The Machinery of Language and Literacy

In light of the most recent blog entry - Encoding, Decoding and Understanding (Print) Language - I've gone back to the archives to revisit an unpublished piece from the past. Whilst there are some rough edges, it is posted here as part of the ongoing conversation.

 

Introduction 

The layout of the diagram to the lower right might seem odd when it starts with “the world” as the notion at the top and "form of life" at the bottom, but this is to suggests that language and literacy are learned in a particular context. And the context determines the language(s) one speaks and it determines what one is likely to speak about.

In the words of Wittgenstein and Tomasello we find:

“When a child learns language it learns at the same time what is to be investigated and what not.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty #472)
“‘Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting ‘More juice’ or commenting ‘Doggie gone’ … From an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these utterances at all.” (Tomasello, 2003, pg 1)

Let’s say English is a language that is spoken in this environment. And - let’s say - that the word “Madagascar” exists in this world, and I hear the word “Madagascar” uttered in this place of the world. It also refers to a film (that I haven’t seen, but am aware of) and it is a type of vanilla (Madagascar vanilla), which I don’t know much about, either. There is a history to the word, and this history is its meaning. One points to a map to show me where the country is. One offers to watch a film with me. And one shows me a picture of Madagascar vanilla, and - perhaps - I have a chance to taste it. As long as I know that places, films and plants have names, then it is possible that I can know what is being referred to.

 

Phonological Awareness & Phonemic Awareness

I ask someone to say the word slowly, so I can have a go at writing the word, because if one is going to recognise the printed word, one must first be phonologically and phonemically aware of the word.

When I listen closely, I notice that Madagascar has four syllables:

 

Ma / da / ga / scar

 

One must also distinguish each of the sounds within the word:

 

[/m/+/short a/] + [/d/+/schwa/] + [/g/+/short a/] + [/s/+/k/+/ar/]

 

Alphabetic Principle, Phonics & Spelling

Then I attempt to spell the word based on my knowledge of English graphemes

 

M = /m/

a = /short a/

d = /d/

a = /schwa/

g = /g/

a = /short a/

s = /s/

c = /k/

ar = /controlled vowel - ar/

 

I’m pretty confident the opening letter is M to represent the /m/ sound, since I intuitively know that the letter “m” represents the /m/ sound most of the time (94% of the time to be accurate, if you see the chart to the right/above). Similarly, I know the /short a/ sound when I hear it. Whilst the letter “a” represents the /short a/ 96% of the time, I only appreciate this from experience. To make a long story short, I know the word “scar” and intuit that the word ends with the same spelling. I could be wrong, but this is when one’s word knowledge helps one problem-solve new words. That said, I might have spelled it incorrectly, and I might need to consult someone or something (e.g. a dictionary) to see if I am on the right track.

In the end, I heard a word, and I used my phonemic awareness skills to isolate the sounds. I used my knowledge of sounds-letters and my knowledge of words to spell it. If I didn’t have any of these attributes then I could be overwhelmed by the length of the word, etc. But I wasn't. Phew!

 

Morphology

For the time being, let’s say I recognise the word and I know that there is nothing quite morphological about the proper noun Madagascar. There are no meaningful prefixes, roots or suffixes which would assist me.

 

In a Sentence

Do we ever really encounter words only in isolation, though? As noted by Wittgenstein,

“If I know an object (word) I also know all its possible occurrences in states of affairs. (Every one of these possibilities must be part of the nature of the object/word.)” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, #2.0123)

 

In this case, I read the following state of affairs:

 

Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean.

 

I am lucky. I know English grammar, and I am familiar with all the words - when spoken - but I struggle with the written form of the printed word “island”. I am familiar with the spoken word, which is pronounced

 

[/long i/] + [/l/+/short a/+/n/+/d/]

 

But I don’t know about this

 

[/short i/+/s/+/l/] + [/short a/+/n/+/d/]

 

But a helpful person informs me that the letter “s” is indeed silent, and the opening letter “i” is a /long i/ syllable. In fact, the printed word “island” is familiar in the end. What a relief?

