Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sfard: acquisition vs. participation metaphor: why two metaphors are better than one

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher. 27(3): 4-13

The basic message of this article: As researchers, we seem to be doomed to living in a reality constructed from a variety of metaphors. We have to accept the fact that the metaphors we use while theorizing may be good enough to fit small areas, but none of them suffice to cover the entire field. In other words, we must learn to satisfy ourselves with only local sensemaking. A realistic thinker knows he or she has to give up the hope that the little patches of coherence will eventually combine into a consistent global theory. It seems that the sooner we accept the thought that our work is bound to produce a patchwork of metaphors rather than a unified, homogeneous theory of learning, the better for us and for those whose lives are likely to be affected by our work.

Two metaphors for learning:
1. acquisition metaphor
2. participation metaphor

acquisition metaphor: the Collins English Dictionary defines learning as "the act of gaining knowledge." Since the time of Piaget and Vygotsky, the growth of knowledge in the process of learning has been analyzed in terms of concept development.

The language of "knowledge acquisition" and "concept development" makes us think about the human mind as a container to be filled with certain materials and about the learner as becoming an owner of these materials.

Key words of the frameworks generated by the acquisition metaphor: knowledge, concept, conception, idea, notion, misconception, meaning, sense, schema, fact, representation, material, contents.

Once acquired, the knowledge, like any other commodity, may now be applied, transferred (to a different context), and shared with others.

Researchers have offered a range of greatly differing mechanisms of concept development. First, they simply talked about passive reception of knowledge, then about its being actively constructed by the learner; later, they analyzed the ways in which concepts are transferred from a social to an individual plane and internalized by the student; eventually, they envisioned learning as a never-ending, self-regulating process of emergence in a continuing interaction with peers, teachers, and texts. As long as they investigated learning by focusing on the "development of concepts" and on "acquisition of knowledge," however, they implicitly agreed that this process can be conceptualized in terms of the acquisition metaphor.

participation metaphor: learning is seen in terms of a legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991) or as an apprenticeship in thinking (Rogoff, 1990).

Learning is now conceived of as a process of becoming a member of a certain community. This entails, above all, the ability to communicate in the language of this community and act according to its particular norms. The norms themselves are to be negotiated in the process of consolidating the community. While the learners are newcomers and potential reformers of the practice, the teachers are the preservers of its continuity. From a lone entrepreneur, the learner turns into an integral part of a team.

"Participation" is almost synonymous with "taking part" and "being a part," and both of these expressions signalize that learning should be viewed as a process of becoming a part of a greater whole.

While the AM stresses the individual mind and what goes "into it," the PM shifts the focus to the evolving bonds between the individual and others.

While AM emphasizes the inward movement of the object known as knowledge, PM gives prominence to the aspect of mutuality characteristic of the part-whole relation.

Indeed, PM makes salient the dialectic nature of the learning interaction: The whole and the parts affect and inform each other. On one hand, the very existence of the whole is fully dependent on the parts.

On the other hand, whereas the AM stresses the way in which possession determines the identity of the possessor, the PM implies that the identity of an individual, like an identity of a living organ, is a function of his or her being (or becoming) a part of a greater entity. Thus, talk about the "stand-alone learner" and "decontextualized learning" becomes as pointless as the attempts to define lungs or muscles without a reference to the living body within which they both exist and function.

Problems with the acquisition metaphor:
1.The conception of knowledge as property, when not controlled, leads to too literal a translation of beliefs on material properties into beliefs on learning; some of the resulting norms and value judgments are likely to have adverse effects on both the theory and practice of learning and teaching
2. How do we account for the fact that learners are able to build for themselves concepts that seem fully congruent with those of others? Or, to put it differently, how do people bridge individual and public possessions?
3.If knowledge is conceived of as a commodity, it is only natural that attitudes toward learning reflect the way the given society thinks about material wealth.
4. It is noteworthy that within the acquisition paradigm, not only knowledge, but also the means for gaining it, counts as a highly priced possession that, if of a superior quality, can make the possessors themselves superior to others.
5. Students' achievements may depend on environmental factors. But the teachers feel they can tell students' real (permanent) potential from their actual performance.
6. The gifts and potentials, like other private possessions, are believed to be measurable and may therefore be used for sorting people into categories.

