Navigating Theories - A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Freedom
SIG 25 Reflective notes: Theorising practices in Educational Science
Navigating Theories - A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Freedom
By Elisabeth Angerer, based on conversations with Arthur Bakker
What follows is a reflective note based on conversations with Arthur Bakker exploring the philosophical views that underlie his affinities with some rather than other theories. This exploration took me on quite a journey; as for the reader, I hope it provokes some thought on what guides your own academic decisions. Arthur’s work presents an intriguing case for answering this question. It stands out in covering a wide range of interests while maintaining a thorough and in-depth way of thinking. This characteristic combination of breadth and depth is rooted in underlying philosophical notions that inform Arthur’s academic decisions, both on the theoretical and on the practical level of his professional involvements. The following paragraphs will guide the reader through this philosophical network and explore what connects it.
Five Key notions
From our conversations, I have distilled five core notions that are central to Arthur’s academic sense- and decision-making: 1. process ontology, 2. reifying and liquifying, 3. intra-action, 4. time-space navigation and 5. inferentialism. Although conveniently numbered here, these notions are in fact much more entangled than I can render in the linear medium of writing. To loosen the artificial structure, I include cross-references inviting the reader to freely navigate between sections.
1. Process ontology
When speaking about his view on learning, Arthur emphasized the important role of his collaboration with Sanne Akkerman, and later Bill Penuel (Akkerman et al., 2021) in developing the process-based ontology which he prefers over a thing ontology. In plain English, a ‘process ontology’ means to understand the world in terms of processes instead of things. As Arthur put it, “it is only at some level of magnitude that things are things, like a chair one can sit on” (see section 4). As a process of change and development, the phenomenon of learning exceeds the level of ‘things’. Hence, studying learning in terms of defined entities easily blinds us to what is really going on, that is, it makes invisible exactly the processes of learning that should be studied. Arthur did concede that “things” have attractive features for research purposes: they can be defined, measured, reproduced, shared, combined, taken apart into smaller things, et cetera. Hence, seeing the world as a collection of distinct entities (teachers, students, cognitive items) is tempting, which puts us in constant tension between the reality of dynamic processes and our static labelling of it. Notably, this is true especially for Western culture; most Eastern philosophies assume a process-based ontology. For instance, Buddhism recognizes that through language we “cut up” a continuous reality into objects (Chiara Robbiano in Schuit, 2019). Why this can be problematic leads us to the next philosophical core notions.
2. Reifying and Liquifying
The defining and labelling of entities is also called reification, literally translated as ‘thing-making’ (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2021). Reification per se is not problematic, says Arthur, as long as we are aware that the labels we create are conventional, not real. However, once something is written down, “it feels eternal” and is easily taken for granted, hence, to move with the dynamism of reality, one needs to consciously cultivate the flexibility to “let go of a label or redraw its boundaries,” which Arthur also referred to as liquifying and re-reifying, respectively (Akkerman et al., 2007). As an example, in the present text, I reify my insights into distinct, ordered concepts, but liquify that structure by supporting a more flexible reading of my text. Arthur emphasized that in practicing flexibility, timing is of essence: “I think a wise person knows when to reify and when to liquify.” This is at the core of learning: “Learning is not just acquiring knowledge, or acquiring concepts, etc. It is also ‘knowing’ when what is useful” (see section 5), hence learning and unlearning are equally important to attune to the present purpose.
Here again, Arthur resonates with Eastern philosophy, embracing the Daoist concept of ‘wuwei’. Wuwei literally translates to ‘non-action’ and is described by Sarah Flavel as follows:
"The idea in non-action is not that we don’t do anything at all; it’s that we do things in a way that accords with the surrounding environment [and] that is natural and spontaneous as opposed to pre-emptive and controlling." (in Schuit, 2019)
Arthur appreciates wuwei especially because it entails to “try to be part of life as it is streaming, without obstructing it.” Importantly, this is not to be equated with passively choosing the path of least resistance. Rather, taking your place in the streams of life is a challenging and often confronting activity. It requires to constantly reify and liquify in pursuit of what Arthur and his colleagues refer to as ‘ontological synchronization’ (Akkerman et al., 2021), i.e. attunement to what is happening and what is needed, which they consider prerequisite to doing relevant research. As such, wuwei is a constant challenge to answer to the question “what does this situation that I am presented with ask from me?” As Biesta argues, this is also the principal question education should confront students with (Biesta, 2020b).
