Why Do We Do What We Do?

ADDED 21/08/14

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? Introduction

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) 

And what about the practices we acquired later on? And were there certain practices that were challenged or which fell by the wayside when we moved locations 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) And "when language-games change, then there is a change of concepts, and with the concepts the meanings of words change." (OC #65) Have you ever had a crisis and have discarded certain practices - like prayer or meditation or exercise or dancing - as arbitrary or irrelevant or too 'time consuming' only to find yourself a bit out of sorts without these practices giving shape to your life or - at least - playing a significant role in it? 

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 part in a discussion that will reflect on those activities that give shape to the way in which we live and the conditions under which those activities form and change us. 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?”

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Why We Do What We Do? The Conditions Of a Practice

Let us get started ...

"Our philosophical experience now, finding ourselves here, necessitates taking up philosophically the question of practice.” (Cavell, 1989)

I am proposing that if we are to seek an understanding of the grand values and beliefs of an individual, community or culture, we must first seek to observe/describe/reflect upon the very ordinary, everyday and cyclical practices that come to constitute the entity’s form(s) of life. For Stanley Cavell, “[In Wittgenstein], I seemed to find what I could recognise as this space of investigation, in [his] working out of the problematic of the day, the everyday, the near, the low, the common, in conjunction with what [we can] call speaking of necessaries, and speaking with necessity.” (Cavell, 1989) What is it that we need to do? Or at least prefer to do? The practicalities of one’s existence “takes place around the aspects of daily life, the ordinary and the everyday events of eating, talking, queuing, exchanging pleasantries, greeting people of different age, sex, and gender, drinking, sleeping, dressing, washing, and so on.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 28).

I aim to touch upon the conditions under which given practices flourish. Any given practice - let’s say, brushing one’s teeth - is optimally accompanied by a whole raft of practices along with concepts, knowledge and narratives that justify the practice. Let's call them structuring structures which structure structure. In this picture, full participation in the practice of - as stated, brushing one’s teeth - is contingent on understanding the significance of the act within a community that values and engages fruitfully in the practice. And young children are often brought into such activities in an environment in which the physical resources, the know-how and the prevalence of the practice are readily available. Over time the children gain a fuller understanding of the significance of each activity as part of a network of activities that make up - in this case - hygienic practices. However, early stages of engaging in the practice may not involve any understanding at all. It may merely involve training, imitation and the like. 

Wittgenstein also considered this process in terms of training into the application of particular rules that underlie the cultural acts, “I cannot describe how (in general) to employ rules, except by teaching you, training you to employ rules.” (Zettel #318) Therefore, “every instance of the use … is the culmination of a process of socialisation ... Training differs from explanation in that - at least among children - it is largely non-verbal and it is aimed at producing certain actions.” (Phillips, 1979, pg 126).

The picture presented above can be quite unsettling for some, since it highlights the need for certain conditions (such as a community of practitioners or at least one other practitioner) to be in place if a practice is to take root. Acquisition is not solely determined by the individual will, though the agency of the learner is a significant factor in learning. A certain amount of regularity and role modelling need to be in place for a practice to find a home. Over time those who are more experienced will be able to make explicit certain implicit assumptions which must be understood for details of a practice to make sense. For the time being, training and regularity and encouragement are key.  In the words of Moyal-Sharrock (2010), and in reference to language she emphasises how "acquiring language is like learning to walk: the child is stepped into language by an initiator and, after much hesitation and repeated faltering, with time and multifarious practice and exposure, it disengages itself from the teacher's hold and is able, as it were, to run with the language." (2010, pg 6)

The simple matter of experience is required through which the salient details of a practice are deepened:

Then, am I defining “order” and “rule” by means of “regularity”? -- How do I explain the meaning of “regular”, “uniform”, “same” to anyone? … If a person has not yet got the concepts, I shall teach him … by means of examples and by practice. -- And when I do this I do not communicate less to him than I know myself. In the course of this teaching I shall shew him … get him to continue an ornamental pattern uniformly when told to do so. -- And also to continue progressions. And so, for example, when given . .. ... to go on: .... ...... ……. I do it, he does it after me; and I influence him by expressions of agreement, rejection, expectation, encouragement. I let him go his way, or hold him back; and so on. Imagine witnessing such teaching. None of the words would be explained by means of itself; there would be no logical circle. (Philosophical Investigations, #280)

What - then - are the conditions that make a practice possible? “The conditions that make a practice, any practice, possible, are not arbitrary … They must be replicable from generation to generation of practitioners, and this entails ... processes by which ... teaching will be possible.” (Burbles and Smeyers, 2010, pg 176 - 177). Whether we are speaking about artistic practices or religious practices or ethical practices or culinary practices and more, the child is often initiated into both the activities of the practice and the value of the practice in the community in which one lives. In this way, practices can be defined by “(1) how they are learned - for instance through imitation, initiation, instruction and so forth; and (2) how they are enacted.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 193 - 194). 

They are learned collectively in a particular valued way with a clear place in a form of living amongst others. Part of the aim is that the initiated come to internalise the practice, “what we want to focus on is people’s willingness to engage with such activities in a particular way, thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196). Teaching by any other name, otherwise described as “the structuring provided by a community or practice, [which is] physically necessary because the very possibility of any learning at all is the presence of exemplars and models.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 186).

The novice proceeds to quite literally practice “a certain kind of know-how [that] is gained through repetition: watching and doing the same thing over and over again, under the watchful eye of a skilled practitioner. Over time, proper performance becomes habitual in ways that might be almost entirely tacit and inexpressible. It is no accident that such repetition is sometimes called ‘practice’.” (Burbles, 2010, pg 208) This is done in the hope that “an agent who at first applies certain rules in order to carry out a task but later on becomes so adept at his job that he no longer needs to invoke any rules.” (Sluga, 2011, 116) According to Vygostsky (1978) “learning starts when learners are first able to accomplish with others through participation in interaction what they cannot yet accomplish on their own. Such skills are said to be in the learner’s Zone of Proximal Development, and these are the skills that will soon become individual accomplishments … These skills, in this sense, retain a social element.” (as referenced by Gee, 2008, pg 93 - 94) This is also described as a process whereby, “newcomers pick up both overt and tacit knowledge through a process of guided and scaffolded participation in the community of practice, a process that has been compared to apprenticeship.” (Gee, 2008, pg 91 - 92)

Over time, it is anticipated that the instruction and further conditions allow for the novice to become both a practitioner and a contributor to the practice, which means that, “she can employ the concept in a variety of contexts,” (Fogelin, 2009, pg 37 - 38). Such experience in employing a practice and seeing the consequences of such employment are essential, since “rules are insufficient for establishing a practice, one also needs examples. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.” (Peters, 2010b, pg. 117) 

Training is not successful until the learner can employ the practice sustainably in a range of contexts beyond anticipated cases or circumstances. The true tests of whether a practice has been adopted occurs when the learner is required to exercise independence, act in accordance with the practice in new circumstances, and find ways to reflect upon and contribute to the practice. In other words, “training is successful if it results in the initiated learner eventually becoming a skilled and autonomous practitioner and subsequently performing within, and thus adding to, the practice - perhaps even contributing to a further change in it.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 186). Through this journey, the learner “develop[s] an impressive variety of skills essential to studying in such a context: cognitive and metacognitive skills; the ability to access, retrieve, evaluate and select information; the ability to create, transpose and transfer knowledge, etc” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 191). The rules, concepts and standards of the practice gain fuller coherence, so that “in rule-following, we join a consensus in action - a consensus grounded in the kind of training that we, as humans, can successfully undergo and the kind of training that we actually do undergo in the community in which we are reared.” (Fogelin, 2009, pg 28) To sum up, “through participation in common activities with already adept others, people internalize the workings of their culture, their language, and various symbols, artefacts, norms, values, and ways of acting and interacting. The furniture of the human mind first exists publicly in the world of social interaction and participation.” (Gee, 2008, pg. 89)

