When you get down deep into the aspirations on using education to shift the West away from its historic focus on individuals and economic freedom to considering new, untried forms of organizing societies and economies, you quickly come upon the desire that “learning” NOT reenforce currently existing “systems.” The fact that what is being called systems are actually people, like me and you, who are supposed to have legally protected rights to autonomy and private decision-making gets conveniently left out. That the countries to be reorganized have a history of success in the unprecedented opportunities available to their people gets left out. That free markets where they exist have delivered unprecedented prosperity to even the poorest among us also gets left out as inconvenient facts. Systems. Just systems that can be rebuilt with enough Big Data and supercomputers into a smarter planet. No one stops to ask whose vision of “smart” is being imposed.
Our friend, psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner of Ecological Systems Theory and transforming the West as an experiment fame http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/imitating-the-ussr-in-striving-to-discover-how-the-child-can-become-what-he-not-yet-is/ understood well that the theories he and others were creating were not based on some type of hypothesis about factual reality. They were and are aspirational. If implemented, these psychological and political theories become a means to “transcend the contexts given to you to produce societal change and personal developmental change.” That would be personal change in Uncle Karl’s sense of the word. http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/who-knew-karl-marx-had-a-human-development-model-or-that-it-fit-our-facts-so-well/ . Or now hiding so well under the real definition of Student Growth. With lots of personal affective data being collected and shared to see how the developmental Learning is progressing.
We have a new global Change Agent to talk about. A professor who split his time between Finland and the University of California at San Diego, Yrjo Engestrom. His writing is important to our global story because of his Theory of Expansion and the influence of his book Learning by Expanding. Exciting for him and concerning to us, his Activity Theory is clearly the influence behind what are now being called euphemistically the Learning Sciences. As in the April 2012 Rand Corporation report for that Global Cities Education Network discussed here http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/misportraying-the-conspiracy-covers-up-the-broader-plans-of-political-and-economic-transformation/ . The report is called Teaching and Learning 21st Century Skills: Lessons from the Learning Sciences and it again shows why making poorly understood and defined goals like 21st Century Skills the new purpose of education has so much potential for anyone with aspirations for stealth cultural transformation.
Hidden at least in the West except at conferences of the like-minded. We know Urie was downright confessional on his aspirations in print. So quite frankly is Engestrom in his books and articles if you take the time to read them. What a fun weekend I had! The train metaphor in our title comes from Engestrom but he is quoting a frustration that Urie had with education in the US and the West generally. That human development in the West “takes place like in a moving train. One can walk forward and backward through the cars, but what really matters is where the train is going.”
I personally am hoping if I am being likened to a train car that I get to be a sleek luxury bullet train car and not something Amtrak has operating. But I digress. Engestrom then went on to say that Urie’s train metaphor “exemplifies the central problem embedded in most of the available societally and ecologically oriented analysis of development” [those originally Marxian or Soviet theories get to hide now by just being referred to authoritatively as the Learning Sciences. See above].
Here is the money quote that could have come from a myriad of social and behavioral scientists and education professors. Think of Engestrom as their voice too.
“The environments or societal contexts are seen as historically changing, but not as being constructed and reconstructed by the people living in these contexts. Contexts are imposed upon, not produced by humans. Nobody seems to be driving the train.”
Luckily as my regular readers now know the videogaming vision attached to the actual Common Core implementation will give students plenty of practice in constructing and reconstructing worlds. Even embedding them in strategies of what to do after a Zombie Apocalypse. How exciting and engaging! Engestrom’s sentiments on wanting a driver of a collective train are not the least bit unusual for someone who grew up with Uncle Karl’s theories of historical progression. In fact author Arthur Koestler who was so disillusioned by the turn Stalinism took that he wrote one of the great novels of the 20th Century, Darkness at Noon, could never quite shake his dislike of spontaneous, undirected processes where ever they occur naturally. Like in biology or chemistry. He still wanted direction. Central direction.
