity theory book when it was republished in English in February 2009. Interesting timing. Getting ready for what implementation in the US?

Not to be too nerdy but Vygotsky and his followers want to emphasize human experience. Being interested in radical social change, they recognized that there are two planes involved. What actually happened and the perception of it. So if what goes on in the classroom can alter or, even better, create an “internal cognitive schematization” in the student’s belief system, you can permanently (that’s the hope) affect how the student filters their daily life. And thus their future behavior.

So the Abstract becomes that guiding theory. As a 1998 book Psychological Tools published by the Harvard Press helpfully put both the point and the rationale:

“Traditional education was essentially retrospective. The universal model and the cultural tradition were givens, and the task of a student was to absorb this tradition and the intellectual tools associated with it. Thus a student was taught to deal with problems that reproduced past cultural patterns. Under the dynamic conditions of modernity [another theory by the way] the necessity for prospective, rather than retrospective, education became obvious [but conveniently omitted from any PR campaign for reforms].

Prospective education implies that students should be capable of approaching problems that do not yet exist …To achieve this capability, the student should be oriented toward productive, rather than reproductive knowledge. Knowledge should thus appear not in the form of results and solutions but rather as a process of authoring.”

Quite a different view of knowledge and likely to be very controversial if widely known. So that fundamental shift in the nature of education and the Soviet inspired developmental focus gets hidden under euphemisms like “higher order skills” and “21st Century Skills.” Or just “Critical Thinking” with the typical parent or taxpayer thinking analytical within the realm of existing and still highly useful relevant facts.

But that would be reproductive of the existing social and economic order and thus not allowed. But being honest that “critical thinking” in the Enlightenment sense “stops right at the point where it touches all those problems of a capitalist society” that need to be reexamined in a new light and with new theories, could very well derail the hopes of developing “alternative prospects for humankind.” Through education.

That quote from the Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies tells us that “the notion of critical thinking takes on different dimensions when associated with the “ideals and practices geared towards a radical change in social reality. From such a perspective, critical thinking emerges as a critical consciousness of the changing world conditions, trends, and mechanisms.”

That kind of definition of critical thinking fits with the curriculum for the common core I am seeing all over the world. A classic example is one the Smithsonian’s Global Competence Initiative references. An interdisciplinary textbook called Exploring Global Issues: Economic, Social and Environmental Interconnections put out by Facing the Future. Education becomes about creating what JCEPS called an “active attitude vis-a-vis social reality, to the conscious pursuit of changing it.” Some of you may have wondered why commenters keep mentioning Hegel and I keep bringing up Uncle Karl. Both men pushed what they called dialectics because they refused to accept the “historic cultural constructs as given.” So the idea is to “perceive possibilities and prospects for alternative social development.”

And to do that is to be “creative” and “innovative” and “imaginative” and engaging in “higher-order thinking.” It helps then not to be too bogged down in facts and knowledge of what existed in the past and why it did or did not endure. Left out of all this talk of CORE, Cognitive Reorganization, and other “thinking” programs we have examined in the last several posts is what JCEPS acknowledges explicitly in the 2003 published essay:

“fostering critical ability with the aim of radical social change is equivalent to fostering dialectical thinking.” I am not going to weave you in and out of this Periklis Pavlidis essay further except to say it tells its tale through Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete. By name. Making it much easier to spot whatever it is calling itself. Which brings us back to all the presentations Lynn Erickson has been doing all over the world explaining her “Enduring Understandings” to IB audiences. She is now being quoted in Texas for CScope training and in many other state DOEs as they prepare to implement the Common Core.

The quote from her I took from a 2009 Georgia Social Studies Presentation is pretty representative: “Trying to teach in the 21st century without conceptual schema for knowledge is like trying to build a house without a blueprint.” Except what made me a good student was my ability to come up with my own conceptual understandings from the facts. Here the Enduring Understandings get assigned and put up on a Concept Wall in the classroom. The purpose of facts is now merely to illustrate that Enduring Understanding.  And the purpose of that Concept Wall is to help students to see the relationships among concepts. And to get there the teachers are to ask Essential Questions. And the students are to copy down those Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings. “A smaller version for their notebooks” is what the powerpoint said.