The previous paragraphs may present some interesting summarises; however, they serve to reinforce what we already know. That is, one is able to a adopt a practice given the right instruction, regular practice and opportunities to extend and perfect skills. What is not addressed are the primary issues of engagement and motivation, which are essential given that “acquisition requires interventions that address attitudes and beliefs as much as interventions that assure cognitive changes in the learner.” (Verhoeven and Snow, 2001, pg 2). Whether or not one is able to engage in a practice fully and operationally depends on what one might call the existing “background of a great deal of practical ability.” (Stern, 2004, pg 177). Consequently, the “background activities constituting the everyday lives we live … [or] what we just do, unselfconsciously and spontaneously … provide the creative grounds within which such [practices] can grow.” (Shotter, 1984, 1993, 1996). It is easier for a practice to be adopted when the practice shares an affinity with “the informal practices [people already] find themselves involved in.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196 - 197). Consequently, “it is easier to be a ‘tacit teacher’ within an ongoing community of practice, where one is not the only influence drawing learners into reflective participation; conversely, it is harder to be a ‘tacit teacher’ when a cacophony of other influences distract and compete with one’s own influence.” (Burbles, 2010, pg 212). 

from Brown-Jeffy, S., & Cooper, J. E. (2011). Toward a Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An Overview of the Conceptual and Theoretical Literature. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38(1), 65–84.

Therefore, the first steps “are attitudinal not cognitive. They have to do with our needs and the direction of our attention.” (Klagge, 2011, pg 28) Our next steps are emotive whereby “certain feelings, such as feelings of familiarity and confidence, may often be present when we understand something” or are prepared to understand something. (Klagge, 2011, pg 41). These notions of familiarity significantly illustrate how our engagement in a practice is linked to how successfully we can imagine what it means to be part of the practice, which is developed through experience intellectually and emotively in the culture, conventions and expectations of the practice. “We build our model simulations to help us make sense of things and prepare for action in the world. We can act in the model and test which consequences follow before we act in the real world.” (Gee, 2008, pg 85) And furthermore, a practice is only possible "if one trusts something,” which includes trusting others as well as the situations in which we find ourselves in (Klagge, 2011, pg 66) Put together, the learner must be "a biologically and socially adept human being ... susceptible to training ... [with] fundamental trust [in] the authority of the teacher ... [engaged in] socio-linguistic interaction ... transmissible ... through enculturation" (Moyal-Sharrock, 2010, pg 6 - 7).

In an age of individualism and standardisation, there are some important implications that a culture must be aware of. If it is the case that the practitioners must come into the practice as a member of a community with its own history, then attention must be paid to (a) providing equity of access to the enabling opportunities required to grow into a practice and (b) respecting that any practice makes certain assumptions as to its value and how people should engage in the practice in the past, present and future tense. This does bring to mind the Australian novel Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy. In the novel, the adolescent protagonist is a talented pianist growing up in Adelaide and - subsequently - Darwin. His parents provide the optimal conditions and support that allow the young man to develop into a technically sound and accomplished young musician in Australia. It is only when he encounters a new teacher - a pianist from old Europe - that the young man comes to realise that there is something missing in his repertoire that will limit the possibility for his talent to be fully realised. He is missing culture. The Australian culture lacks the depth of connection to the music, and so the young protagonist becomes an adept pianist but not a profound one. At first, he rebels against this realisation, since all signs in Australia point to his technical and musical prowess. However, it is clear as the novel unfolds that the young man lacks access to the culture and the temperament behind the music to really understand the depth of its practice and the role that the music plays for those who are immersed in its history. He has the capacity to alter the musical practice, but that might require an initial act of submission (an initial act of humility).

It is in relation to this broader canvas of culture and community that we turn our attention in the next section.

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Why Do We Do What We Do: Community and Culture as Context

Part Two of Why Do We Do What We Do ended by reminding us that we should not forget that there is a broader canvas to take into account when examining our practices. and this broader canvas will be explored in this section.

