Inferentialism and teaching and learning geography

Inferentialism and teaching and learning in
GTE Conference
Oxford 2015
This session highlights a number of practical implications of some recent
developments in philosophy (the work of Robert Brandom and John
McDowell on inferentialism), and the philosophy of education (the work of
Jan Derry on inferentialism’s theoretical and practical application in
Some exploratory work on inferentialism has been done by David Lambert
and myself over the last 3 years working with Jan Derry and others in
relation to a research project to investigate: An inferentialist approach to
developing [subject] teachers' content knowledge
Unfortunately the funding application did not come to completion but the
meetings and discussion that took place were very valuable
My interest in inferentialism continues in terms of how it connects
to the ‘knowledge debate’ in geography education (social
realism), Michael Young’s idea about ‘powerful knowledge’ and
the possible implications of inferentialism for teaching and
learning in geography
Inferentialism and its potential significance was discussed at a
recent GEReCo meeting and the ideas are worth sharing here
It was suggested that we might develop a framework or protocol
that colleagues may follow in order to undertake small scale
observations and classroom interventions with ITE students
So we might think about how we could take these ideas forward
as a geography education collective
Potential significance of inferentialism
(Critique of some educational outcomes and practices)
The challenge to avoid inert knowledge—knowledge
students have learned to reproduce but cannot use
The challenge to avoid atomistic approaches found in
many textbooks, SofW, task design etc and to foster
coherence from a student perspective
The challenge of sequencing topics in alternative
approaches which aim for coherence from a student
Potential significance of inferentialism
It prevents a simple referential relation to the world for
the student
Enables students to learn the systems of meaning and
to develop the capacity to integrate meanings so that
these meanings are not merely consumed at the point
of its delivery
Enables students to be inducted into the body of
knowledge that is geography
Potential significance of inferentialism
‘If recent Hegelian-influenced developments in philosophy
concerning the nature of awareness and understanding were
taken into account, the general understanding of subject
knowledge and its relation to pedagogy would surely benefit’
‘Robert Brandom is especially interesting here because, in
stressing the inferentialism in Hegel’s thought, he has, like
Vygotsky brought to the fore those aspects of the human
condition that concern coming to know’
(Derry, 2013: 141)
Based on the work of 2
philosophers: Robert Brandom
and John McDowell
Builds on the work of Wilfred
Sellars and G W F Hegel
Hegelian approach to thought
and reason
Assists thinking about the
systematic nature of
disciplinary knowledge (its
Brandom, R. (1994) Making It
Explicit: Reasoning,
Representing, and Discursive
Commitment, Cambridge, MA:
Harvard U P
Brandom, R. (2000) Articulating
Reasons: An Introduction to
Inferentialism, Cambridge, MA:
Harvard U P
McDowell, J. (1996) Mind and
World, Cambridge, MA:
Harvard U P
Its application to education:
Jan Derry – used within Mathematics
Education and written more widely about
its significance
Also important:
Jan’s re-assessment of the philosophical
underpinnings of Vygotsky’s work in
which she brings together the
philosophical tradition of Hegel and the
recent work of Brandom and McDowell
and emphasises the significance of
A philosophical/theoretical starter!
We are concerned here with questions of ‘mind’ and ‘world’, of ‘word’
and ‘world’, the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’, the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’, and
their relationship
The Hegelian traditions of thought being engaged with here are
opposed to dualist approaches
The mind is social and to give an account of mindedness and intellect
it is necessary to look beyond the individual and to attend to external
mediation in the formation of higher mental functions
Different from and stands in opposition to the dominant educational
discourses of postmodernism/constructivism
So what is inferentialism?
(Brandom reverses the conventional representationalist order of
explanation, the all to common conception of coming to know
within geography classrooms)
The semantic theory of inferentialism (Brandom)
It prioritises inferentialism (inferential relations) over representationalism
(referential relations)
Inferentialism demonstrates that grasping a geographical concept
(coming to know) requires attention to and accurate interpretation of the
inferences implicit in its use in a social practice of giving and asking for
With representationalism the meanings of concepts are assumed to arise
solely from its relation to the object, event or whatever that it represents
and then are combined to make judgments and inferences
That is, representationalism assumes that initial awareness takes the
form of a representation and that only once this is grasped can
inferences be made
The semantic theory of inferentialism (Brandom)
In other words inferentialism tells us:
Our experience of the world – through our senses – is
already ‘conceptual’
When we make a claim of knowing we are not, as is
commonly thought, giving a description of an object or
event (representationalism), but placing the claim about the
object or event in a ‘space of reasons’
That is to say - making a claim on the basis of knowing
what follows from the claim and what it is necessary to
assume in order to make the claim in the first place
The semantic theory of inferentialism (Brandom)
Where a word is used without the user being aware of
its conceptual connections to other concepts, these
connections are still present
Participation in such a space does not require an
immediate and full grasp of the reasons constituting the
concept but rather only the ability to inhabit the space
in which reasons and the concept operate in the first
The semantic theory of inferentialism (Brandom)
Inferentialism has, then, an explicit focus on reasoning
(i.e. inference) underpinning concept use
‘one cannot have any concepts unless one has many
concepts. For the content of each concept is articulated
by its inferential relations to other concepts. Concepts,
then, must come in packages’ (Brandom, 2000, p. 1516)
inferentialism is resolutely holistic
Implications for teaching and learning
The all to common conception of coming to know,
evident in the practice of teaching, is founded on a
mistaken prioritisation of representation over inference
– that is, on the assumption that initial awareness takes
the form of a representation and that only once this is
grasped can inferences be made
Teaching would become much more sensitive to, and
based upon, the complex system of mediating
connections and relations disclosed in determinations
of the concept - if an inferential approach was adopted
Implications for teaching and learning
Students’ primary focus would involve the inferential
connections that constitute concepts such that
representations are already connected, through reasons,
to other aspects of the knowledge domain to which they
the development of concepts proceeds through activities
in which the concepts function meaningfully. Hence a
concept is not first learnt formally and then applied, but
develops according to the domain of activity in which it
Implications for teaching and learning
Inferentialism provides a basis for a conception of
knowledge and the process of acquiring it whereby the
use and understanding of language cannot be
conceived simply in terms of the designative approach
to meaning (where words are understood solely to take
their meaning from the things they represent)
Knowing requires a different stance, one which
incorporates designation but only as secondary to the
inferences that are the historical genesis of its meaning
Implications for teaching and learning
The inferentialist view presented may initially appear
counterintuitive. Teaching and learning has often relied on the
idea that the simple terms must be learnt prior to those which are
more complex, or prior to the combination of such terms in
judgments before one can reason with those terms
However, Vygotsky and Brandom alert us to the idea that it is
possible to operate with a concept before fully understanding its
meaning - for a student to begin to operate with complex
structures before fully grasping simpler ones. The reason for this is
that knowledge is not gained simply by an accretion of elements
starting with the most simple
Inferentialism can be understood as an epistemological structure that allows
the tensions inherent in students’ fledgling attempts at disciplinary knowledge
constructions and the kinds of knowledge that are the product of advanced
disciplinary thinking to be played out
It brings the knowledge that has been constructed, both disciplinary and
individual into sharper relief for both teachers and their students
It gives attention to the sociogenesis (development) of knowledge and mind
The idea of reorienting teachers’ knowledge to pay attention to how inferential
reasoning drives geographical thinking, harnessing geographical knowledge
and discourse on the one hand and pedagogic development on the other, can
be seen as potentially very significant for the development of geography
Derry, J. (2008) Abstract rationality in education: from
Vygotsky to Brandom, Studies in Philosophy and
Education, 27(1): 49-62
Bakker, A. & Derry, J. (2011) Lessons from
inferentialism for statistics education, Mathematical
Thinking and Learning, 13(1&2): 5-26
Derry, J. (2013) Can inferentialism contribute to social
epistemology? Journal of Philosophy of Education,
47(2): 222-235
The philosophical/theoretical bit
And where context is framed in terms of the sociogenesis of
meaning/knowing/knowledge (genetic development)