The notion I now turn to is also closely related to the process view but deserves its own heading to highlight the influence of author Karen Barad on Arthur’s ontological views. As Arthur described it, her book “Meeting the Universe Halfway” (2007) renders “a very convincing story about quantum mechanics that argues that our way of perceiving / measuring the world is inter…–well, she calls this ‘entangled’” The avoided word was probably ‘interconnected’ or ‘interrelated’, where Barad replaces the prefix inter with intra, especially stressing ‘intra-action’. Arthur sees this as connected with wuwei (see section 2) and experiences it as enriching as it equally recognizes us as inextricably one with the way of the world. This overcomes the mind-world dualism possibly implied in ‘interaction’, where something happens between one defined thing and another (McDowell, 1996).
Throughout our conversations, it became evident at multiple occasions that the notion of ‘intra-action’ is itself deeply entangled with Arthur’s academic considerations. An example for this is his response to my question whether systems thinking was important in studying learning and affect (cf. Schindler & Bakker, 2020). He confirmed that indeed it was, then added with particular conviction: “Yes… anything that helps me to see how things intra-act!”
4. Time-Space Navigation
A statement that Arthur voiced with similar whole-heartedness and in close connection with systems thinking is the following: “The key thing is that people learn to navigate this time-space.” Now, of course, I must explain this ‘time-space’ navigation (Ritella, Ligorio & Hakkarainen, 2016), which is best done in two steps.
‘Space navigation’ refers to zooming in and out. Arthur likes to introduce the concept with reference to the educational video “Powers of Ten” (Eames & Eames, 1977), which takes the viewer on a journey through all orders of magnitude within the reach of scientific research. The importance Arthur assigns to space navigation explains the back and forth between theory and practice that I noticed in his work. The following exchange pinpoints this. Arthur had just remarked on the advantage of the philosopher in thinking abstractly.
Me: But is ‘abstract’ per se an advantage? I wonder… fiddling around with abstract ideas… does that bring you closer to understanding the world?
Arthur: I think it’s not either-or. It’s zooming in and out. I think if you’re flexible in moving in and out, you can substantiate big philosophical ideas and ‘see them’, so to speak, at work. And vice versa, see something happen and see it as an example of a bigger issue.
The practice of flexible space navigation reflects in Arthur’s way of expressing himself. The anecdote of the car factory (see section 5) was just one of many elements of concrete experience which he seamlessly integrated in discussion of highly abstract ideas. This seamlessness left me with the impression that Arthur was not trying to build bridges between theory and practice. He simply speaks just the way he experiences them: as entangled (see section 3). Arthur even made a self-conscious note of this, concerning a picture he showed me to explain reification and liquefaction: “I see a shed with snow on it, and it means something to me. I attribute meaning to snow on the shed – a label on reality!”
Figure 1. Picture of snow sliding off a shed, metaphorically pointing to the possibility of an increasing mismatch between labels and reality (©Arthur Bakker, used with permission)
Arthur’s practice of flexible space navigation also underlies his repertoire of theoretical lenses, whose perspectives he navigates in light of each project’s demands. As he put it, “depending on what you’re interested in, you need to take a bigger or smaller image.” The order of magnitude informs Arthur’s theoretical choices, as he knows different theories to operate optimally at different scopes: While behaviorism and cognitivism would be placed on a rather small scale, closer to what Arthur referred to as an “atomistic view,” he would place Luis Radford’s (2021) theory, which he genuinely values, at a large scope. I could not help but notice Arthur’s comfort to increase with the scope of the theories we addressed.
