20 December 2006

On Education and the Embodied Mind

As I see it there are four major schools of mainstream educational theory and they think of themselves as being at odds with each other. I do not think they are strictly at odds with each other but are at odds with the findings of cognitive science to the degree they mistake their metaphorical conceptual tools for understanding education to be literally true. The central guiding metaphor in mainstream educational theory (of which all four schools are variations) is that units of knowledge, skill and information can be transferred into a student’s mind. Each of the four schools are distinguished from each other by where they locate the source of the units that students receive. The primary sources are identified as the teacher, the student, the relationship between the teacher and the student, or the larger social context in which the student is embedded. Below is a diagram that illustrates how they fit together.

The first major school of educational theory was the behaviorists or external constructivists. The dominant industrial system of schooling was designed with the idea that the teacher is the proper source of the units of content in a student’s mind. A teacher standing in front of a roomful of students delivering a lecture is a classic image that depicts the most well-known method of this theory of education.

Criticism of the industrial teacher-centered theory was given it’s most solid grounding through the work of John Dewey starting in 1914 with the publication of his classic Democracy and Education. Dewey was the initiating spark and torch bearer of the Progressive School Movement, and the school of educational theory that resulted was based on the idea that the student does not simply receive knowledge, skills, and information, but actively constructs it based on the kinds of experiences that occur in the school setting. In a student-centered school the emphasis is on providing a set of experiences that are designed to assist the student with their process of constructing a world view. Waldorf and Montessori schools are early classic examples of student centered education. Both had very strong ideas about what kind of world view should be constructed by their students and their systems of schooling are largely defined to enable the construction of those world views.

Relationship centered schools are a synthesis of the teacher- and student-centered schools where the emphasis is on supporting the development of the teacher-student relationship as the true source of educational content. I suspect that most classroom teachers today would probably be described as blended constructivists who are unconvinced by either of the extremes of student- or teacher-centered classrooms but would like to be able to operate their classrooms in a manner that allows them the maximum freedom to focus on their relationship with their students.

The final theoretical school is based on the ideas of situated cognition and communities of practice, which are instrumental in the movement known as contextual education. This type of schooling is organized primarily around providing authenticity. Meaning that if a student wants to learn about a subject then the best way to accomplish that is to immerse them in authentic situations in which that subject is actually utilized in the solving of real problems. The idea is that we are socially constructed and therefore the totality of the environment in which we have experiences is the major source of what we really learn. This view is critical of classrooms as fundamentally inauthentic as social learning situations compared to the reality of the situations they supposed to prepare students to cope with. Until the students are immersed in authentic situations they are not going to be capable of properly understanding the relationships between the abstract units that are presented within a classroom environment. In this view classrooms are still useful, but only after the students have concrete experiences that relate closely to the abstract problems presented within a classroom context. Before the students have the background in concrete experience of the subject, the classroom is primarily going to teach how to behave in a classroom, not in an authentic, real-life situation involving problems that are experienced in ways that cannot be reproduced in the classroom.

The problem is that these different theoretical schools assume that their conception of the educated mind is literal. Taking each conception as literal means that their ways of understanding the mind and how it becomes educated appear mutually exclusive of each other. In order for the underlying metaphor to be taken literally then there would necessarily be evidence that the mind is composed of particular units of knowledge, skill and information and that those units had a source outside of the individual whose mind is composed by them. But that is not the case. Cognitive science, the field that deals with our concepts of the world, has found that we have only a very sparse literal core of understanding about minds, and everything beyond that is metaphorical.

The fact is that all four theoretical schools are at least partly right, but only to the degree that their guiding metaphor, that units can be delivered into the minds of students, is a satisfactory way of describing the reality that they claim to be describing. Since their conceptions of mind are, in fact, metaphors for getting at a complex, non-literal, non-concrete phenomena, then they are not mutually exclusive.

I have taken as my starting point for constructing a new and better educational theory the idea of the embodied mind by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh:

”The mind is what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills. But as soon as we try to go beyond this [literal,] skeletal understanding of mind, as soon as we try to spell out what constitutes thinking, perceiving, and so on, metaphor enters. …[M]etaphors are necessary for any detailed reasoning about mental acts.”

“Our understanding of what mental acts are is fashioned metaphorically in terms of physical acts like moving, seeing, manipulating objects, and eating, as well as other kinds of activities like adding, speaking or writing, and making objects. We cannot comprehend or reason about the mind without such metaphors. We simply have no rich, purely literal understanding of mind in itself that allows us to do all our important reasoning about mental life. Yet such metaphors hide what is perhaps the most central property of mind, its embodied character.”

“[O]ur metaphors for mind conflict with what cognitive science has discovered. We conceptualize the mind metaphorically in terms of a container image schema defining a space that is inside the body and separate from it. Via metaphor, the mind is given an inside and an outside. Ideas and concepts are internal, existing somewhere in the inner space of our minds, while what they refer to are things in the external, physical world. This metaphor is so deeply ingrained that it is hard to think about mind in any other way.” (p. 266)

So my challenge is to conceive of mind in a manner that utilizes the container image schema necessary for conceptualizing mind in a useful way, but in a manner that would still overcome the problems of a separation between our body and mind and the implication that ideas and concepts are somehow independent of the external physical world in which the body/mind is embedded.

