Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ecological theory of knowing; affordance networks, effectivity

Barab, S.A. & Roth, W.M. (2006). Curriculum-based ecosystems: Supporting knowing from an ecological perspective. Educational Researcher, 35(5), 3–13.

Key ideas
p4: James J. Gibson and colleagues have conducted numerous studies that demonstrate how the environment perceptually specifies possibilities for action (chairs as sittable, doorways as passable, platforms as crawlable, etc.). Central to their work is the belief that the environment includes qualitative regions of functional significance (affordances) that are visible to individuals with reciprocal skills (effectivities) and the intention to act (Gibson, 1986).

p8: an affordance is a possibility for action by an individual

p5: affordance network
An affordance network is the collection of facts, concepts, tools, methods, practices, agendas, commitments, and even people, taken with respect to an individual, that are distributed across time and space and are viewed as necessary for the satisfaction of particular goal sets.

pp6-7: effectivity
Gibson introduced the concept of effectivities as complementing affordances. If an affordance is a possibility for action by an individual, an effectivity is the dynamic actualization of an affordance. Functionally defined, an effectivity set constitutes those behaviors that an individual can in fact produce so as to realize and even generate affordance networks. When an individual has a particular effectivity set, he or she is more likely to perceive and interact with the world in certain ways—even noticing certain shapes of networks that are unavailable to others. This view has overlap with Foucault’s (1975) notion of gaze or Shaffer’s (2004) discussion of epistemic frames. For example, Foucault suggests that experts perceive the world very differently from novices and outsiders, and Shaffer suggests that an important aspect of learning is to support the learner’s adoption of a new way of knowing and caring about the world.

p8 knowing
knowing is described as the process of being able to realize affordance networks; that is, the coupling of affordance networks and effectivity sets in the service of particular goals.

p7: life-world
To understand living beings, theoretical biologists distinguished between the material bodies of the animals, demarcating inner worlds, and the surrounding, material outer worlds. However, the behaviorally relevant concepts are not the inner and outer worlds, but the developmental, functionally related worlds that the organism perceives and the world that the organism affects through its actions; in fact, these two worlds are not independent but co-emerge in the course of development and therefore mutually presuppose one another.

p7: Different (physical) individuals relate to the same material environment in different ways and therefore inhabit different, personal life-worlds, which nevertheless share family resemblances across individuals. In other words, the contents of any life-world are dependent both on the individual’s effectivity sets and on the available affordance networks (Roth, 2003), leading to a continuous evolution of both individual life-world and communicative patterns with others (Roth, 1999).

p8: ecological theory of knowing
At the very core of an ecological orientation and distinguishing it most sharply from prevailing approaches to the study of human development is the concern with the progressive accommodation between a growing human organism and its immediate environment, and the way in which this relation is mediated by forces emanating from more remote regions in the larger physical and social milieu. (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 13)

Problem / Goal / Challenge:
p3: It is one thing to learn about the concept of erosion to pass a test (having exchange value) and quite another to use it as a conceptual tool (having use value) for understanding why the water quality of a local river is deteriorating (Lave, 1988).

p3: When educators fail to engage students in meaningful relations and instead impart core ideas as isolated facts or abstract concepts, these facts and concepts are no longer connected to the situations that allow them to be powerful tools in the world.

p3: The irony is that we then wonder why children appear unmotivated to learn after we have disconnected meaning from the learning situation, assuming that the learner somehow will attribute the same functional value to the information as the teacher does.

p7: A core goal of education is how best to support learners in developing personal life-worlds that overlap with those socially agreed-upon life-worlds that are engaged by more knowledgeable others. Similarly, a core challenge of education is how to develop curricular contexts that extend themselves meaningfully into the personal life-worlds of individuals.

p8: As educators, we want to support both functioning in a particular context and participation that carries over to other places and times—not simply a short-lived or local adaptation to an immediate situation (i.e., the classroom, the next unit test). Such cross-contextual application requires that learning environments, beyond aiding students in appreciating the contextual value of that which is being learned, also serve as a mechanism for attuning the learner to the underlying invariance. This type of knowing involves not just succeeding in one situation but developing the capacity and interest to create new action possibilities, even reconstructing relations that might not have been readily apparent in the dynamic structure (Shaffer, 2004).

p9: Thus knowing, as described here, is the process of successfully engaging an intentionally bound system such that particular goals can be accomplished.

