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An interesting book on education, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (John Wiley & Sons 2010), is a recent formalist attempt at improving pedagogy. The seven principles mentioned in the book are prior knowledge, the organization of knowledge, motivation, mastery, feedback, course climate and self-direction. The most compelling chapter is the second: “How does the way students organize knowledge affect their learning?” The section notes that the difference between the teacher and the learner is that the latter lacks a sophisticated framework by which to organize information. In the study of physiology, for example, a student may consider knowledge in terms of understanding significant systems — such as the skeletal, the digestive, and the circulatory — but lacks the ability to explain how these discrete elements work together to affect blood pressure. The study of sub-systems can lead to some understanding, but the interconnected organization of knowledge enables more effective explanation.

Another example that the authors provide, this one regarding the study of history, concerns a situation in which two students are asked to name the date of the British triumph over the Spanish Armada. The first correctly replies that the event occurred in 1588 while the second, unable to remember the exact year, states that it must be around 1590. When asked how they derived their answers, the first student mentions having memorized the answer, while the second asserts that, unable to remember the date, considered three important pieces of information: one, that the British colonized Virginia just after 1600, two, that the British would not have embarked on massive overseas imperial missions until navigation was considered safe, and three, she assumed that it would have taken 10 years for substantial maritime voyages to be organized. Thus she derived the answer of 1590 for the British defeat of the Spanish Armada. The first knows a discrete fact about the British and the Spanish Armada while the second possesses a more methodical awareness that enables theorizing about the event in order to substantially reply to the question. The authors contend that learning progresses according to one’s ability to develop systematic, meaningful conceptual frameworks.

The authors note that the difference between an expert and a novice concerns the quality of their knowledge organization: the former possesses rich, evocative knowledge structures, while the latter tends to construct sparse, superficial knowledge constructions. The novices possess superficial frameworks because they have not been introduced to enough theories that would strengthen their interpretive capacity. The authors note different diagrams of knowledge organization: fragmented, linear, tree-like and network-oriented. Fragmented knowledge obstructs students by enabling them to hold contrasting thoughts systems of knowledge with no awareness that the two frameworks are antithetical. A linear organization of knowledge provides coherence but offers a tenuous chain of associations that can be broken if one link breaks. A tree-like frame, that is, an interconnected system that branches out from a common trunk — what the social theorist Gilles Deleuze might have labeled “arborescent” — is one common among experts. The last — a network orientation or “isomorphic” one in Deleuzian terms — is a form of understanding, also typical of the educated, that enables the visualization of multiple links between all elements. The authors encourage teachers to educate students to reflexively organize knowledge along the latter two models: arborescent and isomorphic.

Progressives do not have the same problem as the archetypal student in How Learning Works, but they do have an analogous one. They possess numerous systematic frameworks by which to incorporate new information: in terms of theorists, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Žižek, Immanuel Wallerstein, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Nancy Fraser and others provide them with substantial conceptual architectures that attempt to explain various forms of inequality, alienation and nihilism. In terms of social movements: Idle No More, Occupy, the global justice movements, queer activists, feminists, ecologists, anti-racists, socialists, social democrats and others also provide frameworks with which to understand various forms of hegemony. The dilemma for progressives is of a higher order than that of the incoming student: there is consensus that neoliberalism is dangerous, that participatory democracy is necessary, and that most are bound by shadows and illusions perpetrated by the mainstream media, but there is no agreement on a common meaningful, systematic, and complex framework with which to incorporate emergent information. This conceptual weakness will continue to cripple progressives’ ability to communicate, debate, educate and animate the majority of society, or even each other, until they come together with overlapping social and theoretical projects.

Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.

Thomas Head Shot by Monianne (1)

Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...