CZ Talk:Wiki-converting/Test Four

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This paper discusses three main theories in the field of adult education, cognitivism/ constructivism, phenomenography, and what is broadly called “the socio-cultural perspective.” Firstly, I summarize these three theories. Secondly, I compare and contrast them, while offering preliminary critiques of them. Finally, I will line key aspects of the three theories to my prior learning in anthropology, since many anthropological theories have profound correlates to the three theories of this study.


“Viability” and “Scheme Theory”

Cognitivism-constructivism is a dualistic theory which largely separates persons from their environment, and understands learning and does research within that framework. According to van Glasserfield, the first step for understanding learning in the theory is motivation, which stems from his concept of “viability,”[1] which I will explain more clearly as imminent existential viability.

Imminent existential viability means that if “knowledge” is to be acquired by epistemic agents, it must appear to learners as useful and needed within the environs and systems in which they immediately find themselves. Without an underlying impetus of imminent existential viability, epistemic agents simply lack the requisite motivation needed to learn and form knowledge bases. Lacking it, What’s the point? may be most learners’ vocalization or unspoken thought to learning situations. It is only after that question has been satisfied that learning can occur and knowledge bases can be formed.

But how are the contents of knowledge bases formed in cognitivism-constructivism? For Fleck, as well as for Winn and Snyder and other cognitivist-constructivists, the contents of knowledge bases are formed through the adaptation of what they call “schemes” or “templates.” The adaptation is a process-oriented resolution of problems that are able to be personalized, which result in the re-configuration of mental schemata. This re-configuration takes places in a series of five interconnected mental “steps,” assimilation, error, perturbation, accommodation, and equilibrium.[2] Collectively, the process is scheme theory. This leads to understanding the epistemology and ontology of cognitivism-constructivism.

Epistemology and Ontology of Cognitivism-Constructivism

According to the vein of cognitivist-constructivists, including van Glasserfield, their theory represents a much sought-after Kuhnian paradigm shift in epistemology. By this, van Glasserfield has in mind a shift where the “traditional” view of epistemology is largely discarded. For van Glasserfield, this means moving away from a theory of knowing that says epistemic agents can “know” by reason of their having undertaken supposed “observer-independent” and “world-independent” acquisitions of knowledge. To make contrast this traditional view, Von Glasserfield quotes Fleck, who von Glasserfield cites as a fore-thinker of Kuhn. Fleck states, “The content of our knowledge must be considered to be the free creation of our culture.” Under this creation, realities are formed for given individuals by their selection of what constitutes problems and their range of solutions. Once the knowledge bases are formed, they comprise for Fleck “a traditional myth,”[3] or for Jakob von Uexkьll “subjective realities” that produce “self-generated environment[s]” for individuals.[4]

Hence, in cognitivism-constructivism, acquisitions and expositions of Universal or ultimate truth are impossible, since epistemic agents are situated under the impetuses of imminent viability within various existential time-space demands. Von Glasserfield therefore states that “knowledge” can never be an “objective representation of an observer-independent world”—the very type of “knowledge” that he says the mainstream of Western epistemology, and education, has so long sought to discover, expound, and transmit. Knowledge bases and identity formations in cognitivism-constructivism total up to formative subjective realities that enable epistemic agents to adapt and “succeed” within their immediate environ and society,[5] even a globalized one.


Thus, we may summarize plainly cognitivism/constructivism by saying that people in concrete situations go through a five-step mental template process to solve their perceived problems for the purpose of adapting within their immediate environs. They thereby form non-ultimate and in-flux knowledge bases and identities.



Ference Marton, one of phenomenography theoretical founders and ardent spokespersons, broadly defines “knowledge” as “experience.”[6] At base of his assertion is phenomenography’s very evident monism—phenomenographers’ insistence that there is no person-world separation. At core of the theoretical framework of phenomenography is variation.[7] In response, phenomenographers seek to “empirically” discover these variations and utilize them to improve learning in classrooms.

Epistemology and Research Methodology

Also central for phenomenographers are four key components, discernment, capability, description, and outcome space. The first, discernment, means learning “ways of experiencing” a variety of phenomenon, while the second, capabilities, are defined quite traditionally. Third is description, which means that the experiencing of a phenomenon produces a finite quantity of internally-related hierarchical categories of ordered descriptions of variation that are in relation to antecedent criteria. Fifth is the outcome space. In this, the varied experiences, perceptions, understandings, terms, etc., are placed into logically related categories. This comprises the “data” of phenomenographers, from which they produce a unified account. Since the focus of their studies is collectives, individual voices are minimized, and go so far as to deliberately merge the voices of the collective of research subjects to report a “collective mind.”[8]


Thus, a simple summary of phenomenography is that phenomenography is primarily a research paradigm that melds collectives of people with their experiences to better understand variations within those same collectives to help improve teaching and learning.