All of this does look much like Understanding By Design as well which also relies heavily on those Essential Questions. And UbD, Understandings of Consequence, and Enduring Understandings all function as the guiding theories in the sense Ilyenkov intended as a means of changing consciousness when he first developed Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete. And as nerdy as all these names sound they all have a common purpose, wherever they are being pushed and whether the speaker is aware of the actual intent or not.

“successful guidance of transformative social action.”

That’s why the theories created are transferable “through time and across cultures” as Erickson describes it. They are theories for social change or imagining a radically different social reality. They are productive education as Psychological Tools described above.

And quite hidden until you know the authors and the terms and then they are everywhere. Very much a part of the planned implementations. If not already in use.

But I for one beg to differ on whether this will be productive. Unless you are being paid to push it.

18 thoughts on “Desiring a Radical Dialectic Change in Social Reality Necessitates Enduring Misunderstandings

  1. this seemed to fit here,
    this is a few words from an article by Thomas Sowell which highlights the retread of this destructive ideology as you describe in brilliant detail above. and I have pearson texbooks with the proof.

    “In France between the two World Wars, the teachers’ union decided that schools should replace patriotism with internationalism and pacifism. Books that told the story of the heroic defense of French soldiers against the German invaders at Verdun in 1916, despite suffering massive casualties, were replaced by books that spoke impartially about the suffering of all soldiers — both French and German — at Verdun.
    Germany invaded France again in 1940, and this time the world was shocked when the French surrendered after just 6 weeks of fighting — especially since military experts expected France to win. But two decades of undermining French patriotism and morale had done their work.
    American schools today are similarly undermining American society as one unworthy of defending, either domestically or internationally. If there were nuclear attacks on American cities, how long would it take for us to surrender, even if we had nuclear superiority — but were not as willing to die as our enemies were?”

    • Thanks Anon. I first read that fact in Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society and had not thought about it in this context. But it fits. You can change people’s beliefs about reality and thus their behavior but evil remains. Ready to broadside the mentally and physically disarmed and unready.

      Widespread false beliefs may make us politically malleable and unlucky to invent a better mousetrap but evil in this world remains. And the accompanyig idea that all these changes to force altruism will also create a bureaucracy that works suggest too many courses in utopian studies taken in college.

      I wish this was not the story but it is. I spend a fair amount of time before each post trying to think of ways to present the reality I have uncovered in a non-off-putting way. Maybe that is why the Second Amendment seems more precious now, not less so. People can easily imagine not having recourse to someone to protect them in time. Especially if they keep encountering public officials with foolish ideas about where the actual threats lie.

      It’s a dangerous world and the links between what I have been describing and peace education are quite real. I think I mentioned it in a story I did that mentioned Nancy Carlsson-Paige and her work but it is far more than that. It is also very toed to the social and emotional learning programs coming in under Positive School Climate and RTI for All under a creative interpretation of federal disabilities law.

      Thanks for the link.

  2. On Erickson, it strikes me as a very artificial way of thinking: Generalization (line 1), Concepts (line 2), Topics (Line 3), and Facts (line 4). This is more like programming.

    People don’t typically think this way. So this tells me that curriculum writers will be supplying the facts, the topics, the concepts, and generalization and the teacher (or a computer) will simply deliver the material. I bet that teachers like it because it’s easy – and a little different. Combine it with some fluffy climate content and, well now, we’re culturally cutting edge – maybe not.

    It sounds like no-content education, no logic either. Opinions with a touch of warm-and-fuzzy inquiry.

    Thanks for fleshing out what’s meant by ‘critical thinking.’ Your right, when parents hear that expression they still think it means what you said: “analytical with in the real of existing and still highly useful facts.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
    Productive vs. reproductive knowledge, focusing on problems that don’t exist – these are new to me, as was Perikilis Pavlidis.
    I was thinking about all the time, and resources going into addressing problems that don’t exist and trying to fathom the consequence (for humanity) of the opportunities lost.