 

Sentences in Context

I know the sentence is a descriptive sentence, and I know that it is meant to convey information. I use my background knowledge to place the sentence in context. This sentence comes next:

The population of Madagascar is over 22 million people, and it spreads over 500,000 square kilometres.

I recognise that the emerging paragraph is a geography paragraph and I anticipate that I’ll find out about the capital city of Madagascar, primary industries, natural sites and cultural practices. I know this because I am familiar with this genre of discourse, and I expect and value this knowledge. I intuitively am comparing this with a similar text I read/heard/wrote earlier. The earlier one was about the island of Taiwan, and I am interested to know the differences between the two island contexts. If I didn’t have this previous experience or background knowledge, then I might not be able to read/hear/write the new text as deeply or critically.

 

Another Attempt

Let us look at another set of words. Let’s imagine that a friend shows me a photo of a red wheelbarrow sitting in the rain and provides with the following poem:

 

“so much depends

upon

 

”a red wheel

barrow

 

“glazed with rain

water

 

“beside the white

chickens.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” she says. “It’s by a fellow named William Carlos William.”

 

I’m not really fussed by the poem, to be honest. And I don’t know why it starts with the phrase “so much depends / upon”. But my friend insists that the poem is meaningful. Even though I know all the words, and I can understand/imagine the scene, I am missing something. So my friend asks me to bring in a photo of something that is significant to me. When we meet again, we both come armed with a photo. My photo is of my late grandmother, and her photo is of a pier jutting out into a river at dusk. She reads out her poem.

 

“so much depends

upon ...

 

"the smell of

the river

 

"of bait, of fish

and blueberries

 

"on hot summer

days."

 

And she helps me write mine:

 

“so much depends

upon

 

"my grandmother's

photo

 

"on the mantle

piece

 

"watching over

me."

 

We do it again next week, and the week after, and I start to get the point. I find it peaceful just stating something meaningful. My friend and I might talk about the “meaningfulness” of the object in the photo, but these "meanings” or even descriptions are left unsaid in our poems. At some stage, she introduces me to haikus, and I find that I have a new way to relax. Every so often I stop and write or think or say “so much depends upon …” I didn’t understand the point at the start but I do now, and I have started to branch out into other forms/purposes of poetry. I’m really quite surprised. In fact, it takes on a form of meditation or secular prayer. Whilst I still need to draft reports and memos at work, I have another written outlet that extends what I achieve in print. I have learned a new "language game" - so to speak.

 

Conclusion

Let’s return to the opening diagram, and we find the following:

  • We live in a world;
  • And in that world there are “things”, “concepts”, “phrases”, “relationships”, etc;
  • These “things” have words, whether they are physical, like “a rock”, or conceptual, like "kindness”;
  • Some of these words are functional and appear in phrases or as single words, like “How are you?” and “therefore”;
  • The words are strung together in sentences to express some sense/meaning, and those sentences are strung together as part of a discourse of some kind;
  • And we communicate about something in some way to others.

To end, let me present the following scenarios:

  • an experienced electrician is wiring up a new electrical system. The electrician knows what everything is called and what everything does, but quivers when someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to the manual. “I know what I’m doing.” Is it the technical nature of the manual that catches him off guard?
  • a philosopher is asked to wire up a new electrical system. The philosopher has no clue about electronics and quivers at the sight of the wires. Someone hands him an installation manual full of words and abstract schematics. After much effort, the philosopher eventually says, “Mate, I can’t makes heads or tales of that thing” as he points to both the manual and the box of wires.
  • an average person who is familiar with electronics, but is in no way an expert or practiced, is asked to wire up a new electrical system. She has a strong grasp of literacy and she is able to process information accurately. She knows what NOT to do in relation to voltage and amperage. She is eventually able to get the job done with the help of the manual, a few YouTube videos, and a couple calculated phone calls.