Learning Environments as Curriculum-Based Ecosystems

p.9 : The design challenge lies in establishing contexts that support user-adopted intentions that give rise to an appreciation for, even creation of, sets of relations that are consistent with socially agreed-upon ones. From our perspective, this involves establishing rich contexts through which students attend to the socially agreed-upon formalisms and at the same time appreciate the situations for which those formalisms have value.

p9 These curriculum-based ecosystems begin by setting up the problem and then making available various resources and suggested activities through which students assemble the necessary networks for solving the introduced problem.

This should not be taken as a move toward formalism-free contexts.

Formalisms are useful in that they provide an important organizing role for a discipline, can mitigate contextual ambiguity about core conceptual meanings, and help reveal the common deep structure underlying different contextual phenomena, thereby potentially supporting transfer and theory building (Nathan, 2005).

However, while disciplinary formalisms clearly serve a useful role for experts, our ecological framework implies that they are less useful for facilitating the conceptual development of an individual who is learning about the discipline or just beginning to recognize the value of disciplinary formalisms for meaningfully interacting with the world.

Barab et al. suggest that it is a balancing process in terms of the quality of formalism (explicit versus implicit) and the quality of context (noisy versus tailored).

p10: Barab et al.’s work has focused on building rich contexts-of-use and determining which tasks will most likely facilitate students in enlisting formalisms as conceptual tools.

Project: virtual park, virtual fish, declining fish population

In Year 2 of their research Barab et al. redesigned the curriculum, ensuring that each of the tasks involved one of the key standards and target concepts to be learned—mapping out the trajectory and aligning the various activities with the target formalisms.

In addition to increasing the diversity of contexts, Barab et al. also decreased the number of contextual specifics so that over time students were required to understand the formalisms in increasingly tailored contexts, until the abstracted formalism itself became the focus almost explicitly. More generally, in supporting students in attending to the cross-context applicability of specific nodal content, Goldstone and Son (2005) advocated a process that they referred to as concrete fading: In their experiment, students first were immersed in a rich context and then worked with more abstract representations of the same underlying conceptual tools—a process that effectively facilitated transfer.

When using contextually rich problems, Barab et al. have found that, in addition to contrasting cases, some type of meta-contextual decomposition in which learners interrogate the problem in terms of the invariant and variant aspects is an important step in fostering the development of a cross-contextual appreciation for the underlying invariant structures.

+ Barab et al. argued that learning is not simply scoring high on a test or assignment, but should involve increasing possibilities for action in the world.
+ Learning and participation, with respect to this project and our ecological framework, is about successfully participating as part of an ecosystem, an intentionally bound network, and it fundamentally involves increasing possibilities for action in the world.
+ Life-world expansion, as the ultimate trajectory of learning, involves engaging in sets of experiences that have overlapping core components such that children build up “effectivity sets” that span multiple affordance networks—potentially evolving into new ways of interacting with the world.
+ Transfer can occur when individuals begin to see different contexts as having similar underlying affordance structures—even in the context of differing contextual particulars.
+ In the best cases, individuals appreciate the power of, or adopt commitments with respect to, a particular effectivity set and begin to assert this “toolset” in multiple situations even when the affordances are not readily apparent on the surface.
+ Educators need to better understand the types of curriculum that will engage children while also supporting disciplinary learning and future-oriented trajectories.
+ At its core, our pedagogical argument highlights the primacy of rich experience and the importance of enmeshing students in such experience—not simply describing abstracted contents.

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