    • I know what Grant Wiggins of UbD thinks of content. And that Rand report from GCEN is quite specific that you teach through the disciplines. Content to illustrate broader systemic theory. I read numerous Erickson presentations and cites to her and there were numerous questions from teachers on why are we dealing with facts at all anymore. Even a list that showed the Great Depression and World War @ as topics only. To illustrate a broader point.

      You take this and what is covered being influenced by the politically desired mindset and fold in all those social and emotional learning programs and you will have very ignorant and manipulated children, adolescents, and young adults. With the brightest being levelled the most and the most likely to recognize what schools are doing to them.

      • Talk about the best and brightest being leveled – in a local school system the teacher evaluation system is going to have a component called ‘student growth.’ How do you measure growth? Pre-test and post-test. Thus, it is imperative that the students fail the pre-test as badly as possible to insure there is the maximum amount of ‘growth’ on the post-test. How do you make sure kids bomb the pre-test? Stop teaching once they’ve reached a certain point. I guess that’s what’s called justice, or equity today. But perhaps it’s immoral too.

        • Desuetude-

          Student Growth is another poorly understood defined term. It tracks to John Dewey and means changes in values, attitudes, and beliefs.

          I thought I had a tag for it as I have explained it before. It is being required by the feds. Joanna Weiss has acknowledged that.

          I will go look for the explanation. I know it came up in connection with systems thinking and Peter Senge’s work for the State of nevada.

          I am adding a link to Dewey’s Social Reconstruction vision and his idea of growth and how it links to the now omnipresent systems thinking.

          You may want to write down the included quote from Australia’s Green Party on using the social sciences to change peoples’ values. And how they should have started sooner. Wow! I had forgotten that one!

  3. It is sad when i read diane ravitch’s blog, some great stuff and some people get it, but some teacher comments blow my mind…. ” parents need to realize…”. ” children need to learn how to think …”. ” More piaget and Vygotsky!”.
    They are soaked in theory, irrelevant to real life and happiness. Proven to have put the pin in the merican balloon. School should be a happy place with trusted people to teach our culture, what brought us here, and not a fleet of psychotherapists with zero joy, and lots of atitude towards parents, ug. Parents really have the pwer, which is why we are marginalized, kept in the dark, condescended to and dismissed. We need to realize the alinsky method being used on us to demoralize. We have numbers, we can say no.
    March, homeschool, refuse, rebel, and fight. ” If you build it they will come”.
    3/4 of the game is illusion, rules for rads….

    • As a parent I don’t necessarily agree with the other parents. Some parents support what the school is doing. Some have kids who are weaker students and may see a benefit in what is going on. Many just want to get along and be joiners.

      The powers I have are twofold:
      (1) I can find out from my kids what goes on in school and remediate at home.

      (2) When I find improper behavior by school staff, I can go after them. In doing this, it’s necessary to play a bloody game, nothing else will do. If they’ve done something improper they’ve already written me off, it’s not like they just need to know that I disapprove. They know what I want and they are pushing the other way. On the other hand, they can be in a delicate position and that can be used to undermine them.

      The dirtiest politics I have ever played (there is nothing else close) has been against my local elementary school. But I was defending my younger son, so I had to win.

    • Speaking of joyless, Carol Dweck’s idea is that you should not praise your child for his or her strong points because it may make them work less hard.

      That praising behavior, that pointing out how your chip-off-the-old-block has your knack for languages or hand-eye coordination, is a real family bonding experience. The modern shrinkology doesn’t seem to like those.

      We’re all supposed to be corporate drones who try as hard as possible. But God didn’t give me a body for me to waste it that way.

  4. I have been doing some digging of my own, inspired by the likes of you and of many of your posters. My worst memories of inservice indoctrination was in a program called LFS. Learning Focused Schools. A man named Max Thompson, famous, it seem, for speeches, consulting and LFS. It arrived in my county in the 07-08 school year. We trained (were brainwashed) for two to three days in a row, four times that year. Admin sat with us and tried to babysit the most vocally resistant teachers, as they were embarrassed in front of the five other middle schools which were in the cafeteria with us being quietly indoctrinated. We were grouped by content areas, math and science teachers together at each session. The admin had been trained the previous summer, and all drank that koolaide lustily. The math teachers at my table, not so much. Our principal came and sat by me, I behaved.

