Doing the

Imagining Connections and Separations

In today’s literacy lesson, the text is a song. Children are sitting on the mat while Mrs Rich operates the CD player. She starts the song, but it’s the wrong one. Children giggle, looking at each other and miming dance moves. Mrs Rich, suppressing a smile, lets it play right through. She finds the song she had intended. It is called ‘My Place’. It is in country style, with lyrics about a home in a small Australian country town. Mrs Rich lets it play once, then she asks the class to list some ‘graphic organisers’. Children suggest various ways of arranging information – Venn diagrams, webs, mind maps – and Mrs Rich writes them on the board. From the list she selects the Y-chart. She draws a large Y shape on the board, writing ‘looks like’, ‘sounds like’, and ‘feels like’, one each in a segment. She explains: she will play the song several more times, and each subsequent time they will be thinking ‘what does it look like?’, then ‘what does it sound like?’, and finally, ‘what does it feel like?’ She says that just like good readers, ‘good listeners make connections’. She repeats, slowly, ‘good listeners make connections’.

She plays the song three more times, and after each playing asks the children to share with their partners and then with the class the connections they made. First, they are to give connections that describe what they saw while they listened, then what they heard, and, after the final playing, what they felt.

The children share their mental connections, what the song made them imagine. The assortment includes that it looked dusty; that there are not many houses around; that it is a little house with a gate to the back yard; that there were sounds of birds; a guitar playing; water boiling on a barbecue; and that it sounds like twenty years ago. Connections made to feelings are the most interesting. Children say, ‘it made me feel great’; ‘it’s cold there’; ‘it’s sad because his friends only visit sometimes’; ‘sad because my cousins live in the country and I don’t often get to see them’; ‘I felt bad because people were teasing him’; ‘sad because it made me think of my old house’. Mrs Rich says she is surprised. She had thought it was a happy song (Catholic School, author field notes, 31 August 2007).

Imagination, in Mrs Rich’s words and in her practice, is ‘a thinking tool’ (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007). More specifically, it is a tool for making connections. These connections might be between the lyrics of a song and the feelings, sights, and sounds they evoke. They may be between one book and another, or between an idea and its personal meaning. Mrs Rich uses this imagination extensively in her literacy classes, often asking children to link the stories they hear to other stories or other experiences they have had. The repertoire she calls on, and which is familiar to her class, are ‘text to text’, ‘text to self’, and ‘text to world’ connections (Catholic School, author field notes, 30 August 2007). The routine here is to first tell a partner what connections one has thought of, and, if chosen by the teacher, to share with the class. This is summed up in Mrs Rich’s oft repeated instruction ‘think, pair, share’. In her class, then, imagination is the set of routines whereby the teacher requests and students offer (usually verbally) connections that link the here and now to some mental other. Each time they make connections they are also making separations, for example distinguishing hearing, seeing, and feeling as ways to experience the song. What they do each time is make synthetic – and potentially new – thoughts.

This is how Mrs Rich uses imagination to solve public problems – to form habits of rich connective thinking in her students. All teachers, in fact, use imagination to help children make connections. As we shall see throughout this concluding chapter, however, their ways of making connections and the patterns of thought they encourage children towards vary greatly.

In this conclusion, I apply the lesson I learnt in Mrs Rich’s class that imagination can be performed by making mental connections and separations explicit. To this end, I will work to make explicit the patterns of thinking encouraged in each classroom. I will argue that some teachers favour linear patterns of connection-making while others favour thinking as ways of making sets. I will suggest that each of these ways of thinking encouraged by teachers works to separate nature and culture in particular ways. A relational metaphysics suggests, though, that this is not how the world really is. Instead it is a complex web of nature and culture. Opening and closing this concluding chapter with Mrs Rich, I will suggest that only her way of using imagination to make connections properly engages with this web. In Mrs Rich we find a relational teacher, but one who does not stop at responsively and flexibly relating children and materials, but who makes surprising things relate conceptually. We find a teacher solving public problems by making complex connection-making habitual for her children.

