From Representation to Emergence by Osberg, Biesta and Cilliers

A complexity critic of cognitive reductionism.

In the paper “From representation to emergence: complexity’s challenge to the epistemology of schooling” Deborah Osberg, Gert Biesta and Paul Cilliers challenges the ‘spatial epistemology’ of representation by using ideas from complexity.

Key takes

  1. In this paper they explore possibilities for an alternative ‘temporal’ understanding of knowledge in its relationship to reality.
  2. In addition to complexity, It takes inspiration from Deweyan ‘transactional realism’ and Derrida’s deconstruction.
  3. They suggest that ‘knowledge’ and ‘reality’ should not be understood as separate systems which somehow have to be brought into alignment with each other, but that they are part of the same emerging complex system which is never fully ‘present’ in any (discrete) moment in time.
  4. This points to the importance of acknowledging the role of the ‘unrepresentable’ or ‘incalculable’. With this understanding knowledge reaches us not as something we receive but as a response, which brings forth new worlds because it necessarily adds something (which was not present anywhere before it appeared) to what came before.
  5. This understanding of knowledge suggests that the acquisition of curricular content should not be considered an end in itself. Rather, curricular content should be used to bring forth that which is incalculable from the perspective of the present.
  6. The epistemology of emergence is introduced as a complexity alternative to representational epistemology. It calls for a switch in focus for curricular thinking away from questions about presentation and representation and towards questions about engagement and response.
  7. In contrast to this representational epistemology—which could also be called a ‘spatial epistemology’ since it depends on a correspondence between knowledge and reality—they propose that complexity suggests a temporal epistemology which implies that the quest for knowledge is not in order that we may develop more accurate understandings of a finished reality, as it is. Rather, the quest for knowledge is about finding more and more complex and creative ways of interacting with our reality.
  8. This paper also views the presentationalist view(situated, real world learning) critically and point out some of its weakness. It brings up two critical dimesntions initially, ie. conservative and radical. From a conservative viewpoint, that a ‘decent’ education is not merely about practical work or apprenticeship, but one in which children get access to all the great works of a particular cultural tradition. Secondly, from a radical viewpoint, it is argued that participatory or presentational forms of learning end up in socialisation and adaptation and make it difficult to create critical distance and therefore result in one-dimensional ways of learning.
  9. A third critique is pointed from the work of Jacques Derrida—in particular, his critique of ‘the metaphysics of presence,’ more familiarly known as ‘deconstruction’. According to this line of thinking, both presentational and representational pedagogies rely upon the idea of a world that is simply present and can simply be represented. Both presentation and representation can be seen as examples of the ‘metaphysics of presence’—the idea that there is a world ‘out there’ that is simply ‘present’ and to which all our understandings (meanings) are in relation. In contrast to this position, deconstruction resists being drawn into and subsumed by any relationship with presence.
  10. Authors cites themselves @ Biesta and Osberg, 2007 to show that eventhough ‘representational’ and ‘presentational’ pedagogies are somewhat (although not completely) opposed to each other—both strategies are still the two main approaches to education, and perhaps becoming increasingly intertwined.
  11. The authors argue that ‘relationality to the radically non-relational’ could be considered key to the logic of complex systems. They point to Prigogine, who insists that although new order (emergence) results when a complex system explores and finds new ways of working with the initial conditions, and that these initial conditions are provided by the lower hierarchical level—and are ‘causal’ in this regard—the elements making up the lower level do not provide everything necessary for order of a particular kind to emerge at the higher level. In his words: The system ‘chooses’ one of the possible branches available when far from equilibrium. But nothing in the macroscopic equations justifies the preference for any one solution. (Prigogine, 1997).

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