Importantly, it is not just for practical research purposes that Arthur assigns value to consciously stepping in and out of theories. He also regards this as a responsibility. If a theory is taken as the only way to look at the world, it can become harmful when combined with unexamined assumptions. For instance, Arthur pointed to the danger of interpreting Piaget’s constructivism under the assumption of mind-world dualism (see section 3). This can lead teachers to take themselves out of the equation, thinking: “I can’t teach the students anything. They have to construct it for themselves!” When zooming out, it becomes clear that excluding oneself as a teacher in this manner would leave a hampered learning system (Bakker, 2018). Arthur therefore agrees with Biesta (2020a) on the importance of understanding a learning theory’s function in relation to its historical context: “Constructivism was a way to compensate for a lack of relativism. So, people would emphasize something relative, but if you take that view too long, it gets out of balance again.” Getting stuck in theory compares to getting stuck in labels: both are tools, useful for a particular purpose, but by no means contain truth (see section 2).
While space navigation was immediately intuitive upon watching the “Powers of Ten” (Eames & Eames, 1977), time navigation had me puzzled at first. What broke the barrier to understanding was the realization that time introduces change, and with it, development and learning. Then it fell into place with all the other concepts. Time navigation especially showed to be central reification and liquefaction (see section 2): Both are temporal processes inducing change and their mastery central to flexible time navigation.
As Arthur pointed out, this flexibility is “often at a tension with reliability”:
the more change we allow to our conceptual frameworks, the harder it becomes to replicate research findings. With this, he returned to the previously addressed tension between dynamic reality and static labels (see section 2). To keep advancing conceptual knowledge while staying close to what is really happening requires constant negotiation between rigor and flexibility. ‘Rigor’ is generally preferred in science, which Arthur found strangely morbid, given its literal meaning of ‘stiff’, as in ‘rigor mortis.’ The positive connotation stems from the scientifically desired reliability that comes with rigor. Like a social contract, it facilitates consistency and hence coordination. As Arthur observed, “we create these worlds where we live and where we have this normativity of what is correct and what we should do.” About such categorizing normativity (see section 5), Arthur further notes: “It has an origin in the world, and it sometimes matches well, but I think there’s also a tendency to get imprisoned” (cf. Akkerman et al., 2007).
Concluding Time-Space Navigation
Taken together, navigating time-space is a delicate business of finding sweet spots. “There has to be a healthy balance between stability and variability, between doubt and knowing,” as Arthur put it with reference to Charles S. Peirce, but then added that
"if you see [the sweet spot] as somewhere in the middle, you’re still tied to the tension. So, what Hegel is proposing is Aufhebung. It’s by navigating the distinction or contradiction that you can get somewhere higher."
‘Aufhebung’ (i.e. ‘sublation’) is what Arthur promotes as a fruitful resolution of intellectual debates between opposing positions (Bakker, 2018). The conscious living with oppositions also reflects in Arthur’s appreciation of dialogicality, a form of mutual entanglement of elements in intra-action (see section 3) (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). Whether the goal is balance, a sweet spot or Aufhebung – it explains the importance Arthur assigns to time-space navigation with awareness of the historical and situated nature of learning and researching.
I discuss inferentialism last because it is only in hindsight that I could see it weaving through all the above and I want to share this ‘aha-experience’ with the reader. Inferentialism first clarified in one of Arthur’s anecdotes. For a project on statistical process control (Bakker et al., 2008), he went to visit a car factory and was amazed at the delicacy of fitting a windshield: It needs to fit perfectly, but not too perfectly, since the doors of an airtight car cannot be opened or closed. To strike this balance, the factory usually relies on statistical calculations of the measurements. Unfortunately, these had been off target for a while, and from a statistical viewpoint this would need fixing, however there had been no complaints with the cars. Hence, the factory continued working with off-target values. Behind this decision, Arthur identified a ‘web of reasons’ (economic, practical, ethical, statistical) that had to be weighed. This is inferentialism in a nutshell. It emphasizes the context-dependency of reasoning, based on the purpose at hand, the stakes and risks, as well as personal priorities (some would principally put economical, others ethical reasons first). In Arthur’s words, “reason is never isolated.”