Rich Thinking

Mrs Rich calls on children to use imagination to make connections throughout the curriculum and the school day. Doing so, she is making imagination into the type of thinking tool demanded by a new curriculum, the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS). ‘Thinking Processes’ is a new part of the curriculum these teachers are working with, intended to be interdisciplinary. Since it is not meant to fit in one subject only, it is hoped that teachers will return their students to ‘thinking’ throughout the school day. To do this they are asked to ‘model skilful and effective thinking and make their own thinking explicit as part of their everyday practice’ (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2006).

But how to model thinking, and exactly what types of connections to emphasise, is up to each teacher. As Mrs Rich says, ‘Where does it tell you how to deliver anything? And I don’t think it really tells us. So it’s totally up to you’ (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007). As we will see, each teacher I worked with modelled different patterns of connection-making, and thereby directed children towards different forms of thinking.

For Mrs Rich the key thinking tool is ‘imagination as connection making’. It happens not only in literacy classes, but even in maths. There the focus is on making connections between numbers and then describing those connections. I see an example of this when Mrs Rich gets her class doing mental arithmetic. Writing a list of equations on the board, she asks children for the answers and for the strategies they used to get them. Children describe what they say to themselves in their minds; processes of rounding up and down, of estimating with the help of neater equations, and so on. Discouraging them from simply picturing the written equation in their heads, Mrs Rich praises the creative connections made so long as the correct answer is reached. Perhaps surprisingly, she certainly does consider this to be imagination. ‘Maths problems, we have discussions about, that mental computation is extremely important, so what’s the thinking going on in their mind? They need to verbalise it’ (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007).

There are several reasons this class practises such an imagination. In this school, a Catholic primary in a low-income area, there is a diversity of backgrounds and abilities. In Mrs Rich’s class there are three Sudanese refugee children who know very little of the English language and who have little experience with the many tacit social and intellectual skills needed in an Australian school. There is a large group whose English is impeccable, but who do not speak English at home. Their initial thinking has been done in some other language system. And there are two children diagnosed with learning disabilities and assisted by an integration aide some of the time. For these various children, the otherwise hidden ways of thinking in the English language need to be made explicit. Moreover, it is a large class, and restless. As Mrs Rich tells me, she needs a large range of activities at the forefront of her mind so that she can keep order and enhance the enjoyment of learning. Her teaching technique must draw this diverse student body into one subject. Open-ended tasks and requests to draw personally pertinent connections are ways she does so. An obvious necessary condition for learning to be achieved in this classroom is this teacher: highly intelligent, very experienced, and blessed with huge mental and physical energy.

This class also practises such an imagination because of the external influence of educational experts. Mrs Rich, like the other teachers at this school, has attended professional development sessions with a leader she clearly respects. Here is how she explains the role this leader has played.

I need to say that this constant reflecting is probably due to […]. She’s worked at our school for many years, and we have her for two sessions, two days [per term] probably, to plan our units. But she has given us many, many strategies, and even just those ones I’ve mentioned: she encourages us to always reflect, always think, you know, get the children to have a journey. How far have you got, you know, what are you thinking about. And constantly question them about that. But her strategies encourage much thinking. Just the simple strategies ‘think, pair, share’. So the usual children don’t dominate, so every child has a voice, and there’s many ways of doing that’ (Catholic School, author interview with teacher, 11 September 2007).

Teachers Variously Modelling Connection Making

If imagination is a form of connection making or thinking tool that can be purposefully taught, as Mrs Rich and VELS agree, and if this must be modelled by the teachers’ own ways of thinking, then we face a question. Perhaps all people make connections between ideas – that is, ‘think’ in the same way. Then teachers will model the same processes, and children will learn to think in a similar manner. Or perhaps teachers make connections in different ways, and hence will model different ways of making connections. Then children in different classes and schools will learn to think differently. I am going to suggest that the second is the case, revealing teachers as modelling and validating very different ways of making connections between ideas. But there is more. If children are to learn new ways of making connections, surely teachers (and social scientists) can also be taught to make connections in new ways. What may be needed is to make old habits explicit and to think through their implications. This is what I attempt here.

