Sunday, 26 February 2012

The "purification" principle in pedagogical terms

There is an interpretation of the quantum theory inspired by the great John Wheeler that treats physics not only in terms of flow of energy but also as flow of information. One of its postulates, its self-evident "truths", is a principle called "purification". Despite the term's affect of grandiosity it merely means - to paraphrase most liberally simplistic - that we can come to understand something even if we do not know everything about its parts or contents. This principle is, in fact, part of a logic system that is used to derive a workable mathematic framework of quantum mechanics.

Despite its highly abstract and complicated mathematical nature the purification principle is an intuitive statement whose truth is borne out in such fields as linguistics, semiotics and epistemology - ie, how we derive meaning from language and the surround using only apparently highly-specific logical principles to guide us. In fact, it is a principle that translators/interpreters use implicitly as second nature in their work. That is, we do not have to think about the words when we talk for we communicate and derive meaningfulness at the conceptual level, which is often more flexible and accomodative than words in isolation or in specificity.

Having said that, I want to draw our attention to the need for grammar- and narrative-based pedagogy using a form of the purification principle.

Phrases, in varying degrees, seem to all have levels of ambiguity built into them; sometimes we do not even know certain words that are used in a grammatically meaningful context but we can and do derive meaning from that context nonetheless. This is the purification principle, if you will, at work using the grammar of language.

For instance, a phrase such as: "to be sure of the past we know only disparate instants" requires, demands, that we know how to grammatically analyse (intuitively) its possible meanings. We can revert to pauses or commas and do a rough analysis. In fact, we do this subconsciously:

"to be sure of the past, we know only disparate instants"

"to be sure, of the past we know only disparate instants"

The mere placement of a comma changes the meaning of the phrase completely. Disregard the actual meaningfulness of the phrase for a moment (it's a run-on/orphan sentence), and focus on the grammaticality of both choices of placement of the comma. The first one implies a conditional requirement that, in order to be sure of the past, we (must) know only (its) disparate instants; the second one makes a definitive statement that, of the past we know only disparate instants (of it).

In fact, it is in the second instance that the original phrase has its intended meaning. I took it out of Tobias Danzig's book, Number: the language of science (reprint 2007) in which he talks about the dual nature of continuous and discreet aspects in the analysis of the number- or real- line (p. 183).

Of course, I'm not suggesting - have never suggested - that we teach our students the gruelling intricacies of Inuktitut grammar; what I'm saying is that a narrative-based language instruction would naturally expose the students to Inuktitut grammar by way of story-telling where the art of paraphrasing and recasting, and, ultimately, creativity (original insights) are generated. Literacy is not just about the mechanics of reading and writing; it is about comprehension and active engagement in the act of communication.

We, all of us, like to think that we have something to say no matter how small or important it is we have to say. Narrative-based pedagogy celebrates that need. Narrative-based pedagogy, and ultimately the ability to express (think for) oneself well will save lives, literally. We can no longer afford to regard suicide, and the existential alienation that leads to it, as a purely clinical issue; the problem of suicide is a humanist issue at its core.


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