Socio-Cultural Perspective

“Communities of Practice”—“Situated Learning”

At the fore of the monistic socio-cultural perspective is the idea of self-organizing and co-participatory systems of “communities of practice.” Inherent in this concept is the idea that learning is foremost a social endeavor, so it comes principally from our engagement in whatever our day-to-day activities may be.[9] This concept is neatly packaged as “situated learning.”[10]

“Dynamic Interactivity” and “Praxis”

In situated learning, epistemic agents are within an apparent dialectic. On the one hand, they interact with their total experienced social world (culture, language, religion, ritual, ethics and laws, taboos, relationships, capabilities, routines, etc.), while on the other, that same social world interacts with them. Yet the two are in no dialectic at all, but are dynamically interactive. As a result, “praxis”—very simply, learning to do—develops by reason of ever increasing and ever in flux community interaction.[11] “Knowledge” becomes a form of communal property.[12] Interestingly, the socio-cultural perspective does not considerably concern itself with whatever mental processes may be going on inside the heads of individuals. It is intent to focus on learning as occurring “in context.”[13]


While Wenger is very clear to point out that communities of practice abound in our lives,[14] a very simple definition of the socio-cultural perspective is “learning at work,” a phrase made popular by many adult educationalists.

Comparing and Contrasting the Three Theories

Before I compare and contrast numerous general themes within the three theories, a special focus exclusively comparing Marton’s phenomenography as presented in Variatio est mater studorium with the socio-cultural perspective and cognitivism/constructivism is well in order. This is so because there are striking correlates in Variatio to the two theories not found as clearly elsewhere. I will deal with Marton and the socio-cultural perspective, and Marton and Cognitivism/Constructivism, in order.

Marton and the Socio-cultural Perspective

Marton's guding question in Variatio is, "How can we enable the new generation to participate in the largely unknown practices of tomorrow by means of letting them participate in the known and firmly situated practices of today.” Undergirding this question is his apparently exclusively phenomenographic “view of learning as a by-product of participation in practices.”[15] Yet the view is markedly close to the socio-cultural approach.

Flowing from this is Marton’s allowance for “learning communities,” which is strikingly compatible with the socio-cultural perspective’s emphasis on “communities of practice.” For Marton, “learning communities” “implies an interest in considering learning as a product—or a byproduct—of participation in social practices.” A "learning community" is akin to the environment of an epistemic agent, for Marton. He argues that everyone is part of a learning community whether they perceive it as such or not. As for learning itself, Marton says it “takes place through changes in the system—how people do things together, how they handle their tools, how they more and more become parts of the particular context and how this particular context becomes more and more their own.”[16] This, too, is strikingly compatible with the socio-cultural perspective.

Marton and Cognitivism/Constructivism

Another of Marton’s guiding questions in Variatio is, “When trying to handle one situation, a novel situation, how can we make use of what we have learned earlier, in another situation.” Marton further states that "there is no error-free learning when it comes to learning to discern.” He goes on to argue that “it is not just that practice is necessary and learners make mistakes occasionally;” instead, “the fact is that practice without ‘mistakes’ does not yield learning.” Error for Marton “is thus not a by-product of practice but a necessary constitutive element of learning to discern.”[17]

When an epistemic agent seeks to handle a “novel situation” and makes “errors” in the process—this sounds very much like encroaching “perturbation.” Recall that perturbation is a key component of cognitivism-constructivism’s scheme theory. Moreover, making use of things learned prior sounds very much like approaching them with a “scheme” we already have set.[18] One of Marton’s more purely phenomenographic statements is that when an epistemic agent encounters a “novel situation,” it is experienced “uniquely.” However, he is fuzzy on whether he means that this experience-focus is undergone by individuals, people who comprise a group, or both.[19]

Still, learning-acts for Marton result from our reactions to the appearance of “how things [subjectively] appear to us.” Marton says this is true for three main reasons. One is the practical constraints of conception, i.e., the brain cannot focus on the total sum of aspects inherent in a novel situation. Two, there would be no variations in outcomes to student learning when approached with the same novel situation, and experience forces observers to say that such variations are the case.[20] Three, and most radical, "there would be no meaning" because meaning emanates from "the figure ground structure of our awareness."[21]

