Who Is Afraid of Knowledge?

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” 

There. I said it. And yes, I know, “progressive” educators will quickly dismiss this as being an “elitist”, “traditionalist” or whatever you want to call it, claim. My questions…

Have you ever met a creative person or a critical thinker who did not possess knowledge? I haven’t. Pseudo-experts abound. On TV, in newspapers, online.

Do you think any of the geniuses that are used as icons in discourses about creativity was an ignorant? Read their biographies. They had vast knowledge not only in their domain but also in others.

Have you ever met people who seemed to be experts in a topic or field just to realize later in the conversation (or interaction) that they only had surface knowledge and the dialogue was deviated to hide these gaps? And you couldn’t further debate or build on an idea *because* they lacked knowledge you had assumed they had? I have met a lot of them. Even educators – who had no idea who Vygotsky, Dewey, Pestalozzi, Freire were, or what children’s stages of psychological development are. And I am not saying this in a condescending tone – but as an observation. The reasons behind this ignorance are diverse and many are understandable (one being irrelevant professional development forced upon teachers).

Back to my statement:

Knowledge of facts is critical to building understanding. In-depth understanding.

And yet, knowledge is slowly becoming a Cinderella in the broader context of education for reasons that escape me. Cognitive science tells us that “thinking” well depends on activating knowledge effectively:

“The power of human cognition depends on the amount of knowledge encoded and the effective deployment of it.” (A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition, John R. Anderson, 1995)

We all know that there are two types of knowledge: declarative knowledge (yes, those “irrelevant”, googlable facts), and procedural knowledge (more commonly known as “skills”). These two are intertwined and as student-friendly as you might want to be in dismissing the former (because, well, “knowing” stuff is hard and we want students to have only great experiences or “fun”), you cannot.

These facts (“units” in scientific terminology) are the building blocks of skills (“rules”). Simply put, you cannot build a skill or develop deep conceptual understanding in the absence of facts. Think history. Can a student make an in-depth analysis of the concept of “power” unless s/he actually *knows* historical facts – leaders, wars, political structures, treaties, economical setting etc.? Think literature. Think geography. Think chemistry. Any subject. 

“A specific rule (n.n. skill) can only apply when that rule’s condition are satisfied by the knowledge currently available in the declarative memory.” (John R. Anderson, 1995)

Of course, if we want students to have only surface knowledge we can tell them that facts can be searched on Google and we can move on. They google these facts, put them nicely in a poster (or another type of media we want them to create) and they are done. Nothing learned, nothing to use later on. But then we fail them exactly in what we want them to be: good THINKERS. Good thinkers engage with knowledge in complex ways. They dig deep into a subject so that they can make connections across disciplines, they can understand how the land forms or climate (geography) of a place change the evolution of a war (history), can see the importance of irony from literary texts in decoding real-life conversations, advertisements or TV shows where it is used, can solve complex math problems *because* they have enough background/basic knowledge and so forth.

“Knowledge enhances thinking in two ways. First, it helps you solve problems by freeing up space in your working memory. Second, it helps you circumvent thinking by acting as a ready supply of things you’ve already thought about (e.g., if you’ve memorized that 5 + 5 = 10, you don’t have to draw two groups of five lines and count them.” (Why Transfer Is Hard, Daniel T. Willingham)

We needed cognitive science to prove what common sense told us:

“The more you know, the easier it will be for you to learn new things.” (Why Knowledge Is Important, Daniel T. Willingham)

Let’s picture this. I read a book. You read ten books. Who is more likely:

-          To have more knowledge about the world

-          To manipulate words with more ease (language being a tool for thinking)

-          To spell better

-           To have a greater understanding of grammatical patterns (syntax, morphology)

-          To engage in conversations about what I read

-          To have a wider pool of ideas if I were to create something (a poem, a story, a poster, a movie)

-          To make connections between these books and what I already know

This is an exaggerated example but think of students and their long years in school. That will give you an idea of how this amount of knowledge is multiplied.

That is why teaching “critical thinking skills” as an independent, separate set of skills is a lost battle. They are too closely connected to the domain knowledge. That is why a good historian or a brilliant mathematician will not make a good literary critic, and vice-versa. That is why we use phrases such as “thinking like a scientist”, or “thinking like a historian”.

“After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).”

In other words, I cannot call upon a student’s critical thinking skills in an analysis of, say, global pollution, if they do not possess minimal knowledge of the concept itself, of the factors that cause pollution, of the types of pollution that exist, of the impact of pollution on health, economy etc. and more. An in-depth analysis requires, therefore, knowledge. A lot of it.

Before I conclude this post, I just wanted to point out that I *am* a teacher who works in an inquiry-based environment. Those who know me from my other blog know that inquiry drives learning in my classroom, because inquiry and knowledge are NOT mutually exclusive.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

And since we are at it, I am copy-pasting a reply I gave to an educator on Twitter when knowledge vs. technology was discussed.

Technology and Learning

My point: “Technology does not substitute in-depth learning.”

1. In-depth learning takes a lot of knowledge, time, skill and a special mindset (in other words, strong motivation). From the side of teacher, an extraordinary skill to enable students to build this knowledge and to engage in inquiries, whether we talk about math, the arts, language or science. 

2. The so-avoided “K” word in “progressive” education (namely, knowledge) is key to creativity – the latter is not born in a vacuum. No highly creative person was ignorant. Ever. On the contrary, creative people drew from a wide variety of sources and their creativity emerged from this cross-pollination of domains. 

3. Youth and children figure out technology quite easily – I have been using tech starting with 2nd graders so I know. THAT is not the difficulty but the content itself. Think about, say, blogging – *what* and *how* you write impact the audience, and that is built in time (content knowledge, language skills etc.). So your claim that students might not be able to do well in a digital world does not stand. I saw a lot of tech-savy students who were unable to articulate their thinking and, consequently, ended up with poor tech products. 

4. You quickly dismiss the fact that highly performing schools (Finland as one example) do not rely on technology as the U.S. educators do. Why? Is it a disturbing idea?

5. Knowledge does not change “rapidly” at all - core knowledge is fundamental in any field, regardless of how new it is. The laws of inertia, the structure of the Earth, language layers (phonics, morphology, syntax), basic geography concepts etc. do not change from one year to the next. This is a false idea and it creates a false sense of urgency.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

To end this with a visual… at 4:32 a.m.

52871df69eaf6c052ab528c27806b2ea

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Further readings:

Daniel T. WIllingham (cognitive psychologist) http://www.danielwillingham.com/articles.html

E. D. Hirsch, American Educator – You Can Always Look It Up…or Can You?

Dan Meyer – Direct Instruction Vs. Inquiry Learning 

Mark A. Hayter - Scaffolding For Deep Understanding 

Paul A. Kirschner (Educational Psychologist) – Why Minimal Instruction Does Not Work 

Educational Psychology 

From my blog:

Reading Strategies Are Great. Not. (again, dealing with skills -knowledge pseudo-dichotomy)

Misconceptions About Critical Thinking 

Understanding Understanding 

About these ads

3 Responses to “Who Is Afraid of Knowledge?”

  1. It makes me think of what I’ve recently learned, about nature vs nurture. I could never decide on which side of the fence I fell. Now, it seems, that our environment actually alters our genes. So, it’s both. No fence after all. Which makes me think who put the fence up in the first place?

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 48 other followers

%d bloggers like this: