A theory of learning for the future: the realist concept of reflexivity and the pragmatist concept of experience

I was interested to discover how pragmatism is being used within education to develop a “theory of learning for the future”. The point of such a theory, argues Bente Elkjaer in this chapter, rests in its “teaching of a preparedness to respond in a creative way to difference and otherness” including how “to act imaginatively in situations of uncertainties”. The relevance of pragmatism rests in Dewey’s account of “the continuous meeting of individuals and environments as experimental and playful”. This is how Elkjaer summarises his concept of ‘experience’:

Experience is, according to Dewey, not primarily associated with knowledge but with human beings’ lives and living. In Dewey’s terms, living is the continuous interaction (later: ‘transaction’) between individuals and their environments. Transaction holds the same meaning as experience, but also includes emotion, aesthetics and ethics as well as knowledge. To become knowledgeable is only a part of experience. Cognition and communication are still important parts of transaction, and as such are part of experiencing and not merely an outcome of experience.

This sense of experience as the relation between individual and environment overlaps in interesting ways with Margaret Archer’s concept of reflexivity as mediating between concerns and context. If reflexivity is the faculty which mediates between them then experience is, as Elkjaer puts it, “the process of experiencing and the result of the process”. Interestingly, she suggests that Dewey’s intention with the choice of the term ‘experience’ might have been better served in a contemporary context with the term ‘practice’. This underscores the similarities and differences with the critical realist concept of reflexivity. It would be interesting to consider how both can be related to Dewey’s concept of the experimental. Reflexivity draws attention to the mechanism through which such responses become possible (internal conversation), as well as the range of ways in which this can occur (modes of reflexivity) but has less to say about the epistemic character of this engagement:

One important contributor to the development of pragmatism was John Dewey (1859–1952), whose philosophical interests spanned many areas, including psychology, education, ethics, logic and politics. He insisted that philosophy must be practically useful in people’s lives rather than a purely intellectual endeavour. In his view, the promise of a better world rests upon people’s ability to respond ‘in an intelligent way’ to difficult situations that need to be resolved. Dewey argued that inquiry is a method in which working hypotheses are generated through anticipatory imagination of consequences, which may be tested in action. This experimental way of dealing with change does not merely happen through trial and error, because anticipatory imagination guides the process (Dewey, 1933 [1986], 1938 [1986]). In Dewey’s version, pragmatism is a method to think and act in a creative (imaginative) and future-oriented (i.e. consequential) manner.

It draws attention to how the conceptual resources deployed during an experimental process shape the outcome of that process. It stresses that these are situational exigencies, suggesting that we should switch the ‘tools’ we are using if they are not leading to the desired outcome. In contrast the realist would say this is an overly voluntaristic sense of cultural agency which fails to recognise the path-dependent ways in which we come to deploy the modes of understanding which we do. There is certainly room for reflexive transformation of our understanding but it is often a slow process and we are not infinitely flexible. Both positions recognise the importance of what Dewey called experience:

Experience concerns living, the continuous response to and feedback between subject and worlds, as well as the result of this process. It is within experience that difficulties arise and are resolved by way of inquiry. Experience is the concept Dewey used to denote the relation between subject and worlds as well as between action and thinking, between human existence and becoming knowledgeable about selves and the worlds of which they are a part

It follows from this that “[t]o live is to be engaged in the transactions that comprise experience, and experience is a process of life that changes continuously and in which new uncertain situations are an invitation to respond, an incentive to inquire and an opportunity to critically and reflectively think and have new experiences”. This raises the question of what it means to do this well, much as I’ve often thought about ‘reflexive poise‘ as the equivalent sense of excellence in reflexivity.

The problem I see is that the development of experience is tied to ‘difficult situations’ which can ‘trigger’ examination of situations, suggesting that reflexivity only enters into the equation when the flow of experience is disrupted by something unexpected or troubling. I wonder if this ties the ensuing learning too closely to problems and overestimates the significance of the subjectively problematic vis-a-vis the objectively problematic features of our existence which might not register as such in our experience. This is the sphere in which consciousness and radicalisation operate as interventions which can trigger reexamination beyond the situational involvement of the individual. Interestingly, the author casts education in a parallel role to this:

Subjects have experience because of how they live their lives and because of how they create relations to other subjects and worlds. It is impossible to avoid experience. Only through cognition and communication, however, can experience become learning experience. It is in this endeavour that education in its widest possible sense may be helpful, because a teacher or a more experienced person can open up avenues for hitherto unknown understandings and actions by introducing concepts and theories that were not otherwise accessible to the learner.

This suggests that ‘inquiry’ (into situations) can be supported and stimulated beyond the individual’s personal response to problematic situations. This support is obviously in turn part of the environment and part of the experience, with the exception being that it is deliberately orientated towards the individual’s capacity for inquiry. This reflects an optimism belief in “the value of developing individual and collective experience so that subjects can act increasingly ‘intelligent’ based on an increasingly informed empirical knowledge”.

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