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.

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