Second David Clarke Memorial Lecture Q&A

Below is the response of Prof. Anna Sfard to additional audience questions asked at the Second David Clarke Memorial Lecture held on Tuesday 8 February 2022.

Questions from the audienceResponse from Prof. Anna Sfard

Q. Complementary accounts’ are concerned with ‘what is’ that can be resolved in a empirically regulated language game, while ‘what works best’ is a question of ‘what ought to be’ belongs to a language game that is not empirical … these two questions (is and ought) are radically incommensurable … What do you say? (from John Kusznirczuk)

Hi John!
I am not sure whether you are asking or just commenting, and if the former, what the question is. So let me try to unpack – and stop me if you see that I am distorting your intentions.
When speaking about complementarity, you distinguish between two cases:  first,  complementarity between accounts/stories that speak about “what there is”; and two, complementary accounts that… well you do not tell us what these accounts speak about, but you do say that the choice cannot be made on the basis of empirical concerns. So, let me complete, according to my understanding.
I guess what you say here can be reformulated as follows. There are two types of stories/discourses people produce in research:
(1) those coming from ontic discourses, that is, stories about what there is; in these case, the storyteller counts as a neutral observer; natural sciences are the best example of ontic discourses/theories.
(2) those coming from deontic discourses, that is stories that deal with human conduct, judgements, choices; here, the storyteller is both the observer and the observed; best examples are discourses of ethics, religions, ideologies, esthetics, etc. It is here that the choices of accounts are often made on the basis of an answer one gives to the question of “what ought to be”.  
Clearly, these two types of discourses, the ontic and the deontic, are ‘radically’ (or ‘strongly’) incommensurable.
Is it possible that, indeed, you meant to say that the stories educational researchers are telling are of this second type, deontic? Of this, I am not entirely sure. I do not believe that human sciences, and educational research is among them, are clear-cut deontic. I think sociologists, psychologists and yes, people of education, constantly oscillate between the two games, the ontic and the deontic. This, of course, makes the issue of complementarity particularly interesting. How can educational researchers make well-informed choices between accounts that are modeled on ontic discourses and those that do not deny their deontic nature? Well, I think the criterion I proposed – that of how well the given account presents its protagonists as sense makers – works well also in this case. After all, this criterion, in itself, may be seen as both ontic and deontic, right?  
I hope, John, that I did manage to interpret what you said according to your intentions and that my response makes sense to you. If not, we may be communicating across incommensurable discourses, with the term ‘complementarity’ possibly used differently. If there is something you would like to say in response, please write to me. It would be pity to leave the communicational conflict unattended.

Q. Everyone can have his own story about learning, how do we address (say to those who concern) the objectivity and the “scientific‿ part of doing research on learning? (from Muhammad Taqiyuddin)

Dear Muhammad, I agree, everyone has her own story about learning. I am therefore not sure what the words “scientific part of doing research” about learning mean. I guess that you are asking about the relative status of research on learning. In other words, I am interpreting what you said as the question: “What is the advantage, if any, of the story about learning told by a researcher in relation to the ‘folk’ stories about learning, that is, to those narratives people accept as true without any research?”
If you agree with this interpretation, then my answer is as follows. First, stories produced in research – and let us assume that the research is well done – are, indeed, preferable to folk stories. Here, ‘preferable’ means more useful, more reliable: if you build your teaching based on these theories, you will get better results than if you follow your folk story. Why should this be so? Because doing research means a constant attempt to arrive at stories that are difficult to refute. The necessary conditions for the “high” reliability is that the key concepts are defined in operational way, unambiguously. Unfortunately, from what I see while reading our professional literature, this latter condition is rarely fulfilled. In any case, if research is well done, it is easier to attain wide consensus and make people convert to the research-generated story from their folk stories about learning.

Q. Thanks, Anna. Key stakeholders of researcher’s stories are teachers. In your experience, are they interested in complementary accounts? How do they react to multivocality? (from Igor' Kontorovich)

Hi Igor, good to hear from you.  
I am afraid I cannot answer your question in a responsible manner, and this is simply because I have no “empirical data” to draw upon. One thing I can say with a considerable confidence is this: even before coping with the phenomenon of multivocality, one may have difficulty trying to comprehend what the very idea of multivocality is all about. Although in theory it seems to be pretty straightforward, in practice, the thought of another person using the same word as I do in a different way is difficult to interpret. This is so because distinguishing between words and what these words say may be one of the hardest tasks we need to cope with as a part of the activity of communication. Or, in traditional words – we may be somehow blind to the difference between the sign and the signifier. This said, I assess that teachers, with their rich experience in conversations with interlocutors who seem to speak past each other, may be more open to this elusive distinctions than are most of us.
This is exactly the challenge I wish to grapple with. Indeed, I consider it as my principal professional goal to have a meaningful conversation about multivocality with teachers. Through it, I hope to recruit at least some of them to the project of collecting typical cases of communicational conflicts. After all, who could provide us with more eye-opening examples of communicational conflict than experienced teachers? I certainly wish for multivocality to become a central topic of teacher preparation and development courses.

Q. Incommensurability resolved between 'Researcher A' and 'Researcher B'? Did they see the other person's perspective? How did this impact on their future practice? (from Kate Quane)

Hello Kate!
I cannot answer this question, because there was no follow up yet to the researchers’ conversation. In fact, the researchers A and B did not really talk to one another at any point. The first interpretation – that of researcher A – came in the form of a published article. The second interpretation – that of researcher B –  will soon appear in the same journal (FLM) as did researcher A’s interpretation. Personally, I hope that upon reading the response, Researcher B will become aware of the incommensurabilities involved and will get convinced that Researcher B’s version is preferable (more useful). But this remains to be seen. If it does happen, though, this will mean that Researcher A needs to revise his way of thinking about learning.