Article 3: Learning Science – Acquiring a Style of Being-in-the-World

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

1. Introduction

When discussing issues of teaching and learning, a complaint common to teachers of otherwise di­verse fields of science is that their students have difficulties in focusing on the relevant points of their textbooks and exercises, and especially in doing so in the relevant way. The students, it is said, do not see ‘the physics in the exercise’ or ‘grasp the philosophical scope of the example’. Doing a prob­lem in quantum mechanics in the context of a physics course, for example, students tend to focus too narrowly on the mathematical manipulation of equations without understanding or even wondering about the physical states of elementary particles that these equations are meant to represent. Alterna­tively, they are, as it is deemed in the context, ‘led astray’ by the possible philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics instead of concentrating on the physics of the matter. Conversely, when dis­cussing quantum mechanics in the context of a philosophy course, students, especially those who have some training in the natural sciences, have a hard time focusing on the philosophical questions involved instead of commenting on the physical aspects and/or mathematical calculations or reflect­ing on psychological issues related to the difficulty of understanding the physical and philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.

The question of course is what it is that students lack when they cannot ‘see’ in what way a given scientific field is represented in a specific example or exercise. Even more importantly, the question is how, in due time, they come to acquire what initially they lack. The point of this article is, firstly, to propose that the students lack a background understanding which has the form of a practical per­spective on the world; a practical perspective to be characterized as a ‘style of being-in-the-world’. And, secondly, the point is to argue that the students acquire this perspective, not from scratch, but in a personally and socially structured process of transformation of their initial layman’s perspective. This transformation process has concrete work with exercises and examples as focal points, but can only be fully accounted for when the role of participation in the social practices of the scientific domain is taken into consideration. Through such participation, students get a better understanding of the ways of going about their scientific field, including an understanding of how their exercises and examples exemplify their field, and, more generally, of the kinds of questions, the kinds of methods, and the kinds of answers deemed ‘relevant’, ‘interesting’, and ‘scientific’ (as well as the opposite) within their domain. Not least, through participation they acquire a feel for the actual prac­tice of scientific practice.

Throughout the article, examples will be given primarily from the domain of physics, but since these examples only serve the purpose of illustrating theoretical points, the claim is that the points are valid for scientific practice in general.

2. The problem of the problem

Students, it was said, typically have problems in distinguishing the relevant aspects of their exercises and examples from the irrelevant ones. Though they claim to have understood ‘every word’ of a textbook chapter, physics students frequently find themselves unable to do the exercises at the end of the chapter (cf. Kuhn, 1970) and actually often find it difficult even to see how the exercise is related to the subject[1] discussed. Trying to solve their problems, they sometimes find answers that are, in the words of their teachers, ‘obviously’ impossible or wide off the mark physically. Their teachers won­der, despairingly, why they do not notice the ‘obvious’ falsity of their results – can they really not see ‘the physics of the problem’? Similarly, philosophy students, though they believe themselves to un­derstand a given philosophical position presented in a text, are often at a loss when asked to give a concrete example to illustrate the point or to speculate what a proponent of the given position would think of a related matter. Attempts at presenting such examples often display what their teachers consider evident misunderstanding of the position in question and, more importantly, of what consti­tutes ‘the philosophy of the matter’.

In all these cases, it would seem, the students lack a perspective on the subject: They see too much and too little. Too much, because they indiscriminatingly draw in irrelevant aspects alongside relevant ones and/or digress into topics perhaps rightly pertaining to other scientific domains (e.g., mathematics or philosophy). And too little, because they do not see the way in which the exercise or example in question ties up with, has implications for, and is implicated by their field of study in general. They lack, therefore, the focus of a perspective which, on the one hand, would allow aspects relevant to the field of study – and only aspects so relevant – to be noticed, and on the other hand, would let such aspects present themselves immediately with the meaning they have in relation to the particular scientific domain.