How would you go about explaining what is occurring in each of these scenarios? You may use the following diagram to help.

 

References

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Tractates Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge.

_____________. (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

A story that cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue

I have mentioned it before and it is a concept that I will return to again and again; the issue of equality in opportunity to learn. Today, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on a short story I once wrote that relates directly to the main topic: considering whether all learners have equal opportunity to learn and succeed.

Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Ahlapot/iStock / Getty Images

You won’t have a chance to read the actual story. It is stored somewhere so safe that the best minds are yet to uncover it. You must instead rely upon my synopsis. As far as the setting, the story takes place in inner city San Diego in the late 1990s. It is a low socio-economic community with issues common to the time: drugs, gangs, racial tensions and the working poor. I was teaching at a high school in the community when I wrote the story.

The story itself is an appropriation of “Eveline” by James Joyce. In Joyce’s tale, the main character - Eveline - is a young woman who is sitting forlornly in front of a dilapidated house in a crowded street in Dublin. Her mother has passed away, and she left behind a baby girl, Eveline’s sister. Eveline’s brothers have moved out of home, her father is a drunkard, and she is now responsible for raising her baby sister whilst working part-time and avoiding her father’s abuse. Her opportunities are fairly limited by poverty, circumstance and the expectations placed on a woman of the times (early 1900s).

In the story, Eveline is approached by a “fellow” who confesses his love for her, and promises to take her away from this misery and start a new life overseas. We might expect her to rush towards this door of apparent freedom, but she doesn’t. At the critical moment where she is to board a ship bound for the New World, she stands frozen on the docks and she watches the fellow leave her behind. We don’t know if she stays due to a promise she made to her mother - "to hold the house together" - or her fear that she would face another type of servitude as a wife in a foreign land. Eveline’s opportunities are severely limited by complex factors, which serve to paralyse her. 

In my appropriation - “Jinicia Sings the Blues” - my main character - Jinicia - is a young African American women - aged 18 or so - leaning on a railing outside her house, watching her younger brother deftly navigate a local game of street soccer. Inside the house, Jinicia’s baby sister is asleep. Her dedicated father is at work, and he works three jobs just to pay the bills. Her mother left the family with another man. And her older brother was shot dead in a gangland dispute a couple years ago. Meanwhile, Jinicia watches her younger, talented brother with a mixture of pride, envy and pity. He is good at school, good at sport and is a born leader. She wants him to dribble the ball down the block and out of the neighbourhood and never look back. She is afraid that the community will eventually swallow him up in some minimum wage job or worse, and that the dream of a scholarship to college will be left unrealised. Jinicia is a clever young woman who wavers between hope and fear, and can’t help battle a deep cynicism. The story ends as she walks back into the house to cradle her waking sister, who she also looks upon with both love and trepidation.

At one stage, I entertained the thought of extending the story. I thought of introducing a character from the other side of the tracks, or across the bridge in the wealthy peninsular community of Coronado. I imagined Jinicia reflecting on the differences in the two worlds. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from thinking, “would my older brother still be alive if we could have bailed him out of his trouble? would I even worry about my younger brother if our circumstances were different?”

I think the story cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue. Whilst the story might not be about literacy, it engages with an issue raised by Donaldo Macedo, “reading specialists … who have made technical advancement in the field of reading … [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (Macedo, 2001, pg xiii) 

If the components of reading development are known (National Reading Panel and others), why is it that success rates are directly linked to differences in socio-economic factors and not to differences in cognitive functioning or personal motivation? (Chiu, McBride-Chang & Lin, 2012) We need to know, “the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to his environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilised … What seems to be needed is the development of a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing process.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55)

As stated by James Paul Gee, “caring about [students’] rights means caring … about the trajectories of learners as they develop … as part of communities of practice, engaged in mind, body, and culture, and not just as repositories of skills, facts, and information.” (2008, pg 105) We must be ever diligent on issues of equity, both in enhancing opportunities and respecting diversity. We must be conscious of the socioeconomic, motivational and neurocognitive factors that are brought to bear on learning. We must be mindful of the impacts of poverty, discrimination and instability. The conditions for success are multifaceted, long and intricate.