If imagination is thought-made-explicit, then we have five patterns of imagining modelled at these five different schools. How might we value them? I will suggest that we pay close attention to Mrs Rich, the teacher who prioritises this mode of imagining in her teaching, and teaches thinking with multiple strategies and open-ended tasks. If we take seriously the mode of imagination as thinking, we find in Mrs Rich’s class the most varied and ability-sensitive practice. It is most in tune with a relational metaphysics.

Let us look again across the five schools to ask how teachers model thinking, ending with Catholic School. We will open with two stories of linear connection making.

Bridging Gaps

Thinking at Independent School

In class at Independent School, connections are validated if they provide the correct answer to the problem posed. The process of thinking is the recall or identification of those connections that are correct while navigating around those that are incorrect. These are linear ‘if … then’ forms of connection making. Mr Robertson will allow discussion for a short while until he states the answer he was expecting. This is the case when he reads to the class from Toad Rage, a children’s book by Morris Gleitzman. He asks the children what they predict the humans are planning to do with the cane toad protagonists. The children suggest some possibilities, and Mr Robertson returns with ‘You don’t think they’re going to use them to scare someone?’ The class agrees with him that is most likely (Independent School, author field notes, 29 March 2007). Instead of using this as an opportunity to encourage divergent imaginative thinking, Mr Robertson claims both that there is a correct answer, and that he knows it.

Mathematics classes, too, generally follow the ‘if … then’ structure. These lessons often start with Mr Robertson talking about a real world scenario, but this is used to help the children understand the problem, not to give the maths meaning in itself. These scenarios provide the content for the ‘if’. One time, for example, Mr Robertson opens the lesson by getting children to imagine that he made sandwiches to sell at cricket games, doubling his money each day. How many days, he puts it to them, would it take to get one million dollars? Then, leaving the sandwiches scenario behind, he hands out sheets of paper, blank except for a series of squares for the answers found by doubling each previous answer. The point isn’t to work out how much money Mr Robertson would have made with his sandwich venture, but to understand the concept of doubling well enough to write the correct answers on the sheet (Independent School, author field notes, 27 March 2007). The class spends many of the remaining mathematics lessons of my visit practising for the New South Wales mathematics competition. This likewise frames questions in real-world terms, then asks children to choose the correct multi-choice answer.

In story writing too, the children are directed in such a way as to make them negotiate their way to an original story within rules about what they should and must not do. Though they are free to choose the scenario, the ‘if’, the possible consequences, the ‘thens’, are limited. Children are told how they should structure their stories (Independent School, author field notes, 19 April 2007); given sentences they might and must not open their stories with (Independent School, author field notes, 16 April 2007); and told what they must not include (violence and Pokemon, in particular) (Independent School, author field notes, 28 March and 19 April 2007). Their thinking is to be original but only within stated bounds. A good story is one is that contains interesting words and permissible topics.

We see this use of imagination as thinking towards correct answers very clearly also in lessons about ‘good’ behaviour. One day a child brings chocolates to school and refuses to share them. Mr Robertson and the teacher from the class next door gather their children together. Mr Robertson says that ‘You’ve got to ask why they’re bringing them. Is it a power thing? Lording it over other people? We don’t like that here’. After a little more talk from Mr Robertson and Mrs Merton, Mr Robertson continues to encourage the children to think about the behaviour of others, asking in such a way that the children know that there are right answers and a limited number of them. ‘What are the four main things people are seeking when they misbehave?’ Gradually, and with teacher direction, answers are suggested and distilled: ‘attention’; ‘vengeance’; ‘power’; ‘to make up for inadequacies’. Mr Robertson writes these on the board (Independent School, author field notes, 28 March 2007). This too works on an ‘if … then’ logic. If children are well behaved then they are not seeking these four things. If they are badly behaved then they are. The only thinking left for children to do is work out which of the four motives is the correct one.