    The key element I remember them pushing, a term I had NEVER heard before, was scaffolding. We got very expensive looking fat booklets at each session, and beautifully color coded flip booklets galore on each new day. I still behaved. But the propaganda pushers could never answer how scaffolding related in any new way to math. Math is linear, we always scaffold. Oddly enough from the concrete to the abstract, not the opposite as the Russian idiots claim for their version of “learning.” Then I read up on old Lev. His version is of scaffolding for confusion as I understand it.

    But I now see the enormous boulder that the LFS training became to my continuing in public Ed. I doubted the validity of the outrageous financial investment my county was making in such a dubious program for teaching. I did not then realise the object of the game was changing children’s thoughts about our world and everything in it. And their thoughts about God. It was not about making students well read, knowledgeable adults who could make mature productive decisions in their lives. Nope. Not any more.

    I researched LFS progress across the US. It was birthed in N.C. And is just arriving in some GA counties, and my district is a bit less hyper than when I left 2yrs ago. However they are still Marzano crazy, PBS, and totally slamming RTI. What a joke that program is. More like Route to Insanity than anything. There is a meeting on CCSSS at my old school in two weeks, for the county’s middle school parents. I am thinking of going. I need to be ready so I am doing my homework now. God bless you, Robin, and others here posting.

    • Tina,

      Great story of what one of these expensive professional development sessions is like for a content focused teacher. I always understood the ZPD as getting a child to knowledge they were capable of grasping with more examples and explanations. But the ZPD to a Vygotskyian is about the transformation someone is ready for if they are confronted with the right task or problem or project or role playing exercise. It’s about creating the contradiction if you use Hegelian language or dissonance as it was called in CORE. It definitely goes back through Marx and Dewey to Hegel. But acknowledging that connects it all to a mindset that launched the tragic Great War in 1914 that Europe has never recovered from and then an even more infamous regime than the Soviets. The author of the book I am reading today to tie down this Abstract to Concrete theory and what is going on in the classroom does not usually tie to Hegel anymore. My copy of the book was withdrawn it looks like about 5 years ago.

      Hard to appreciate it is OK to tie to Bakhtin or Vygotsky but have you noticed it is always the dates of the English translations being used. You would think from the dates these were dissidents writing in the 80s, not the 20s.

      If it makes you feel any better our high school PTA President refuses to even look at Spence Rogers’ own words on what he is doing. Or Csik’s. She announced the PEAK program has been “well vetted.” And that my concerns are a matter of opinion.

      Grounded now in Hegel. And Herder. By name. Being inflicted on adolescents at great expense.

      Do go if you can stand it and take good notes. If you take down what they are saying as if it is dictation I will translate it out of educationese and into standard English. With far more stinging humor in the second telling than what any administrator tends to use.

      Bonus points for you if you can tell us how many times they mention the new 3 Rs or moving beyond the Industrial Model of education. Or Whole Child.

    • That phraseology ‘Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete’ sounded strange to me as well. From what I’ve been able to put together in my own mind it seems like the “abstract” generalization comes first and this is arrived at “with the teacher’s help” according to Davydov. Then they proceed to particular facts. It’s almost like working Erickson’s approach from the top down. The generalization is not gradually uncovered by an examination of facts (the concrete). Rather the facts are presented in such a way as to give credence to a pre-established generalization or ‘enduring understanding’ as Erickson calls it.

      • “Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete” is something we actually do in math and physical science. After letting students muck around for a while trying to discover the physical laws (I see this in elementary and middle school science, maybe because the students don’t have the math to be given the laws yet, which are best expressed in math), we eventually just tell them the laws that have been discovered by great scientists of the past and challenge the students to learn to work with and apply them.

        Students are fully welcome to try to disprove the laws. It is a respected activity. Trying to so will teach the student a lot. No mental tricks are used, not that the process is necessarily friendly.

        I have somewhat less confidence in letting educational bureaucrats decide what “laws” to inculcate as a general sort of reasoning. Reasoning is simple. Something is either true or false, or maybe unknown. Given a proposition, try mentally to pour acid all over it, attack it in various ways and see if it holds up. This has nothing to do with social context or any other Vygotskian ideas. Preschoolers do this intuitively. That’s one reason they had better have adult supervision!