The participation metaphor has a potential to lead to a new, more democratic practice of learning and teaching. Because, however, social, normative, and ethical morals of metaphors are not inscribed in the metaphors themselves but rather are a matter of interpretation, the intentions and skills of those who harness the metaphor to work are of central significance.

Sfard: giving up the AM is neither desirable nor possible. When it comes to research, some important things that can be done with the old metaphor cannot be achieved with the new one. Besides, the PM, when left alone, may be as dangerous a thing as the AM proved to be in a similar situation.

Why is the AM needed?
The Question of Transfer: Our ability to prepare ourselves today to deal with new situations we are going to encounter tomorrow is the very essence of learning. Competence means being able to repeat what can be repeated while changing what needs to be changed. How is all of this accounted for if we are not allowed to talk about carrying anything with us from one situation to another?

Greeno (1997) central idea is to provide the old notion with a new interpretation. Defining learning as "improved participation in interactive systems," he proceeds to account "for transfer in terms of transformations of constraints, affordances, and attunements" (p. 12).

Even if we could create an AM-free discourse, we probably shouldn't. Within the participationist framework, some powerful means for conceptualization of learning are lost, and certain promising paths toward understanding its mechanism are barred.

Pedagogical issues with PM:
1. More often than not, it is not all that obvious how the request to disobjectify knowledge and "put it back into context" should be interpreted.
2. real-life situations that would be likely to become for mathematics or science students what a craftsman's workshop is for the apprentice are extremely difficult to find
3. it is far from clear how we should construe the term "community of practice" and whom we should view as "expert practitioners" and the shapers of a given "practice."
4. The main problem, it seems, is that of a gradual disappearance of a well-defined subject matter. Without a clearly delineated content, the whole process of learning and teaching is in danger of becoming amorphous and losing direction.

Conclusion: One Metaphor Is Not Enough
Why Do We Need More Than One Metaphor? The relative advantages of each of the two metaphors make it difficult to give up either of them: Each has something to offer that the other cannot provide. Moreover, relinquishing either the AM or the PM may have grave consequences, whereas metaphorical pluralism embraces a promise of a better research and a more satisfactory practice. The basic tension between seemingly conflicting metaphors is our protection against theoretical excesses, and is a source of power.

The participation metaphor is often translated into a total banishment of "teaching by telling," an imperative to make "cooperative learning" mandatory to all, and a complete delegitimatization of instruction that is not "problem based" or not situated in a real-life context.

An adequate combination of the acquisition and participation metaphor would bring to the fore the advantages of each of them, while keeping their respective drawbacks at bay.

Having several theoretical outlooks at the same thing is a normal practice in science, where, for instance, chemistry and physics offer two different- but not incompatible-accounts of matter, while physiology and psychology bring mutually complementing outlooks at human beings. In the spirit of this approach, acquisitionists and participationists might admit that the difference between them is not a matter of differing opinions but rather of participating in different, mutually complementing discourses.

The metaphors might be incommensurable rather than incompatible.

Clearly, some metaphors may be more attractive than others because of their accessibility, flexibility, imaginativeness, or aesthetic value. In the final account, however, the choice made by individual researchers would probably depend mainly on what they want to achieve.

If, for example, one's purpose is to build a computer program that would simulate human behavior, then the acquisition metaphor is likely to be chosen as one that brings forward the issue of representations-something that has to be constructed and quite literally put into a computer.

If, on the other hand, one is concerned with educational issues-such as the mechanisms that enable successful learning or make its failure persistent, then the participational approach may be more helpful as one that defies the traditional distinction between cognition and affect, brings social factors to the fore, and thus deals with an incomparably wider range of possibly relevant aspects.

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