This encourages children not to question, but to repeat assumptions. I see this clearly as I talk with two boys and the conversation turns to federal politics. These nine-year-olds disagree over who they want to win the federal election that will be held in six months’ time. Miles wants Kevin Rudd to win. Neville says, ‘No way. Howard should win,’ but can’t explain why. His mother is an economist, he tells me, and ‘Australia doesn’t have enough money to worry about global warming. Once we were rich, you know, like in the gold rush’. Miles disagrees. ‘We should do wind. If Mr Howard does nuclear I will leave the country’. When I ask where he will go he becomes flustered and cross: he doesn’t know the ‘then’ to that question (Independent School, author field notes, 26 March 2007). One politician is better than the other because of associations they have heard from mothers who are economists, and from circles that are anti-nuclear. These are examples of connection making that stress correctness through repetition of the answers given by others. It is a learning of associations: if this, then that.

Thinking at Steiner School

In our class at Steiner School there is also a linear pattern of connection making, but instead of ‘if … then’, the dominant pattern for connection making is by narrative. Connections are to be formed by validating only the strings that build sensible stories. We recall from chapter four that at this school everything is to be connected to the morning story, and meaning is to be built by encouraging the children’s pictorial imaginations and warm feelings. Shirley tells me that most of her time in preparation is spent thinking ‘how can I make this connection’ between the morning story and the lesson topic (Steiner School, author field notes, 6 June 2007).

We find this type of narrative connection making sanctioned also in the stories told to make sense of mathematics. This is very clear in the students’ records of mathematics learning. In their large mathematics books they have all written the same series of stories linking the Norse myths to long division. The first book for the year has a title page ‘Long Division in Valhalla’, and a picture, similar in all, of a castle. The first task is to work out using addition in ‘houses of numbers’ how many seats would be needed for all the heroes, gods, and Valkyries at Odin’s feast. The next page asks how Iduna might divide her apples among the gods, and the following page asks how runes might be divided. And so it goes on, each page referring to episodes in the morning story (Steiner School, author field notes, 17 June 2007). As the class does mathematics together on the board, Shirley activates these stories again; modelling sums worked through in ‘houses of numbers’ and division under ‘Thor’s hammer’, and reminding the children to do likewise. Through repeatedly connecting mathematical division to the morning story, these problems are linked to wider meaning. This meaning comes from a story and the solution will be to allow the story to continue – gods seated, gods with apples. This structure makes mathematics a set of connections within narrative conventions. This is quite the opposite of mathematics at Independent School, where narrative was abandoned in favour of concept.

The import of this becomes clear when we see what types of connections children are not allowed to make during class time. All connection making is to make narrative sense. So, for example, Shirley actively discourages children to make connections by the sound of words. During discussion time when children are encouraged to share ideas, Shirley mentions that a girl in the class is sick with whooping cough. Someone asks how to pronounce that illness, and Fran asks ‘Do hoops come out of your mouth?’ Shirley looks right at her, and pointedly does not reply (Steiner School, author field notes, 19 June 2007).

Steiner children are also not allowed to make connections that link types of objects in non-causal ways. Shirley tells the class, again in discussion time, that assistant teacher Paul’s washing machine is broken. A little later, Shirley praises the children for having had no warnings yet that week, saying that Paul might have to bake the cake he had promised for achieving a week without warnings. Presumably thinking about the broken washing machine, Morgan jokes, ‘I hope his oven doesn’t break too’. Shirley is sharp, replying ‘I don’t see how that could happen.’ A couple of kids quietly suggest things, but this type of connection made between similar appliances has been de-legitimated (Steiner School, author field notes, 6 June 2007).

