There are two different meanings of reductionism to which I've been exposed, mainly by those who find themselves opposed to this particular 'ism' in education.
- On the one hand, reductionism is what Sir Peter Medawar calls "nothing-buttery" in his brutal review of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's book The Phenomenon of Man. That is, tables are "nothing but" collections of atoms, mathematics understanding is "nothing but" a collection of memories about procedures, and so on.
- On the other hand, reductionism can be simply talking too much about organizing learning—or using too many technical terms to do so. For instruction, it can refer to mere selectivity or filtering of information—it might be reductionist to say "To add two fractions, find common denominators, add the numerators, and then set the sum over the common denominator," because there is more to adding fractions than this.
I mention these two meanings up front only to get them out of the way—to set them up as strawmen, between which (or outside which) we have to carve a path. The notion that only one level of analysis—one scale of interaction with the world—can apply to any topic (the "nothing-buttery" notion) is not held by any sensible person; nor is the notion that reductionism should be synonymous with scheduling or selectivity in instruction.
Turning Away from "Nothing-Buttery"
It seems to me that the author of this article in The Curriculum Journal occasionally makes the same general mistake that most everyone makes when arguing against reductionism in education—he steers us rightly away from the first strawman, only to run nearly headlong into the second. Here is how the first turn is made:
Almost without fail, those who would oppose reductionism will use the word "artificial" to describe school. This always strikes me as bizarre, even though I am completely in touch with the sensibility the use of this word appeals to. But if school is "artificial" because it is an activity divided into discrete time chunks, then so is the road trip I took with my family this past summer, or a young couple's first date, or the most open and inclusive meeting of professional educators. Of course, we can choose to describe any of these scenarios as "nothing but" blocks of time filled with prescribed activities, but nothing makes them necessarily so outside of those descriptions. This applies even to those apparently awful, disconnected lessons full of short questions. A level of analysis consistent with painting a reductionist picture of school is chosen, and then we are invited to decry how reductionist it all seems.
And Into the Less-Than-Helpful
And what's the alternative to this 'artificiality'? Everyone has a limited amount of time, which must be taken up linearly in chunks. We do not regularly find ourselves in states of quantum superposition. Thus, having dodged the nothing-buttery strawman, here we at least graze the second one:
Features of working more holistically could include:
- giving students richer, more complex mathematical problems with a deeper degree of challenge, so that solutions are not straightforward or obvious;
- deliberately using problems which simultaneously call on a range of different areas of the curriculum, encouraging students to ‘see sideways’ and make connections;
- using ‘open’ tasks, where students can exercise a significant degree of choice about how they define the task and how they approach it–importantly, the teacher does not have one fixed outcome in mind;
- giving students sufficient time to explore different pathways without the pressure to arrive at ‘an answer’ quickly;
- encouraging a view that being stuck or confused and not knowing what to do is normal and can be productive, that ambiguities can be beneficial for a time (Foster, 2011a), and that seeking not to ‘move students on’ too quickly can deepen their opportunities to learn (Dweck, 2000).
The second and fourth of these bullet points are good ideas for making teaching more 'holistic'. The last and first don't belong at all, and their appearance doesn't inspire confidence that the word 'holistic' actually means anything in the article. As for the rest of this quote—it seems to represent this mind-boggling, to me, notion that teachers or teaching is the cause of this distasteful reductionism; that to make a class or an experience 'holistic,' we would do well to get rid of or diminish the teacher's voice, rather than raise up its quality.
We can and should (and do) avoid the idea that stringing together "nothing but" pieces of content is sufficient to make 'holistic' understanding bubble up as an emergent property of student learning. But equally dubious, and equally unsubscribed, is the idea that learning can be transformed from fragmented to holistic by subtracting something from the experience.
Foster, C. (2013). Resisting reductionism in mathematics pedagogy Curriculum Journal, 24 (4), 563-585 DOI: 10.1080/09585176.2013.828630