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.

19 August 2017

A teacher is an authoritative guide

I've done a spot of travelling in my time, but the most enjoyable trips I've made, the ones which have enriched me the most, have been those trips where I've had a knowledgeable guide. I've had a tour of the Vatican. I've been shown round Florence. I was even guided around Israel for a couple of weeks by a pastor and theologian from Nazareth. What a lot I learned!

He took us to the crusader Church of Saint Anne at Bethesda where we sang a hymn, because, he told us, the acoustics are superb. (They are. We drew a decent crowd. Of nuns.) We learnt the comic-tragic tale of the Immovable Ladder. We heard the account of the siege at Masada and saw the astonishing earthen ramp built by the Roman army there. We walked the Via Dolorosa, gazed up at Golgotha, visited the garden tomb, drank Arabic coffee by the roadside in Nazareth, ate fish at the Sea of Galilee, peered over the Mount Precipice.

Yep, still there.
As we went I had questions. A lot of questions. (I'm that sort.) He suffered them all - with good grace - until I could think of nothing more to ask. I had questions about theology, geography, climate, conflict. And his answers were meaningful and joined up, they were authoritative. He knew what he was talking about.

Who better to be led by than a native, or someone with extensive grasp of the culture and mores of that particular locale? His authoritative knowledge and my trust in that authoritative knowledge, came together and consequently I learned a great deal.

If you're a teacher, you are an authoritative guide.

Do you see? The subject you teach is a kingdom, a wide country full of wonder. And you are a native of that land, one who has trodden those paths, who knows the beauty of those shores, whose love for the place is irrepressible and deeply ingrained: it is part of who you are. You are one who has been lost and confused many times during your own wanderings in that landscape, but you have found your way again, always emerging with new insights. You know where the potholes, the pitfalls and the dead-ends are. You know where to linger for the best views. You may not have exhausted the richness of this kingdom, but your vast knowledge means you are equipped to be an authoritative guide.

You have the knowledge to lead scores of newcomers - your students, of course - through the highways and byways of each little settlement, pointing out how to move from one place to another, where these roads lead, and what are the landmarks along the way. 'Notice this thing here; look how those things relate.' You might stop a while at this place, or that, but always with purpose and always knowing how far and how long until the next stop. And your charges might ask you 'where does that path lead?', or 'who first found this place?', or 'what mean these stones?', but you will have an answer that is true and trustworthy.

But you can only do this if you know the lay of the land, if you're intimately familiar with that kingdom, with that domain.

I will teach Anatomy and Physiology this year, and I intend to lead the students first of all into the valley of bones that is the Skeletal System. Then we'll march around the mighty monuments of the Muscular System, putting flesh onto the bones of our understanding. We will travel along the arterial routes of the Cardiovascular System to the Respiratory System where we'll study some inspirational architecture. Finally, fatigued, we'll climb to survey the whole integrated scene from the breathtaking heights of Energy Systems hill. I expect from prior experience we'll have to tarry here a while.

If you're a teacher, you are an authoritative guide.

Subject knowledge is not just important, it is crucial. You cannot teach effectively without it. But you also need to know how the domain looks (and feels) as a whole if you're going to map a way through it for your students. Trying to do otherwise is simply the blind leading the blind. And you know what happens to them.

10 January 2017

Michael Polanyi and the best ever goal.

"There is no real substitute for a ball struck squarely and firmly". So says Billy Bragg in the song A Lover Sings, and anyone who has played football (soccer, if you must) knows what he means. You know what it's like to make the perfect connection with the ball. You just know. But what is it that enables us to 'just know'? That's what this blog post is about.

Think about the last time you hit the perfect strike and sent the ball screaming into the back of the net. (Okay, point taken. Just imagine it.) What did it look like? How did it feel? Did it sound like a thud, or was it some other kind of sound? Were you aware of your surroundings? The opposition? Teammates?

It's kind of hard to say, isn't it? We need some way of thinking this through, so let's start with an example, to which we can refer. Here is a short video clip of the best goal ever. (You heard me.)

More than we can tell

I wonder what the goalscorer Zinedine Zidane would say about this moment. I wonder if he could outline the bio-mechanics of the coordinated movements of each muscle which enabled him to strike the ball with such precision. I wonder if he could explain, with the meagre tools of language, the sensations of which he was aware as he contorted his body. The sound, the smell, the sight, the proprioceptive feedback from his limbs. Could he explain what the ball would feel like on his laces, or how the turf beneath his right boot might respond to a twisting motion. Could he explain how he calculated the trajectory and flight of both the incoming pass and his subsequent shot - one already extant and the other about to be created ex nihilo. It's unlikely. Yet he was able to send a thunderous volley past the flailing goalkeeper because, in some way, he knew all of these things.

He knew, even before the ball was struck, what it would be like to score this goal. Just as you or I know, if we have any experience of the game, something of how it might feel. Without this knowing, he could not have created this new thing.

In that moment, Zidane knew more than he could ever tell. All of us know more than we can tell. All of the time. We live moment by moment in the midst of that knowledge, and it ebbs and flows around us. The study of knowing (not just what we know but how we know) is called epistemology. It is to a particular epistemology we now turn in order to make sense of the knowing which enabled the greatest ever goal.

Subsidiary-Focal Integration

Michael Polanyi
Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), a brilliant Hungarian-British scientist and philosopher, was a remarkable individual whose work I have recently begun considering. One of his most salient contributions was in the field of epistemology and it is to him we owe the phrase 'we know more than we can tell'.

Polanyi argued that our longstanding assumptions about human knowing, which underpin scientific research and lately have given rise to scientism, are predicated upon fundamental epistemological flaws. Scientism is the belief (a word I use deliberately) that, given time, science would be able to tell us everything about every myriad detail of the universe that could be known. And not only this, but also that there is nothing that is more than the sum of its parts.

Michael Polanyi suggested that knowledge incorporates what he called a tacit dimension. That is, there is a dimension within all knowledge, that part constitutes that knowledge, which is neither explicable nor easily identifiable, yet entirely necessary. It is tacit and remains so. Let me try to explain using a Polanyian example, from his book The Tacit Dimension. [1]

When you look at a flower, what do you see? You see a flower, of course. But you also see petals. And you see stalk and sepal, stamen and anther. And if you move closer you might see the striated cellular structure of the petals, but then suddenly you're aware that you're no longer looking at a flower. The flower has gone, and has been replaced by the particulars of a flower. The flower exists at another level of knowing than do its particulars. You could argue that the particulars serve as 'clues' to this other (higher?) level of knowing. You might even be persuaded that this other level of knowing is the realm of 'meaning'. Through integrating the subsidiaries, you approach a discovery: the meaning of the flower.

Here is another example, this time one of my own. The other day, I tried to teach my wife how to run. She can run already but she has been complaining about pain in her hips, so - being a Sport lecturer - I showed her how to correct her running technique. We corrected her foot strike, her eye-line, her stride length. She practised relaxing her shoulders, and she tried again. Whatever it was that we'd created, it wasn't any kind of running! (Genuinely hilarious though.)

The thing itself, whether a flower or a running technique, is lost as we focus intently on the particulars.

We all know this feeling, when you overthink something and forget how to do it. Like pronouncing a particular word over and over again until it loses its meaning. Or a physiotherapist focusing so intently on the particulars (skeleton, muscles, etc.) of the lower back that the human body, and the person himself, is emptied of meaning. This is the essence of Polanyi's gripe with science. Science, in focusing on particulars, is in the business not of creating but of destroying meaning. Provocative.

But - don't misunderstand me - the particulars are still important. Polanyi says that in order to focally attend to the flower as a 'comprehensive entity' you must attend from a whole set of particulars which make up subsidiary knowledge, which must remain subsidiary or tacit. The subsidiary and the focal must be integrated, hence his term subsidiary-focal integration. Polanyi writes: "To go back to the antecedents of our tacit inference has not deepened our grasp of its result, but rather has made us lose sight of it" [2]

Upon integration (or re-integration) of the subsidiary and the focal, a new entity emerges, which is more than the sum of its parts. It might be the meaning of the thing. Or its beauty, for example. Or the majesty of the best ever goal.

Relax and hit it

Put yourself in Zidane's boots. You're ambling into the final third of the pitch, Roberto Carlos is cantering down the left wing after a lofted pass. You can tell he's likely to swing the ball across, so you pause your run at the edge of the penalty box and wait to see what comes next. You don't really have time to think about what you're going to do as the ball loops towards you. You don't have the capacity to consciously process every detail in all of its detail. But, partly thanks to years of training and partly thanks to your embodied senses in the moment, you have access to a host of movement experiences (i.e. subsidiary particulars), which on integration can produce something new, something creative. So, you relax, and hit it.

When I say 'relax and hit it', I mean it in the same way a sports coach might suggest to a struggling striker, or batter, or kicker. I mean 'don't over-complicate things, don't worry about the minutiae, and trust what you've learned in training'. In Polanyian terms I mean 'rely on your capacity for (re)integration of the subsidiaries: attend from that subsidiary awareness, and attend to the focal object, the comprehensive entity, the whole integrated movement'.

That is how you know how to strike a ball squarely and firmly. That is how you know how to score the greatest ever goal. A goal that is greater than the sum of its parts.


[1] Polanyi, M. (1966) The Tacit Dimension

[2] Polanyi, M. (1968) The Body-Mind Relation