We find children reiterating narrative connection making in their own games. At this school children play imaginative games that are extremely complex. At Steiner School imaginative play and talk are achieved through the acting and speaking of stories. For example, over lunch one day a girl finds her jacket over in the corner near where the boys are sitting. She lays it down on the couch and says that they would have to get X-rays to find out exactly where the boy germs were located on it. Another girl comes over, miming and explaining that she has a box ‘with three golden locks’. ‘Put it down,’ she is told, and the jacket is ‘put in’. She takes the ‘box’ and walks to the edge of the mat. It is ‘thrown to the bottom of the sea’, but someone asks ‘What if it gets washed ashore?’ ‘It’s in Antarctica’, they decide. The first girl picks up her jacket from where it has been lying all the time, and says ‘It will have to be dry-cleaned. And I won’t be able to wear it for about three weeks’. In this way she ends the game without breaking the narrative stream (Steiner School, author field notes, 8 June 2007).

This is a piece of child-directed talk in which we find narratives being woven together. The overall story remains throughout: that a jacket has become contaminated and needs to be dealt with. Narrative solutions are put forward, ushering in imaginative objects – X-rays and boxes locked with gold. Potential problems are suggested and solved in an ad hoc manner. The narrative ends where it started. The jacket is contaminated but can be dry-cleaned. These children show their skill at keeping a story together, even as its content diverges. They are exercising an impressive skill in making narrative connections.

Foundational Knowing:
The World as the Source of Stories to Tell and Answers to Find

These two ways of making connections – finding correct answers to problems by an ‘if … then’ logic, and creating meaning through causal or narrative relations – are forms of linear connection making. Despite this similarity they are also very different. In one account, the world is ordered by what is told as ‘factual’ truth, and in the other, by ‘narrative’ truth. ‘Factual truths’ are seen to exist independent of any necessary connection to the scenario used to explain them. It does not matter whether Mr Robertson tells a story about making sandwiches at the cricket or quite another story; if you double sixteen then you will always get thirty-two. Narrative truths, on the other hand, are always connected to each other and to their telling. In either case, however, the next in the series is always already pointed to.

Additionally, these are both ways of foundational connection making: those that follow a logic of truth. They assume and enact the world as separate from those who know about it. Both apply their work to the gap that is seen to exist between knower and world. In the case of an ‘if … then’ pattern, this gap is to be bridged by stipulating conditions of the world and asking knowers to suggest the logical consequences of these conditions. This bridges the gap by appealing to the contents of the knower’s mind. This says, ‘if the world is this way, then via a knower’s own logic learnt as rules in class, the world must also be that way’. In the case of narrative connections, the gap between world and knower will be bridged similarly – if these events, then those events. This time, however, the ontological status of the world is different. Instead of claiming to tell true things, narrative connections claim to tell useful allegories of the world. This is to doubt that we can ever really bridge the gap between knower and world. Instead we are limited to telling stories that give some allegorical representation of what the world is really like.

The core difference, then, between the two ways of making linear connections is in the ontology each reinforces. Both patterns of connection making share a foundationalist premise, positing that there is a world we all share. The first assumes that we can reason about the world, while the other suggests that we have to move through earlier human attempts to give it shape and meaning before we can start to grasp it. This is a difference between what might be called scientific empiricism and cultural relativism. Factual ‘if … then’ logic assumes we can make deductions from what is observed. Narrative ‘if … then’ logic suggests we can have a sense of the meaning of things but never really know. This opposes the empiricism of the Enlightenment with the ‘thinking into’ of Vico and the counter-Enlightenment (Berlin 1976; see also chapter six).

A quite different model can be extracted from the connection making favoured at Special School and Government School. There we find connection making as the building of sets.

Thinking as Making Sets

Thinking at Special School

The focus in the class at Special School, a school for low-IQ students, is to teach children to appropriately group concrete objects. Good thinking here is understood to be making connections between like objects, and putting them into the appropriate general categories. Teachers model this pattern for children to imitate as they learn to use the computer program ‘Kahootz’. This program lets users build a scene by choosing a background and adding appropriate objects. These can then be animated, and users can navigate around the scene, looking at it from different angles. This program teaches many skills in using computers and provides children with experience in visualising things from different perspectives. The skill that assistant teacher Michaela stresses though, especially at the start of a new project, is choosing objects appropriate to the scene.