The kind that comes from cultural evolution if you can make education about transforming personal and prevailing values, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. What became notorious as Outcomes Based Education but now hides quietly as unappreciated definitions of Student Growth and Learning. Still there but unlikely to be detected except maybe by hyperactive due diligence attorneys who read too much. Now Engestrom’s globally influential work made no attempt to hide just how much it was grounded in Soviet theories of dialectical materialism and how to try to push “a historically new form of activity into emergence.”
He certainly did not write in 1987 or again in 1999, when his book was translated into German and Japanese and he wrote a new Introduction, like someone who saw Uncle Karl’s or Soviet theories generally as assigned to the ash heap of history. For supposedly comatose or dead theories they appear in his pen to be full of vim and vigor and still existing hopes for transformation. I suppose it helps that our guard was down because “We won!”
In 1991 Engestrom wrote an article, published in Great Britain, that is clearly the blueprint for the reimagining of high school we are seeing globally and in the US as a component of Common Core. The article was called “Non Scolae Sed Vitae Discimus: Toward Overcoming the Encapsulation of School Learning.” Now if that title was not pompous enough sounding, the actual article goes on to lay out “The Formation of Theoretical Concepts by Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete in Instruction.” Developed by V V Davydov based on Uncle Karl’s theory of finding defining relationships that can then filter everyone’s everyday analysis of reality, that theory was the subject of a great deal of research for decades in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And it does not seem to have gone gently into that dark night either.
And neither ‘abstract’ or ‘concrete’ in Davydov’s theory have the meaning we commonly associate with them. ‘Concrete’ is NOT seen as “something sensually palpable.” Abstract does NOT mean “something conceptual or mentally constructed.” No, in this Davydov/Engestrom theory ‘concrete’ means the “holistic quality of systemic interconnectedness.” Which means that all of our encounters with Systems Thinking and Peter Senge and Appreciative Inquiry that push to teach students to see the world as interconnected and interdependent and full of relationships are back to Davydov’s theories.
Which in turn are explicitly supposed to be an updated, supercharged version of Dialectics. That’s not me alleging that. It’s me quoting those statements and then recognizing where else they are now being used. It also means that dialectical view of ‘concrete’ absolutely saturates that C3 CCSSO Social Studies framework I wrote alarmingly about here. http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/tearing-up-the-fabric-of-a-free-society-the-new-college-career-and-civic-life-c3-framework/
It is behind the 21st Century definition of ‘transferable learning’ in that Rand Global Cities Education Network report mentioned above. It is why we should be alarmed by that report asking “students to make analogies between a topic and something different, such as between ecosystems and financial markets.” Which are actually not analogous but neither the teacher nor the students are likely to recognize that. And if they all believe there is a connection and they act on those beliefs, we are back to our consequential false beliefs problem. Donald Schon’s Generative Metaphor who is absolutely cited by Engestrom by name.
The same guiding but false belief problem comes in when that Rand report “asks students to generalize broad principles from a specific piece of information.” Oh yes, that’s a good thing to practice. Practice creating and relying on dogma without anyone pointing out that is what is being practiced. No wonder students are being asked to computer model the discredited Limits to Growth scenarios from the 70s as part of Common Core science. It may not be factually true but it can now still be influential on future behavior. Plus bolstering that perceived need for transformation.
Some of you may have noticed that Common Core makes lots of references to student conceptual understanding for an approach that is so hostile to factual information. That is entirely possible if we are back to dialectical view of what concrete means as the real operating definition of conceptual understanding. Davydov’s ‘kernel’ becomes Common Core’s ‘lens’.
Which means that all of Davydov’s or Engestom’s or Uncle Karl’s aspirations for these theories come in too. Unannounced and so unopposed. No wonder the Chinese government thinks the Learning Sciences views in that Rand report are suitable in Shanghai and Hong Kong as well as the West.
They were subjugation theories against individuals and economies when they were written and they remain so now. Even if only a few of us appreciate those facts now.
Or should I say yet? And be more optimistic?