5 Epistemological concerns in the learning field – presentation of the articles

The view I hold of knowledge and its situated character raises a number of issues within the learning field. How is, for instance, ‘knowledge in practice’ to be investigated methodologically? Do existing investigations purporting to document the knowledge and skills of specific persons actually succeed in ‘getting at’ these persons’ knowledge and skills – i.e. are they valid? What are the implications of the view for the feasibility of specific learning activities such as dialogue groups, log book writing, or ICT-mediated forum discussions? What role, if any, can ICT-mediated learning environments play in the development of knowledge, if knowledge fundamentally involves a tacit resonance field of meaning? Can implicit understandings inherent to our practices and learnt through participation in them – i.e. incorporated into our style of being in the world – clash with explicit proposals for learning activities and if yes, with which consequences for the activities, for the learners, and for the teachers?

In this anthology, each of the articles following the first takes up one such epistemological concern. Through querying it from my philosophical point of view, in most of the articles I at once develop my position further in dialogue with the field’s empirical and theoretical insights on the matter, and argue for how the implications of my position clarify, develop or even correct the way the concern is dealt with (or not) within the field. In these articles I thus as already mentioned engage in philosophizing with in the form of dialogue partner with a voice of its own. My queries in the last two articles proceed through philosophizing with in the form of interpreter of scientific results. In the following, I present a brief overview of the articles, for each of them explicating which concern it takes up, which role it plays in developing my view (for articles 2-8) and which contribution it makes to the learning field.

The anthology is structured into 3 parts, featuring 10 articles in all. The parts are: Part 1. Foundational issues, Part 2. Developing the view of knowledge in practice, and Part 3. Querying ICT-mediated learning activities.

Part 1. Foundational issues consists of two articles:

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2011). Roles of Epistemology in Investigating Knowledge: “Philosophizing With”. Metaphilosophy 42 (4), 431-450. BFI level 2.((BFI stands for ”Den bibliometriske forskningsindikator”, i.e. The Bibliometric Research Indicator in Denmark, http://ufm.dk/forskning-og-innovation/statistik-og-analyser/den-bibliometriske-forskningsindikator.))

This article constitutes the metaphilosophical foundation for the rest of the anthology. In it, I present my stance on the question of how philosophy may contribute to discussions within other disciplines. I take up a notion introduced by, but not fleshed out in, Hansson (2008), of applied philosophy as “philosophy with”. Using the field of knowledge as example, I articulate four possible roles which epistemology may take in investigating knowledge in collaboration with other disciplines. These are the roles mentioned above, of clarifier of scientific concepts and their implications; interpreter of scientific results; dialogue partner with a voice of its own; and in addition, the role of provider of a priori conceptual analyses. I illustrate each role with contemporary philosophical texts implicitly or explicitly embodying it and argue that the role of dialogue partner with a voice of its own is the most fruitful. The article is thus not an example of ‘philosophizing with’, it is an articulation of this approach to applied philosophy and therefore a delineation of the path which the other articles will follow.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2016). Explaining the Significance of Participationist Approaches for Understanding Students’ Knowledge Acquisition. Educational Psychologist 51(2), 188-209. BFI level 2.

The concern I take up in this article is what role social situatedness plays for learners’ approaches to acquiring knowledge. For me, this concern emerges out of my view of knowledge as situated and context-dependent. Within the learning field, the concern is present in the partitioning of learning theorists into participationists, focusing on learning as the process of becoming a participant in a community, and acquisitionists, viewing learning as the process of acquiring knowledge, concepts, skills etc. (cf. Section 4). Inherent to participationist and acquisitionist approaches are, respectively, a system’s and an individualist view of classroom interaction. My philosophical contribution to the learning field in this article is an argument for the need for an approach to knowledge acquisition which in each empirical instance can ask how acquisitionist individualist issues and participationist system-based ones intertwine. I make this argument through first clarifying the concepts of positioning, negotiation, and identity in dialogue with seminal participationist texts and then discussing the scope and limits of the concepts’ significance in understanding students’ knowledge acquisition. The article is foundational for the present anthology in that it explicates my basic view on three important points: a) that people’s pursuit of knowledge in general intertwines with their negotiation of identity, but b) that it is an empirical question whether and how this intertwinement plays out in any specific instance, and c) that people’s ways of engaging with knowledge domains may have both individualist and system-based aspects and that it is an empirical question how these aspects interrelate.

Part 1 thus in a very general manner introduces my approach to knowledge and learning as phenomena of being-in-the-world. No specific claims are made, though, about what knowledge is. This is, instead, the focus of Part 2. Developing the view of knowledge in practice. Through 5 articles, each dealing with its own concern within the learning field, I proceed from more general characterizations of knowledge as aspects of being-in-the-world, to articulations of the ontology of knowledge, as I understand it. The 5 articles are:

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2007). Learning Science – Acquiring a Style of Being-in-the-World. In Robering, K. (Ed). ‘Stil’ in den Wissenschaften. Münster: Nodus Publikationen, 103-116. BFI level 1.

The concern taken up in this article is how knowledge, understood as a style of being-in-the world, can be learned. It contributes to the learning field with a phenomenological analysis of knowledge as a perspective and of the role of problem solving and participation in a hermeneutic transformation of prior (faulty and misguided) everyday understanding into knowledge in practice. It thus addresses significant research areas within the field (even if they are not explicitly discussed) such as ‘conceptual change’ and ‘construction of knowledge’, and proposes an alternative philosophical understanding of what is involved in the phenomena intended by these terms. Likewise, it supplements participationist explanations of the significance of participation for becoming a community member, with an epistemological account of the knowledge transformation process involved. In doing this, it stresses that social mediation of meaning does not imply social constitution hereof, i.e. that acknowledging the significance of social situatedness of knowledge and learning does not lead to a social constructivist relativism. As for the article’s role in developing my position within the anthology, it articulates the view of knowledge and learning as phenomena of being-in-the-world, which was introduced quite generally in Part 1. In doing so, it contributes with an initial characterization of knowledge in practice as a perspective which lets the world present itself as meaningful. Likewise, it introduces the distinction between different context levels at which the workings of the perspective may be analyzed.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2009). Affordances Revisited: Articulating a Merleau-Pontian View. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning 4(2), 151-170. BFI level 2.

In this article, I take up the concern how humans interact with objects in their environment, given the characterization of knowledge as an aspect of being-in-the-world, and what different implications this view leads to compared to other views of knowledge as regards design for and empirical research of learning. The concern is taken up within the learning field with the concept of ‘affordance’, and more particularly within the field of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) where this concept has been widely used to investigate design for and use of ICT for learning. I contribute to this field with a pinpointing of epistemological and ontological discrepancies in prevalent ways of understanding the concept and an articulation of a consistent view which ascribes a dynamic, agent-centred, cultural-, experience- and skill-relative, but perception-independent ontology to affordances. It is argued that ‘affordances’ must be understood as a complementary concept to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘body-schema’. Both terms reflect the fact that concrete situations are meaningfully structured for each agent relative to the knowledge, skills, and experience which he or she has physiologically, personally, and socioculturally been able to attain. I point out ways in which this understanding of affordances informs design and investigation of ICT-mediated learning. The article contributes to the development of my view of knowledge by elaborating on the role of the body in supplying the agent with a background structuring of each situation on the basis of his/her incorporated knowledge, skill, and experience.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2011). On the Epistemological Presuppositions of Reflective Activities. Educational Theory 61(6), 671-708. BFI level 1.

The issue addressed in this article is the adequacy of dominant reflective activities aimed at improving practice and practitioners’ competence. This is done through, first, an identification of presuppositions embodied in these activities about the nature of competence, knowledge, and learning and, second, an assessment of the presuppositions. Central to the identified presuppositions is the understanding a) of knowledge as representation (mental and/or linguistic), b) of qualifying competence as a process requiring evaluating representations of ways of acting, and c) of a close connection between what we think/say and what we do. The assessment of these presuppositions proceeds through a compilation and integration of philosophical arguments and empirical evidence against the view of knowledge, reflection, and learning as representation. More positively, I combine these sources to support the claim that the primary ontology of knowledge is situated realization in the acting itself. The article thus provides the learning field with a critique of reflective activities widely in use. I point out problems and pitfalls following from the misguided presuppositions of these activities, illustrate with empirical examples, and suggest ‘situated reflection’ as a more adequate approach to developing action practice. In terms of contributing to the development of my view of knowledge, the article articulates the nature of knowledge in much more detail than the prior articles. Thus, to the general description of knowledge as an aspect of being-in-the-world (article 3), incorporated in the bodily existence of the agent (article 4) is added the characterization of knowledge as a tacit, practical embodied understanding, grounded in immediate recognition of and response to the situation’s gestalt.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2014). On the Necessity of Intertwining ’Knowledge in Practice’ in Action Research. International Journal of Action Research 10(1), 54-97. BFI level 1.

This article raises one important methodological question springing from my view of knowledge: To which extent is it possible for a researcher to understand, let alone evaluate developments of, practices within which he or she does not have tacit, practical, embodied understanding? I address this question in the context of action research where the issue is particularly salient, given that a common denominator across action research approaches is the wish to improve practice through intervening in it in cooperation with the practitioners. I argue that action researchers who are not also (former) participants in the action practice they engage with, in an important sense do not know what they are doing because they lack the tacit knowledge perspective of the practitioner. Therefore, intertwinement of the research ‘knowledge in practice’ of the researcher and the action practice ‘knowledge in practice’ of the practitioner is necessary for adequate development and evaluation of action research projects. I discuss three paradigmatic forms of collaboration between researchers and practitioners in the light of this demand. My contribution to the learning field (where practitioner-involving research methods are widespread) is thus the identification of a serious quality issue and some recommendations concerning how to meet the issue in practice. As regards the development of my view of knowledge, this article supplements the preceding articles’ analyses with the detailed articulation of knowledge as a practical perspective consisting of a holistic unity of personal experience, practical knowing, and propositional knowledge.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2007). Knowledge and Skills for PISA – Assessing the Assessment. Journal of Philosophy of Education 41(1), 1-16. BFI level 2.

This article raises another important methodological question springing from my view of knowledge: Is it possible to adequately operationalize knowledge and skills in the format of a quantitative survey? The question is taken up in the more specific context of assessing the claim of OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to be assessing ‘knowledge and skills for life’. Initially, it is recognized that the PISA studies profess a broad notion of knowledge and skills, acknowledging situational dependency of competence demands. This notion is reasonable at a superficial level but is in need of elaboration. I provide this elaboration by analyzing competence in real life situations as the ability to respond adequately to the complex of requirements and possibilities of the situation. I argue – and illustrate with an example from the PISA test items – that PISA constitutes one very special kind of ‘real life situation’ posing a special test complex of requirements and possibilities, leading to different competence evaluations than other life situations. In consequence, PISA tests the students’ abilities to exercise their knowledge and skill in one life situation, i.e. that of participating in a quantitative survey. The article contributes to the learning field by pointing out a serious operationalization problem at play not only in PISA and other international surveys, but quite generally in tests and exams purporting to assess students’ knowledge and skills beyond the life situation set by the test format itself. It contributes to the development of my view of knowledge with the articulation of the three analytical context levels, the domain-internal level, the problem-internal context level, and the problem-setting context level, and the way they interrelate.

In Part 3. Querying ICT-mediated learning activities, I focus more specifically on issues raised by my view of knowledge for educational activities making substantial use of ICT. The reason for having a full section with this specific focus is that several significant questions become particularly salient for ICT-mediated learning activities, given the dependency of these activities on linguistic articulation in the absence of physical co-presence of communicating parties. This goes for example for questions about the relationship between tacit and explicit aspects of knowledge, about our bodily incorporation of knowledge, and about the reasonableness of viewing practices (including ICT-mediated ones) as tacitly incorporated. Part 3 consists of three articles:

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2014). Implications for Networked Learning of the ‘Practice’ Side of Social Practice Theories: A Tacit-Knowledge Perspective. In Hodgson,V., de Laat, M., McConnell, D. & Ryberg, T. (Eds.). The Design, Experience and Practice of Networked Learning, Research in Networked Learning Series. Dordrecht: Springer, 29-49. BFI level 1.

In this article I address the question what role tacit knowledge plays for ICT-mediated learning activities. I do this in the context of discussing literature within the subfield of learning concerned with networked learning. Within this subfield, social practice theories are widely accepted, but the ‘practice side’ understood as more than ‘linguistic practice’ has been largely neglected. Building on especially the points from Article 5 in this anthology, I flesh out the ‘practice side’; in particular the notion of knowledge as tacit, situated, context-dependent, embodied doing. I argue that words get their fuller, deeper meaning for a person through their anchorage in that person’s ‘primary contexts’, i.e. contexts which carry significance for him/her and which s/he considers important for who s/he is. I argue that virtual settings can become primary contexts for participants because we involve ourselves as embodied beings in virtual settings (present physically at our desks with keyboard and screen and light to see) and enact tacit understanding of virtual communication in exactly the same way as we do in all other physical situations. But that since the physical location of our virtual engagement is often identical to that of one or more other primary contexts, it is easy to become distracted. On the basis of this analysis, I argue that networked learning will in general be most successful if it is designed as ‘mediator activities’ to facilitate the resituating of content between primary contexts of the learners. Networked learning activities designed to be a primary context runs too great a risk of becoming detached, irrelevant ‘stand-alone’ contexts. The article thus supplies the learning field with an analysis of and design principles for networked learning activities. As for its contribution to my view, it occasioned the introduction of the concept of ‘primary contexts’, and an articulation of the role of the body in virtual communication.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2009). Web 2.0: Inherent Tensions and Evident Challenges for Education, International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning 4(3), 343-363. BFI level 2. BFI level 2.

In this article, I make use of philosophizing with in the role of interpreter of scientific results. The article is thus not a contribution to the development of my own view per se. Instead, I utilize the insight articulated by Bourdieu that different practices incorporate different ‘practice logics’ to explain challenges experienced in educational practice when so-called Web 2.0 practices are introduced as learning activities. I determine Web 2.0 from a practice perspective as web activities characterized by bottom-up, collaborative, multi-way communication; continuous production and transformation of material in use and reuse across contexts; and distributed ownership. Inherent in Web 2.0 practices, I argue, are views of knowledge and learning consistent with the participation metaphor of learning, identified by Sfard (1998). In contrast, educational practices incorporate views of knowledge and learning consistent with the acquisition metaphor. The theoretical discrepancies between these implicit views bear out as concrete challenges concerning a) the role of collaboration in learning, b) subject matter and criteria of evaluation, and c) the general aim and status of the material produced by students. I document the existence of these challenges through examples from the literature and from my own teaching with Web 2.0.

  1. Dohn, N.B. (2009). Web 2.0-Mediated Competence – Implicit Educational Demands on Learners, Electronic Journal of e-Learning 7(2), 111-118. BFI level 1.

The arguments from Article 9 are carried forth in the last article which also takes on the role of philosophizing with as interpreter of scientific results. I ask the further question which competence demands are placed on learners when Web 2.0 activities are introduced as learning activities, given the clash of implicit views of knowledge and learning inherent in Web 2.0 and educational practices, respectively. To answer this question, I analyze the ‘demand characteristics’ of Web 2.0-mediated learning activities at the three analytical context levels identified in Article 7, and the way these characteristics interact to form competence demands on students. I show 1) that there are resulting implicit competence demands different from the ones explicitly articulated as pedagogical reasons for employing such learning activities and 2) that the resulting complex of competence demands is incoherent. In consequence, Web 2.0-mediated competence in practice becomes less the ability to reflect, communicate, collaborate, and construct knowledge per se (the intended outcome of such activities) and more the ability to frame and actualize one’s network of skills to incoherent situational demands, i.e. a maneuvering skill.