She talks the class through this: that term their project is going to be about the seasons. The current season is spring, so, she asks, what would they put in their scenes? What objects fit in the category of spring? Underneath she writes what they say in a column, sometimes adding a row when objects belong to the same category:

  • Grass
  • Roads
  • Concrete
  • Flowers – roses, sunflowers
  • Plants – trees
  • Hills

When they stop suggesting new ideas, she asks them, ‘What happens to the animals in spring?’ ‘They have babies,’ the children reply, and they list some – kittens, puppies, lambs. The bell rings for lunch, but before she lets them go, Michaela says of their Kahootz scenes, ‘Everyone must do the same, there’s no trains, there’s no bicycles, there’s no cars’. These, she is saying, would be inappropriate objects in the category ‘spring’ (Special School, author field notes, 9 October 2007).

They use this program one afternoon a week, and Michaela is strict in giving approval to some objects and not others. The children know that there are rules about what ‘fit’ but they are unsure of exactly what these rules are. Victor asks if he could put bees into the scene: do bees like flowers? Michaela says yes, and that there could be birds too. Birds also like spring flowers (Special School, author field notes, 9 October 2007). Dwayne puts a giant fish in his. Michaela deletes it, saying firmly that it has nothing to do with a spring garden (Special School, author field notes, 16 October 2007).

It is easy to find other examples that also support the idea that thinking at Special School is predominately about making the correct categories of concrete nouns. On one occasion, the class are completing a sheet, filling in the appropriate words for the openings ‘today is ___. The weather is ___.’ Logan is told off first for drawing a picture of the sun when it is raining outside, and then for drawing a train. First he chooses the wrong word from the right set, then a word from the wrong set entirely. Senior teacher Diane tells him, ‘Stop. It doesn’t say anything about a train so we shouldn’t have a picture of a train’ (Special School, author field notes, 9 October 2007). On another occasion, the children very gleefully mix up the words that describe the day, month, and season on the board. Now they read as nonsense, ‘Today is spring, tomorrow will be November’. What they are enjoying is breaking the rules of each set. Michaela makes them fix it up, and tells them off. ‘Not funny’ (Special School, author field notes, 19 October 2007).

At first sight it may seem that making groups of concrete objects as part of general categories has little to do with imagination. This impression is countered by the fact that children are told to imagine the scene ‘spring’ before they start listing objects that fit into the scene. It is by moving between imaginary ground (spring scene) and figures (grass, lambs, hills) that they are able to do this task.

This is not the only way to connect the world in imagination so that sets are made.

Thinking at Government School

In our classroom at Government School, children are inducted into a thinking pattern based on sign systems, particularly the systems of language and symbols. This comes from, and re-enacts, an understanding of the world in which everything is ‘embedded’ in time and place. These form sets that, while perhaps logically arbitrary, make sense in terms of the wider social world. Children at Government School are to learn to think about and behave in a world governed by a system of rights and responsibilities (Government School, author field notes, 30 May 2007). They are to learn that other people have different perspectives, and, as they put together timelines from an ‘Aboriginal perspective’, that even historical time can be systematised differently (Government School, author field notes, 24 May 2007). They learn how to read the words and the illustrations of books as revealing a sign system quite different from how it is now. As they compare the present and past, they talk about changes in specific systems (Government School, author field notes, 24 May 2007). These are all ways of making sets of culturally connected objects, teaching that different cultures and different times are guided by different conventional sets of meaning.

This is evident in how Justine encourages her class to think as she reads to them from the book My Place. One day she asks children to look at the picture and think about what has changed since the book opened on pre-contact Aboriginal time. They talk about the river having become more ‘sludgy’ and ‘harder to find’; the clothes and the buildings ‘becoming more advanced, the buildings looking more like buildings and the clothes more like clothes’. In doing so, they are simultaneously comparing the systems shown in the picture of the 1870s (rivers, clothes, buildings) with those shown on the pre-contact Aboriginal page, and also with what they know of the present (Government School, author field notes, 24 May 2007). When Tom shows me the picture he has drawn this is the sign system he points out: Scots (shown by their wearing kilts), Chinese (in conical hats), and Aussies. ‘How can you tell they’re Aussies?’ I ask. This is clear, apparently, by their bowler hats (Government School, author field notes, 23 May 2007). These clothes are to designate members of nationality sets.

