3.3 Learning a style of being in the world

This brings me to the last of the abovementioned questions, i.e. how one learns a style of being in the world and what role (transformations of patterns of) participation, i.e. learning understood in the vein of situated learning theorists, plays herein. I shall give a more general presentation of the divergent traditions involved in construing learning as acquisition and as participation, respectively, in the next section where I locate my view within the broader landscape of contemporary learning theory. Here, I shall simply explain my own stand in the matter: how participation in practice – and changes in such participation – is to be understood as an integral aspect of developing a ‘style of being’.

I agree with the situated learning theorists that participation in practice is vital for learning a style of being in the world. Partly for straightforward epistemological reasons: If a style of being in the world, as I argue, is an action-oriented perspective fundamentally involving tacit experiential and practical knowledge aspects and only fully ontologically realized in use, then participation in practice, understood as the actual doing of practice, is a necessary condition for developing it because only through such doing can the tacit knowledge aspects arise. Put this way, however, one easily overlooks the socialization process involved in ‘participation’ as understood by the situated learning theorists which in general is equally important((The case of Einstein proves, however, that socialization is not a necessary condition as the actual doing of practice is. At the time of writing his first four revolutionary articles, Einstein was working in a patent office in Zürich, marginalized from the physics research society, though not from the practice of doing theoretical physics (Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed 170616). Socialization with the science community was thus not in play to any significant degree in the development of his scientific understanding.)). Partly, still for epistemological reasons, relatively narrowly understood, and partly because of the intertwinement of knowing and being discussed above. Participation as “a way of learning – of both absorbing and being absorbed in – the “culture of practice”” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 95), i.e. as socialization, gives access to (amongst others)

“… who is involved; what they do; what everyday life is like; how masters talk, walk, work, and generally conduct their lives; how people who are not part of the community of practice interact with it; what other learners are doing; and what learners need to learn to become full practitioners… [They develop] an increasing understanding of how, when, and about what old-timers collaborate, collude, and collide, and what they enjoy, dislike, respect, and admire.” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 95)

Being given access to participate like the full practitioners (at least to some extent) and attempting to do so guides the learner through socialization to focus on the right aspects of the right activities, to understand processes and outcomes of processes in the right way etc. In the relatively narrow epistemological sense, it shows him which activities are the more significant ones and how they should be carried out, and, to the extent that he undertakes these activities himself, socialization thus scaffolds the development of relevant experiential and practical knowledge. In a wider sense, because of the intertwinement of knowing and being, the more he desires to become a practitioner within the field – to become ‘one of us’ – the more involved he will be in the activities and therefore the more susceptible he will be to letting new tacit semantic content emerge. The concrete meaning of experiences and actions – i.e. the determination of the tacit semantic content – will furthermore be negotiated with the other participants in the practice, both through what they say and through what they do. Thus, participation as the negotiation of what the practice is about and what role one has to play in it is vital for developing the ‘style of being’ of the practice.

I deal with this issue in Article 3. There, I stress that learning to be and act as ‘one of us’ can quite simply only be brought about by participation in the practice in question. I also give a more specific account of how ‘knowledge in practice’ is learned. In agreement with what I said above in section 2.4, I argue that a ‘style of being’ is developed out of a prior layman’s perspective in a dual process of focal point explication and background ‘as we go along’ transformation. As regards the first type of process, the claim is that because the way a given situation appears to us is dependent on the perspective as background, we may change the background by explicitly articulating changes in this appearance. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, the ‘figure’ of the situation is determined (literally and metaphorically) as much by the ‘ground’ it stands out from as by its own features, some or all of which may actually only be noticeable if divergent from the background (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). By explicating contours and features of the figure (literally and metaphorically speaking), we therefore change the ground itself. My example of this in Article 3 is the quantum mechanics physics problem. Quantum mechanics has several dictums which to the layman and novice quantum mechanics student appear ‘incomprehensible’, e.g. the dictum that it is not possible to precisely determine both position and momentum of a particle. So that if you determine the one, the other will be indeterminate within an interval determined by the precision of the measurement of the former. The appearance of ‘incomprehensibility’ is, however, not without background understanding – on the contrary, it is precisely the ‘figure’ with which the layman perspective lets quantum mechanical phenomena and postulates stand out. The physics problem here serves as paradigmatic focal point for transformation of understanding. Paradigmatic, because chosen by teachers as exemplary for the way one describes and understands the world in quantum mechanics. Focal, because it is a locus of illuminating differences between the layman/Newtonian physics perspective and the quantum mechanical one and therefore of opening the field of quantum mechanics as a field to the student: The problem may present itself in a confused or mistaken way to the student, but by working with the problem, having confusions explicated and mistakes corrected, the figure may transform. And with it the background – sometimes in moments of ahaness where the background ‘falls into place’ (somewhat similar to what happens in a gestalt switch) and at other times through a more gradual, less perspicuous shift in what stands out as relevant for the student.

As for the process of ‘as we go along’ transformation of the background perspective, this takes place through participation in practice, in the way described above. Participation may involve moments of focal point transformation when for instance a student suddenly understands the rationale of an experiment which she is helping the physics researchers set up. But what participation further allows is the more gradual shift through socialization of ‘what we as practitioners in the field notice as helpful, mistaken, valuable, base etc. in the situation’. And therefore the gradual shift in the background perspective which lets the situation present itself in these ways.

A corollary of my view here is that one can only develop the perspective of the actual practice one is participating in. This means that students will in general not develop the perspective of the profession they are studying for, but instead the perspective of ‘the student studying for the profession’. Put differently, because the activity-framing context level is different and often the activity-internal level as well (students solve textbook problems and go to lectures instead of engaging directly in the activities of the profession), the style of being which develops in response to the situational demands will be a student-style, not a professional one.

A final note: Throughout Article 3 I speak of the development of the style of being as the ‘acquisition’ of it. This might be taken to indicate that I view the style as a kind of object, in somewhat contradiction to what has been implied above. That is not my intended meaning, though. In Article 3 as elsewhere (e.g. Article 6), when I use the term ’acquisition’ about style or knowledge, I do so in accordance with the way we in everyday language speak of ‘acquiring knowledge’. This ordinary everyday sense, as I see it, does not have any high-strung ontological presuppositions, but simply means ‘developing through a process involving some effort’ (though I would add that one need not be aware of the effort put into the process). But for the sake of clarity, I wish to emphasize that the style is not to be thought of as a something to be possessed, but rather as a bodily ‘take’ on the world – a way we let it meet us in action. As such, learning it is better viewed as a development of actionable sensibility which opens the world in new ways, than as an acquisition of a something.