30 November 2019

The Supremacy of Scripture and Francis Schaeffer’s Line.

The Christian church in the West has abandoned the supremacy, primacy and infallibility of Scripture. Notice what I did not say. I did not say that we have abandoned the doctrine of the supremacy, primacy and infallibility of Scripture (though some have). I said we have abandoned the supremacy, primacy and infallibility of Scripture. Let me explain how this has come about, and what difference it makes.

Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There is a favourite book of mine. In it he argues that Western man has, over a period of several centuries, become isolated from himself, from truth and from God because he has given up the search for coherence and unity in his view of his existence. Having done so, modern Western man has replaced the search for coherence with an acceptance of a dichotomy. The dichotomy is the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational, between the natural and the spiritual.

Schaeffer argues that this dichotomy can be understood to have produced a line between two separate and distinct realms of reality. Above the line there is religion, faith, spirit, and the unfalsifiable. Below the line there is man, matter, mathematics. Above the line is – in Schaeffer’s terms – the upper storey, below the line is the lower storey. But there is no real coherence between them, no verifiable contact, no true unity, no adhesions.

And so, modern man has no means for explaining – or even acknowledging – the supernatural that might form part of a coherent world, the world as it truly is. And this is problematic because this coherent world, this united reality of the natural and the supernatural is precisely the world as we all experience it. So, modern man, who thinks in terms of the line, kids himself either by declaring that there is nothing above the line, or more usually, that what is above the line is unknowable and grasped at only through the abandonment of reason; in which case, ‘each to their own’. Your guess is as good as mine. This is how we have come to the place where people will say 'I'm happy for you to have your religion, but keep it to yourself.' Modern man means to say 'your religion belongs in the upper story, don't try to bring it down here into the lower storey.'

In a culture built upon this line of thinking we would expect to see its fruition in a simultaneous rise of scientism and mysticism. This is precisely what we see in the West today. Scientism attempts to confine itself inside of pure rationality (the lower storey), while mysticism – with its face painted and shoes off – dances amongst the shadows of the irrational. But both acknowledge the line. Both rely upon a dichotomous view of reality in which there is no communication between the upper and lower storeys. There is a great gulf fixed.

The Bible proclaims no such dichotomy, but – in black and white – assumes and affirms the coherence between the natural and the supernatural, between the stuff and the spirit which animates the stuff. There are adhesions. There is no line. God is at work in the world.

Impact on the Church

So, with that groundwork laid, let us return to the first point, one that is most pressing for us Christians in our cultural moment. I say that the Christian church has abandoned the supremacy and infallibility of scripture while holding on to the doctrine. This is because the church has adopted the thought categories of modern man. It has accepted Schaeffer’s line. This is understandable – we swim in the same cultural waters – but it is not tolerable.

Western man insists that the things of religion – or what he calls religion – are all upper storey guesswork or mere acts of a will unfettered from reason, and this line of thinking has undoubtedly shaped Christian belief and practise in the early 21st century. The church has split in the same two directions as modern man, because the church is full of modern men and women. For many modern Christians rationality and reason have replaced the Scriptures as the ultimate guide to truth. And so, in practise, we have two kinds of modern Christians: upper storey Christians and lower storey Christians. Each of these groups has its own way of approaching the Bible but both are agreed the doctrine of the infallibility of the Scriptures now goes in the upper storey.

The upper storey Christians avoid being embarrassed about defending talking snakes and floating axe-heads – which are all a little too much for modern rational man – and tucks all this safely away up there above the line. They just go up there on a Sunday to play. It feels nice because up there in the upper storey the Scriptures are infallible. The upper storey Christian can continue to bellow ‘sola scriptura’ until hoarse, and feel ever so orthodox about it, because the rubber never needs to touch the tarmac. And so it doesn't really mean anything. These upper storey Christians have abandoned their felt pretence that their faith makes any rational sense down in the lower storey, because the Bible is not supreme in their epistemology. For them, reason is supreme. And so, if they want to hold onto the sense of the Bible's other-worldliness they feel they have no choice but to leave reason behind in their Christian practise and leap above the line, as Van Morrison once sang, into the mystic. I’m thinking of the kind of Christian who flicks through the pages, lets the book fall open, and takes a few verses as ‘God’s word to me today’. That is mysticism in Christian garb, and it won’t do. 