This class has been doing a unit about multicultural Australia and its history. When Justine suggests they make bookmarks to thank the student teachers who have been coming in for literacy, the children suggest drawing various things that symbolise multicultural Australia’s history. These range from the Australian flag, to symbols of peace, to flags of the different places Australians have migrated from. Justine compliments the variety of these ideas, saying ‘for me it was just a seed of an idea and you’re making sense of it’. Sense is making the set of appropriate signs (Government School, author field notes, 24 May 2007). When completed, most bookmarks refer to the sign systems of multicultural Australia. One group has done three symbols of Australia over time: an Aboriginal woman sitting, gold-mining tools, and a convict ship. Another has done lots of small symbols: flags and mining picks, and Chinese dragons, and dot paintings.

The children are also adept at using sign systems in their conversations. On one occasion children are talking about the system of shapes in relation to eyes. After one child says she has stayed up late playing computer games, another pretends to be an adult and warns ‘You’ll get square eyes’. Another suggests, ‘Imagine if you actually did get square eyes’, and the others start listing different shaped eyes: triangle eyes, hexagon eyes, semicircle eyes (Government School, author field notes, 22 May 2007). This is verbal play connecting the system of shapes to the culturally meaningful phrase ‘square eyes’.

Relative Knowing: Sign Systems as the Ground for Set Making

In both these classrooms, connections are made as groups of figures relevant to some stipulated ground. This is connection making as making sets. Imagination in these cases means expanding the list of possible members of a set. This is a way of thinking in which it can be clearly determined what is a legitimate and what is an illegitimate member by referral to the ground or collecting concept. Trains are not legitimate in the group of facts about the day; convict ships are legitimate in the group of symbols of Australian history. But while each stipulates legitimacy, neither limits the number of possible answers. There are many possible members of each set, and creative connection making might bring many of these out. Here then is potential for multiple correct answers.

Again, however, the stories of these two classrooms also reveal differences in the ontology animating their connection making, and this rests on a division between nature-made and human-made. At Special School collecting categories are about the natural world. Into these spring scenes and accounts of the weather only ‘real’ objects fit. These sets should accurately represent the world as it is – no sun when it is raining, no fish in a garden. And they should only show things that are ‘natural’ to the scene. There are to be no trains, bicycles, or cars in a spring garden, although in an actual spring garden there certainly could be. As is perhaps appropriate for these low-IQ children, these are sets that simplify and order.

At Government School the collecting concepts are from human life and history, and thus it is not surprising that human objects are allowable. But moreover, it is clear that human choice has determined just what are appropriate objects for each category. It was humans who put convict ships into the history of Australia, and humans from China who chose to wear conical hats in the past.

I have highlighted the differences between these four ways of making connections, arguing that two are directed towards making linear patterns of thought while the other two make sets. I have also distinguished between each pair, suggesting that at Independent and Special Schools, connection making practices claim reality for the natural world only, while at Steiner and Government Schools reality is claimed for how humans have understood and given meaning to the world. But, in fact, all four have something in common. They all make a separation between nature and culture. To explain, I turn to Bruno Latour.

Thinking as Purification

In We Have Never Been Modern, Latour argues that modernity has appeared to be a solid achievement because of the way modern people are used to organising information. In his picture, the world is always made up of complex webs linking actors and objects in entangled ways. Modernity has been based on the pretence that these webs can be neatly sorted out, dividing the world into separate categories of nature and culture. He calls this purification. This, however useful it is, crucially misrepresents the world according to Latour. More, much of the time we actually live comfortably with the entangled networks. This is why, despite our efforts, we have never been modern (Latour 1993).

