Collaboratively Building Concepts

This resource explores an idea for the use of collaborative learning environments. The idea was originally developed by User:Saidkassem.

A web of collaboration

Introduction edit

We build concepts everyday edit

Without concepts, how would we be able to think and form thoughts? Through human language, we have constructed for ourselves a multitude of concepts, some primitive, some new --others "under construction"-- that guide the way we think about phenomena and surrounding objects. Concepts are more than words (which are symbols). Concepts are ideas. The singular term "dog" is not a concept because it is not considered a mental construct; it is, rather, a term or a word, the denotation of an object. A dog is conceptualized, for example, when one begins to differentiate between "dog as best friend" and "dog as delicacy". By attaching another attribute ("edible") to the object ("dog"), we add meaning and make it more conceptually developed.

Fuzzy concepts edit

Concepts, however, are sometimes total abstractions from the physical realm, unavailable to the naked eye, necessarily fuzzy. Yet we find many instances of consensus across societies on the properties of concepts. Take the idea of "happiness". It is a concept that most people of similar ages from Peru to Pakistan will recognize on similar ("intersubjective") standards. It is only when discussing the particulars of what may constitute happiness, does one begin to observe a divergence in the way different societies conceive the mental models that shape concepts of "happiness" for them. For example, in some societies, there may be a close relationship between the dual concepts of "vocational success" and "happiness", whereas in others, there may be no obvious correlation.

Even under circumstances of extreme agreement over the nature of a concept between two thinkers, there is still room to explore the specific shape and form these concepts take within the cognizer's mental imagery. Chances are, the way they measure what is and what is not a part of the concept, diverges at a certain point.

The perspective of cognitive psychology edit

Cognitive psychology posits that the human mind understands new concepts by assimilating them to a pre-constructed framework of understanding.[1] Like a fingerprint, the cognitive structure of an individual is always unique and will have the effect of appropriating new information in a way that relates to the overall framework or cognitive structure humans develop (or inherit) during the course of their lives. Stated simply, humans do not conceive meanings for objects/abstractions in a vacuum; meanings arise vis-a-vis their relation to pre-formulated intellectual structures of the individual and society. The most obvious intermediary, of course, being language which entangles itself into the individual's thought process.

Necessarily, then, we are all "seeing" these concepts a bit differently since, at the social level, we do not escape language, its discourses, as well as our life narrative which imbues the field of vision/imagination with individualized mental constructs.

Building concepts in a collaborative learning environment edit

Within the context of a collaborative learning environment , "seeing" concepts differently is a very good thing. Collaborators may want both to conserve these differences and blend them in collaboration. A concept building space properly designed helps co-participants flex their intellectual powers through a dialogical process of mutual discovery.

Possible exercises or methods edit

First Exercise: "Backing Away from Knowledge" or "Blind Concept Building" edit

This exercise would still harness the powers of Wiki collaboration, but departs drastically from the Wikipedia model in one sense: the exercise, rather than drawing from the genealogy of produced knowledge (that has already cast its definitions onto concepts), it is attempting to intellectualize from scratch. Since the introduction of the Gutenberg Press, there may have been, let's say, 678 books written to serve the purpose of explaining what happiness is. The traditional encyclopedic task then, is to synthesize all the authoritative literature on happiness into a knowledge compendium format. Wikipedia's happiness article does exactly just that.

As noble as that may be, this particular exercise isn't about "standing on the shoulders of giants". Rather, the exercise, by design, guides students to think through the legacy of human-made mental constructs (thanks to literature and research) of the phenomena and ideas that constitute our lived experiences. There are so many socially accepted ideas already existing as "stable" knowledge or concept that can, and should be, re-conceived by way of the conceptualization process: such concepts exist under terms like terrorism, freedom, war, modernity, God-- to name a few.