Also necessary to mention ‘constructivism’ – as ideas about the social
mind can also be recognised in constructivism, and constructivism and
Hegelian traditions of thought are both critical of foundationalism
(secure foundation of certainty of knowledge)
Constructivism has also been very influential in the conceptualisation
of pedagogy in contemporary schooling i.e. the way that constructivist
positions are taken in relation to the active participation of learners,
both in their learning and also more radically in the constitution of
Hegelian thought avoids the conclusions of constructivism –
namely, that knowledge itself has no secure basis/that it can only
ever have local standing → and with the result that the possibility
of knowledge itself is called into question (relativised)
Whereas constructivism is not interested in the difficulties in
establishing knowledge Hegelian thought confronts this
It builds on the possibility that a material history involving
human constructive activity at some previous point may
mediate (i.e. constrain) at a current point – which is excluded
from constructivism
Potential significance of inferentialism
Challenges some widely held beliefs about representation and the
social construction of knowledge
Challenges some of the constructivist discourses of classroom
practice. A tension exists between allowing students to construct
their own sense of disciplinary ideas and the development of
students’ disciplined modes of thought
and in particular the failure to appreciate that normativity is a
necessary element of the sociality of knowledge (and of the
sociogenesis of the mind)
Links ideas about the nature of the curriculum and teaching and
learning to epistemology (the nature of knowledge)
Opens up new frontiers in contemporary educational theory and
By emphasising how propositional content and , in
particular, how meanings are constituted in the social
practices of what Brandom terms the ‘giving and asking
for reasons’, inferentialism opens new ground for
thinking about the nature of teaching and learning
In particular, an inferentialiist approach can assist in
resolving the apparent opposition between
constructivist ideas about learning, which emphasise
the student’s construction of meaning, and the concern
with the knowledge domain as a discipline
The semantic theory of inferentialism (Brandom
Inferentialism attends to the distinctive nature of human
awareness and puts inference at the heart of human
knowing by providing an account of concept use that
starts with reasoning rather than with representing
The distinctive character of human psychological
powers resides in our responsiveness to reasons, a
capacity that develops in children as they are initiated
into traditions of thinking and reasoning
The philosophical/theoretical bit
Hegelian traditions of thought direct criticism at the ‘representationalist’
paradigm implicit in constructivism
Having accepted that the foundational project of knowledge is untenable and,
with it, the idea that the objectivity of concepts and words/sentences we use
may be explained simply by their representational relation to the world – the
common response within constructivism has been to withdraw to a modest
position that restricts knowledge to the individual, local and contextual
meaning making of participants
Attention to local meaning-making and withdrawal from an interest in
knowledge and meaning transcending the ‘context’ of production pervades
pedagogic discourses in education today
And also a liberationist and anti-authoritarian bias which has had a
profound effect on education – which fails to recognise the normative
nature of human life. We need to understand thought, feeling and action
as attributes of people rather than of minds (Wittgenstein)
the social nature of rule-following implies that human learning is more
than just an individualistic activity. Most psychologists and educators who
concern themselves with learning pay little attention to this social
dimension, and even where they do, it is given a very superficial
treatment in terms of, for example, the importance of
participation/collaboration – ‘group work’
Taken seriously, understanding the social nature of learning goes far
deeper than this at a variety of levels ranging from the interpersonal to the
political and where truth is normative
Accepted approaches to T and L raise questions about how they support
the development of students beliefs about the nature of K and of knowing
– personal epistemology
an example of how philosophy can be brought to bear on real problems
of educational research and practice
Different strand to social realism
Constructivist learning theory has been helpful to geography
teachers in bringing attention to the ideas that students bring
with them to classrooms and to enabling students to be active
participants in the learning process rather than receivers of
knowledge. Teachers have reoriented the hierarchical structure
of teaching and learning into a more horizontal one in which
student constructions of knowledge play a central role and
there is continuity between lay and disciplinary knowledge. A
tension exists, however, between allowing students to construct
their own sense of disciplinary ideas and the development of
students’ disciplined modes of thought.
In relation to teaching and learning
It is argued that constructivism has led to particular pedagogic
strategies that are influential in the rhetoric of classroom
practice: the undermining of knowledge, the belief that
knowledge is a matter of plurality in the sense that no one
approach is better than any other and the undermining of the
epistemic authority of the teacher as a representative of the