Finding Thinking in Communicating

Opposing the classical psychological approach that treats (external) talk as the expression of (internal) thinking, some researchers have recently noted that “thinking is an individualized version of (interpersonal) communicating” (Sfard 2008: 81). But in these positions also exists the risk to reduce thinking to speaking, especially if communicating is treated to be “mainly linguistic.” In line with the Spinozist tack taken in this book, we show in this section how thinking develops in communicating as part of the larger developmental and material situations that include them both. Vygotskij (1934) considers thinking and speaking to be two lines of development. He takes a look at mature thought to tease apart effects that are due to ontogenetic development and those that mirror the developing sense of the situation. We take here the same approach and examine the latter aspects as they unfold in a lecture by experienced adults (professors).

Researchers sometimes use deficit perspectives to account for certain performances, such as when students are said to have cognitive deficits or to hold misconceptions. To anticipate the possibility of claiming that the people in our examples have deficits in one or another way, we draw on fragments from the lectures of highly competent university professors with 20-40 years of experience. In each example, we observe the professors marking something on the board only to erase it and put something else in place. We have previously reported the same kind of repeated writing and erasing in the case of a professor talking about a “preconceived notion,” sometimes requiring two or three iterations prior to finalizing an idea (Roth 2016). Why, one has to ask, would a professor with 30 years of experience in his field of research write and draw only to erase what has been written and drawn— especially given that he was only presenting an already existing, preconceived notion?

Our first example derives from a third-year university physics course in optics. In the context of a student question about radiation of a heated black body, the instructor with over 20 years of experience teaching physics talks about the relation between an object’s temperature and color in the context of the production of steel. After having talked about the problem of hardening steel by bringing it to a high temperature, the professor also notes that it becomes very brittle in the process. This requires the machinist to temper the steel. The professor walks to the chalkboard, sketches Cartesian coordinates, and says, “What you have done in terms of temperature is.” He then draws a line while saying, “you bring the steel up to the temperature here,” stops, marks off the abscissa, writes an “R,” moves the hand to the end of the previously drawn line, stops, moves back down to the abscissa, marks off another point, and writes “Y,” while saying “in the red to yellow range.” He then moves the hand back to the upper end of the line and, apparently connects the beginning of what comes to be a vertical line, while saying “and then you quench it, you cool it off really quickly.” It is at that point that Fragment 3.1 picks up.[1] The professor continues saying, “You re-heat the steel, you bring it up to what is called the straw color,” and marks of a third point to the left of the “R.”

Fragment 3.1

He begins drawing another curve, which initially moves parallel to the original one but then turns downward (line 02). He stops and wipes off part of the curve in moving his hand over the chalk line backward (line 03). He then draws a new turn and returns the curve to the abscissa to the left of what he has marked as “the straw color” (line 04).[2]

In this instance, we observe what we might call a self-correction. The professor is drawing something, sees what he has drawn, and then wipes it off only to draw something looking like it in a new place (further left and down along the line running at about 45° with respect to the horizontal). If thought was there first, and the communicative act (drawing) came second, why would the professor have to selfcorrect? Why would thought not have corrected itself prior to letting him do the drawing only to make him wipe out his earlier work forcing to draw it again differently? Why, if he had an established cognitive framework concerning the issue he is addressing (the relation between temperature and color in alloy materials), would he draw something apparently incorrect only to replace it by something else that apparently is correct? A common way used in classical cognitive psychology to get out of the quandary is to introduce “misfirings,” or some other process that interferes between whatever is encoded in the cognitive framework and its actual production in the world. But this explanation sounds like a Ptolemaic correction to a false model of the universe, where epicycle over epicycle is introduced into the model to make it account for actual observations.

