About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Knowledge and Meaning Making

Ken Allen had an interesting comment on a previous posting of mine.

It’s now well recognised that language is required for thinking. Students who are not well familiar with the language of a new subject find difficulty thinking in the terms of that subject. This persists until they are able to use fluently the language associated with it.

Often the language refers not just to things, but to concepts and ideas, such as the language associated with thermodynamics (which has both abstract and tangible components). So often, higher thinking skills are also required to well understand some subjects especially if they are of an abstract nature or have a significant abstract component.

What I’m positing here is that the act of putting ideas into words, whether written or spoken, in the collaborative environment forces the individual to use the language of the subject. Being pressed in this way to write puts one in a similar position to the poet who is about to create from “the world of Thou” (abstract thought) a tangible, explicit piece of written knowledge.

This actually brought back a debate I had with my dissertation committee while writing my prospectus. I included research from Katherine Nelson (1996). They took exception to this, saying that her work was based on toddlers and the development of language, period and could not really be applied to adults that already have language.

However, the results of her study indicated that language helps to mediate meaning making within an environment. As new experiences happen, toddlers are able to create symbols (language) that they can then use in making meaning. Language meaning will change with new experiences, sometimes giving new meaning to the same word or language structures, other times resulting in new language and structures as a child's current language is insufficient to explain these new experiences.

I feel the same is true with adults. This explains the role of language in communities of practice and the role of writing in learning. When communicating in written forms (i.e. wikis, project software, reports, e-mail, chat), we are pushing the boundaries of our knowledge. We are trying to find new structures and language to explain tacit knowledge, which then mediates our understanding of emerging ideas. This would be critical thinking, abstracting, and knowledge construction (as I am doing here as I blog). While I may "know" something (apprehensive knowledge), the process of communicating it also is a learning process (meta-cognitive). Perhaps this "process" or internal dialog should be called mediated knowledge.

I think we need to look more into what happens during this stage for adults in order to create more affective training programs. This includes looking at what happens to the brain when writing, how different types of writing affect this mediation, and how we make meaning in multiple contexts, especially when those we are interacting with are in different environments.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Virginia.

I am surprised that your dissertation committee seemed to think that all adults need is a knowledge of language to be able to understand the meanings in context of words and ideas unfamiliar to them.

In April this year I attended a seminar on complexity thinking, a subject quite new to my head. The language of complexity science is different, to say the least! It uses dyads and simultaneities I'd never met before.

I brought back notes and wrote a report explaining to my colleagues as best I could what it was about. Whether it was because I didn't understand the concepts or because my work colleagues did not understand me, I cannot rightly say - I thought I'd made some sense of it.

But the upshot was that unfamiliarity with the language of the subject brought about real difficulties in communication when it came to discussing issues to do with this heady topic.

My experience in teaching Chemistry and Physics to senior students is that a key to understanding the subject appears to be to do with familiarity of related terms and concepts associated with the subject. Once a level of competency is reached by learners, even early in a new module, it seeds the ability to communicate in class discussion.

When given writing tasks relevant to the topic, learners are forced to think in terms of the language of the subject and about related ideas that are new to them. I have found that such tasks enhance learning, even if introduced to the learners early in a new module.

Ka kite

V Yonkers said...

I probably explained that wrong as my dissertation committee would agree with you that knowledge and language grow hand in hand. However, they feel because a person already has some knowledge to access and build upon, and because they have language (albeit outside of the scope of the "community of practice") to negotiate meaning, it is different than a child who is learning a new concept and word from scratch.

This is where we depart. I feel, in fact, that the prior knowledge and language gets in the way of negotiating meaning. However, if, like a child, an adult is introduced to the language and concept in multiple contexts, the meaning of the language and concept becomes "deeper".

Many educators feel that "teaching" a concept should be it. However, I believe there must be multiple contexts for practice, discussion, and reflection before a concept is really understood. We confuse repetition with rote memorization. However, in many fields, repetition in multiple environments creates deeper understanding and should not be confused with rote memorization.

Taking your example, you had a certain understanding when you left the conference. However, as you discuss it with your colleagues, you begin to have doubts of your understanding (which is necessary for meaning making). The next step is to go back to resources and readings, trying out different theories and explaining these concepts using different words (mediating understanding internally while negotiating meaning and the words needed to explain the concepts).

Teachers have the advantage in that in trying to explain concepts to our students, we mediate understanding for ourselves. For the average person, this can be done using the writing process. Children do this in interacting with their caregivers and teachers.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia Ora Virginia.

I now have it on good authority that I didn't misunderstand the details of what that conference brought to me, and I must admit that I didn't think I'd got the wrong end of the stick either.

In all fairness to my colleagues, I think the difficulties that arose for them was that they did not have my experience in

a) attending a conference,
b) writing report on it.

Point b) bears out what Tony said: "writing forces learning".

It did for me. Unfortunately, my colleagues did not get either of the above opportunities.

Ka kite