Representational versus performative competence at a STEM problem solving task: Problematising the mind-hands dichotomy

Year: 2019

Author: Tan, Michael, Chew, Anna, Ho, Shen, Yong, Koh, Teck, Seng

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

To date, dominant perspectives of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) instruction largely consider the performative aspects of STEM as a means to increase engagement and to concretely situate abstract concepts. Performing scientific and technical tasks are perceived as subsidiary to the acquisition of representational competences. What is often more highly valued, especially in education contexts of high accountability and high stakes testing, is theoretical knowledge; here, the long shadow of recitation based schooling looms large indeed, influencing our day-to-day sensibilities of what schooling ought to look like.

This is not surprising given age old Eurocentric distinctions between, and the relative privileging of, forms of knowledge (episteme, techne, phronesis), and what has been termed the hylomorphic fallacy by Tim Ingold(2013) []. Originating from ancient Greece, the three forms of knowledge characterises the theory-practice (and -wisdom) gap that is pertinent to many fields and disciplines, education included(Biesta, 2016; Flyvbjerg, 2001) [] With the primacy of industrial-rational thinking, it can be easy to believe that the fabrication of artefacts (e.g. scientific/technological apparatus) involves the impression of abstract form onto pliant materials. For instance, experiments are first designed, and then carried out with apparatus, and any resistance(Pickering, 1995) [] to the experimenters’ plans considered merely error.

We report here on a case study of two teams of three students each, all involved in their regional selection contest for the International Young Physicists’ Tournament (IYPT). The IYPT is a contest for elite students (this group grade 11), who are posed a selection of highly challenging open-ended questions, which they have to investigate and report to a panel of disputational peers. Using a phenomenological approach to understand students’ actions and intentions during the course of their preparation for the contest, we show how students’ abstract understandings of the physical concepts develop and change as experimental setups refuse to behave as initially assumed.

While these findings are not novel, they build upon other studies and provide educational implications for mainstream learning of STEM. The contention here is that we need to guard against what Papert termed ‘epistemological dilution’—of entering the metaphorical lobby, and never progressing past it. This is especially pertinent in interdisciplinary studies such as STEM, where competing disciplinary approaches can crowd out the potential for deep learning. We conclude with some suggestions for such interdisciplinary learning.