Feminist Diffractions, Stochastic Resonance, and Education, Revisited

Lehrer (2015) offers an insightful commentary on Saxe et al’s (2015) recent article in Human Development that prompts some observations.

Two areas for questions and comments come to mind. The first has to do with construing the development and revision of new ways of understanding as contested, which implicitly aligns with Latour’s (1987, pp. 89, 93) sense of the way new constructs are subjected to tests of strength. Haraway (1996) makes an important point in her critique of what she sees as the overly masculinist metaphors of heroic competition and (perhaps not so) sublimated violence in these contests. Her sense of “feminist diffractions” stops short of what I have in mind, but opens the door to an alternative approach to what Lehrer calls the “close coupling of definitions with the development and revision of new concepts and ways of understanding.”

Galison (1997, pp. 843-844), for instance, seeks a metaphor capable of expressing what happens in the conceptual, practical, and argumentative contests between different communities of scientists (instrumentalist technicians, theoreticians, and experimentalists). He wants a metaphor that does justice to the disunified chaos and disorder one finds in the relationships between these different groups, which paradoxically results in such productive and coherent innovations. He recalls Peirce’s and Wittgenstein’s metaphors of cables and threads that take their strength from being intertwined from smaller wires and bits of fiber but finds these images too mechanical for his purposes. He wants something more akin to amorphous semiconductors or laminated materials that can fail microscopically but hold macroscopically better than more structurally homogenous materials.

Berg and Timmermans (2000, pp. 55-56) make a similar observation in their study of the constitution of universalities in medical fields:

“In order for a statistical logistics to enhance precise decision making, it has to incorporate imprecision; in order to be universal, it has to carefully select its locales. … Paradoxically, then, the increased stability and reach of this network was not due to more (precise) instructions: the protocol’s logistics could thrive only by parasitically drawing upon its own disorder.”

The general problem is taken up by Ricoeur (1992, p. 289), who raises the notion of “universals in context or of potential or inchoate universals” that embody the paradox in which

“on the one hand, one must maintain the universal claim attached to a few values where the universal and the historical intersect, and on the other hand, one must submit this claim to discussion, not on a formal level, but on the level of the convictions incorporated in concrete forms of life.”

To repeat another theme that comes up again and again in this blog, this kind of noise-induced order sounds like the phenomenon of stochastic resonance (Fisher, 1992, 2011). The importance of stochastic resonance is that it opens up a way to connect the phenomena of emergent understanding with measurement, both at the local individual and general systemic levels.

This is the crux of some very important issues in the philosophy of science and in philosophy generally. Haraway (1996, pp. 439-440), for instance, points out that “embedded relationality is the prophylaxis for both relativism and transcendence.” And Golinski (2012, p. 35) similarly says, “Practices of translation, replication, and metrology have taken the place of the universality that used to be assumed as an attribute of singular science.”

A start in the direction of embedded relationality, translation, replication, and metrology in education is apparent, for instance, in work that enables teachers to usefully relate individual student performances to general learning progressions, connecting instructional applications with accountability (Fisher & Wilson, 2015; Lehrer, 2013; Lehrer & Jones, 2014; Wilson, 2004). As Lehrer (2015, p. 49) says about the Saxe et al. work, “Recurrent forms of mathematical practice enabled the authors to create compelling trajectories of collective activity and learning over time while preserving the contributions of individual development.”

The second of the two topics I’d like to address comes up here in the closing paragraph of his short commentary, where Lehrer says a “hoped-for future innovation would make it possible to visualize individual and collective trajectories simultaneously.” Though future improvements can certainlty be expected, visualizations of individual and collective trajectories for growth in reading are already being recognized in both educational and metrological contexts (Stenner, Swartz, Hanlon, & Emerson, 2012; Stenner & Fisher, 2013, p. 4) for their potential to serve as the media of an embedded relationality capable of undercutting both the relativism of uncontrolled local variation and the universalist pretensions often built into accountability programs.

With emerging recognition of the potential Rasch’s stochastic approaches to construct mapping (Bond & Fox, 2007; Wilson, 2005) offer in the way of metrological translation networks (Mari & Wilson, 2013; Pendrill, 2014; Pendrill & Fisher, 2015; Fisher & Wilson, 2015; Stenner & Fisher, 2013; Wilson, 2013; Wilson, Mari, Maul, & Torres Irribarra 2015), there are good reasons to expect significant new kinds of progress in fields that rely on assessments and surveys for outcome measurement and management.


Berg, M.,& Timmermans, S. (2000). Order and their others: On the constitution of universalities in medical work. Configurations, 8(1), 31-61.

Bond, T., & Fox, C. (2007). Applying the Rasch model: Fundamental measurement in the human sciences, 2d edition. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (1992). Stochastic resonance and Rasch measurement. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 5(4), 186-187 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt54k.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011). Stochastic and historical resonances of the unit in physics and psychometrics. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, 9, 46-50.

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Stenner, A. J. (2015). The role of metrology in mobilizing and mediating the language and culture of scientific facts. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 588(012043).

Fisher, W. P., Jr., & Wilson, M. (2015). Building a productive trading zone in educational assessment research and practice. Pensamiento Educativo, in review.

Galison, P. (1997). Image and logic: A material culture of microphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Golinski, J. (2012). Is it time to forget science? Reflections on singular science and its history. Osiris, 27(1), 19-36.

Haraway, D. J. (1996). Modest witness: Feminist diffractions in science studies. In P. Galison & D. J. Stump (Eds.), The disunity of science: Boundaries, contexts, and power (pp. 428-441). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Harvard University Press.

Lehrer, R. (2013, April 29). (Chair). In A learning progression emerges in a trading zone of professional community and identity. American Educational Research Association, Division C on Learning and Instruction, Section 2b on Learning and Motivation in Social and Cultural Contexts, San Francisco, CA.

Lehrer, R., & Jones, S. (2014, 2 April). Construct maps as boundary objects in the trading zone. In W. P. Fisher Jr. (Chair), Session 3-A: Rating Scales and Partial Credit, Theory and Applied. International Objective Measurement Workshop, Philadelphia, PA.

Lehrer, R. (2015). Designing for development: Commentary on Saxe, de Kirby, Kang, Le and Schneider. Human Development, 58(1), 45-49.

Mari, L., & Wilson, M. (2013). A gentle introduction to Rasch measurement models for metrologists. Journal of Physics Conference Series, 459(1), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012002/pdf/1742-6596_459_1_012002.pdf.

Pendrill, L. (2014). Man as a measurement instrument [Special Feature]. NCSLi Measure: The Journal of Measurement Science, 9(4), 22-33.

Pendrill, L., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2015). Counting and quantification: Comparing psychometric and metrological perspectives on visual perceptions of number. Measurement, 71, 46-55.

Ricoeur, P. (1992). Oneself as another. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Saxe, G. B., de Kirby, K., Kang, B., Le, M., & Schneider, A. (2015). Studying cognition through time in a classroom community: The interplay between “everyday” and “scientific” concepts. Human Development, 58(1), 5-44.

Stenner, A. J., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2013). Metrological traceability in the social sciences: A model from reading measurement. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 459(012025), http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/459/1/012025.

Stenner, A. J., Swartz, C., Hanlon, S., & Emerson, C. (2012, February). Personalized learning platforms. Presented at the Pearson Global Research Conference, Fremantle, Western Australia.

Wilson, M. (Ed.). (2004). National Society for the Study of Education Yearbooks. Vol. 103, Part II: Towards coherence between classroom assessment and accountability. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, M. (2005). Constructing measures: An item response modeling approach. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wilson, M. R. (2013). Using the concept of a measurement system to characterize measurement models used in psychometrics. Measurement, 46, 3766-3774.



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