- Multiple perspectives
- Creative switching
- Making distinctions
- Making connections
In historical terms the core concepts that we need to teach children in the primary curriculum are already well known. We tend to reserve the idea of creativity for completely new things. But just because core concepts like ‘force’ in science or ‘love’ in Religious Education have been discovered before does not mean that their re-discovery by individual children does not require a creative leap. Creative leaps are required for each new conceptual understanding. This is because many new concepts require a shift in perspective to see things in a new way that the child might not have thought of before[i]. To understand that there are forces acting on a motionless object, or, on the other hand, that an object moving fast in space might have no forces acting on it, involves a big shift in ways of thinking about force from the everyday push and pull of the playground notion of force. Similarly the concept of love that children are exposed to everyday in the media is very different from the understanding of love found in Religious Education. To understand these specialist concepts requires a shift in perspective. That shift is a creative shift requiring imagination and the ability to see from another point of view.
Micheline Chi, a respected researcher in the field of conceptual change, argues that the creativity required in leaps to new levels of conceptual understanding involves holding two incompatible perspectives together at once[ii]. This is precisely the creative tension that we find in dialogues. On the one hand we have everyday force and on the other scientific force, on the one hand we have everyday love and on the other religious love. In this situation children will not learn simply from information given to them. It is not information that they lack but a whole new way of seeing the world. The switch in perspective or point of view required is the same as the kind of switch that happens in a dialogue when one person learns to see the world from another person’s point of view. But in this case the dialogue partner is not a specific other person but the point of view embodied in a cultural tradition or long-term cultural dialogue. To understand force the child needs to see as if through the eyes of ‘science’ and to understand religious love they need to see as if through the eyes of religious studies.
The approach of thinking together that is put forward in the first part of my new book with Neil Phillipson[iii], equips children for the creative leap required for conceptual understanding. The dialogue exercises enable children to step back from fixed initial images that they might have, including a closed self-image that they might have of themselves as someone who cannot understand, in order to enter into a shared dialogic space of creative possibilities. Bakhtin has argued that in every dialogue there is not only a specific other person or addressee but also a virtual other or ‘super-addressee’ like a witness who you find yourself talking to. This super-addressee is always to some extent socially constructed. In the context of learning a science concept like force it will take the form of an idealised ‘community of scientists’ or ‘what science thinks’. To understand new science concepts children need to learn how to take on the point of view of science, to understand maths concepts they need to take on the point of view of maths and so on. In each case this is not a neutral purely ‘cognitive’ exercise but it also requires imagination and role play. Not everyone finds it easy to shift their self-image in the way that is required to be open not only to the point of view of real others but also to the point of view of virtual others.
In describing the creative dialogic switch required to grasp a new concept we are unpacking what Oakeshott might have meant by his claim that students enter into the conversation of mankind through a kind of ‘conversational encounter’ in which they respond to an invitation. It is through the gate of conceptual understanding that children enter into the long-term powerful dialogues of culture. The response required is a creative dialogic switch in perspective of the kind that can be taught and learnt in the context of dialogues. Teaching children how to be better at dialogue is also teaching them how to be more open to other perspectives and more able to switch from their initial perspective to see the world through new eyes. This is true even when the new eyes that they need to see through are not the eyes of a specific other person but are the eyes of ‘mathematics’, ‘science’, ’theology’ or ‘history’
[i] Chi, M. T. H. (1997). Creativity: Shifting across ontological categories flexibly. In T. B. Ward, S. M. Smith, & J. Vaid (Eds.), Conceptual structures and processes: Emergence, discovery and change (pp. 209-234). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
[iii] Phillipson, N. & Wegerif, R. (In press for 2016) Dialogic Education: Mastering Core Concepts through Thinking Together. Routledge. (https://www.routledge.com/Dialogic-Education-Mastering-core-concepts-through-thinking-together/Phillipson-Wegerif/p/book/9781138656529)