Inferentialism has been important in Arthur’s understanding of many issues, for instance in analyzing how statistical decision-making is never objective (Bakker et al., 2017). The inferentialist lens makes this visible by revealing the normativity in all decisions, even seemingly self-evident ones (such as ensuring scientific reliability, see section 4). Normativity is socially inevitable because meaning-making and thus reasoning happens collectively, requiring all participants to know what is contextually appropriate to think, say or do (Taylor et al., 2017). This idea already surfaced in Arthur’s view on learning as a process (see section 1) where part of understanding a concept is knowing how and when to use it (see also section 2). As such, learning means to “navigate a space of reasons,” using Arthur’s preferred source on inferentialism by Robert Brandom (2000). Hence, all our actions and claims reflect contextual normativity.
The Common Denominator
Once familiar with this network of philosophical notions, a bigger picture emerges: All of them entail freely but responsibly stepping in and out of theories, perspectives, or any sort of labeling for that matter. In short, living them requires and allows for freedom.
It is this strive for freedom that guides Arthur’s academic choices, and it is the space for such freedom of mind that allows him to appreciate any given academic activity. Within research practice, this space depends a lot on one’s professional position. Arthur’s preferred positions clearly embody his strive for freedom: As a supervisor and editor he enjoys stepping in and out of projects, which he considers “a privilege”, accepting the attached weight of responsibility and expectations as simply the flipside of decision-making autonomy.
In regard to theory, Arthur’s need for freedom appears less compromising. Here, he says: “Freedom is a really crucial notion for me. Freedom for me is meant in a philosophical sense, a flexibility of deciding, focusing, zooming in and out and taking your time…” This is the gist of flexible time-space navigation, the mastery of which is closely related with Arthur’s view on wisdom, or “ethical know-how”, as formulated in Varela’s (1999) book on “action, wisdom, and cognition”. This book relates freedom and wisdom with creativity, which Arthur embraces because “what you need to do or what is best is a creative thing.” It is worth revisiting the notion of reifying and liquifying as creative actions in the literal sense of the word, namely the ability to create and re-create. Here, the purpose of creativity is not to escape from reality but to stay connected with it: “If we truly try to attune to life as it is at any moment, we should have sort of an ‘ethical know-how’. (…) And that, for me, is freedom.”
Once I put my finger on it, I can find Arthur’s strive for freedom between the lines of our entire correspondence.
Now, a particular little sentence in one of Arthur’s emails appears in a different light and tempts me to dig a little further: “For me, truth has long been a driver.” Does it also drive the need for freedom? The connection between freedom and truth certainly is at the heart of a puzzle that Arthur addressed at the very beginning of our conversation. I had asked him whether there was something he did not understand about himself. In response, he described an ominous feeling that had truly been bothering him and that he had encountered in different forms all throughout his academic career: as a sense of getting hung up in procedures, lost in detail, or stuck in theoretical realms disconnected from real-life issues. Arthur sometimes feels that in the course of lengthier projects, researchers get increasingly tempted to “box everything into objects.” That is where he gets uncomfortable: “There is something very artificial going on that drifts away, in my opinion, from ecological validity. (…) ‘Validity’ in the general sense of capturing what really matters.” Considering inferentialism, ‘what really matters’ is context-dependent and in light of process ontology, context is dynamic, hence to stay attuned, one needs to practice flexible time-space navigation. It follows that only a free mind could sustain ecological validity. It seems that the strange feeling of imprisonment that Arthur encountered repeatedly throughout his research experiences was a response to a lack of such freedom. Too much reification, too little liquefaction; too much control, too little wuwei; too tight a web of reasons, too high a risk of taking the wrong decisions. In short, too far removed from what was really going on… too far from truth.