Looking to the teacher, in contrast, to see what s/he has that might supply such a perspective, and how the problem presents itself with the perspective, the teacher can be said to have a background understanding of the given scientific field, upon which concrete situations present themselves. Using again the example of quantum mechanics, the teacher’s background understanding of what physics and more specifically quantum mechanics is lets the concrete problem present itself as an exemplifi­cation of the field of quantum mechanics, i.e., as a specific instance with some features that are ‘paradigmatic’ and others that are ‘inessential’ or ‘peculiar to the case in question’. As an exemplifi­cation, it draws on a familiarity with the field and a wholeness of meaning that can be shown and further actualized in reasonable extrapolations on the concrete problem; in supplementary examples illustrating the same or related points; in the pointing out of certain laws or principles illustrated by the example and their relative importance, etc. In the terminology of Merleau-Ponty (1962) the ‘figure’ of the problem is determined as much by the background as by the figure itself. Actually, exploiting this perceptual metaphor and following Merleau-Ponty, were there no background there would be no figure since there would be nothing for it to show upon; and were the background dif­ferent, the figure would also be different because it would show up differently. As Dreyfus (1992: 241) has put it, a person’s background contributes to him or her “zeroing in on” the relevant aspects of a situation; in the example letting the teacher ‘zero in on’ the physics aspects of the quantum mechanical problem. More concretely, the quantum mechanical background understanding of the teacher lets the mathematical equations present themselves immediately as physical entities and rela­tions rather than as ‘mere’ equations. Thereby, the background frames the use these equations can sensibly be put to in the given context by imposing ‘the limitations and requirements of reality’ on this use. But the point is that it is only on the background of this understanding that a person can know, see, and even feel in which ways reality could possibly limit the mathematics. It is precisely in this sense that the background understanding constitutes a perspective on the field. Further, this perspectival background focusing on the physics ‘figure’ at the same time determines certain aspects of the problem as ‘mere peripheral philosophical consequences’, inessential to the physics questions.

For the student, on the other hand, because of the lack of quantum mechanical background un­derstanding, the problem is not an exemplification of a complex field; rather it presents itself to him or her as a singular point which together with other singular points (other problems and the text of the textbook) is known to mark out paths into the unfamiliar terrain of the field. Instead of the field focusing the meaning of the problem, the problem is supposed for the student to impart the meaning of the field. But with no perspective to illuminate relevant aspects to begin with, this would seem a near-impossible task: How can the singular points have meaning at all when there is no background understanding upon which they can present themselves as ‘figures’, i.e., as meaningful structures?

This ‘problem of the problem’ (or example) is a particular instance of the principle of the herme­neutic circle, described originally in a non-biblical context by Schleiermacher (1838) and Dilthey (1910) and given a philosophical interpretation by Heidegger (1927) and Gadamer (1960). According to this principle, the meaning of a part is given by its relation to the whole, though the whole can only be known through the understanding of the parts. Therefore, learning to understanding a given field is a continuous movement in a ‘hermeneutic circle’ between whole and part; the provisional under­standing of the whole informing the understanding of the part, whilst itself being corrected and deep­ened by the understanding of the particularities of the part. This theoretical description, however, only makes ‘the problem of the problem’ more acute, because it underlines that at least a crude, provisional understanding of the whole must be had to get the movement started at all. But the ‘problem of the problem’ is how one enters the circle in the first place, i.e., what one does when one does not possess any understanding of the whole. Because this seems to be exactly what students have to do to ‘learn science’. On the other hand, most students in each new generation, given time, de facto learn their field, some admittedly better than others, but all of the degree-taking ones at least acquiring enough background understanding of the field to be able to see ‘the physics’ or ‘the philosophy’ of the ex­amples and exercises with which they fought in their first years. So somehow, it seems, they manage to break into the hermeneutic circle and acquire their domain-specific perspective from scratch. How do they do that?

3. The perspective as a style of being-in-the-world

Before pursuing this question, a further elaboration of the characteristics of the perspective must be provided, lest it be thought to be purely contemplative and to serve only the purpose of understanding problems or examples formulated by others. To show that this is not the case, it will be helpful to take a look at the perspective of the experienced physicist researcher. Not, of course, with the idea that students can acquire the full perspective of the experienced researcher in the course of their studies, but with the intention of showing what ‘learning science’ in the sense of the scientist is about. Now, the activities of the scientist is, obviously, not restricted to solving textbook problems, and his/her perspective is, likewise, not restricted to letting textbook problems or examples present themselves as exemplifications of a field. Rather, the practice of the scientist is primarily concerned with activi­ties such as seeing potential problems, delimiting and posing actual problems, working to realize them as problems-to-be-solved, and finally communicating them to the wider scientific community as prob­lems and, even more importantly, as problems that have been solved through his or her research. In all these activities, the perspective is at work. That is, the perspective is pervasive and plays an im­portant role in delimiting and constructing situations to be situations of physics: The perspective of the physicist opens the world to him/her as consisting of ‘situations with aspects of physics’, ‘situa­tions of physics’ and ‘situations that might potentially be turned into situations of physics’. Further­more, and importantly, this ‘opening of the world’ is not only, or even primarily, a presentation of a contemplative or theoretical meaning; instead, the scientist experiences the situation as calling for specific ways of acting scientifically, e.g., by modifying the position of a measuring instrument, by constructing a further laboratory experiment to support a hypothesis, or by writing a critical argument against another researcher etc. The perspective of the scientist, in other words, is a practical one: it lets situations present themselves actionably, i.e., with a certain meaning to be acted upon.

The role of the perspective may become clearer with an example. In solid state physics, the tunnel microscope is an important instrument because of what it can tell about the atomic surface structure of the material studied. On the face of it, it might seem then, that working with tunnel microscopes was mainly a contemplative matter of seeing what was ‘on the picture’. This is, however, a funda­mental misrepresentation of what it takes to actually see anything at all with the help of this instru­ment. ‘What it takes’ must here be examined at three different levels. These levels, it should be noted, are analytical levels that do not in actual practice exist in isolation from each other. On the contrary, in practice ‘what it takes’ at one level is interrelated with, constrained and to some extent constituted by ‘what it takes’ at the other levels.

At the first, basic level, corresponding to the level of the problem discussed in the last section, it takes the perspective of the scientist to really see something apart from just the currents directly measured with the instrument, and moreover, to distinguish ‘interesting details’ and ‘impurities of the material’ from ‘irrelevant disturbances’ and ‘noise’. Even at this level, ‘seeing what is on the picture’ is not just a matter of contemplation since the picture will, as often as not, present itself as a potential argument in a scientific debate. That is, it will not first and foremost present itself as a contemplative object, but as an object affording an action possibility within scientific practice.

Acknowledging this fact leads on to the second level which concerns the role of tunnel micro­scopic pictures in scientific practice. Such pictures do not present themselves to the scientist out of the blue, but are planned and worked for, precisely because they have something to say within a scientific debate. At this level, ‘what it takes’ to see anything on the pictures, is, among other things, 1) the posing of problems for which tunnel microscopic pictures can possess answers, 2) the adjust­ment of theory, the making of assumptions about initial conditions, and the reorganizing of laboratory equipment, with the purpose of joining theory and equipment in a way that makes the pictures possi­ble, and 3) the seeing of implications of the pictures for arguments within the scientific community. Some of these activities are ‘theoretical’ in the sense that they involve modifying or constructing theory, but, importantly, they are undertaken as a necessary piece of work to be carried out in the process of pursuing the goal of acting adequately within the scientific community. And the role of the perspective at this level is precisely to structure the situation so that the overall wish to procure tunnel pictures and accomplish a scientific argument lets relevant concrete activities present them­selves as the ones to be undertaken. The perspective of the scientist is therefore a practical perspec­tive: With it, s/he experiences and thinks of the situation in terms of acting in certain ways.

At the third level, ‘what it takes’ to see anything at all is hard work of a multidimensional nature. This work unites the handling of domain-internal issues of solid states physics with the managing of other concerns that might seem ‘irrelevant’, but without which there would in practice be no pictures. Such pictures have to be planned and argued for, not just within the smaller scientific team working together, but in relation to parties supplying financial support; the team spirit has to be kept up in spite of delays, complications, and ‘bad results’; and laboratory equipment must be devised, procured, set up and to some extent redesigned to fit the circumstances. The work of the scientist therefore involves dealing with complex concrete situations made up of fields as diverse as solid states physics, physics more generally, design and manipulation of experimental set-ups, negotiation of financial and organizational terms, personal support and encouragement of team members as well as the nego­tiation of and possible fight over priorities with them, management and scheduling of resources, and, in the reporting phase, communication about scientific results in ways deemed appropriate by edito­rial boards.

The perspective of the scientist at this level intertwines solid states physics with other concerns in the concrete activities required by the situation, thus making it possible for him/her to focus im­mediately on the person or department to be approached for support; on the type of argumentation needed to convince this person or department in each specific situation; on probable explanations of inadequate results; on possible reasons for and practical solutions to equipment problems and on promising ways of redesigning experiments to take into account conditions like the dimensions of the room or the lack of time; etc. At this level, the perspective most definitely is first and foremost prac­tical, structuring complex activities to meet the goal of making the pictures possible.

Importantly, however, in the activities of the scientist, the three levels are integrated in a mean­ingful practical whole: The perspective of the scientist lets the situation presents itself with the struc­ture of ‘doing solid states tunnel microscopy’ and the scientist works personally, socially, physically, financially, theoretically etc. (third level) to procure the pictures precisely because s/he understands the role (second level) in the scientific debate of what s/he might see on them (first level). In this sense, the perspective of the scientist is a way of being in the world: it is a way of letting the world present itself as meaningful, not in the first place in the course of contemplating it, but in the course of acting in it. This is not to deny the obvious fact that an important part of the practice of scientists is to construct and contemplate theories. Rather, it is to emphasize, firstly, that this construction of theory is precisely an activity that they undertake, and, secondly, that it is made possible by and acquires sense on the background of the way the world meets them in practice, i.e., on the background of their style of being-in-the-world.

4. The possibilities of the problem

Given this description of the perspective of the scientist, the acquisition of it by the student may seem an even larger mystery: Not only does s/he seemingly have to construct from scratch a perspective on the subject itself, but this perspective must be a practical way of meeting the subject, which, if the student is to become a researcher, includes the way to sustain, negotiate and evolve the subject within the scientific community. It is difficult to see how solving problems or discussing examples is going to bring about a perspective spanning the width of activities sketched above for the case of tunnel microscopy.

The simple answer is, of course, that it does not. Working with textbook problems does not give the student the full perspective of the scientist. More is needed. Recognizing this, however, should not lead one to underestimate the possibilities of the textbook problem. Leaving the ‘more’ for the next section, this section is going to discuss just what can be attained through the work with the ‘singular points’ represented by such problems.

Now, the first point to notice is that the students actually do not start out without any background at all. To despairing students (and teachers) this may well seem to be the case, but in point of fact the students do have some background within the area of physics and possibly even within the field of quantum mechanics, though the latter will probably be informed by more or less inaccurate represen­tations of the subject and its consequences in popularized media. The background that the students possess will definitely not be an adequate one – it will be the layman’s everyday background, lacking domain-specificity and depth of understanding, perhaps only letting the problem present itself with the low-level figure of for example being a physics problem concerning elementary particles. On the face of it, this may not seem very helpful, and actually teachers often make a point of stressing that students should ‘bracket’ their background understanding and concentrate on the examples, problems and operational definitions of the textbook, so as to build up a purely scientific view of the field without the misleading ideas of everyday conceptions. The point to be made here, however, is that students cannot and most definitely should not follow this advice of their teachers because their eve­ryday understanding is a resource of meaning and structure that enables sense to be made of the problem at all. Misguided and faulty sense, to be sure, but sense nonetheless, thereby precisely cre­ating a starting point for the hermeneutic circle of understanding part and whole.