This separating is analogous to the work of primary school teachers. We have seen that at Steiner School connection making is done through narrative links. This is akin to saying that we grasp the natural world through the attempts of earlier people and their stories that made sense of it. This is to lay a cultural lens over children’s experiences of the natural, separating nature and culture by giving primacy to the cultural (this is done in turn to make children give an enhanced emotional response to the natural). At Independent School, by contrast, nature and culture are again separated, but now stories about culturally sensible ‘real world scenarios’ are used to provide a context for the natural to make sense. Here, nature and culture are kept apart by the primacy placed on the natural as the ‘true’.

As I have indicated above, the classes that make connections as sets are also engaged in separating nature and culture. The separation is more straightforward in these classes, with groups being made of either natural or cultural entities. At Special School, categories are made that will contain only natural objects within natural scenes and will refuse unnatural objects as inappropriate: neither fish nor trains belong in gardens. At Government School, the categories are understood as being primarily social in their origins and all objects are members of sets by social convention. This could admit to complex networks of nature-culture, but only if these were a reiteration of how people are told as already understanding the world: only if those webs were already ‘really’ cultural.

What would it look like for a teacher to encourage their students to think with a relational logic? Separations are not a priori made between nature and culture, the worlds ‘out there’, and ‘in here’. Knowers are understood as participants in the world, and their knowledge is that which helps them participate. We turn again to Mrs Rich to see how this might look in practice.

Thinking as Making Relational Webs

Recall the story we opened this conclusion with. There we see Mrs Rich playing a song for the children to think about. Dividing the possible responses into a Y-chart, Mrs Rich instructs children to listen carefully and be ready to share their imaginative experiences of what the place in the song looks like, sounds like, and feels like. This Y-chart does not ask for a splitting of nature from culture.

This activity asks children to call up in their imaginations a mixture of the empirical and the emotional effects of the song. What do they ‘see’ by listening to the song? What do they ‘hear’? These are questions that require children to form imaginaries through the words and music they hear. These could be of natural or human made objects. ‘What did you feel?’ on the other hand asks children to reflect on the emotions the song called up. This asks them about how they imagine it would be to live, to be a social human, in that house, and its surrounds.

And children’s responses do not distinguish between natural and cultural. What they hear are birds, breezes, barbecues, and twenty years ago. What they feel is cold, old homes and the loneliness of having few visitors. Mrs Rich does not claim any answers are more correct than others, but she does encourage new suggestions: ‘Anything different?’ She is open to surprise – she had thought it a happy song. In this way, the task remains open-ended and any suggestion that connects to the song welcomed. These could include connecting this song to another text, to the self, and one’s experience, or to other things of the world. These are truly a mixing of the natural and the cultural, an invitation for making webs. Keeping together the natural and the cultural, and hence world and knowers, it is enacting a relational metaphysics.

Conclusion: Connections and Separations

What I have tried to do in this conclusion is follow a paraphrased version of Mrs Rich’s insistence that ‘good listeners make connections’. Good ethnographers, I suggest, also make connections. This is a part of the imagination we too should bring to work. The connections I have made are between different classroom practices and the thinking patterns embedded in them. More, and again, following Mrs Rich’s insistence that imaginative thinking be made explicit, I have tried to visualise these patterns in terms of lines, sets, and webs.

In order to make these connections I have had to make separations. I have separated classrooms with linear from those with set-making thinking patterns. I have separated those that give primacy to nature from those that give primacy to culture. And I have separated teachers who work to keep nature and culture apart from that one teacher who works to keep nature and culture enmeshed.

I have also connected these to the work of scholars such as Bruno Latour. He told us that our belief in our own modernity has been based on a false premise. Instead of always working to separate nature from culture, as moderns have done, we should accept that we live in a world where nature and culture are entangled. We should learn to think – and act and assign value – in ways that keep them together.

This conclusion has been an exercise in an imagination prevalent in academic work – making explicit our patterns of making connections and separations, concepts, and categories. But, I would suggest, we are seldom aware of the choices we make about the patterns of thought we use. I hope that showing the choices teachers have inadvertently made might help readers become more aware of how they can think and imagine differently.