Educational philosopher Dr Felicity Haynes from the Graduate School of Education at UWA is passionate about the ‘community of enquiry’ and Philosophy in Schools. By the time our project was fully formed in 2002 on researching ‘creative thinking and the arts’, I felt I got to benefit from years of Felicity’s exploration of ‘theory into practice’.
A ‘thinking game’ that I saw her often play with both students and teachers began with her entrance into the room with a large, colourful shoulder bag which she would rummage around in to extract various objects and place them on large sheet of poster size white ‘butchers-paper’ on which was printed the following table (The colouring is my emphasis for the reader to appreciate the difference between the quadrants).
Think of this…
You may know the exercise already but if you don’t what happens next is that the audience is asked to categorise the objects that are pulled out of the bag – one by one- and justify their reasons for placing it into one of the squares. Like all seasoned teachers, Felicity began with concrete, well-known objects and when she felt that the brains around her were locked in and engaged, only then would she begin throwing in objects, manifestations and human experiences that were harder to ‘pidgeon-hole’.
For instance, she might start with a real apple from her lunch box and a plastic cast imitation apple from the decorative plastic fruit arrangement she would bring from her kitchen. There was always a lively discussion when she produces a photograph and a painting of the same objects: which is more real or less real? does looking more real make it so? Once she established the ‘rules’ of the game and was satisfied that the children were talking about ‘why’ they thought an object belonged to a particular quadrant, she would stop producing objects and ask children to place concepts like ‘a dream’ and ‘the rules’ into an appropriate square.
In short, as an accomplished teacher of formally sharing with children their emerging abilities to categorise concepts, actions and objects within a ‘socratic method’, she would listen as a philosopher for omissions within conversations as much as to what the children would say out loud. She would pose questions to test their assumptions and raise the existence of ‘what if…’ scenarios that took them beyond familiar topics of conversation.
The challenge of categorisation, so entertainingly illustrated in the ‘thinking game’, however, can’t minimise the cognitive and emotional challenge that often accompanies learning within and about personal and social contexts. The current ‘war on terror’ is only the latest manifestation of the religious and philosophical ‘wars’ that have occurred in history as the meaning, for instance, of vital terms like ‘justice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’ are defined through conflicting cultural beliefs and values: these inform everything from physical appearance, cultural practices and social behaviours.
The world was simple then…
George Lakoff’s does an exhaustive interrogation of ‘what categories reveal about the mind’ in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). He shows how in the good old days, when we divided off categories of “objective” facts and “subjective” opinion, classical philosophy seemed to sort out how we should pay attention to facts over opinion. There was only one problem with the neat division, he says: not that it was altogether wrong, but it could only be maintained when philosophers, scientist and others ignored or minimised how ‘the mind’ was “centred in the bodily and imaginative capacities of human beings”. Other researchers of learning processes, like Barbara Oakley, just seem to be prepared to admit that Freud was right about the immense power of the unconscious mind which. Oakley refers to as ‘the zombies within’. These push us towards mindless, habitual behaviours without any thought of their long-term consequences.
Now… you need to laugh.
It is with this in mind, I find the research arising from Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind most interesting. In it, cognitive scientists Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett and Reginald Adam show humour as a state of mind in which we derive a sense of pleasure in futility, chaos and incomprehension! Human fallibility, they argue, is because the human brain is made up of a “Chevy engine running Maserati software”. The ‘Chevy engine’ is any part of the mind that gives rise to ‘illusions of competence’ while the ‘Maserati software’ can be any part of our working and long-term memory, which leads to insight and ‘deep learning’. Most remarkably, the researchers show how the benefits of laughter and having a sense of humour as a kind of ‘recovery’ in which the mind learns to correct itself: “The initial emotional response to any discovery of error in your understanding of the world has got to be “uh oh.” But in humor, the brain doesn’t just discover a false inference, it almost simultaneously recovers and corrects itself. It gets the joke. The pleasure of the punch line is enhanced by that split second of negativity just before the resolution.”
It’s not hard to see how the categories of IRL ‘in real life’ versus the conceptual space of cyberspace, as Wood and Smith also argue in Online Communication, involve us finding ourselves stumbling around in utopian and mythical realms. The virtual world must be by definition unreal as any ‘literary world’ that we create in literature, theatre or film. But unlike those forms, the online experience is also defined as consisting of multimedia, interactivity, synchronicity and hyperlinks. In fact, the convergence of those qualities into literary and artistic forms are changing the creative and presentational processes in which older forms are being made and experienced.
Perhaps it is not ‘the answer’ that we are seeking in the new digital age around the best way to ‘think’ of how to categorise but finding the right questions to ask about on how we see the benefits for ourselves in a hyperconnected world.