Elaborating just a little on the background understanding students do possess when starting their first course in quantum mechanics, at a very basic level they as bodily beings, of course, have some general bodily rooted everyday understanding of the phenomena of physics, e.g., force, mass and energy. This ‘bodily rooted understanding’ is often considered highly problematic and best forgotten, since the phenomena described within a quantum mechanical, or even a Newtonian, framework have characteristics very different from the ones to be expected given our everyday bodily rooted under­standing of them. However, when focusing on the differences one tends to ignore the obvious fact that using everyday words within physics, though with an arguably very transformed meaning, gives the word a field of meaning to draw on right from the outset. If this field of meaning did not play any role in physics, one wonders why a completely different word has not been invented instead. Of course, the use of terms in science has a socio-cultural history within scientific practice, and words cannot be changed at will, but on the other hand it seems evident that part of what a word like ‘force’ does when used in physics is precisely to let the bodily ‘push-pull’-meaning resonate in the discourse in a way that no new freely invented physics term could. Secondly, in modern society, the everyday understanding of nature in general is highly influenced by physics, which means that the bodily rooted understanding of phenomena like ‘force’ and ‘energy’ is itself culturally framed by physics. Experi­encing the phenomenon of the ‘force of gravity’ in precisely those terms is not only something New­tonian physicists do – it is a culturally shared meaning used in explaining why things fall down, even when the listener is a relatively small child. And thirdly, if people in general are not blank slates when it comes to physics, this is even more so for students starting a quantum mechanics course. Their prior education (in high school and college) will already contain quite a lot of physics, though perhaps they will until now only have become acquainted with Newtonian mechanics.

At this point, a rejoinder is to be expected, namely that this explication, though it may be true, does not solve the problem of the problem. After all, as sketched in a former section, the problem is that students lack the specific kind of background necessary to focus on ‘the physics of the quantum mechanics problem’ and that even if they have a general physics-informed everyday understanding of the world, this does not help them see the figure of the problem, let alone experience the problem as an exemplification of the field of quantum mechanics rather than as a singular point of departure into it. The answer to this rejoinder is that it presupposes that the field of quantum mechanics is more or less closed to other areas of knowledge and that acquiring an understanding of such a field means constructing the necessary perspective out of nothing. This latter presupposition may be in accordance with the psychological feelings of the student, but nonetheless it misses the fundamental continuity of the development of a domain-specific perspective. The fact is that the background that the students have actually does help them ‘zero in on’ some kind of figure of the textbook problem. Even when this figure is only the low-level one of being ‘a physics problem concerning elementary particles’, it does involve at least a very broad and superficial understanding of what physics is, what an elemen­tary particle is and how physics deals with such particles. As such, it is a starting point for the trans­formation of the general everyday background understanding into a domainspecific perspective on the subject.

This is where the possibilities of the problem reside: The problem for the student is a singular point of departure into the field, but it is not a singular point presented on no background; rather, it is a focal point of transformation. The figure that the problem presents itself with, however low-level, confused, fuzzy, and to some degree totally wrong, is by the very fact of its mistakenness precisely the locus of illuminating differences and domain-specific characteristics of the new field. That is, in explicating the confusions of the figure, its inaptitude and lack of essential detail, the field of quantum mechanics is opened to the student, not as it exists in itself, unrelated to the rest of physics and to everyday bodily understanding of natural phenomena, but precisely in relation to these more well-known fields. To be sure, in the process of working with the problems, the field may display ‘radical new meanings’ and ‘incomprehensible consequences’ that the student must work hard at making sense of. But, crucially, these meanings and consequences are precisely ‘radical’ and ‘incomprehen­sible’ on the background that the student already possesses. Through the focal points of problems and examples, the background of the student is gradually transformed from the layman-Newtonian one to a quantum mechanical perspective. The process of transformation has moments of ahaness, in which the field is experienced to widen and suddenly lie open to one’s understanding; but it also takes place less perspicuously and more continuously in the working with relevant aspects of given problems since realizations about relevance, however small, imply changes in the background upon which rel­evance presents itself.

Of special significance, as Kuhn pointed out, are problems that represent paradigmatic units of the workings of former scientists, e.g., Newton’s solution to the problem of gravitational force (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn argued that through such ‘exemplars’ the student acquired the ‘paradigm’ of the scien­tific community, with the latter concept denoting a ‘disciplinary matrix’ that determines the frame of understanding of the scientist. In agreement with this Kuhnian view, I would say that the potential of ‘exemplars’ for opening a scientific field is especially large. This is so for a complex of psychological, social and subject related reasons, which all centre on the fact that the exemplar was a concrete his­torical achievement of a transformation of scientific perspective, which meant a new relevance-struc­turing of the field, for the scientist in question and for the scientific practice he was part of. Sometimes it even led to the establishment of a new field in its own right. Kuhn, however, tends to describe the ‘paradigm’ as a conceptual scheme through which the world is viewed, rather than as a practical perspective giving actionable meaning to the world in the activities of the scientist. Solving ‘exem­plar’-problems therefore for Kuhn becomes a way of acquiring the conceptual scheme of ‘normal science’ more or less from scratch. In the view presented here, on the contrary, working with exem­plary problems is a focal point in structuring relevance and actionable meaning of concrete situations. Furthermore, this structuring is not a construction from nothing, but involves the transformation of an already existing background understanding, upon which the world presents itself practically.

Summing up, students are never without background understanding. On the contrary, they pos­sess a layman-Newtonian bodily rooted background understanding, itself not uninformed by modern physics. Unlike the teacher, the problem for the student is not an exemplification of the field to be learned, but a singular point of departure into it. But this point of departure is not blank; rather it is a focal point of transformation informed by the existing background. The existing background supplies a basis of meaning, which, though thoroughly inadequate and in need of supplementation and trans­formation, makes it possible to open the new field as meaningful, even if only very partially under­stood.

5. The importance of participation

Having stressed the possibilities of the problem, it is time to discuss limitations of it, and, even more importantly, to look at what more is at play in the transformation of the everyday background under­standing into a scientific practical perspective on the world. As noted, solving problems corresponds to the first analytical level of the activities of the scientist. In some curricula, students are to some extent trained in posing problems as well as solving them, supporting the development of their sub­ject-related perspective at the second analytical level, too. Even where this is the case, however, the scope of the perspective to be acquired through working with problems seems restricted to a subject-internal domain, which is necessary but not sufficient for the practice of the scientist as sketched above. Furthermore, if the perspective were only acquired through the transformation of background understanding made possible by working on the focal points presented by problems, it would seem to have to depend more than is actually the case on the precise problems that a given student had encountered in his/her scientific training.

In fact, of course, students do not only solve problems. They participate in a range of activities, which for undergraduates primarily are activities of the practice of studying their subjects, but for graduates increasingly become activities of the scientific practice.[2] Using again the example of phys­ics for illustration, undergraduates read textbooks, attend lectures, participate in theoretical and em­pirical exercise lessons, spend breaks and lunch hours with other students, involve themselves in student activities like sports, plays, parties, etc. In many of these activities, the student will experience further focal points of transformation, helping them open the field and develop its meaning. Equally important, such activities all offer opportunities of listening to and partaking in formal and informal discussions of physics subjects, of fellow students and of professors, of stories of victory and failure by individuals or by specific domains within physics, etc. That is, they offer the possibility of partak­ing in a variety of socially mediated negotiations of the meaning of physics and physics learning: of what the practice of physics is about, what a good physics student is (intellectually and socially), which professors are role-models as teachers and as physicists, which questions, methods, and sub­jects are ‘scientific’, which are the result of ‘popularized misunderstandings’, and which represent ‘futile metaphysical speculations’. Such negotiations need not be articulated in words – a frown at a question, the bypassing of a student by a professor, the ridicule of a physicist in a story, all contribute to the delineation of how one does and does not do physics and physics learning, even when nothing explicit is said on the matter.[3]

The point is that the transformation and acquisition process through which the background un­derstanding of the students becomes a scientific style of being-in-the-world not only takes place through focal points, but also to a large extent occurs ‘as they go along’ in a subject-related sociali­zation into the practice. Focal points are important, because they pose the possibility of deliberate work on the transformation of background understanding through the discussion of the figures they let stand out; but no less crucial is the learning to be and act as ‘one of us’ that can only be brought about by participation in the practice in question. Concretely, the everyday of the students changes very much as they become part of the practice of studying physics and, accordingly, the everyday background understanding over time will transform, very much due to the same kind of socialization processes through which their prior layman’s background understanding was acquired.

