Category Archives: Knowing

Ways of Being-In-The-World


[similes of being]

BLOCKHEADS: Like letters carved in rock

Blockheads are rigid in thought and action, accepting only their way, unable to see beyond their impenetrable blocked ego. Blockheads live a hard life on the wrong side of the metaphorical door, shutting them out of privilege, opportunity, awareness, softening and feeling. They freeze feelings and turn ideas into stone with their dogmatic ideals that require absolute obedience. Their one-sided ways, the Buddha says, are like letters carved in rock, for they cannot see beyond the blocked entrance. They cannot move beyond their blocked ego so when they act, they act out blindly and cruelly.

These characters live among us today in the form of White supremacists, political terrorists, rapists, gay bashers, hate mongers, and at times: me and you. How do we unfreeze our blockheaded habits and drill our stubborn consciousness? These are not heady acts: too many of us live inside our heads, far too often. How do we see and hear a trickling of the sand through the rock of unexamined and habituated beliefs?

SPLITHEADS: Like letters written in sand

Splitheads do not open the metaphorical door to more awakened paths, however, they have glimpses into alternative sides of themselves. While not impenetrable, they allow “the social self” to take the place of “the authentic self” until the difference between the two is blurred. Splitheads are playing a part in a script written by their social roles and habits, living according to others’ expectations, forgetting who they are, sleepwalking through life, and not looking for cracks of awareness in the rock..

FOUNTAINHEADS: Like letters written in running water

Fountainheads are neither this nor that, but coming and going, like Bakhtin’s mode of linguistic homelessness (where no one ideal is grasped). Fountainheads do not retain their passing thoughts and their minds are always clear: the fluid self, freely moving, living energy, with mental alertness, inner strength and mindfulness.

The Teaching of Buddha (Tokyo: Kosaido Printing, 1990)
Like Letters in Running Water: A Mythopoetics of Curriculum (Mary Aswell Doll, 2000)

Maturana & Varela on Knowledge & Cabbages

What cabbages do you insist upon carrying with you?

Perhaps this question will make more sense if you read a Sufi story told by Maturana & Varela:

A story is told of an island somewhere and its inhabitants. The people longed to move to another land where they could have a healthier and better life. The problem was that the practical arts of swimming and sailing had never been developed – or may have been lost long before. For that reason, there were some people who simply refused to think of alternatives to life on the island, whereas others intended to seek a solution to thier problems locally, without any thought of crossing the waters. From time to time, some islanders reinvented the arts of swimming and sailing. Also from time to time a student would come up to them, and the following exchange would take place:

“I want to swin to another land.”

“for that you have to learn how to swim. Are you ready to learn?”

“Yes, but I want to take with me my ton of cabbages.”

“What cabbages?”

“The food I’ll need on the other side or wherever it is.”

“But what if there’s food on the other side?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I’m not sure. I have to bring my cabbages with me.”

“But you won’t be able to swim with a ton of cabbages. It’s too much weight.”

“Then I can’t learn how to swim. you call my cabbages weight. I call them my basic food.”

“Suppose this were an allegory and, instead of talking about cabbages we talked about fixed ideas, presuppositions, or certainties?”

“Hummm… I’m going to bring my cabbages to someone who understands my needs.”

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1998). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. [p. 249-250]

Shah, I. (1971). The Sufis. New York: Anchor Books. [p. 2-15]

What is truer than the truth?

ANSWER: The Story.

Isabel Allende asks this question as she begins her inspiring TED Talk on Tales of Passion. Paraphrasing a Jewish proverb, Allende believes that the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives often reveal as much (or more) about us as hard-evidenced facts.

We are all storytellers who, individually and collectively, lead storied lives. Storied lives that are lived before they are ever told. We understand the past in terms of our stories, just as we seek to understand the future in stories. We take our stories with us as we journey through our lives and our worlds, often finding a hidden presence of our stories in others.

