Why do we belittle knowledge?
Well, Naval Ravikant is not the first celebrity philosopher to deride knowledge acquisition. Albert Einstein, our favorite theoretical physicist, celebrated for his quotable one-liners like Naval Ravikant, also famously said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Behaviorist Burrhus Frederic Skinner joined the chorus when he wrote in the New Scientist, "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." Over these years, many celebrity philosophers like Naval, Einstein, and Skinner, to mention a few, have contributed to qualifying knowledge as illusory, unimportant, limited, inert, and forgettable.
Formal education's obsession with tests, the parallel culture of rote learning that obsession inevitably promotes, seems to have only intensified our suspicion of knowledge acquisition over the years. When the perception of formal schooling as a run-up to tests, revolving around knowledge acquisition, agitates some of us, they go as far as advising us that we must rid ourselves entirely of schools and teachers. They refer to the misgivings of the celebrity philosophers about knowledge acquisition and advocate that children can learn critical thinking and creative problem solving without teachers and schools teaching them facts. They insist that since teachers do not do anything other than merely disseminate information, and since knowledge is anyway a useless commodity in the 21st Century and beyond, teachers are irrelevant, so are schools. They ask us, “Is it not obvious by now that the time we spend acquiring knowledge is not worth it?”
Isn’t knowledge worth acquiring?
Learning in the 21st Century is caught unaware in the middle of an ever-escalating conflict between two distinct educational approaches. The Multiple Intelligence fame, Howard Gardner, mentions this conflict in his book, the Unschooled Mind, and explains the two approaches as follows:
The first approach is mimetic, where "the teacher demonstrates the desired performance or behaviour, and the student duplicates it as faithfully as possible." A 'precise mastery of information or slavish duplication of models' is the fundamental feature of this approach. He calls the second one the transformative approach, which expects the teacher to serve "as a coach or facilitator, trying to evoke certain qualities or understandings in the students." While the mimetic approach emphasizes knowledge acquisition, the transformative approach works towards teaching creativity. Gardner highlights how those of us who are in favor of the transformative approach reject the mimetic approach, downplaying knowledge acquisition. Gardner explains:
"Those more sympathetic to a creativity stance view education as an opportunity for individuals to invent knowledge on their own to a significant extent, to transform what has been encountered in the past, and perhaps eventually to contribute new ideas and concepts to the collective wisdom. Supporters of a creativity stance tend to downplay basic skills (and knowledge,) in the belief that they are unnecessary, that they will be acquired anyway, or that they should be a subject of focus only after an ambiance of creative exploration has been established."
Later, Gardner explains why it may be incorrect to write off knowledge acquisition, even in the 21st Century, when information is available at our fingertips, and we think it need not be unnecessarily stored in our brains. He says we need to acquire knowledge parallel to mastering creativity because learning is primarily a performance of understanding. Now, what does that mean?
What is the role of knowledge in the performance of understanding?
American Cognitive Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham supports Gardner's position in the 21st Century Conflict of Educational Approaches in his landmark book, Why don't students like school? Learning in the 21st Century might be predominantly about critical thinking and creative problem-solving. However, Willingham draws our attention to the fact that when we think, we need to think about something. What does that mean?
In the book, Willingham draws our attention to a misconception that might be influencing our celebrity philosophers to denigrate knowledge. Willingham feels that the problem lies in how we define thinking. Many of us believe that cognitive processes are similar to the operations available on a computer. As you know, a predefined set of procedures is available on a computer. It can apply these procedures to any variations of identical tasks. Going by that logic, if you can critically analyze a medical document for example, you should be able to use the same cognitive processes to examine any document. However, this is not true. Willingham explains:
But the human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, it does not mean we can also think critically about a chess game or about the current situation in the Middle East or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. Critical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge. Thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).
Thinking is the process of combining information in new ways, retrieving a set of information from our long-term memory and connecting it to the new information in our working memory. It is the performance of our understanding of those facts. That is why we must ensure students acquire background knowledge parallel to practicing critical thinking skills. Cognitive science reiterates that people who retain more information in their long-term memory tend to think more clearly, can solve unusually complex problems, and learn faster. In other words, 21st Century schools need teachers who can design learning experiences that allow complex performances of understanding, coupled with authentic and continuing knowledge acquisition. At Innerkern, we are committed to supporting our schools to ease the burden of this conflict between the mimetic and the transformative approaches. After all, knowledge might not be just an illusion.
Bonus readings for the month!
Reading One | Lessons from the field
Reading Two | Lessons from a conversation
Reading Three | Lessons from a master teacher
We hope you enjoyed reading this issue of #WorkLessons @Innerkern. Now, our big question this month for you is this: what are you going to do in your school to ensure that learning is the performance of understanding, scaffolded by parallel processes that enable knowledge acquisition? Would you like to collaborate with Innerkern as you gear up to address this 21st Century Conflict of Educational Approaches in your classrooms? Please feel free to write to us to talk about this via email@example.com
Thank you for your time.
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