 

References

Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66(6_PART2), 55–69.

Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: testing the component model of reading in fourth graders across 38 countries. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405.

Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76 – 108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

What have I been reading as of late?

For those who may be curious about the things I have been reading as of late, follow the list of articles that I have scoured in the past few weeks:

  • Alexander, P. A. (2005). The Path to Competence: A Lifespan Developmental Perspective on Reading. Journal of Literacy Research, 37(4), 413-436.
  • Allington, R. L. (2007). Intervention All Day Long: New Hope for Struggling Readers. Voices from the Middle, 14(4), 7–14.
  • Benseman, J. (2014). Adult Refugee Learners with Limited Literacy: Needs and Effective Responses. Refuge, 30(1), 93–103.
  • Craft, T. E. (2014). The Benefits and Limitations of the Leveled Literacy Intervention System. State University of New York.
  • Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for socioculturally diverse classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 684–658.
  • Hemphill, L., & Snow, C. (1996). Language and literacy development: Discontinuities and differences. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), The handbook of education and human development: new models of teaching, learning and schooling (pp. 173–201). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Justice, L. M., Mashburn, A., Hamre, B., & Pianta, R. (2008). Quality of Language and Literacy Instruction in Preschool Classrooms Serving At-Risk Pupils. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(1), 51–68. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2007.09.004
  • Lawrence, J., Rolland, R. G., Branum-Martin, L., & Snow, C. E. (2014). Generating Vocabulary Knowledge for At- Risk Middle School Readers: Contrasting Program Effects and Growth Trajectories. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 19(2), 37–41.
  • McNally, T., & McNally, S. (2012). Chomsky and Wittgenstein on Linguistic Competence. Nordic Wittgenstein Review. Retrieved from http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/NWR-1_2012-McNallyMcNally/html
  • Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2010). Language-Game. In The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the Language Sciences (CELS) (pp. 417–419).
  • Moyal-Sharrock, D. (unpublished). Wittgenstein on Forms of Life, Patterns of Life and Ways of Living. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/9866115/Wittgenstein_on_Forms_of_Life_Patterns_of_Life_and_Ways_of_Living on 5 January 2015.
  • Neuman, S. B., & Gambrell, L. B. (2014). Disruptive Innovations in Reading Research and Practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 1–6. doi:10.1002/rrq.93
  • Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407. doi:10.1598/RRQ.21.4.1
  • Walls, T. A., & Little, T. D. (2005). Relations Among Personal Agency, Motivation, and School Adjustment in Early Adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.97.1.23

Please explore and enjoy!

Two New Essays: On Literacy & On Practices

This entry comes with a sense of accomplishment. We are pleased to share two (new) essays that reflect important principles from Wittgenstein On Learning. As with many of the essays, both essays initially appeared in the Journal and have been revised and updated for the Essays Section. One essay appeared fairly recently in the Journal (3 July) and it is titled A Framework For Considering Literacy Instruction. The essay seeks to provide a framework for comprehensive and balanced literacy instruction which reflects the developmental stages of literacy and the multifaceted nature of language development.

The other essay is a more expansive attempt to cover its topic. It first appeared as a five-part series starting in January and it now exists as a unified essay that comes in at over 7,000 words (which - in hindsight - is not very much). It focuses on our practices and it is entitled Why Do We Do What We Do?.  Taken together both essays reflect upon two principles that underpin the themes on this site: how we come to see (read) in particular ways and how we come to act (practice) with others within a community. Please explore and enjoy!

Why We Do What We Do? Part Five: Conclusion

“Practical holism ... is the view that [any theory of language] can only be meaningful in specific contexts and against a background of shared practices’. ... Background practices, equipment, locations, and broader horizons ... are part and parcel of our ability to engage in conversation and find our way about.” (Stern, 2004, pg 163 - 164)

To sum up, Hans Sluga once wrote that “human language games are not based on knowledge but on practice.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 107) I have applied this observation to the broad notion of existence or practice. It is not what we know that gives shape to our existence. It is what we do. Our knowledge comes to serve and - in fact - justify why we do what we do and the standards of excellence that we expect from these endeavours. If I am to conclude, then I would say that a practice is something that we do not just once but on a regular basis. Unlike an activity, the participant in a practice attaches a certain level of significance or commitment  to the action. In the practice, one comes to acquire certain rules that give shape to the practice. The participant comes to act in accordance with the rules, some which are explicitly stated and others which are acquired through experience and understood as conventions of the practice. 

To be fully immersed in a practice requires an understanding of the standards and expectations, the intention behind the activities, and the motivation and significance that underpins the practice. One becomes adept in the practice through experience, and this is assisted through instruction (or guidance) by those who are more experienced. These “masters” set the stage for engagement and they scaffold subsequent engagement and development. This is done in the hope that the practice will be internalised and the participant will “go on” in accordance with the rule. By “going on”, the learner is committed to the practice by adhering to the practice, contributing to the practice and being part of the practice’s evolution. Collectively, one’s practices give shape to one’s form of life within the stream of living. One’s practices provide one with a habitus (or culture), and one’s habitus (or culture) gives rise from one’s practices. 

At the same time, we should never forget any single practice or set of practices is open to disintegration or entropy. Entropy is formally defined as "the lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder." Any system must have energy placed into it so that the system is maintained or preserved. If the practices of a cultural system are not reinforced, then the system and the form of life to which that system is attached will suffer and decay. According to the concept of entropy, the natural state of any system is decay unless efforts are made to maintain it.

Reference

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Struggle With Skepticism: First Draft

"I say this struggle with skepticism, with its threat or temptation, is endless ...[ Wittgenstien's Philosophical] Investigations ... confronts this temptation and finds its victory exactly in never claiming a final philosophical victory over ... skepticism, which would mean a victory over the human." (Cavell, 1989)

Doubt, suspicion, hesitancy - these are key qualities of a type of intellectual skepticism. The knowledge that there may be another possible action or form of life or explanation makes any idea or practice or commitment appear arbitrary. To abide by any set of propositions is to marginalise another set of practices, until the skeptical mind intervenes to shut down any commitment to ideals at all. Placed in a political space in which there is cultural diversity, a skeptic would be loathe to claim any privileged position of one set of ideas over another.  This is the personal struggle with skepticism that people are engaged in. It begins with the question, "how would I be able to commit?"

A struggle with skepticism is an overall struggle with doubt. As Cavell points out, "a final philosophical victory over ... skepticism ... would mean a victory over the human," which means that it is human to doubt and to hesitate and to demand. In my opinion, that which should remain firm is "the form of life" and the values, practices and systems of knowledge that give this life shape. This is in itself problematic, but it is something that I must be willing to accept. “The conditions that make a practice, any practice, possible, are not arbitrary … They must be replicable from generation to generation of practitioners.” (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 176 - 177). If anything, the skeptic in us all must be willing to challenge/question these inherited practices so they can grow, find new forms of expression and be more equitable whilst retaining the core values which permitted their rise in the first place. That is what philosophy is for, but - in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein - "the real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question." (Philosophical Investigations, #133) 

Continue on for further discussion ...

Read More

Why We Do What We Do: Part One

5:00am: Wake up. Go for a run. Return for a shower. Meditate, pray and spend time with the daily devotional. Eat breakfast. Don’t forget that Christmas is in three weeks. Have you arranged the decorations? Sent the Christmas cards? Those will need to wait. Must shave, brush teeth, suit up and get the 7:35am train into the city for work in preparation for the first meeting of the day. Attend meeting. Determine which investments to make for clients. Remember, it is better to save up for one’s future. Once you clock off for the day, stop by the gym and pick up some Japanese on the way home. See if Julia is available for a social drink. If not, I can catch up on some reading. Make sure you get an early night, since tomorrow will be a big day.