Conceptualizing within the context of this project entails drawing from one's inner voice when searching for the right language to explain a concept. Imagine having to write a book on a newly discovered emotion, but you are confined to a jail cell that affords you no access to any books or reference materials. Students placed into this exercise would now be in the position of producing knowledge from the first link onward.

Students would be specifically asked to produce definitions for concepts through collaborative composition under similar guidelines used to craft exploratory essays (thesis, supporting arguments, conclusion, etc..). Students would italicize what they believe to be the thesis, or the irreducible, core essence of the concept's definition.

During the crafting of the "concepts" article, it is the facilitator's role to make sure participants are insulating their definitions from tautological explanations and external sources (reference works, literature, research) which relieves participants of the burden of explication (hence "blind" concept building).

Second exercise: Citation-supported concept building edit

This second exercise can either be an alternative or supplement to blind concept building. This time, participants are allowed to propose definitions for concepts that are supported with research of primary reference materials. As with college research papers, citing encyclopedias, dictionaries and other derivative sources are not allowed. It would be fair to equate this with collaborative research; however, unlike the traditional collaborations found within academic and corporate research communities, the Wikiversity is opening itself to new participant pools that combine a diverse multitude of minds.

Third exercise: Collaborative Excavations edit

In this case, a single news report of a politically controversial event is submitted for a collaborative attempt at highlighting different words in the text whose meanings are polyvalent. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their theory of discourse refer to such words as "floating signifiers" -- these word's meanings are contingent upon a particular discourse which temporarily "fixes" the "floating" signifer in place. In this case a particular word or phrase, most likely conceptually-loaded, will be identified as a potential "floater" and submitted for collaborative scrutiny. Once the words are isolated for analysis, collaborators will attempt to identify all the various, local/regional/national discourses that favor using this word in alternative ways that diverge from other discourses. Participants will attempt to rewrite sections of the article as it would have been written under the identified list of discourses. All the re-writings will be juxtaposed for comparison.

List of suggested concepts for exploration edit

  • Heaven (inspired by Barbara Walter's recent ABC documentary covering what Heaven means to several communities, religious and non)
  • Apartheid (Jimmy Carter has sparked a furor over his use of the term "apartheid" to characterize Palestinian living today under the Israeli state
  • Globalization (and its diverse and enigmatic counterparts: nationalization, regionalization, localization and personalization)
  • Extreme Sport (performing spectacular feats of skill, strength, discipline and balance involving speed, height, danger, physical exertion, specialized eqipment, ... courage, drive and spirit) See Extreme sport
  • Add your own concepts!

The benefits of collaboratively building concepts edit

  • Co-participants expose and share their thought processes. By doing this, they discover how their own mental models (that aid in understanding purportedly "obvious" characteristics of a given concept) fare in a comparative learning environment. They may find commonalities or differences, thus prompting the reconstruction, refinement, or blending of their concepts.
  • Without any sources to draw (and depend) from, participants are strengthening their own critical thinking and composition skills.

References edit

  1. Ausubel, D.P (1978). Educational psychology: A cognitive view (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Bibliography edit

  • Earl R. Babbie, The Practice of Social Research (Wadsworth Publishing, 2003). Chapter 5: Conceptualization Processes.
  • Steven H. Chaffee, Explication (Communication Concepts) (Sage Publications, Inc, 1991).
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The savage mind (The Nature of human society series). University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Ivana Markovà, Dialogicality and Social Representations: the dynamics of mind (Cambridge University, 2003).
  • Deutscher, Guy, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention, Metropolitan Books, 2005
  • Novak, J.D. and Gowin, D.B. (1984) Learning how to learn. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Novak, J.D. (1998) Learning, creating and using knowledge: Concept maps as facilitative tools in schools and corporations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Novak, J. D. & A. J. Cañas, The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them, Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2006", available at:
  • Roschelle, Jeremy, Learning by Collaborating: Convergent Conceptual Change. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2 (3), 235-276.
  • Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Reprint edition, Vintage, 1999.

See also edit

External links edit