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Conceptual Grammar & Education: Prepare to Get Weird

[Estimated Read Time: 9.5 minutes]
This post is not for the faint of heart. Things are about to get weird, but push through the whole post. It's written mostly conversationally, but approach it as if you're reading a dense academic article.
What follows is a look at an approach to innovation in education that no one is taking, but should be first on our list.
My thesis was a turning point for me. It showed me how to make rigorous philosophy actionable (not merely relevant). This, in turn, showed me how to approach practical problems that need solving. I've used this in the context of education here in Colorado, and things are starting to get even more interesting.
But first, some definitions we'll need in a minute:
  • Concept: A concept is a non-physical "thing" that we use to describe our experiences. (e.g.: love, justice, intelligence, knowledge, etc.)
  • Intelligence
    • Traditional View: Intelligence is traditionally seen as a trait (noun) that we can either possess, lack, or develop. For example, "Steve is an intelligent person."
    • Deweyan View: Intelligence is seen as a way of engaging in an activity (adverb). For example, "Steve is building the car intelligently," meaning he is using intentionally chosen means to reach a goal that he has intentionally identified.

And some important distinctions--metaphors we unknowingly use:

  • Knowledge: Application vs. Enactment
    • Application: This metaphor refers to (1) picking something up, (2) owning it as a possession, and (3) applying it in different contexts once you have possession of it.
      • Physical Example: (1) I pick up a sticky note, (2) I am now holding it as a possession, and (3) I apply it to the window, to the door, I rip it up, I burn it, etc.
      • Metaphorical Example: (1) I pick up knowledge from the lesson, (2) I now possess this knowledge, (3) I can now apply this knowledge in various situations.
    • Enactment: This metaphor refers to (1) enacting a particular experience in a given context, (2) that enactment becomes part of your personal experience, (3) re-enacting that experience in a new context, and (4) that re-enactment changes your personal experience and becomes part of it, and so on.
      • Physical Example: (1) I throw a rock at the window with the intention of breaking it, (2) my attempt fails so I adjust the strength of my throw [repeat these steps until I break the window], (3) this process of trial and error and the information I gained from that becomes part of my personal experience, and (4) now I want to break Plexiglas with a rock and I draw on this experience as a starting place and repeat the steps.
      • Metaphorical Example: Same process as the physical example, except I'm in Japan, trying to learn how to say "Please give me a blanket" in Japanese to my host, so that I'm not cold. The information I gain about how to learn a new sentence becomes where I start the next morning when I try to figure out how to ask, "What's for breakfast?"

  • The Basics: Fundamentals vs. Foundations
    • Foundations:
      • Physical Example: Foundations are things that we build entire structures on--if the foundation of a house is destroyed, everything resting on it falls to the ground. We have to start over with a new foundation.
      • Conceptual Example: Foundations are the things we build entire structures on--if the foundational premise of our project is destroyed, we have to abandon the project and start over. We have, unfortunately, set up the education world on foundations. This is a scary realization for most people.
    • Fundamentals:
      • Economics: Fundamentals are, "that which funds an activity," meaning if I own a company, my financial "fundamentals" would be the people who invest in my company. If my funders change, my company does not implode, it just adjusts itself accordingly.
      • Concepts: Fundamentals are, "those concepts which fund our activities." If a fundamental aspect of an activity changes, it does not collapse, it just has a new funding source, and the project adjusts itself accordingly.
As I've been using my peculiar brand of actionable philosophy in the education world in Denver, I've realized that the concepts that fund the design of the activities are never thought about, though they are what fundamentally shape what our innovative projects/schools/etc. look like in the world. I've also been noticing that each of these attempts at innovation/reform/etc. vary in terms of which concepts they implicitly use to fund their enactment. Some specific examples in a post to come--I want to mostly focus on how this works abstractly for now.
The complex relationships between the various concepts we unknowingly employ seem to lead to predictably similar/different practical outcomes. It seems that these outcomes are relatively predictable based on the concepts (and relationships of concepts) that they employ.
This means that we need a way to talk not only about the concepts that fund our projects, but the relationships between these concepts. Let's call this "conceptual grammar."
People usually think of grammar as only having to do with language, but I'm saying that we should think of grammar as extending far beyond the context of language.
  • Linguistic Grammar: a set of rules that tells us how to meaningfully use and relate words, phrases, etc. to each other.
  • Conceptual Grammar: a set of rules that tells us how to meaningfully use and relate concepts to each other.
So the metaphor/analogy begins where [concepts] are analogous to [words], and the [relationships between concepts] are analogous to the [relationships between words (aka, grammar)].
Having a grammar for the concepts involved in a particular situation allows us to formulate a method for how to design a problem-solving activity in a much more intentional way than just trying to tinker with "procedural" stuff.
But no two situations are the same. Because of this, it wouldn't make sense to say that "there is just one grammar of concepts." That would imply that we could fix any practical problem if we just knew how the conceptual grammar worked. Wrong.
Rather, we can/should use various grammars of concepts when designing solutions to practical problems.
The point is not to come up with a unified theory of concepts/conceptual grammar for intellectual purposes. The point is to develop a method of method-izing a practical problem-solving process that is constrained by unique contexts. Scientific method is part of this, but scientific method also doesn't focus so explicitly on concepts/their relations in the way I am. So we need to include and go beyond scientific method.
Let's take a look at a stupidly short and vague example to get more of a concrete grasp of this:
A stupidly short and vague example
When you combine an "application view of knowledge" metaphor with a Deweyan view of "intelligence as an activity" in the context of designing a pedagogical approach for a new school, you have something analogous to the sentence, "He played on the street."
Both the sentence and the combination of concepts could function, but both would suffer from what we might call grammatical awkwardness. The sentence is constructed in such a way that it sounds slightly off--we would actually say, "He played in the street." (Side note: prepositions are weird.)
Similarly, if one were to design a school that used standardized tests to measure success (i.e., the application metaphor of knowledge), but tried simultaneously to employ the Deweyan notion of intelligence to all activities in the school, you'd end up with some "conceptual grammatical awkwardness" that would probably be felt as hypocrisy, but would actually just be the result of neglecting what we might call "the conceptual grammar of this particular problem."
Long story short: we need to develop an understanding of concepts and conceptual grammars to be fluent in solving practical problems. We wouldn't say we're fluent in a foreign language without explicitly understanding how to use words and grammar.
Not only do we need to understand conceptual grammars, but we need to be able to use them fluently.
As it stands, innovators (problem solvers) are learning to talk from people who also aren't fluent, so we're talking in circles.
So much talk, I know. I'm working on pinning down how these concepts and grammars work and am launching a couple of real-world projects (inside and outside of the classroom) in January to test it out. Look for much more on this soon. In the mean time...
I love talking, tea, and wine; let's chat if you're in Denver.

Reader Comments (1)

I'm curious for your next post. Excellent post. Keep writing such kind of information on your blog. I'm amazed, I have to admit. Seldom do I come across a blog that's both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you've hit the nail on the head. The issue is an issue that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy I stumbled across this in my hunt for something relating to this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Wishing you best of luck..

March 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNashik Education

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