Why do we do what we do? How are our days, our months, our lives structured? What determines our practices? If we think back, how much of our daily patterns were determined by the practices we acquired as a child? It is well known that “as part and parcel of our early socialization in life, we each learn ways of being in the world, of acting and interacting, thinking and valuing, and using language, objects, and tools that crucially shape our early sense of self.” (Gee, 2008, pg 100) What practices were acquired later on? And were there certain practices that were challenged or which fell by the wayside when we moved location or when we met a new circle of friends, colleagues, mentors, acquaintances, etc? Do you recall a grandparent talking about the practices of the past (e.g. butter churning) as you stare into the fridge or order a pizza from your smartphone? What has changed? As Wittgenstein once stated, “A language game [and a practice] does change with time.” (OC, #256) Have you ever had a crisis and have discarded certain practices - like prayer or meditation or exercise or dancing - as arbitrary (i.e. based on shifting sand) only to find yourself a bit out of sorts without these practices giving shape to your life? 

The audio sample below is the lecture entitled, " Context is Everything: Wittgenstein on Meaning as Use" delivered by Dr James K. A. Smith as part of the 2013 H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series in Theology.

The audio sample below is the lecture entitled, "Context is Everything: Wittgenstein on Meaning as Use" delivered by Dr James K. A. Smith as part of the 2013 H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series in Theology.

These and many more questions draw our attention to the concept of practices, which is a concept that I feel is at the core of human existence. A practice “is something people do, not just once, but on a regular basis.” (Stern, 2004, pg 166). For some reason, people pray, brush their teeth, complete their tax, hike in National Parks, long for the next dance, etc. Each “activity” is part of - let’s says - religious practices, hygienic practices, economic practices, artistic practices, social practices and more. Each practice is much more than the sum of its parts. For instance, the combination of prayer, worship, scripture, and stewardship amounts to more than a collection of disparate activities. They amount to a form of life, and they rely upon resources, other participants, a sense of attachment, cultural artefacts and a history. Therefore, a practice is “more than just a disposition to behave in a certain way; the identity of a practice depends not only on what people do, but also on the significance of those actions and the surroundings in which they occur.” (Stern, 2004, pg 166). Put another way, our human existence is “not based on knowledge but on practice.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 107) It is not what we know that gives life its shape. It is what we do.

Welcome to the exploration. This is the first entry in a series of entries that will reflect on those activities that give shape to the way in which we live and the condition under which those activity form and change. In the end, we must ask ourselves to reflect upon the following question, “how successfully are we at finding peace and a home with what we do in a culturally, economically, and politically diverse world?”

References

  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Smith, J. K. A. (2013). Context is Everything: Wittgenstein on Meaning as Use. In H. Orton Wiley Lecture Series in Theology. Point Loma, CA: Point Loma Nazarene University. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/lecture-2-context-is-everything/id416200490?i=132712463&mt=2
  • Stern, D. (2004). Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Translated by D. Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Wittgenstein and the Elements of Reading

It is not particularly novel to say that reading is a process that involves decoding, meaning making and interpretation (or assessment). It is also quite straightforward to say that this sequence occurs within a context in which factors such as the immediate purpose, expectations and other participants affect how and why one reads. The sequence is represented in the following diagram (with further commentary to follow).

In Wittgensteinian terms, the reader progresses from aspect seeing (decoding) to meaning making (picture theory) to assessing (language games). The reader sees the text, gathers some sense from the text and extracts some meaning from the text as part of overarching conversations and conventions.