My answer is to conceive of mind as a kind of shell. Think of a clamshell or a snail shell. I imagine that the formation of a shell occurs because of three sets of dynamics; internal, external and boundary dynamics. Each set of dynamics influences the nature of the shell; its size, shape, thickness, strength, composition, etc. A shell protects the most vulnerable parts of a creature and yet enables the creature to interact with its environment.

In looking at a variety of real shells from snails or clams there is a lot of evidence about the nature of the dynamics that caused each individual creature to have the kind of shell it had. The exterior of the shell will give an indication of the kind of external conditions that the creature had to endure. There are great differences between the shells of sea creatures who endure the pounding of waves over the rocks on the shoreline and the garden-variety snail that lives in my yard. The sea shell is very strong, whereas the snail in my yard has a fragile shell.

The interior of the shell will indicate some aspects of the interior life of the creature. While the shell itself, its exact composition for instance, will reflect other aspects of the life of the creature that grew it. The shell grows over time and records significant aspects of the pattern of living conditions in which the creature grew.

Exploring the philosophical extension of Fritjof Capra’s definition of life (in his book The Web of Life) as the interactions of structure, process, and pattern, I take these as basic principles for understanding living things. And in this case it is not merely trying to understand one thing, but to understand the interaction between two things, a creature and it’s environment. Thus, I believe I need two sets of structure, process and pattern.

Thus taking the shell as a metaphor for a mind then there are internal, external and boundary dynamics of the mind. The internal dynamics of mind are cognitive order and cognitive complexity. The external dynamics of mind are agency and cooperation. The boundary dynamics of mind are optimism and purpose.

I propose these sets of dynamics based on synthesizing the works of many people, particularly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from his research into optimal experience, which gave me cognitive order, cognitive complexity and purpose. The other three dynamics were suggested by work on intrinsic motivation by Kenneth W. Thomas, Edward Deci, and by research into self-efficacy and happiness from a great variety of sources.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Csikszentmihalyi lays out order, complexity and purpose as the key dynamics that each individual had the maximum ability to influence. I noticed that he was implying the necessity of other, more externally oriented dynamics, so I thought that the simplest possible model of the mind would result from matching those three with three others. Thus, over time I settled on agency, cooperation, and optimism as the structure, process and pattern for externally oriented influences. In my book, Attitude First, I discuss my understanding of psychological dynamics but that was before I had the mind shell metaphor to illustrate it.



The mind protects a person from the world, but also allows them to interact with it. An examination of the mind can reveal many aspects of the life of the person who has grown that mind. A person has different dynamics that have influenced the kind of mind that they have. Internal dynamics, external dynamics and dynamics at the boundary between them and the world. Properly undestanding the mind requires understadning the different sets of dynamics that shaped that mind. In order to influence the shape that a mind grows into requires altering thre dynamics that shape that mind. All of the dynamics that define the mind are body-based concepts. This concept of mind assumes larger social factors beyond the individual mind, but they impinge upon the mind in the forms of agency and cooperation. There are also smaller cognitive factors within the individual mind and they impinge on the individual in the forms of cognitive order and cognitive complexity. What is uniquely and exclusively individual about a person is their optimism and purpose, the dynamics that occur at the boundary between the forces that impinge from above and below.

In this view of mind the crucial factor in education is not the content of the mind, it is access to improving the quality of the dynamics. Each of the dynamics has two negative poles and the mid-point between them is an optimal state that provides the name of the dynamic. Cognitive order is the optimal mid-point between distraction and boredom. Cognitive complexity is the optimal mid-point between simplicity and chaos. Purpose is the optimal mid-point between obsession and spiritual hunger. Cooperation is the optimal mid-point between tyranny and slavery. Optimism is the optimal mid-point between passive cynicism and disengaged pessimism. Agency is the optimal mid-point between obedience and independence.

The consequence of being educated is maximum access to optimal states of mind, independent of the contents of mind that are used to create those mind states. How the content of the mind becomes solidified into memories, experiential filters, and other mental structures will reflect on the life that a person has lived to have the kind of mind they have. (For a discussion of experiential filters see my book, Attitude First.)

Education is not dependent on the contents of mind, therefore the source of the content is not of great importance. The content of mind does have to come from some source and the four educational theories are each attempting to acknowledge one or another source of content. My criticism of most schools is that they are focused on content and not on the quality of experiences. Educational movements that provide notable exceptions to the focus on content are the unschooling sub-culture within the homeschooling movement and democratic schools. There may be other exceptions, but I am not yet aware of any.

In order to further promote the validity and even superiority of these forms of education I propose to replace the delivery metaphor with a metaphor of cartography. Eliminating the delivery of content as a primary concern, the new primary focus is enabling students to create optimal experiences and then providing them with the knowledge, skills, and information to navigate back to that kind of experience any time they find themselves in non-optimal states of mind. This navigational ability needs to be entirely independent of the content of their experiences, otherwise when they find themselves in a situation that has unfamiliar content that they have never encountered before, then they may be unable to cope.

The four schools of educational theory that dominate mainstream education are good for describing the positive aspects of the source of content that they focus on. They are not exclusive of each other, and fit very well together when they are understood to be metaphorical conceptions of the whole phenomenon of education. When education is understood to be a process of cognitive cartography intended to result in deliberate access to optimal states of mind, regardless of the content of the mind, then the sources of content are less important than the development of a cartographic process. A map making process that takes as it’s defining purpose the development of methods for moving towards cognitive order, cognitive complexity, optimism, purpose, agency and cooperation.

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