In this light, the deliberate thoroughness and agility that characterizes Arthur’s academic work may reflect a relentless search for truth. However, considering his philosophy, the sheer amount of work that Arthur has published now appears paradoxical: After all, any piece of writing, simply by employing theories and labels, must ultimately stay behind the everchanging nature of reality and thus fail to approach truth. However, this is where freedom turns on itself: Arthur even showed willingness to step out of his own focus on freedom. He namely showed interest in Chinese philosophy that privileges “receptivity” and thus challenges the European focus on freedom (Jullien, 2020). Furthermore, from a psychological meta-perspective, he rather pragmatically acknowledges that while always striving for truth, there is a limit to living with the kind of freedom this requires. Too much flexibility is not only scientifically problematic (consider the loss of reliability), but also psychologically taxing, as he put it: “If you’re too Buddhist, and you are really willing and able to let go everything every time, you have very little ground to stand on. [That’s] how our psyche works, we need something to hold on to.” This shows again that holding on to something is as necessary as letting go, as is emphasized in ‘ontological synchronization’ (Akkerman et al., 2021). Eventually then, accepting the reification of labels and theories in academic practice is also an act of retaining ecological validity. Maybe, Arthur’s strive for freedom is not only a means to seeking truth, but finds its end in doing good. A conversation to be continued…
Akkerman, S., Overdijk, M., Admiraal, W., & Simons, R. J. (2007). Beyond imprisonment of meaning: Technology facilitating redefining. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(6), 2998–3011.
Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of educational research, 81(2), 132-169.
Akkerman, S. F., Bakker, A., & Penuel, W. R. (2021). Relevance of educational research: An ontological conceptualization. Educational Researcher, 50, 414–424.
Bakker, A. (2018a). Design research in education - A practical guide for early career researchers. Routledge.
Bakker, A. (2018b). Discovery learning: Zombie, phoenix, or elephant? Instructional Science, 46(1), 169-183.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham & London.
Biesta, G. (2020a). Educational research: An unorthodox introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Biesta, G. (2020b, Oct 6). Keynote. (Centre for Academic Teaching, Utrecht University)
Brandom, R. (2000). Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Harvard University Press.
Jullien, F., Richardson, M., & Fijalkowski, K. (2019). From being to living: A Euro-Chinese lexicon of thought. SAGE.
Ritella, G., Ligorio, M. B., & Hakkarainen, K. (2016). Theorizing space-time relations in education: the concept of chronotope. Frontline Learning Research. 4 (4), 48-55.
Online Etymology Dictionary. (2021, Feb 5). Retrieved from etymonline.com: https://www.etymonline.com/word/reification
Radford, L. (2021). The Theory of Objectification: A Vygotskian Perspective on Knowing and Becoming in Mathematics Teaching and Learning. Brill.
Schindler, M., & Bakker, A. (2020). Affective field during collaborative problem posing and problem solving: A case study. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 105(3), 303-324.
Schuit, V. (Director). (2019). Food for Thought [Motion Picture].
Taylor, S. D., Noorloos, R., & Bakker, A. (2017). Mastering as an iferentialist alternative to the acquisition and participation metaphors for learning. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51(4), 769-784. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9752.12264
Varela, F. J. (1999). Ethical know-how: Action, wisdom, and cognition. Stanford University Press.
Arthur Bakker is associate professor at the Department of Mathematics at Utrecht University, as well as editor-in-chief of the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics. Beyond his focus on mathematics, Arthur studies a variety of topics more generally related to education. He values open, stimulating conversation, maintaining that “we need to protect part of our academic time to talk about fundamental issues and allow ourselves to see connections between very diverse topics and fields.” Arthur’s work encompasses a multitude of theoretical perspectives including embodied learning, boundary crossing, scaffolding and sociocultural theories, mixed with a dash of humanities such as film theory and history. A particular interest in mutually informative connection between theory and practice has led Arthur to write an introductory book to design research (Bakker, 2018a).
Elisabeth Angerer is a carpenter and education enthusiast with a background in philosophy and neuroscience from her bachelor at University College Utrecht. She currently studies Educational Sciences in a research master program at Utrecht University and has been working as a research and teaching assistant, amongst others writing a booklet to help students develop an interdisciplinary orientation. She has a particular interest in philosophy of science, the relation between education and research within the wider societal context, as well as the role values in academia. Since 2020, Elisabeth has been a fellow of the Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund.