Travel Report: Shannon Rodgers, USA

May 14, 2014

Shannon Rodgers, a PhD student in Education, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further her research in the United States. Her report:

A grateful recipient of the Graduate International Travel Award, I completed a research term from August to November, 2013 at University of California, Berkeley.  Hosted by Dr. John Searle of the Philosophy Department, my goal for my doctoral research was to investigate how historical and current views of mind might inform current educational practice and assessment.  To these ends, I was involved in seminars, symposia and colloquia concerning Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness. 

Purpose of the research: Focusing on the history of Philosophy of Mind; Searle’s works on Consciousness (primarily, The Rediscovery Of The Mind; Mind: A Brief Introduction; and The Mystery of Consciousness); and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, my research uses scholarship on consciousness (and related vocabulary) as entry points to discuss the problem and assumption of observability in education. As a consequence of the research, concepts and ideas from Philosophy of Mind including: the computational view of mind; causal versus ontological reduction; epistemic versus ontological subjectivity and objectivity; epiphenomenalism and eliminativism provide valuable and interesting background for important dialogue about the aims of education and the purpose of educational assessment.

Results: Using Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument as an analogy, the research suggests that all we are assessing in education (indeed all we can assess) is task completion and perhaps some basic skills. Task completion and basic skills may be prerequisites for what I term ‘deep understanding,’ but they are often superficial, incomplete and insufficient. More pressing, one can display basic skills and complete tasks and not have deep understanding. There’s a sense in which educators realize that deep understanding is not measurable, and perhaps this is why we attempt to reduce it to a set of observable features that are measurable.  By redefining it through an ontological reduction, we allow for deep understanding to be nothing but these features or those skills.  In doing so, however, we make it either epiphenomenal (understanding is important but we can’t measure it; it’s really just ‘along for the ride’) or we do an eliminative reduction of it all together.

In summary, my research in Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness probes the following:

  • our current view of mind, what it allows for, what it allows us to do and how the language associated with the view shapes our ideas about education;
  • what we are presently doing in educational assessment, namely, why we are framing learning outcomes the way we are. We are instructed, for example, not to frame outcomes using words such as ‘understand’ or ‘know’ because they are not observable; and
  • how we are improperly making causal and ontological reductions (the idea that we can make a ‘nothing but’ leap, where for example, understanding and knowledge are ‘nothing but’ a set of observable, measurable tasks and skills).

Thank-you very much to the awards committee for giving me this life-changing opportunity, and thank-you to my supervisor, Dr. Charles Bingham, for his confidence in me, and continued support of my studies.

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