Even if we would not like to admit it, our context influences (or frames) the range of practices to which we are exposed and/or participate in. For instance, I am not - on a regular basis - exposed to the traditional hunting practices of an Australian Aboriginal community, though it is part of my periodic experience. I do not have the frequency of exposure, the necessity, the instruction/mentoring or meaningful experiences to adopt the practice in a practical, regular or significant manner. Nor am I exposed to the recreational hunting practices that are part of the form of life of certain of my relatives in the American South. I was raised in an urban setting, and so the prevalence of recreational hunting was not as pronounced as it was for my Southern cousins, even if it was practiced by some of my urban friends. I was not exposed to or mentored in this practice. In fact, my upbringing taught me to challenge (or judge) the basis of recreational hunting and to respect the traditional practice as it is found in Indigenous cultures.

My surroundings, my instruction, my peer relations and my own choices taught me to identify with certain practices over others. In this case, “a practice ... is intertwined with our self and sense of identity, on the one hand, and our relations and ways of interacting with other people, on the other hand.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196). Also, as mentioned previously, part of the aim is that the initiated come to internalise the practice, “thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196). And to enter into a practice as an outsider in a dominant culture presents something more challenging than the acquisition of the practice itself. “[Outsiders] are continuously contested, imagined and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through interaction with others. The identity, and so the meaning, of any culture is, thus, aspectival rather than essential.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 21)

So, as mentioned above ... the practices in which we take part are framed by the cultures (or communities or habitus) through which we navigate.  And this journey occurs across three interacting planes: the community (and institutional) plane, the interpersonal plane, and the intrapersonal (or personal) plane (Rogoff, 1995). First, we have the overarching plane: the community (and institutional) plane. On this level we find the framework for the range of practices that an individual will encounter, whether it is found in institutions, such as schools, or information outlets, such as the media, or through cultural artefacts, such as literary figures or personality archetypes. In many ways, the community plane exerts a normative influence over individuals and it can also stratify participation along class or other divisions. Another plane, which is one step down, is the interpersonal plane, which contains the family, peer, and mentoring relationships which come to shape one’s introduction to, attachment to, scaffolding through, joint engagement in and performance of practices. These engagements shed light on how tastes are formed, processes are understood and goals are set and realised. However, the presence of role models is not enough for the adoption of practices. The third level contains the intrapersonal (or personal) plane, which alludes to the deliberation that take place within the individual who chooses, develops, selects and refines practices. At this level, we consider both attitudinal and cognitive actions that an individual takes in order to become a practitioner. In the words of Rogoff (1995), “this is the process of becoming, rather than acquisition.”

Therefore, engagement in a practice is shaped through the presence of a culture, access to role models and the personal adeptness and understanding to navigate the practice. Here, I want to emphasise the concept of access. Does the learner have access to the broader culture? Where is the learner and his/her practices positioned in the immediate community and broader society? Does the learner have access to role models, supportive peers and mentors? Does the learner possess and develop the perseverance and talents that are necessary? And does the learner have access to the material conditions and enabling opportunities to exercise the practice? The last question introduces us to the issue of access to the physical, symbolic and human resources of the practice, which is encapsulated in the activity system model present within communities of practice. The model (presented below) seeks to conceptualise the number of factors that impact upon what we practice, how we practice it, with whom we practice it and why.

“The whole system has certain intended and unintended ‘outcomes.’ The outer triangle contains the integration of ‘instruments’ (various tools and technologies), ‘rules’ (norms of use), and ‘division of labor’ (the differential expertise of different actors in the system). Various other relationships in the model capture the diverse ways in which ‘subjects’ (actors), the ‘object’ (goal) of the activity system, and the ‘community’ (various types of actors in the system) interrelate with each other and with the instruments, rules, and division of labor.” (Gee, 2008, pg 90, which explains the work of Engestrom, 1987)

In other words, there is a community, and in this community there is a practice or a set of practices. Let’s say this practice is reading. As part of this practice there are certain goals, purposes, or attainments, which require one to understand the rules of engagement, the use of certain tools, and the involvement of various people to accomplish the intended and unintended outcomes. A subject working toward a goal within a community takes advantage of certain instruments, rules and people to go about their business, whether or not that business is quite clear or not. Within this division of labour, there are those who are allocated as teachers who have suitable expertise and empathy so as to guide the emerging practice. In advanced, institutional practices, the division of labour manifests itself in different roles, requiring differing identities and relationship, such as the role of speech pathologists, educational psychologists and tutors. And these roles are supported both financial and often through an extra layer we call management. In this picture, “an activity system as a unit of analysis connects individual, sociocultural, and institutional levels of analysis.” (Gee, 2008, pg 89 - 90). In this picture, “people, including learners in school, [are represented] as actors and not just as passive recipients of information.” (Gee, 2008, pg 93) 

Furthermore, “an activity system [or practice] does not exist by itself; it interacts within a network of other activity systems.” (Gee, 2008, pg 91) In the ideal environments, the network of activity systems reinforce one another or - at least - challenge each other to evolve and adapt. The same individual may navigate culinary practices, hygiene practices, religious practices, fitness practice, social practices, etc. Some practices may reinforce one another, others mays sit side by side one another but with little in common, and others may come to create a certain level of tension (e.g. ongoing religious practices in a context of potentially confronting scientific practices). What this all suggests is the following: the uptake of a practice is impacted by access to instruction, the culture of the practice, the agency of the learner, the network of practices and the access to the instruments and a sustainable environment in which the practice can flourish and make sense. 

“People are smarter when they use smart tools. Better yet, people are smarter when they work in smart environments; that is, environments that contain, integrate, and network a variety of tools, technologies, and other people, all of which store usable knowledge … People are always part of environments, whether they are particularly smart ones or not.” (Gee, 2008, pg 89)

It is the latter fact that people are not always part of particularly “smart environments” that raises the issue of equity, or equal access to the opportunity to learn. However, in its ideal realisation, James Paul Gee (2008) suggests that an community of practice includes:

  • Members of the community of practice who are affiliated with each other primarily through a common endeavour and shared practices and only secondarily through ties rooted in shared culture, race, class, gender, or ability. (Gee, 2008, pg 92)
  • The common endeavour is organised around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontextualised tasks carried out outside of or without knowledge of the wider contexts that give them meaning.  (Gee, 2008, pg 92)
  • Members of the community of practice must all share extensive knowledge. By “extensive knowledge,” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavour; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavour as a whole system, not just their part in it. (Gee, 2008, pg 92)
  • Members of the community of practice also each have intensive knowledge; that is, specialised and deep knowledge that goes beyond the group’s shared extensive knowledge, which they have built up and can supply to others who do not share it when they need aspects of it for their own work. (Gee, 2008, pg 93)
  • Much of the knowledge in the community of practice is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members, and with various tools and technologies) and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies) and dispersed (available offsite from a variety of different sources). (Gee, 2008, pg 93)
  • The role of leaders and teachers is to design communities of practice, continually resource them, and help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge to be used to further develop the community of practice, while realising that much of the knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in the practice. (Gee, 2008, pg 93)

However, real world circumstances lead to less-than-equitable distribution of resources and support. It is important to recognise that our practice “is, after all, not the product of a free consensus … it is handed to us through the authority of parents, teachers, writers, academics, publishers, the media and finally even government.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 145) Cultural pluralism is a truism but "pluralism raises thorny questions. How do we differentiate [between practices]? ... What disassociations, links and possible transitions are there between different systems of thought and different world pictures? (Sluga, 2011, pg 70). Hans Sluga does explore the politics of practice and this exploration is clear from Sluga’s reference to conflicts over language, 

“What if there is more than one language that lays claim to being the common medium of communication? What if the linguistic group is stratified by social and class divisions? … As with all rules of social life, we need to ask of these rules; whose rules are they? What authority do they possess? What do they demand from us? … There all kinds of institutions that regularise our everyday language (academics, textbooks, bureaucracies, churches, etc). (Sluga, 2011, page 128 to 129)

Therefore, to understand learning requires more than a rational model of acquisition. “The problem requires specification of the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to [his/her] environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilized, so that which is relevant to the functioning of the social structure becomes relevant for the child … 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)