An alternative explanation for this kind of events, where experts exhibit uncertainty and the need to self-correct even when communicating about things they already know very well, concerns a shift in notions of expertise and knowing. In the episode analyzed here, it is quite apparent that the self-correction comes at a point when the drawing has already been produced and has become part of the perceptual environment. Rather than the dumping of a piece (or pieces) of (already known) knowledge, we observe a thinking body dealing with a material situation—a drawing on a chalkboard—that, far from an already settled and finalized thing, is in its making and unfolds in real-time. On this account, the professor’s knowing and his performing in the world are not detached moments, but exist together as a single {person I environment} reality. This is consistent with the observation that we all can make every day: we communicate without having everything worked out in our minds only to read from an internal display—as if we were TV anchorpersons reading from the teleprompter a text that we previously composed. Rather, in communicating, our thinking develops; and as thinking develops, so does communicating. There are two distinguishable but enmeshed movements; there are two enmeshed lines of becoming. Thought never exists already formed but always becomes, as part of a changing environment that includes our speaking. That changing environment is refracted in the development of thinking. As a result, the individual never can fully predict her own speaking or say what she is thinking.

The argument that thinking unfolds with or, rather, becomes in communicating, may be countered by the allegation that the professor may have simply taken a wrong route first to address a problem, having later realized a better solution after having evaluated his own drawing. The latter allegation, however, assumes that the situation can be divided into task environment—the objective problem of answering a question—and problem space—the mental representation of the problem that the professor has and which he may be seen in the process of correcting. On this account, the professor may have “intended” to act according to what he was verbally producing, correcting what he had graphed after comparing it with the formerly intended. Yet, we also find instances where experts self-correct their communication even when what has been done (written, graphed) and what has been said (the verbal description of what one is doing) coincide.

A second example derives from a second-year university course on thermodynamics. After having explained how an air conditioner works, the 33-year veteran professor (some 40 years after completing a PhD) moves to explain the working of a refrigerator in terms of a Carnot cycle graph, a graph that has been repeatedly used in this course, and which relates pressure, volume, and temperature (as in Fig. 3.2). After having produced the graph—including signs for the inside (food) and environment, and the energies Q1 and Q2 transferred from the food into the environment— the professor moves to writing two equations “Qin = Q1” and Qout = Q2. He then writes “Qin > Q” while saying “Q-in is greater than Q-out.” He stops, gazes at his writing, and produces the interjection “um.” Three seconds later, he erases the “in” from the left “Q” and writes “out” in its place. He then writes “in” next to the Q on the right

The professor has stepped back to look at what he has done, including the Qout and refrigerator that he has changed after having written something else before (Writing was enhanced to

Fig. 3.2 The professor has stepped back to look at what he has done, including the Qout and refrigerator that he has changed after having written something else before (Writing was enhanced to

improve readability) side of the inequality. He steps back about 2 m, and, like a painter with respect to her latest brush stroke, gazes at the equation as if taking in what he has just produced before moving on to talk about the internal energy to the system. Only seconds later, he writes below the inequality the letters “frid” while saying “oh that’s fine, fridge is,” stops, erases what he has written, then writes “refrigerator” in its place while saying “no that is the refrigerator.” He then steps back again to look at what he has done (Fig. 3.2).

In this example, reading and writing work in concert, as the professor verbally articulates what the hand is writing on the board. Whereas in the preceding case the self-corrections concern a graphical feature, here the ideas are expressed verbally, including expressive forms that are typical within the discipline of physics—e.g., the “Q,” which generally refers to heat and the mathematical symbolisms of equal and greater signs. Notably, the professor produces what he says and steps back, as if to get a better look at, or perspective on, what he has done. He acts as if he were stepping back to situate the work results in a larger context and to allow him to take an outside perspective, not only on the specific product but also on the producing situation in which he has been immediately before.

In the two cases presented here, thinking is not something that the participants first had done and then expressed, or even “enacted.” Rather, it is more parsimonious to suggest that the thoughts were “found” in the communication, recognizable as such only after actions had already come to an end.

  • [1] The transcription conventions used throughout this book are available in the Appendix.
  • [2] It turns out that in this diagram, because of the physical laws of blackbody radiation that relatecolor and temperature, the return curves should be the same as the heating curves, and the relationship between temperature and color is not linear.
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