        I remember having some contact with various of these social theories but I never had to take them seriously. I could play around with them, and answer essay questions on the basis of one theory or another, but it was all hypothetical. If it’s now to be groupthink based, that will slow down the hypothesizing.

        The Soviet Union had some very smart people. They were not all drones by any means, there were some very creative and divergent thinkers. I guess some nails will always stick up. But I think they did (and even still do) tend to be more dogmatic than Americans, to follow one “school” or another.

        • I read the Devil in History a few days ago and it talked repeatedly how important the mind was to Soviet authorities. Muzzling the Mind was the phrase used. I also remember reading elsewhere that the dissident class came from the scientists. The Soviets learned that deep knowledge in any area made it easier to gain comparable knowledge in another area. Which is of course the opposite of the rhetoric. Deuetude’s understanding of Ascending fits with what I learned going back to Hegel and with Engestrom and Erickson’s treatment. Here’s the theory and let’ illustrate it. Except it is readily disprovable unlike hard science. AS in the philosophy of wisdom, the hard science is threatened because they truly hate the spontaneity and lack of anyone in charge.

          The social studies presentation had students to be taught that “the beliefs and ideals of a society influence the social, political, and economic decisions of that society. As if a majority plus 1 can decide for all. In the US. Which is quite similar to what we saw Hong Kong schoolchildren now being taught under Citizenship education.

          What I am seeing from all the sources I have read on this is a desire to provide the interpretive essence that gets applied regardless of visible commonalities and differences. Just like an ideology that never varies despite the facts. AS opposed to the science theory that gets reworked. Much like we have seen with CAGW models ignoring facts and temps and known influences.

  5. “The purpose of facts is now merely to illustrate that Enduring Understanding.”

    And you say (in a previous post) that you don’t understand Climate Science when you obviously understand it very well. In this case, the Enduring Understanding is that humans are disrupting the climate, destroying the habitability of the planet. “Experimental results,” the facts, may require adjustment to confirm the Enduring Understanding.

    If there is a problem with the Enduring Understanding, say, there is no warming for a few years, then it may be necessary to reveal the deeper Enduring Understanding that the steps we are taking to ‘decarbonize’ are steps we should be taking in anyway: peak oil, exhaustion of resources, and so forth.

    Your level of understanding entitles you to be
    A Doctor of Climatology!

    I look forward to reading your archive and your up-coming work.

    • Hi Bernal and welcome. from January is a good post to explain why education is such a good vehicle for hard scientists trying to get reality to shift to fit their models and desires for central planning, rather than individual choices.

      Have fun reading. I keep notebooks of all posts so I can usually direct you to earlier examples of a point that you find troubling. As you can tell from the surrounding Ascending from the Abstract the the Concrete discussion. Nobody bothered to tell us taxpayers that there was a desire to shift from Cartesian reality based frameworks for knowledge to Hegelian Frameworks precisely to try to get to a radically changed tomorrow.

      When I was tracking the prof whose 1982 book I read yesterday on that shift, she had recently been rewarded with a London School of Economics affiliation. That does nott sound like rejection of her work or premises to me.

  6. Robin,

    I was just thinking how odd it is for my local school system to, on-the-one-hand, be pushing “constructivist” approaches to math, where you don’t allow kids to use an algorithm but they have to put the pieces (blocks or whatever) together on their own; yet in social studies they are furnished these “enduring understandings” which do not really require thing but rather, acceptance. It seems a bit hypocritical.

    I saw a presentation for the upcoming school year where the school system wrote curriculum based on the C3 standards . The Erickson “Structure of Knowledge” slide was in there as well as a definition of curriculum by Hilda Taba.

    • Hilda Taba did some scary work.

      It is very hypocritical and shows the explanations are to confuse parents on what is really going on. I have been editing the book this week so I have added aspects to explain the effect of supplying the concepts. I have the book this all comes from and need to decide whether to bring name in book or recognize it is enough info at this point and write a post in August really laying this out. I am leaning to the latter but I have this pretty much from every direction in everyone’s own words.

      See what I mean about confessional?

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