I think there is something strangely satisfying and community-affirming when I find my own story told through the story of another. One such instance recently occurred in my laundry room, a rather serendipitous moment in which a creatively-enlightened man shared this quote with me (by critic Barbara Hardy, 1968): we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative…”

In Qualitative Research: Challenging the orthodoxies in standard academic discourse(s), Kouritzin, Norman and Piquemal (2009) remind us that we are living in stories all the time and we are continually attending to the stories of others. As such, they seek research that represents story as an important and legitimate research methodology. Rather ironically and in spite of the pervasive prevalence of stories in our lives, the scientific method has weakened confidence in the validity of story, perceiving storytelling to have irrational and inconsequential worth for critically-esteemed academic research. This impoverished belief in the worth of our stories frustrates me.

From my perspective, scientific principles are stories, logically told to a humanity that dangerously assumes science is the absolute truth. Instead of trying to close down understanding, it is important to be always and already questioning, with the hope of opening-up fixed meanings to a multiplicity of possibilities and wide-ranging insights that integrate storied knowing (listening to people and learning from their experiences). For the stuff of our existence includes a totality (not a dichotomy) of atoms, molecules, chemical reactions, relationships, desires, hopes and stories.

How do you know what is truth? Do you agree with Freire’s personal testament: “I know with my entire body, with feelings, with passion, and also with reason” (Pedagogy of the Heart, 1997). I believe that we are transformed by our imaginations more than we are changed by intellectual ideals, political urgings or ethical convictions. Telling of the power of story, Arundhati Roy boldly exclaims:

“Our strategy should be not only to confront the empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness, and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.”

Your thoughts, your stories?


TL&T International Conference

Submit your proposals and abstracts! An exciting international conference is advancing upon the horizon…

Culture, Design, Sustainability,
Human Ingenuity

June 17-21, 2010
Vancouver, British Columbia


Technological accomplishments characterize and transform cultures, and yet their relevance is undervalued and their place remains obscure in today’s learning institutions, in government policy, and in the public mind. With implications for culture, design, sustainability, and ingenuity, the conference and exposition explore how technological learning and thinking are celebrated, dismissed, taken for granted, or mystified. What mechanisms work for, or against, the integration of technological learning and thinking in democratic societies? What are their implications for culture, design, sustainability and ingenuity? What is the nature of technological learning and thinking?

The conference organizing committee invites papers that address various dimensions or problems of technological learning and thinking. Scholarship is welcome from across the disciplines including Complexity Science, Design, Engineering, Environmental Studies, Education, History, Indigenous Studies, Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology of Technology, and STS. The conference is designed to inspire conversation between the learning and teaching of technology and the cultural, environmental, and social study of technology.

In addition to academic papers, this conference features an exposition of student and professional projects that provide examples of culture, design, sustainability, and human ingenuity at work. The exposition will be held on the last two days (20-21 June 2010) of the conference in a large exhibit hall on the University of British Columbia campus. Projects are welcome from all ages: teachers and professors are especially encouraged to enlist their students in meeting the project challenges and timelines.

Email PJ if you want to discuss your ideas or collaborate, and know that I’m totally interested to hear from you! Visit the conference site for more specific details:

Virtually McLuhan: Theorizing Code and Digital Life

Problematizing interpretation was the lesson I learned last week while listening to Suzanne de Castell’s provocative talk, One Code To Rule Them All:

“When all that has been solid melts into code, how do we rethink and re-make scholarly praxis – theory, research and pedagogy – built from and for a literate universe? Quality becomes quantity, arts and sciences are re-fused, media fluidly converge, and even the ontology of the body, this ‘too solid flesh’ of Hamlet’s distracted imaginings, becomes molten, as virtuality.”

Suzanne is a lively and engaging speaker, calling out to resuscitate the pedagogy of play, and ensorcelling my thoughts with terms like ludic epistemology, digital hermeneutics, design-driven theorizing and the navigation of UNCERTAINTY.