Even as undergraduates, the students’ perspective can be characterized as a style of being-in-the-world related to physics, i.e., a way of letting the world meet them in practice, as structured into situations of physics and physics learning, situations with important physics learning aspects, etc. However, as the undergraduates are primarily partaking in the practice of studying physics, rather than in the scientific practice of physics, the style of being they acquire is the style of the physics student, not the style of the scientific practitioner.

As in the case of the solid states physicist, the style can be analyzed at three different analytical levels, namely the level of understanding the subject-related ‘figure’ of a physics situation, the level of understanding the role of this ‘figure’ in the practice concerned, and the level of working to realize one’s subject-related projects. In activity, for the student as for the physicist, these three levels are integrated into a uniform practical perspective that lets the world meet the student with the actionable meaning of the interwoven net of personal, social, and institutional demands and possibilities of the situation. Yet, as the perspective is that of a physics student, not that of a scientist, the actionable meaning will not first and foremost relate to scientific practice, but to the educational practice s/he is participating in. This means, for example, that at the level of the role of the activities, these activities present themselves as learning activities requiring certain trained theoretical and empirical actions rather as ‘authentic’ scientific issues requiring research. Likewise, at the level of working for realizing one’s projects, the perspective of the student lets him/her see, not which arguments should be used with which financial supporters in negotiating the importance of a scientific question, but which ar­guments should be phrased in what ways on which study occasions, and, in general, how learning activities should be structured, in order best to accommodate to the specific learning and evaluation procedures of the given courses.

Once a student is a graduate, circumstances change somewhat. The student is increasingly given access to the community of physicists and to the actual practice of science. The student will still take courses, but will also be allowed to have minor projects in the laboratory together with the scientists and will participate in at least some of the informal activities of the older students and researchers of the laboratory, e.g., having lunch together, cf. Busch (2001). In other words, the student slowly begins to be part of a scientific group, though a very peripheral part, and to experience him-/herself as such; as an apprentice physicist rather than as a physics student, cf. Lave/Wenger (1991) and Nordisk Pedagogik (1997). The everyday of the student thus gradually changes and to some extent becomes the everyday of the learning (or apprentice) scientist. Formal and informal discussions and doings change as the situations, people, and scientific issues change. Focus for the student becomes less on learning physics and more on doing physics together with others. Accordingly, the perspective and actions of the student gradually transforms and becomes in some respects the perspective and actions of the physicist.

As in the case of the undergraduate, this transformation process will take place partly ‘as they go along’ through the personal-social involvement of the students in the everyday activities, and partly through focal points of concrete activities like experiments or theoretical problems. These latter points are still important as field-openers supporting deliberate transformation. In contrast to the undergra­duate’s learning situation, however, both focal and ‘as they go along’ learning situations increasingly are situated in the practice that the student is aspiring to become part of. As such, the three levels of the perspective and their unified realization in practice become framed by the actual concerns of scientific activities to a much higher degree than is the case for the undergraduate student. Concretely, though graduate students must of course still pass exams, at the second analytical level the perspective will let the activities of the students increasingly take on the ‘authentic’ meaning of mattering to science rather than of primarily being learning activities instantiated to train and evaluate certain skills. Likewise, at the level of working for one’s subject-related projects, decisions about one’s line of specialization present themselves not only as involving considerations of specific courses and per­sonal subject-related interests and skills, but as a complex interwoven weighting of such matters in relation to questions of social affiliation, collaborative versus competitive team spirit of different scientific groups, subject-related prestige and/or future job possibilities, etc. That is, they present themselves as decisions about which practices the student prefers to participate in as much as about which areas of physics s/he finds theoretically most interesting.