Let us imagine that I have a newspaper article in front of me. In order for me to have any hope of understanding the text, I need to take the following into account:

  • I need to be able to decode the language if I am going to have any hope of extracting any meaning from this text;
  • Even if I can decode the text, I will need to be able to extract some sense from the sentences in text, which would involve construing the states of affairs being represented (or referred to) in the text;
  • I will need to be struck by the content of the article, which means I will need to know the significance of what I am reading, of what particular details mean, of why the article was written in the first place, and of the tradition of long  information reporting; and 
  • I will need to be part of the greater conversation ( of the language-game ) of which the text is part.

What if it was not a newspaper article but an economic text? I would be at a loss even though I may have sophisticated decoding skills and robust general comprehension practices. My exclusion from general conversations of economics demonstrates that the above process works just was well in the reverse. That is, if I am aware of the "conversation" to which the text belongs and I understand the intention of the reader-writing exchange, then I am in a better position to know what may and may not be significant in the text, even I may need some help. I may be able to read more strategically and I am also in a better position to clarify ambiguities in the text because I have prior experience and knowledge to call upon when I am stuck by particularly dense or awkward phrasings.

In a teaching sense, certain texts may be more or less within a learning zone of proximal development . We want to be able to facilitate contexts in which students have the time to practice development in each of the four areas:

  • decoding --> moving toward fluency
  • meaning making --> process information to interpret, visualise, draw connections, compare, represent, clarify, etc
  • assessing --> extract significance, apply ideas, understand intentions, respond and react, summarise and synthesise, etc. 
  • participating --> being part of knowledge communities and practices in which it may be necessary to consult a text in order to take part. 

Last but not least ... whenever I see the following quote, I think of the satisfaction when someone has thoroughly comprehended a text:

"Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Vision and Determination: Ideal Qualities for Every Teacher and Learner

"Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed." (Wittgenstein, Culture & Value)

Talk of best practices, teaching programs, cycles, and progressions can lull the casual observer into believing that programs on their own bring about result. A program's success is only as powerful as the vision and determination of the teacher delivering it and the learning engaging in it. We should not forget that learning is work, that skills and knowledge can and will be forgotten (if not reinforced), and that teachers and learners need to wake up each morning to ponder yesterday and reach for the "living warm seed" of today's and tomorrow's and the next day's learning. Schools (and other forums of learning) may be full of a great many activities (the 'rubble'), but teachers and learners must regularly return to the significance of all the activities (the 'warm living seed') that all the hard work is seeking to attain. 

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Equity in Access to 'Quality' Education for Students in Remote Communities

One can regularly find glaring differences between the have's and have-not's, particularly when structural factors in society serve to perpetuate the differing outcomes for members of the community. I say this in reflection to a specific place and to specific people. It is a place to which I travel often, and the observations made here are observations which I have made previously. Yet I have never quite conceptualised it in writing in the way that I am attempting to do now. I am writing about a place in the centre of Australia. For those who are curious, it is not Alice Springs. It is a sizeable town for the Northern Territory. Many forms of life are lived. Some with material comforts. Many without. There is a deep Aboriginal history in the region as well as a more recent non-Aboriginal presence.

To be more specific, I find myself at the local primary school in the town. Like many schools, the yard at recess is a space of chaos, screams, chattering and climbing. The school population is diverse, which is reflected by the students of Anglo, Asian, and Aboriginal backgrounds. Buildings are colourful as are the classrooms. Inside a particular classroom, I see the divide between those who live in literacy and technology-rich environments and those whose access to books is severely limited outside of school. Those from literacy-rich homes benefit from experiences that are consistent with the content and ways of learning to be found in the typical Australian classroom. The types of investigations and the routines of learning are consistent between school and home contexts. Successful students learn the rules, acquire the knowledge, perform the tasks, and imagine future school success. And these students are able to do so with a fair amount of stability and support from family in the home, who often have a strong understanding of what is occurring in the classroom. The fact that some students come to school better placed to succeed is something well documented. The fact that the school curriculum can inadvertently benefit the culture and experiences of certain students over others is also demonstrated by the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1990).

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