Christians can claim whatever they like about the stuff up in the upper storey, and the modern man will let us, so long as we don’t try to bring it down here, into the lower storey. He’s happy for you to have your ‘sky fairies’ and your ‘magic book’. And too many Christians have conceded the ground, because they don't want to have to squirm in the presence of the gods of rationality. (These be thy gods, O Israel!) Too many have sold the shop. And all because to the modern man reason is supreme over revelation. These things ought not so to be. 

What of lower storey Christians? Lower storey Christians have also accepted the line, but have had to find another way to hold on to their Christian claim beneath their epistemological prior commitment to the supremacy of reason. Reason dictates that axeheads do not float. Reason dictates that Red Seas do not part. Reason dictates that Virgins do not give birth, nor do dead men rise again. Thus, reason dictates that the stories of the Bible are mere fiction, cautionary tales, wise words handed down from the ancients; but they are certainly not to be believed at face value by any rational modern man. And so lower storey Christians can be heard speaking of the 'message' of the bible, or the 'teaching' of the bible, instead of the 'words' of the bible. Lower story Christians make excuses for miracles: they had all brought some bread along, the Red Sea was more of a Red Puddle, and so on. Lower storey Christians have opened themselves up to the ravages of the Higher Critics; soon they will have to join the upper storey Christians or risk having no bible at all. 

Unless there is a Bible that integrates the stories as it integrates the storeys...

Schaeffer's Three Bibles 

I believe Schaeffer's assessment of the situation is correct and so we might say that there are three Bibles. There is the upper storey bible all mystical and floaty; we go to it when we need a charm, or some kind of potion for our ailments, but let us not pretend it speaks of objective reality (like science might). Then there is the lower story bible all dead, old and dusty; it has some truths in there, but these are rational universal archetypes couched in peculiar stories, not specific revelation from beyond the reaches of our finite reason. Last, there is the real Bible; the one God wrote as he moved holy men by His Holy Spirit. This is the Bible - the inscripturated Word - that is an integration point for a Christian's whole life in God's true reality where there is no line.

I know your church statement of faith affirms the supremacy and infallibility of scripture, and so does your pastor’s Bible College. But if that statement only holds above the line, you're at risk of losing contact with reality as God has made it. But the proof of the pudding is in the daily reading of, meditating in and preaching of that Word, unabashed and unabated and unapologetic. The book itself is a most critical integration point for your experience of reality, the lens through which all of life - the rational and the supra-rational - should be viewed. Be not faithless, but believing. Take up, and read.

9 October 2019

Loving Authority

I am a big fan of the work and thought of Michael Polanyi. His realism is refreshing as it is brilliant. But in this post I want to pick up on one interesting feature of Polanyi's epistemology, and show how it might be helpful in the ongoing discussion around pedagogy.

Michael Polanyi asserts that coming to know is akin to an act of discovery. In learning, some new meaning is achieved through the integration of new and old knowing into a new, perhaps-only-half-anticipated coherence. Sometimes this feels like a 'eureka' moment, sometimes more mundane, but the process and the structure of the integration are the same.

Polanyi also suggested that once a coherence is discovered (not 'constructed'), you know you have done so because you have a sense of 'indeterminate future manifestations' of that new thing. It explodes with meanings and possibilities. You might find yourself saying 'oh, that suddenly makes sense', or 'I can't believe I didn't see that all along, it's so obvious', or 'wow, this changes everything!' Polanyi goes so far as to say that any coherence that is attended by such a sense of manifold prospective impacts, appearances and consequence is real.

Authoritative Guides

I said I wanted to pick up on one particularly interesting feature of Polanyi's epistemology. It is this: since there is objective reality, Polanyi insists that our integrations can be assisted by 'authoritative guides', whose prior experience of that reality can be trusted.

Indeed, authoritative guides can lead and point and coax us to make coherence out of the patchy knowing we already inhabit. We are guided to discover something more real from our existing disintegrated snippets of knowledge. These snippets might of themselves have no particular meaning for us, or we may only have a hunch or an inkling that they are significant in as-yet-unknown ways. But once integrated, they can be seen to be deeply consequential, and - to reiterate - real.

For example, a coach might spend a long time with young players teaching the correct foot and hand position for a sprint start. The kids may not appreciate the yet-to-be-realised impact of such detail, but the coach knows and so continues in her insistence that things are done right. The coach is right to be insistent. The coach is right to leverage her authority that her students might heed her words. The coach must act as an authoritative guide. To fail at this point is to fail the students' future selves.

This is the proper exercise of authority. It is the proper exercise of authority in a school, on the playing field, in a coaching session, in the church; in fact, in all of life. It is authority that is exercised to invite a learner into a fuller awareness of what is true and real and meaningful and purposeful. As such, it is a loving act on the part of the authoritative guide, because the 'guide' has already seen more, has felt more, has been further along this pathway, and knows how his life has been enriched by what he has learned.

The exercise of authority in this way is driven by the desire to see learners enjoy fruit for their labours. It is driven by the desire to guide students towards a coherence that bursts forth in 'indeterminate future manifestations' of a new reality. It is a reality already enjoyed by the guide, and too good not to share.

Authority vs Authoritarianism

Authority gets a bad rap in our day. We have fallen into the trap of collapsing all distinction between authority and authoritarianism. And so we have forgotten that authority is a prerequisite for knowing anything at all. Only as we submit to an authority can we be brought to know something new, something more deeply, or something more securely.

As a teacher I want my learners to come to know more deeply, more fully, more personally. If I want to guide them to discover and enjoy and find delight in the grand realities of my subject, I must exercise my authority to that end. But all must be done for their good, out of love. It must be done for the love of the student. It must be done for the love of the subject.

Loving authority. The title of this post can be read in two ways. How did you read it? Does the phrase begin with the present participle of the verb, or does it begin with an adjective? For your sake and for the sake of whomever you teach (since we are all teachers), I hope it begins with an adjective.

6 May 2018

I blame Foucault

Michel Foucault is the most cited scholar in the social sciences, and his book Discipline and Punish is one of the most cited works. Foucault's influence is hard to underestimate within academia. It is my contention however that his ideas have been a substantial force for ill. Allow me to explain.

Michel the Mystic

In my view, one of the central problems of postmodern-leftist academic thought is the obsession with unmasking what lurks beneath, to dig beneath what is self evident in pursuit of something substantial and profound below the surface. Reality doesn't simply present itself to us, and common sense is not so common, they say. It is almost mystical in its framing. Academics of this persuasion are like miners digging ever deeper, excavating through the layers, uncovering ever more imperceptible 'truths' (a word which must be deployed in ever-so-knowing scare quotes). Deeper, and deeper they go until the nugget is found; the thing itself, the source, the slime, or whatever.

So what do we find at the bottom of everything? This is what this post is about. In the Foucauldian analysis what we find when all the smoke clears and once all the illusions have been 'seen through', is Power [1].

Foucault's argument was that society is structured as a nexus of power relations (embedded in and sustained primarily through language or discourse), and that the struggle between and among groups and individuals is a struggle for the power to act within that nexus. It doesn't matter who you are, you are in a power-relation with those around you. As far as I can tell, given my rudimentary French, Foucault used the word pouvoir instead of puissance to convey the broad sense of capacity rather than the narrower sense of brute force. But nevertheless, it is important to recognise that Foucault consistently employed the term in a negative sense, connoting coercion and control. You are afforded more or less pouvoir by virtue of your upbringing, status, wealth and also, to a large extent, group identity. The whole of society therefore consists of overlaid and interwoven 'structures of domination'. Indeed, that is what society is.

Everything, the Foucauldian tells us, really is about pouvoir. When all the facades are stripped away there is only power. It is the bottom-most category. Your marriage is a power relation. The relationship between teachers and students is a power relation (and therefore the giving of detentions is an act of violence). The rich and the poor are in a lopsided power relationship, so too are men and women, whites and people of colour, the young and the old. There is a power gradient between any two groups you care to name, and power differentials between individuals within and among those groups. And so there is necessarily domination at every turn.

Of course, there is a grain of truth in all this. Power is a genuine category, and there are those who would utilise their pouvoir for malevolent, anti-social or self-serving ends.  We are well aware that power corrupts. (Or maybe power simply enables the already-corrupt). But, for me, Foucault and (especially) his followers go too far by insisting on the fundamental place of Power in the structure (and structuring) of social reality.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices

Why has Foucault become so ubiquitous? Honestly? My suspicion is that his ideas are everywhere because they require very little skill to apply. The precepts are pretty straightforward. Once you have been shown the 'truth' that power is the real currency that under-girds our society, that inaugurates and maintains 'structures of domination', then you start to see it everywhere. It becomes the lens through which everything must be viewed. And once you start, you just can't stop. Some might see this as evidence for the veracity of the analysis; I suggest it is evidence of a subtle perniciousness which is exacerbated by the lazy thinking of too many who have pitched their tent in Foucault's shadow.

Given how straightforward it is to apply Foucault, and how productive such an analysis can seem, it is unsurprising that there are swathes of social scientists labouring in Foucault's dreary universe. Take, as one example, this remarkable video in which an academic explains how she came to embrace the new field of 'feminist glaciology'.

She concludes (about 18 minutes in) with these remarks:
"What I am starting to suspect here is that this is not about me and this is not about glaciers...What's going on? It's about what this is really about. This is about power. It's about authorising specific knowledges and marginalising or excluding others. It pretends to be this single story about glaciers, or women, or me. But in reality this is about Power."
See? It is so broad a framework that, no matter which onion you peel (the onion of glaciology, in this case), as the layers come away you are always left with the same central concept: Power. This is the kind of thing you will find being done by Foucauldian scholars all across the social sciences and humanities. It has begun to creep into other domains. The academy is replete with such examples. A Foucauldian can conjure the very same rabbit out of a bewildering variety of hats.

Since Foucauldian academics have been initiated into the true order of things, like some occult rite of passage, it is henceforth the mission of said scholar to show how even the most innocuous and innocent of acts is in fact the insidious outworking of structures of domination hitherto unseen by the uncritical eye. 'Microaggression', anyone?

Enter the Intersectionalists

But this is a deeply damaging (perhaps pathological) way to perceive the world, and the ramifications are manifold. To reduce social relations between actors to the interplay of pouvoir rules out the possibility of free association between equals, denies the freedom and agency inherent in the interaction and reduces both individuals to less that what they each are. Both the powerful and the powerless are dehumanized in that relationship. Is it not blindingly evident that human beings and the relationships between them are multifaceted? Where do we place beauty, or skills, or ability, or intelligence, or chutzpah, among the 'structures of domination'? No, seriously.

On the surface of all of our lives there are evidences of these relational categories, and so the Foucauldian scheme must account for them. The Foucauldian simply folds these categories together, calls it power, and then pushes the locus of that power deeper within the individual, towards the unconscious and the pre-discursive. Yes, it may seem to you that you love your wife, but the 'deeper' reality is that you simply hanker after power and desire to wield it over another person. In Foucault's own words, 'the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, [is] the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us'.

To free oneself from this fascistic self-domination and self-exploitation requires the identification of the power-centres and their subsequent dismantling. Enter the intersectionalists, Foucault's offspring; they know where the power is. It is in whiteness, and maleness, and heterosexuality, and Christianity, etc.  These are simply the masks that power wears to structure the world for the powerless. Intersectionalists may well use the word privilege instead of power, but a rose by any other name...

And their stated aim? To deconstruct, de-centre, and decolonise. For them it is the lofty ideal of human liberty that fuels their efforts, that compels them to disrupt and resist.

If you happen to have the misfortune of holding all the power-full identities; white, able-bodied, so called 'cis'-male, Christian, heterosexual, married father (oh crumbs!), then your privilege is tantamount to fascism. And fascism must be denounced and renounced. You are unworthy of compassion, empathy, pity or respect, because you are (consciously and unconsciously) the privileged oppressor in every social field you inhabit. The power holder cannot be the object of compassion because it is undeserved [2], perhaps even taken by socio-historical force. What's more - since there is neither love nor forgiveness, only reparations in the economy of power - the response of the guilty woke-ling must be some (post-)modern iteration of asceticism, of self-flagellation and reflexive retribution. [3] You end up with people apologizing for things they didn't do, and for which they have no business apologizing.

The Greatest Danger

Pierre Bayle has this to say of philosophy and reason, which I think provides a pretty good description of how Foucauldian Postmodernism has proceeded in the West.
"...[P]hilosophy can be compared to some powders that are so corrosive that, after they have eaten away the infected flesh of a wound, they then devour the living flesh, rot the bones, and penetrate to the very marrow. Philosophy at first refutes errors. But if it is not stopped at this point, it goes on to attack truths. And when it is left on its own, it goes so far that it no longer knows where it is and can find no stopping place."
Thinking in Foucauldian terms (you haven't got to the bottom of something until you've uncovered the power structures) will eat away at all honesty, all good motives, all gratitude, and every display of genuine love. There is no love in the Foucauldian economy: power has eaten it up. It is an utterly impoverished and impoverishing worldview.

Take again the example of the feminist glaciologist. I will gladly acknowledge she makes some very valid points about the marginalisation of women within the field of glacier studies. But, by making her appeal to a Foucauldian power analysis, she goes too far. The best and most practicable solutions to this marginalisation become obscured by the overriding narrative of domination. It's not too many logical steps from here to 'burn it all down'. It's not so bad when we're talking about glaciers, but when the same analysis works its way from dusty university shelves and out into the real world, there's trouble a-brewing.

The real-world consequence of thinking in these categories is that abuse of power cannot be logically distinguished from unloving, or uncaring acts. (It is the good grace of God that keeps most postmodernists from living out 'their truth'). There is no internal logic (and no true morality) by which we might draw a line between the drawing of cartoons and the bombing of civilians. It cannot be said by Foucault's disciples that this thing is unloving, while that thing is evil. Because the only category is the category of power. This is how the clumsy and ridiculous bumbling of a fool in love, hitherto just fodder for TV sit-coms, can be recast as part of a deeply insidious 'rape culture'. This is degrading and dismissive of those who have suffered the grotesque physical and psychological trauma of actual rape. To the Foucauldian there is only a sliding scale, but no qualitative difference between these two 'deployments of power' in the analysis.

Since Power is a zero sum game to the Foucauldian, the only way to move toward social justice (that is, equity) is to wrest that power from the hitherto powerful and redistribute it. How? Well, get yourself a book on the history of the 20th century, and see how it turned out the last few times around.

[1] This kind of leftist conjuring is attended to brilliantly in Sir Roger Scruton's book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (which I urge you to read).

[2] See Cassie Jaye's experience studying men's rights.

[3] Such as John Lasseter's (of Pixar fame) self-imposed sabbatical for hugging too much. (in The Guardian). Or Lorde's tweet (here). Or the So Sorry movement.

18 January 2018

Performance is not Progress

Q. I've got an observation coming up and I've been told I need to show that my students have made progress in my lesson. How do I do that?

A. Well that depends on what you mean by 'progress'.

Q. Go on.

A. Well, I think progress means that a student knows more about the subject than they did when we started. It's basically synonymous with learning.

Q. So, what's a good way of checking for progress?

A. If you want to know what someone knows, you ask them questions about it. If you want to see what someone can do, you ask them to do it. But progress is something different. Progress is change over time, not simply a snapshot. So if you want to see if someone has made progress you need a starting point and a destination. You can then compare knowledge at the start of a term, say, and again at the end. As long as your assessment methods are appropriate then you've got yourself evidence of progress.

Q. This all seems pretty straightforward. But I need to show progress in a lesson. So, if I teach them something new in the lesson and then do something like a quiz as a plenary, I'll be able to see if they've learned it?

A. The good old three-part lesson (starter, main and plenary) was always intended to allow the teacher and his students to make their learning 'visible', to evidence progress. You ascertain existing knowledge, you teach the next bit, then you review to see if the required new knowledge has been gained. But here's the rub. When you do this what you're seeing is performance, and performance is not evidence of learning, and so can't be evidence of progress.

At least it's not necessarily evidence of progress. It might be, it might not. But it is certainly, in the words of Soderstrom and Bjork (2015)[1], "an unreliable index of whether the relatively long-term changes that constitute learning have taken place." (p176)

Q. So why is performance not a good indicator of learning? 

A. Because of the way that forgetting works. Simply, long term retention is strongest where forgetting is regularly interrupted by retrieval.

Here's a simple explanation using basketball. Two groups have three 'lessons' in which they are required to learn the free throw, the lay up and how to dribble. (Let's assume the groups are similar with regard to other variables, shall we?) Compare these two possible approaches:

Group A: Three one-hour practices per week
  1. One hour of practice of the free-throw
  2. One hour of practice of the lay-up
  3. One hour of practice of dribbling
Group B: Three one-hour practices per week
  1. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
  2. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
  3. 20 minutes free-throw / 20 minutes lay-up / 20 minutes dribbling
So here's the thing, let's say someone came in at the end of each practice and asked the players to show their 'progress' in what they'd learned that day. Which group would perform best? Group A. Every day. But if you allowed a period of time to elapse after the third practice (let's say a week) and then tested the players on all three skills, which group would do best? Group B.

This is because despite being given the same learning time, they have the opportunity to practice retrieval of learning. They have the chance to interrupt their forgetting with retrieval. This is because "massed practice supported quicker acquisition..., but distributed practice led to better long-term retention" (p180). (Importantly, the evidence supports the value of distributed practice in both motor and verbal learning.)

If your plenaries only require students to perform things they have just experienced in that lesson, then any performance that is offered during a plenary is precisely that; performance. It tells you very little about learning.

Q. Okay, so maybe my plenaries aren't really evidence of progress, but they're not exactly a problem, are they? No harm done?

A. Counter-intuitively, short term performance improvements, like the ones the students show in the standard tell-me-what-you've-learned-today plenary may mask a lack of learning in the long term. A student can consistently give great plenary answers across a term and at the end of term have learned far less than their performance in lessons had led you to believe. And conversely, poor performance in plenary quizzes may mask the real learning that has taken place. This can be accounted for with a concept called 'latent learning'[1].

Q. So, back to my first question. I've been told I need to show that my students have made progress in my lesson. How do I do that?

A. You can't. Not with any degree of certainty. And what's worse, this requirement may ultimately be counterproductive for student learning because it will tempt you to plan in activities for your observation that evidence performance and can't reliably show progress at all!


[1] Soderstrom & Bjork (2015) Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review

30 September 2017

Integrate - Disintegrate - Reintegrate

There is always much talk of what great teaching should look like, and I have my own thoughts, of course. I've been struck recently by the work of Michael Polanyi, whose work on 'meaning' and 'knowing' has affected me profoundly. It can hardly be helped but to apply some of his ideas to see where they might assist me in my teaching practice.

Polanyi's most helpful concept is the idea that all knowing is, in his terms, 'subsidiary-focal integration'. I've written about this before in the context of sport. This idea is a remarkably simple one and yet its utility is vast and ranging. In this post I'd like to suggest that an awareness of subsidiary-focal integration (SFI), as the structure of all knowing, helps a great deal with lesson and scheme of work construction.

To do this, I will be applying SFI at the level of the individual lesson in order to highlight its applicability. By all means, extend the application of SFI across a series of lessons, or across the whole curriculum. I'll leave that work in your capable hands and for your individual subject and context.

What is SFI?

Polanyi argued that as we make meaning out of our experience we rely upon what we know. This seems a fairly indisputable starting point. He further argued that all of our knowing, whether it is knowledge of a physical skill, a great play, or the history of England, is structured in the same way. That is, there are focal elements and subsidiary elements to our knowing that we must integrate if we are to find the meaning of these things and then move on into further knowing.

The focal is that which we focus upon. It might be the specific wording of a single line of Shakespeare, the chemical composition of andesitic lava, or the finger roll in a basketball lay-up. The focal is what you're looking at when you 'zoom in'. All of these things need to be known in order to make meaning out of the whole; to understand and be moved by the plight of Hamlet, to be able to develop warning systems for local villages in the shadow of a volcano, or to score a basket in the dying seconds of a championship game. These focal elements are not entire in themselves but part of a larger knowing. 

The subsidiary is that which we rely upon in order to focus upon the focal. This refers to the broadness of all that we have previously experienced, that reside in our bodies and minds: our prior learning, our embodied memories, our feelings and emotions, our existing mental schema, even our ability to read and write. These things are not unconscious in a strict sense, since we are able to call them to mind, but they are not focussed upon. Instead they are relied upon subsidiarily in order to focus on the focal object; the thing to be learned or studied. 

In integrating the subsidiary (the already known, but tacitly held) with the focal (the object to be incorporated into knowledge, toward which the conscious mind is oriented) we move towards a deeper understanding. Through this integration we come to subsidiarity rely upon what once was focal. Learning is simply the lifelong process of drawing the focal into the subsidiary and then relying on it to focus on something new. (Remember when you had to learn what the pedals in a car were for?) This fuller understanding could be meaning, or purpose, or beauty. In an educational context this might look like a moving towards mastery.

Planning a lesson with SFI in mind

My lessons follow a relatively straightforward structure, which relies upon my understanding of SFI.

At the outset of an Anatomy and Physiology lesson, for example, we always begin with reference to the whole topic, locating the day's learning in the overall. For the most part I do this by reference to a knowledge organiser (you can take a look at these here). We identify where the lesson content fits as a part of the already-integrated whole domain.  It is a bit like taking a good look at a map before heading out on a hike. You wouldn't expect yourself to remember everything on the page, but it helps orient you for the journey.

In doing this, we rely upon those who have gone before us, whose expertise has constructed the already coherent canon. The trailblazers, the map makers. We stand humbly on those giants' shoulders to survey the domain from our vantage point. In the case of A&P the giants are Wilmore & Costill, the writers of the finest A&P textbook I've ever used, and - of course - the devisers of the BTEC Level 3 specification itself. Bless their souls.

Once we've identified where the lesson content fits in relation to our existing secure knowledge, as well as in relation to the yet-to-be-conquered knowledge we see ahead of us, we can 'zoom in' to the particulars. This is what I'm calling 'disintegration'. We're setting out on a jounrey, with a map in our heads. In doing things this way we have already provided a context and a meaning for the lesson itself. In our  A&P example this might be labelling and then self-testing the major bones of the skeletal system. Students would aim to learn at least 80% of the names (there are 16 in the spec) before the end of the lesson.

The beauty of this approach - and the whole point of this blog post - is that the particulars are never detached from their overarching purpose and meaning. We're never just doing this because 'this is just what we're doing today'. The 'big picture' (the domain) is held subsidiarily, or tacitly, by the student as he works through the tasks at hand. He is continually offering up these new focal particulars to his existing understanding, and trying to form a coherent whole. It's what we all do, all of the time. Our students, as sentient and skilled organisms (mostly) are always in the process of making meaning out of the particulars in front of them. That meaning will always be linked to previously constructed meanings. It will relate back to the map we looked at before we set out. If we can model this for them at the outset, contextualising our little journey, we have a better chance of motivating them towards the acquisition of new knowledge.

The new knowledge must not only be secured through appropriate questioning, testing and retrieval practice, but, if it is to be meaningful, must be clearly and explicitly re-integrated back up into the big picture with which we started. We cannot be satisfied with conveying the particulars; we have to 'zoom out' again.

But rather than leaving this work to the students, the teacher can provide explicit description of precisely how the newly learned is to be connected with the already learned. We can show which gaps in the students' existing knowledge it has filled. We can show what use this new knowledge is going to be in the future. Our students can use it to pose increasingly informed questions about the not-yet-known. In A&P my students (hopefully) will be able to provide an explanation of how to perform a lay-up, with reference to the muscular, skeletal and energy systems as well as the ways they interact. This despite the fact that all of the individual elements were initially learned as disintegrated particulars.

If new knowledge has been sufficiently well reintegrated, it nestles neatly and coherently within the domain. But the reintegrated whole is greater sum of the disintegrated parts. Now when we look again at the map it has a fuller meaning. The little symbols mean more. We can plan a better route, or a new route, or one that takes us via a particular landmark. We can think about what we might like to explore next.