Summing up, as has already been emphasized, graduate students do not in the course of their studies acquire the full style of being-in-the-world of the experienced researcher, partly because of lack of time and experience, partly because the educational meaning of the activities undertaken, though declining in importance, will not fully disappear. But through their participation in scientific practice as well as through work with focal transformational points they acquire a perspective rea­sonably similar in kind, though not in subtlety, to the one researchers have, namely a practical per­spective that lets situations meet them as meaningfully structured in relation to what a physicist can do in it: Pursue certain kinds of questions, employ certain kinds of methods, develop and use certain kinds of instruments, envisage certain kinds of answers, argue with different groups of people in certain kinds of ways. And on the background of this perspective, the examples and exercises of their first years will meet the students, no longer as singular points, but as exemplifications of their field.

6. Concluding remarks

In this article, I have argued that the reason why teachers experience students to have difficulties in focusing on the relevant points of their textbooks and exercises is that the students lack a certain kind of practical perspective. This perspective is a style of being-in-the-world that lets concrete situations present themselves with the actionable meaning they have in relation to the activity undertaken by the person in question. Acquiring such a perspective, I have claimed, is a process of transformation of the original layman’s perspective; a process that is structured personally and socially in the work with focal points like exercises and examples as well as ‘as they go along’ through the participation in the social practices of the scientific domain.

Given this description, the question of relativism raises its head. Is the implication that science is only a social construction producing personally and socially constituted artefacts which are only ‘real’ within this social construction? It is beyond the limits of the article to deal with this question, but, by way of concluding, a few comments can be made to indicate the direction in which the answer in my view is to be sought. The problem with the question as I see it is that it mistakes dependency for determinacy. The claim has been, firstly, that the meaning a subject matter presents itself with is dependent on the background understanding of the person in question, and, secondly, that the acqui­sition of a ‘scientific background understanding’ is a personally and socially structured process of transformation of the pre-existing understanding. It could reasonably be argued that this implies that the meaning of a scientific field is dependent on personal and social factors. However, there is no implication that the subject matter cannot itself have a role to play in determining its meaning. Actu­ally, it would seem obvious that it did, just like the figure of a painting, apart from being determined by its background, is of course also determined by the figure itself. With the claims put forward in this article, the most promising answer to the question of what constitutes the meaning of a scientific field would be: a complex interrelated whole of personal, social and subject-related factors. And the most promising answer to the question of relativism is that science is not a social construction, but a social practice carried out in the real world, which means that it involves dealing with the real world. Certainly in highly specialized and mediated ways, but specialization and mediation do not entail losing reality. The suggestion that the artefacts of science might just be personally and socially con­stituted seems to build on an idea of science as a theoretical enterprise, or, alternatively, as a certain kind of ‘discourse’. Thereby it overlooks all the practical activities of science, and the way these practical activities interweave with theoretical and discursive activities in scientific practice. Put more simply, though probably too crudely, it neglects that what one can reasonably think is limited by what one can actually do.


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[1] Throughout the article, the term ‘subject’ is used in the Anglo-American sense of ‘topic’, not in the Continental sense of ‘perceiving individual’.

[2] In Lave/Wenger (1991) an analytical approach to learning as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in social practice is developed. The view presented here is inspired by this approach, but in contrast to Lave/Wenger my aim is not to give a description of the structure of the social relations of practice in order to illuminate access and power issues of learning. Instead my focus is on the ontological nature of knowledge in practice, understood as a style of being in the world, and on the learning theoretical and epistemological question how such a style is acquired through activities in practice.

[3] This understanding of the importance of a negotiation of the meaning of a practice and its activities is inspired by Wenger (1998). However, Wenger tends to view meaning as constituted by the social negotiation process, whereas I would stress the importance of the subject matter itself and claim that social mediation of meaning does not imply social constitution of it. I shall return to this point briefly in the concluding remarks of the article.