Coda: From Concepts (Meanings) to Sense-Giving Fields

We begin this chapter noticing that much of the extant literature on conceptual change in general, and its associated discourse about misconceptions in particular, stem from a specific (Saussurian, dualistic) way of conceptualizing the sign. From this view, any verbal expression (word) is taken to constitute at the same time signi- fier and signified, its most central function being that of representation. Representations then are assumed to become concepts in the learners’ minds that form coherent webs or loosely connected pieces of fragmented knowledge (di Sessa et al. 2004), which underlie or cause the words and gestures that are heard and seen in clinical interviews or classroom situations. The notion of “conception” in the classical literature about conceptual change is indeed structurally analog to that of “meaning.” Words and gestures stand for concepts in the mind in the same way that they stand for meanings. The position advanced in this chapter is radically different than that; one could say it is incommensurable with it (Roth 2008a). This is so because of the asymmetrically alternate view on the sign that the monist Vygotskian approach proposes.[1] In this view, signs do not stand for some underlying meaning that pre-exists within the person’s sight (as something that is in-sight), but always relates to another sign, another communicative feature that sequentially precedes or can be anticipated to come next in the course of an ongoing communication. Thus, the often-invoked “meaning” of a word (sentence, utterance) “is always and necessarily another linguist sign—or, better, set of such signs” (Dewey 1946: 87). In this way, and as we show in the previous section concerning the thinking body, the relation between the different modalities of communication observed in clinical interviews, classrooms, and everyday situations exist not as a function of each modality’s own features (word, gesture), but as they stand in their sequential relation with the developing whole. Thus, “there is no such thing as a sign in isolation, every sign being a constituent of a sequential set of signs” (1946: 88). Consequently, the Kantian classificatory framework that underlies many of the current theories of thinking and learning does not adequately describe membership (e.g. of a sign as part of a concept) simply because “apart from membership in [the sequential set of signs], a thing has no meaning—or is not a sign” (1946: 88). The relation between signs and concepts, if anything, is a historical relation.

There are considerable implications for research on conceptions and the instructional practices that may derive from the Spinozist position advanced here. A critical response to a cultural view on conceptions often is framed in terms of the problems that we may face in fully dropping the idea of mental representation. Some articulate the fear that we cannot talk and think about something that is not present in a given situation unless there exists a “mental model” (Vosniadou 2008). Making present aspects of the world that are not present surely is a core feature of human communication. The critique is grounded in two premises: (a) that to think and talk we require models that need to be brought to bear before we think and talk; (b) and that the model we require is mental rather than just a material thing. In Chap. 3 we offer an empirically grounded discussion of the relation between thinking and communication, where we make the case that thinking and communication do not mirror each other in a relation of one-to-one correspondence—contrary to the premises of the critique spelled out here. Their correspondence is not that of a mimetic relation between inside and outside world because these are the results of a “continual coming and going of one into the other” (Mikhailov 2001: 20). The relation between inside and outside is intransitive, where to correspond is not synonymous of “standing for” but denotes the movement of growing together (e.g. Roth 2016). Growth takes place precisely because thinking and communicating are two different lines of development that constitute a unity/identity. Thus, when we observe Celia speak and gesture, visibly and audibly changing the material situation in which she finds herself, we do not see the external part of an internal (thus invisible) thinking. What we witness is a thinking-for-communicating and a communicating-for-thinking: the doings of a thinking body. The talk we observe, an aspect of the speech field, is the materialized consciousness of both participants. Whatever conception may be identified in Celia’s talk and gestures needs to be thought of in its relation to the communicational context: coming from and being produced for another.

Bea and her parent, too, jointly produce a context where anything about concepts that can be said is laid out in the public sphere. The public appearance is a requirement for the conversation to unfold in the way it does. A monist approach to the study of conceptions, therefore, does not reject the idea that there must be some materials, let us call them models, that participants draw from to produce coherent and reasoned accounts for whatever purposes. Yet, the model is not “mental ,” but cultural, publicly available in fully visible and material form. Whatever is not made visible is so not because it exists as a mental model but because it already forms part of the participants’ repertoire of knowing their ways around this part of their common world. In the same way as we do not need a map (neither physical nor mental) to walk the streets around our homes, participants in talk do not require models of what can be taken for granted.

Taking such a position, we can begin to think the teaching of concepts in a new way: not as a teaching or straightening out of incorrect meanings or misunderstandings but as an education of attention. In this education, what is learned are not con?cepts but forms of orienting within lifeworlds. Rather than seeing students as having to somehow jump across a gap that separates their understandings from those of the scientific community and teachers, {teaching | learning} means entering shared sense-giving fields, where lifeworlds are not divided by virtue of bearing different self-enclosed meanings. As discussed in Chap. 4, participants to conversations produce sense-giving fields that are not their own but are cultural possibilities of being, suffused with affect and not just intellect. Studying conceptual change then turns into the study of personal and cultural change. There no longer is a divide between the formation of concepts and the formation of persons, a move that calls for radical shifts in the way educational institutions are organized today (see Chap. 13).

  • [1] We provide a more detailed description of this different approach to the sign in Chap. 10.
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