One method to use in order to reflect upon learning from a social perspective is to occupy the perspective of those who are 'not truly at home' in what we may refer to as the dominant culture. “It is, I would argue, an important part of the health at least of large, modern societies, that they have within them members who are not truly at home there, who see with the eyes of the ‘outsider within,’ and that such members are in positions to be listened to and to be intelligible.” (Scheman, 1997, pg. 403 - 404) In so doing, we recognise the material and social factors that foster, maintain and extend ways of acting and knowing. And we acknowledge that:

"In actual linguistic communities there is no equal access to linguistic resources. There are differences in upbringing, in schooling, in access to higher learning, and more generally in the social environment in which one leads one’s life. And these differences result in the mastery of different vocabularies and rhetorical devices; in different pronunciations, dictions, and writing styles; and in different discursive competences. It is important to note that language is not used in an abstract space of logical relations but in a social space that is structured by power relations.” (Medina, 2008, pg 99)

When we enter this terrain, we enter a quite complex space. We run into questions of access, of discrimination, of divided cultures, of dominant and marginalised groups, of diversity and inclusion and more. Whilst these are all important components of the discussion, there is not the space to discuss them at length in the current essay. We find ourselves speeding toward a conclusion.

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Why Do We Do What We Do? Conclusion

“Practical holism ... is the view that [any practice] 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)

Why - then - do we do what we do? How do we come to adopt the practices that we do? Are our practices based on the best evidence of the day? Or is it a matter of what we see, what we are taught, what we have always done and what is available to us? Why are certain practices and others not? What are the material and cultural conditions that give way to certain ways of seeing, acting, valuing, speaking, etc? These are all questions that have been raised but not necessarily dealt with definitively in the essay. They each remind us of the way that practices a grounded in the everyday reality of the hurly burly of life.

As Macedo reminds us, "reading specialists … who have made technical advancements 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.” (Macedon, 2001, pg xiii) And Wittgenstein makes a similar point when he wrote, "we feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched," (Wittgenstein, TLP #6.52)

Context matters. Practices matter. Culture matters. Relationships matter. As literacy practitioners, we need to consider how language, literacy and learning development is influenced by:

  • The product of the individual perceiving, engaging in and evaluating social processes and ways/forms of generating meaning within and across contexts;
  • The manner and degree of being exposed to, accessing and being initiated into the forms, features and outcomes of language and living;
  • The exact content of the learning and how these beliefs, practices and knowledge mesh with the learning circumstances (e.g. form of life and relationships);
  • The extent to which students have the capacity, orientation and opportunities to engage / participate in discourse practices as well as the extent to which educators respect and utilise the assets, skills, experiences and affinities that students bring to the class; and
  • The distribution of opportunities, resources (including time) and enabling experiences and relationships that supports the relevancy of the language activities and practices.

The language practices that students interpret and engage with are part of not only their language development, but also their social development. They are introducing students into “way of being” that either will advantage them in the future or be a potential source of frustration. The types of practices and how students are positioned or position themselves by these practices are crucial. Do students see the practices as useful? Do they have the skills, experiences and orientations necessary to fully engage? The answers to these questions are not isolated within the students, but are part of the sociocultural context where diverse individuals and discourse practices come to define and occupy spaces and activities. It is also this sociocultural context that is shaping the relevant diverse language forms and practices that are encountered and engaged in.

Two days later: 11:00pm: Closing down the computer for the night. Last client email sent. Not my best work, but it's done. Dusted. Until tomorrow. I used to be a perfectionist, but I'm too exhausted. There's too much on. Too tired to pray, take a shower or even brush my teeth tonight. I'll just hang up the suit and play a bit of Minecraft in bed. Haven't played video games in a long time. I shouldn't have tried it last night. I should have just stuck to reading my book. I'm hooked now. I might pass on tomorrow's morning run. I shouldn't make that a habit, though. Once that goes, who knows what else might tumble? Rules are rules until you break them, you know. Take a deep breath. Tomorrow's a new day. "Clear the rubble for the warm living seed." I must try to remember who said that.

References  (back to top)

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