Here again, Marton is venturing into, or at least converging with, key aspects of cognitivism/constructivism. One, if the brain cannot focus on the total sum of aspects inherent in a novel situation, it follows that the brain must operate by a type of confining, hard-wired mental schemata. Such is a feature of cognitivism/constructivism’s scheme theory, though no cognitivist who is also a constructivist that I have read is apt to state it in so stark of terms. Two, if meaning emanates from "the figure ground structure of our awareness," it similarly follows that our awareness is connected with some type of confining, hard-wired mental schemata of our brains. Supporting this is the general postulate of phenomenography that the sum total of all experiences to phenomenon is limited. Limited by what, if not by some type of confining, hard-wired mental schemata in our brains?

For both Marton and other phenomenographers, the most crucial aspect of learning is “discernment.” In Marton’s conception of the term, he means that characteristics of the “physical, cultural, symbolic, or sensuous world, are seen or sensed by a learner solely against the backdrop of his or her previous experiences of something more or less different.” “Discernment or experience is always the discernment of variation or the experience of difference.”[22] Moreover, “learning to discern is contingent on experiencing variation” and “the dimensions corresponding to the aspects of the object of learning in which variation could be experienced simultaneously define the space of learning.”[23]

Here, and probably without even realizing it, Marton presents a stark dualism. Marton is arguing for little other than what dualist eighteenth century anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called “binary oppositions.”[24] To Levi-Strauss, one could not understand one given thing except by referential contrast to its opposite or, to again use Marton’s words, “against the backdrop of his or her previous experiences of something more or less different.” One cannot understand the concept or experience of light except that one understands and has experienced darkness. One can only appreciate one particular color if it can be contrasted with others. For non-concrete matters such as lying and truth-telling, Marton goes so far as to say that the one would cease to conceptually exist without the opposite other.[25] He further states, “As a matter of fact, every phenomenon, every statement about the world appears, is experienced, sensed, understood, against the tacit background of alternative appearances [variations] of the same phenomenon or statement and against the tacit background of alternative phenomena [concrete experiences] or alternative statements [experiences resulting from abstractive thought].”[26] While this may be a core essence of Marton’s phenomenography, my point is that it is also a dualism that is requisite to even the most basic mental processes. Such dualism would appear to be much more the purveyance of constrctivism/cognitivism than of phenomenography. Many of Marton’s words might just as well have been written by ardent adherents of the socio-cultural and constrctivist/cognitivist perspectives.


On a more general level, and as mentioned above, cognitivism/constructivism is a dualistic philosophy, while phenomenography and the socio-cultural perspectives are monistic. Cognitivism/constructivism considers epistemic agents and the objects of their learning to be separate entities, while phenomenography considers agent-object separations to be false. Along with the socio-cultural perspective, phenomenography replaces “object” with “environment.” Related, cognitivism/constructivism is a qualitatively-based philosophy, while phenomenography and the socio-cultural perspectives are quantitatively-based.


The focus of cognitivists/constructivists is on what goes on “inside the heads” of individual epistemic agents while they are in interaction with their environments. Research in phenomenography does not focus on mental processes, except when certain categories are used by their collective of research subjects to describe their internal happenings in conjunction with their experiencing of various phenomena. Nor does phenomenography focus on the acquisition of knowledge as a separate object, but instead argues that the varied experience of groups is knowledge. The socio-cultural perspective does not go as far, but instead postulates that knowledge is praxis which is acquired during social (group) interactions.

In cognitivistm/constructivistm, applied scheme theory in interaction with epistemic agents’ environs explicates learning. Phenomenography dispenses with scheme theory, while Wenger’s socio-cultural perspective states that the two are not incompatible.[27]

In cognitivistm/constructivistm and the socio-cultural perspective, researchers seek to report their findings from their own perceptions of them as individual researchers, while in phenomenography, researchers give primacy to the descriptions of their researched group. Phenomenographers can thus fall into the trap of reification—they represent human beings as deprived of personal qualities or individuality.[28]


Acquisitions and expositions of Universal or ultimate truth are impossible in all three theories, although it appears that cognitivistm/constructivistm’s postulates concerning scheme theory, for instance, contradict this assumption. All three postulate themselves as epistemic paradigm shifts.

Making Personal Connections

Structure-Functionalism and Cognitivism/Constructionism

Early anthropological theories provide support to Cognitivism/Constructionism’s notions of mental schemes or templates. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) was an early theorist of structure-functionalism. His quest was to discover universals within cultures, and he pointed out features in widely disparate societies that were remarkably similar. One of his main foci was on kinship structures, and most importantly, the “rules” whereby kinship patterning operated.[29] While anthropologists such as Eric Wolf would be quick to explain the correlates by denying societies have been interactively separate during recorded history,[30] Radcliffe-Brown’s work was done among people groups who, at the time of his studies, were unaware of the workings, and in some cases even the existence, of the contrastive societies on which Radcliffe-Brown focused.[31]

Later, Claude Levi-Strauss, discussed some earlier, took up the anthropological vogue of his time to discover Universals among disparate human societies. Levi-Strauss’s studies looked principally at mythologies, taboos, and kinship, but ultimately these foci led him to focus on language, particularly description and naming. Through his focal points, he sought ultimately to find certain minimal units of meaning, intimately connected to learning, within the cultures he studied. He theorized that meaning units had relations to, and could only be understood by reference to, what he called “binary opposites”—things that were in contrastive opposition to their counterparts. For Levi-Strauss, to understand the Universal acquisition processes of epistemic agents, one must uncover the units of meaning contained in binary opposites. To Levi-Strauss, humans categorized the world the way they do because the human mind is hard-wired to do so; hence, category descriptions are Universal. Levi-Strauss thought these categories could be “scientificized.” His intellectual project was to show how all humans were the same in these certain regards. In the end, Levi-Strauss was studying his own form of scheme theory that is not unlike congnitivists/constructivist’s notion of it. As a point of departure from all three theories, Levi-Strauss viewed cultures and languages as isolated and unchanging, which is incompatible with all three learning theories herein discussed. Still, given the variable of change in history, one may still find his theory, which lends support chiefly to cognitivism/constructionism, but also on what should already be evident points on phenomenography, e.g., reporting a collective mind, useful.

One Phenomenographer-Anthropologist

For the phenomenographic approach, the fieldwork findings of M.E. Combs-Schilling are remarkable. Combs-Schilling is a contemporary anthropologist who phenomenographically researched the experiences of Moroccans under the Moroccan monarchy. She reported upon Moroccans as a collective.[32]

AddendumScheme Theory Explained

  1. Assimilation. The vein of cognitivist-constructivists argue that the reconfiguration process from an antecedent state of equilibrium entails, first, assimilation, sometimes called “bottom up processing.” When a person is accustomed under the force of imminent viability to one successful way of knowing and doing or approaching a familiar object, they can be said to have been assimilated to the same. This assimilation comprises the base of a pattern, or scheme. However, once a person is assimilated to one successful way of approaching a familiar object—once they have a particular scheme set in place—it is inevitable that they will encounter prior un-encountered objects. Said plainly, they will “have to learn new things.”
  2. Error. For cognitivist-constructivists, the person will approach prior un-encountered objects with their prior formed scheme—their prior learned assimilated pattern of knowing or doing or approaching. The person will seek to react to prior un-encountered objects by calling up a prior formed scheme, but will not always do so successfully unless the scheme he or she is approaching the un-encountered object with is similar enough to an antecedent object he or she is familiar with. When it is not, it is inevitable that error occurs. Simply put, “mistakes happen.”
  3. Perturbation. Error, while seeking to successfully know or do or approach a prior un-encountered object with a prior scheme, inevitably brings perturbation. The person “fails” and experiences pain. Yet, because of perceived imminent viability, the pain is apt to be a motivational pain. The person is likely to “try again.”
  4. Accommodation. Ideally, this perturbation leads to accommodation. The person “adjusts” or “changes” their scheme, their way of knowing or doing or approaching an object. This is where learning occurs. Learners may exclaim, “Now I get it!”
  5. Equilibrium. Once learning (accommodation) has occurred, a person reaches equilibrium in relation to the prior un-encountered object. Success and the resolution of perturbation fuel the refreshed equilibrium. Having experienced this equilibrium, a person can now successfully and quite comfortably know and do or approach what was, to the epistemic agent, a prior un-encountered object within his or her environ. “I know this,” is likely the type of confident vocalization expressed by learners. [33]




Marton, Ference. Online Article, "Phenomenography: Describing the World Around Us," _____


McGee, .


Snyder .




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  2. I have outlined these in the Addendum.
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  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, 3.
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  11. Ibid, 49-50.
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  13. , 279-280.
  14. Ibid, 10-11.
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  20. This is a highly deft critique against "outcomes based education," in vogue in the U.S., CNMI (where I live and work), and elsewhere.
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  28. Ibid, 59-62.
  29. , 81-90.
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