The butterfly in honoured dust: Grand narratives of knowledge

There’s something special about a butterfly. When I see one in the garden I can’t help but hold my breath and watch until it disappears. Maybe, this time it will choose my foot of all the surfaces to alight. I drop what I’m doing and following it’s graceful meandering, hoping that just once the whimsy will last. I wish I could capture that feeling and share it with the world. It’s such a special little piece of knowledge.


By Thomas TK Tungnung (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The desire to capture and share the knowledge of butterflies is a time honoured tradition. Preserving samples of butterflies has been pursued formally by lepidopterists and enthusiastic amateurs for centuries. The oldest known pinned butterfly the Bath White, was captured and preserved in Cambridge in 1702. When it turned 300 it was celebrated with butterfly shaped cake. Butterflies are still actively collected. The samples allow detailed analysis of anatomy, the reappraisal of taxonomies so connections between organisms in other disciplines can be made. The information gathered from butterfly samples are used to inform biodiversity and climate change knowledge domains.

The collection room is my favourite room at the museum and butterflies hold pride of place. Here the insects are cut away from their habitat. The whimsy has gone. Here I can admire their bright colours and intricate details, read the lables and look up books to discover more. It is a more intensified type of knowledge. Cognitive knowledge.


By L. Shyamal – Self published, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The pinned butterfly embodies cognition: what humans are capable of knowing using only our heads. Our brains are like filing cabinets, analysing, sorting, labeling, storing, cross referencing. As humans we have a tendency to collect knowledges. If we are really keen, we classify them in taxonomies. These taxonomies, in turn, inform how we use that knowledge in the world. Stages of grief help us understand our mashed up emotions when someone close to us dies; Bloom’s Taxonomy might help scaffold an inquiry; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs might help us motivate people, Piaget’s stages of development provide island in the stormy seas of parenting. Each of these cognitive ideas systematise the world so we can make sense of it by giving us tools for dealing with the uncertainty when it pushes us off balance.

Each of these knowledges are beautiful, intricate and stable, just like a butterfly with a pin through its thorax. An idealised butterfly that dictates generalised knowledge of that particular species. But we know that each butterfly is different. A product of an interaction with it’s environment and others of it’s species.

We know that a butterfly had a life outside the collection. It’s one of the first biology lessons we learn. A little egg lays on a leaf and one Sunday morning out pops a tiny and very hungry caterpillar. The keeping of a chrysalis is a right of passage for many. Finding a caterpillar on the lime tree; watching through the glass every day; adding more leaves to the jar with the hole-punched lid. A preschooler’s first controlled experiment.

giphy.gifAs parents we know from  experience there will be one of two outcomes, both eventually: death or rebirth. We struggle with the idea of captivity or see it as a necessary learning experience, or both. We watch proudly as a little brain ticks over soaking up each little bit of new knowledge at a time. We comfort when the insect dies and use it as a learning experience about the inevitability of life.

The hole-punched jar with it’s little life inside reminds me that of how we know stuff has sociocultural contexts. Each knowledge we have has a history that morphs and transforms the knowledge over time as new evidence comes to light. Some knowledges are intersected and rejected as cultural practices bring new ways of knowing and seeing to light. Each time a knowledge returns to our focus, we reinterpret it with all we have learnt moment by moment since our last encounter.

Much of what we know of the world has come to us through controlled experiments. Much of what we know about knowing and learning has come to us through focus groups, interviews, classroom observations. In laboratories with and without the white coats. Learning scientists, psychologists, teachers and researchers watching a chrysalis with and without intervention but always through a hole-punched glass shaped as a video camera or tape recorder.

A controlled environment can never truly give us the full picture and years of social conditioning means that people act differently around political structures like classrooms and interview rooms. Even a cafe can’t remove the body politics between a person and a member of the education community. 12 plus years of predicting what a teacher wants and giving it to them is great training for providing a myopic view of how we work stuff out.

grain-848516_1280So how can we get back to the garden? Or better yet the bush where native butterflies thrive in their natural contexts? Where they act differently to the jar or butterfly house because there is more room. Where they compete, win (against my cabbages), and fall prey to natural predators. Where they work stuff out in their own social, athropological, cognitive and material contexts. Where all those things are not compartmentalised or classified but mixed, mangled and concocting decisions as the butterfly flits from flower to rock.

And how that butterfly intra-acts with me? What does it make me feel? How does it change my views of the bushland? Of butterflies? Of learning?

How do we do that? Link the cognitive and the sociocultural together? Write the grand narrative, the social life, of knowledge? How do we work out how people learn in the wild?


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