Publish at February 09 2022 Updated February 17 2022

Forget to learn better?

The contribution of epistemological obstacles in training

To learn is to swim from one shore to the other

In the «Third-Instructed», Michel Serres introduces us to a swimmer who crosses the river of his childhood, the Garonne. In the first few meters, this one is assured of being able to return to the shore and he does not have the impression of running a risk. Gradually, in the middle of the river, he reaches a point where he does not know if he is closer to the starting bank than to his destination. Both banks are as much difficult to reach.

At this point (3), he may be worried about what decision he should make if he should happen to find himself in trouble. Go back? Continue? How do you make a choice?

The Point of Uncertainty

This image of the swimmer illustrates the situation of a person who is just learning and in order to do so has to detach from what he or she knew. In the case of Michel Serres, it is a matter of forgetting the language and accent of Gascony and the rural culture of southwestern France, in order to appropriate a university culture. The first moments of learning are easy. Returning is always an option. But gradually, he must make choices and give up one culture to adopt the other.

For this author, crossing the river also represents giving up the use of the left hand to write, in his early years as a schoolboy.

Did he really forget?

Arrived on the other shore, as in image 3, our swimmer could simply forget and replace what he knew with new knowledge. Not so simple, says Michel Serres. He certainly approaches a new environment, but he does not forget what he left. Even more, he remembers the crossing. A person builds himself with what he has left, with the history of his ruptures, by what he discovers, and by his journeys.

Among the moments that mark our learning journeys, this uncertain position, between the banks is essential. It is a "blank" position, the author tells us, in the sense that it is indeterminate. There is nothing to predict with certainty the direction the learner will take.

He has not only changed banks, language, mores, gender, species, but has experienced the hyphen [...]

This is not a new person who has forgotten everything, it is no longer quite the old person.Nor is it the juxtaposition of memories and present experience. The displacement is also an experience that builds it. Michel Serres compares it to a tightrope walker or a Harlequin.

It is difficult not to make a link with G. Halpern's book, "Tous centaures", which shows us to what extent our identities are built on the multiple. We never completely reject what we have learned. On the contrary, we weave our identities from our many experiences.

More broadly, and on knowledge that does not so directly affect identity, knowledge is not directly replaced by other knowledge as one would change a memory card. Changing paradigm and methodology is not so simple! When what allowed us to succeed becomes an obstacle to move forward and we are asked to forget it, we have an experience close to that of the swimmer...

The epistemological obstacle: one does not build on an empty ground

Gaston Bachelard had shown as early as 1938 how difficult it was to leave a shore. To acquire new knowledge is to fight against prejudices, intuitive and practical knowledge. Knowledge can be accumulated incrementally. But sometimes what I think I know collides with reality. There is an impasse, an aporia, an obstacle.

The old methods, the paradigms adopted until now, no longer suffice. But they resist. They cling. What I mastered then becomes an obstacle to moving forward and tackling new fields. The great men, the epistemologist reminds us, are useful to science in the first years of their life and harmful afterwards. Their achievements weigh down like a cumbersome backpack. One thinks of those companies that announce that they would rather take on beginners and train them, than hire people already trained by competitors, universities and schools.

When it comes to scientific culture, the mind is never young. It is even very old, for it has the age of its prejudices. To access science is, spiritually, to become younger; it is to accept a sudden mutation that must contradict a past.
                                                     Gaston Bachelard, The Formation of the Scientific Mind - 1938

In his book "L'erreur, un outil pour enseigner", Jean Pierre Astolfi gives prominence to Bachelard and Piaget, each of whom emphasized the inner struggle of learning when it requires reevaluating or putting off representations.

Large groups to bring out epistemological obstacles and overcome them

For a teacher, working on students' shared representations is essential. Bringing out, making visible the presuppositions, the implicit ones in order to work on them and help the learners to overcome them. An individual approach, but also applicable in groups, even large groups. This is what Yvan Pigeonnat shows us.

The method they outline relies on large groups and setting up discussions. The trainer isolates key concepts that represent the epistemological obstacles he or she anticipates.

For each obstacle, he or she constructs a problem situation. Each person thinks about it alone for a few minutes (1), then with his or her neighbors (2). An individual vote follows these small group deliberations (3).

A public debate is then organized, based on the answers given (4). Finally, an "institutionalization" phase allows the trainer to take back his hat, to make a synthesis, to devote time to the errors by valuing them, by making the logic that can lead to them appear, without sanctioning, without judging, without mocking! (5)

In a rather different context, the recommendations of Funny Learning for "learning to unlearn" are not so far off. A reassuring, caring environment, free speech, and techniques to bring out presuppositions should help overcome barriers related to representations.

These approaches undoubtedly make it possible to better apprehend new patterns of thought, and to avoid the "yes but..." of those who would be more short of arguments than convinced, or who would synthesize the epistemological obstacle with phrases that would oppose theory and practice. Isabelle Barth speaks of'surface acceptance when one is content to forgo discussion.

illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


Université du Québec à Chicoutimi- texts selected by B. Dantier - Bachelard and the epistemological obstacle

Yvan Pigeonnat - Institut Polytechnique de Grenoble, PerForm, Grenoble, France - Large audiences: more than a handicap, a strength for teaching difficult concepts! - The principle of "scientific debate with students" on the University of Paris-Saclay Website - February 2020

Astolfi, J.-P. (2009). L'erreur, un outil pour enseigner. Paris: ESF.

Bachelard, G. (1938). The formation of the scientific mind. Paris: Vrin.

Isabelle BARTH - "Knowing How to Unlearn to Succeed - Our Daily Life Decoded"

Gabrielle Halpern - All Centaurs! - In Praise of Hybridization

Jean-Pierre Astolfi - The Error, a Tool for Teaching - 13th Edition

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