The uncertainty principle abouds...  Suzanne clearly shows how evidence-based research can be disabling, poking big holes in the elaborate fiction of the one truth from one rigid perspective, raising questions like: How does language prevent us from understanding? What does it mean to encode knowledge as a game? How does research serve to keep knowledge at bay? Foucault troubles our desire for certainty, calling this a rancorous will to knowledge that reveals no universal certainties except that all knowledge rests upon injustice as there is no right to truth, not even in the act of knowing. Foucault furthers argues that: “the instinct for knowledge is malicious (something murderous, opposed to the happiness of mankind),” as we are progressively and dangerously enslaved to the violence of reason and the quest for certainty: “knowledge now calls for experimentation on ourselves, calls us to the sacrifice of the subject of knowledge.”  Adding the words of Nietzsche, in The Dawn, “Knowledge has in us been transformed into a passion which shrinks at no sacrifice and at bottom fears nothing but its own extinction.”  Whoa!!!!  It’s time to slow down, to be still and to listen.

A recent conversation with Franc Feng about David Jardine’s Reflections on education, hermeneutics and ambiguity brings forth a research path that lies beyond the neutered quest for certainty, where ambiguity is not a mistake to be corrected or solved through exhaustive methodological effort, rather this path enlivens the possibility of generative inquiry that embraces the original difficulties of life with respectful attentiveness and a radical openness that does not foreclose. For we must preserve our space for listening to and dwelling in the rich interplay of textured human lifeworlds and inconsistent truths: knowlege becomes degenerative when we are so narrowly focussed on uncovering functional certainties. This desperate longing for foreclosure, this deep longing to mine data for fixed polished meanings, this longing for the last word where nothing else needs to be said, for things to be final once and for all… is ultimately (according to Jardine) a longing for unthinking, unknowing and unfulfillment: it is not a longing for life, it is a longing for death.


A Theory of Cognition

Cognition as (Inter)Activity in the Techno-Cultural World

* How do we learn?

* How do learning, culture and technology belong to or juxtapose with cognition?

* What is cognition in a rich reality, complex and shared world?

New perspectives on thinking and learning view cognition not only as the mental processing of information occurring in the brain, but also, and more importantly, as (inter)activity in our technological and cultural worlds. Techno-cultural theory, which is grounded in the interdisciplinary study of The Learning Sciences, asserts that cognition is inseparable from epistemology and ontology as a complex system of technological and cultural phenomenon distributed over (not divided amongst) mind, body, artifact and activity in socially organized settings. In this view, cognition is not bounded by the skin or the skull, but is a cultural process of coming to be, in-interaction-with the technologies that we use (Petrina et al., 2008, p.386).

Learning can be thought of as:
1) “adaptive reorganization in a complex system” (Hutchins, 1995, p.289) or
2) “assembling what assembles the world” (Petrina et. al, in press) or
3) progress or growth along a trajectory of participation within a community of practice (Greeno, 1997).

Learning and making sense of things are part and parcel of what people do in the world. I believe that we come to understand our being in the world through: 1) interaction with natural and technological resources, and 2) participation within specific cultural contexts which have their own characteristic discourses, values and goals. For example, think of any idea or object (concrete or abstract): you become familiar with the affordances and constraints of that idea or object by interacting with it. At the same time, your experiences are shaped by your belonging to a particular community of people for whom the object has meaning, usefulness and relevance.

This techno-cultural perspective informs my research: in order to investigate cognition and the kind of learning that takes place in game-play and game-design, I must understand that game worlds are not merely digital environments where things just happen, rather, they are distinctive cultures and technologically-mediated communities where people engage in complex (individual and collaborative) cognitive activities and substantial identity development as well (aka: learning).

Your thoughts? PJ

Greeno, J. (1997). Response: On claims that answer the wrong questions. Educational Researcher, 26 (1), 5-17.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Petrina, S., Feng, F. & Kim, J. (2008). Researching cognition and technology: How we learn across the lifespan. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 18, 375-396.

Petrina, S., Castro, J., Feng, F., Hall, L., James, K., Kojima, D., Rusnak, P. & Trey, L. (submitted 9 May 2008). On learning, and the learning arts, sciences and technologies. Learning Inquiry.