Empiricism and Engagement: Ann Berthoff’s “Is Teaching Still Possible?” (Matt)

A problem that I have with theory is the ease of switching between theory as a framework for understanding the world and theory as a critical lens for evaluating the world.  The former concept privileges epistemic claims, and the latter concept privileges ontologic claims.  In “Is Teaching Still Possible?”, Ann Berthoff wants to clarify the ontologic errors of overusing cognitive theories to understand and to categorize students.  This want is evident as Berthoff dismantles applications of Piaget and the theory of child development to students who ought not be considered children.

To counteract the effects of “development models uncritically deployed” (314), Berthoff proposes a pedagogy of knowing. The pedagogy emerges from an interesting triadic exercise.  Hopefully, we have all sketched the two triangles after grappling with the distinctions.  While I do not understand the visual, I desire to know how the pedagogy of knowing proposes to situate engagement in the classroom.  For this pedagogy, the stage model is clearly a “muffin tin” (308) waste of time.  Instead, “we will encourage the discovery of mind by assuring that language is seen not as a set of slots, not as an inert code to be mastered by drill, but as a means of naming the world; of holding the images by whose means we human beings recognize the forms of our experience; of reflecting those images, as we do on other words.” (320). This explanation prompts many questions for me, and the questions stem mostly from grappling with the theory underlying the pedagogy.  Language as “fill in the blank” (slot filling) is an empty gesture.  But I am not certain how to grasp language in Berthoff’s description.  In part, I find the fault in my own conflating, perhaps mistakenly, of eliding between making ontologic claims (language is X) and epistemic claims (language permits X and Y).

Question: Berthoff creates a strong theoretical stance against empiricism by associating the concept with positivism.  What is empiricism?

Question: The pedagogy of knowing depends greatly on the concept of engagement yet the term remains elusive.  What is engagement?


One thought on “Empiricism and Engagement: Ann Berthoff’s “Is Teaching Still Possible?” (Matt)

  1. Cool comment and question on “engagement.” In approaching the idea of engagement, I think it’s perhaps useful first to wonder what end Berthoff has in mind; where will engaging (whatever it is) bring us? This end, or at least one of them, is the creation of generalization from abstraction, where generalization is a discursive (i.e., communicative, contextualized) abstraction. Getting students engaged may mean using her little HDWDWW heuristic (wait, do we mean engaging students in the typical sense (getting them interested) or engaging them with the world, or are those the same thing?). Basically, finding questions where we usually don’t.

    Now, perhaps this heuristic can help us to tease out some of the workings of engagement. How does who engage with what and why? The who is the student. The how is, I think in Berthoff’s mind, language. The what is the world. The why is…to learn/make meaning?

    Now we get to two issues that the HDWDWW of “engagement” brings up pretty well, one of which you identified already: what is language (in that it’s a means of engagement), and what is world? I think the world is the easier one to approach. Berthoff’s pedagogy of knowing blurs the line between what we call the “world” and the “classroom.” Classically, pedagogies seem largely classroom-based, with the classroom as its own little universe—the pedagogy of exhortation certainly is (probably even with its own chain of being!). Berthoff writes that “Every course I teach begins with observation” (319), and for stuff to look at, she brings in seaweed, seed pods, acorns…just stuff. Perhaps some of the power of the pedagogy of knowing comes from its breaking down of the classical classroom (note, however, that Berthoff qualifies it, still calling the classroom a “prepared environment” (320)). By engaging with the world we engage less with the classroom.

    The hard part you identified is determining what language is/does. I think this underlying theory of language as means of naming makes epistemic claims about language. Language produces knowledge about things and about your own thinking from things that already exist (e.g., the garbage can). The pedagogy of knowing (very significantly, I think) says that students are always already thinking (320). Language permits the discursive abstraction of those thoughts. Language permits engagement. Language permits the questioning that produces knowledge in the form of language. Here is where I simultaneously break down, run out of gas, and blow my tires.


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