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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Nature of Knowledge

The world seems to be a rather unsettled place.  My guess is that the constantly changing nature of our world is not a new development.  What is “new” about it is the fact that we have instant access and awareness of those changes these days, due to 24-hour cable, satellite radio, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Students studying history or government in our schools no longer have to wonder, guess, or even dig for how the overthrow of a government affects its people.  They can simply access the hashtag “#Libya” on Twitter and immediately read thousands of posts by current Libyan citizens who are posting real-time accounts of the street fighting, assemblages, mayhem, celebrations, etc., that accompany revolution.

What, you might ask, does that have to do with “knowledge”?

Knowledge is NOT a thing.  Perhaps it would be best to rethink how we view “knowledge” and think of it more as a fluid and changing construct. We should probably think of knowledge as a verb, rather than a noun.  To be sure, certain facts are constant: 2+2=4 is a pretty well-established fact, as is the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as is the distance from New York to Los Angeles (well, maybe that one is changing, if you accept the idea of continental drift and plate tectonics).  But, my point is this: certain facts are set in stone, unchanging.  However, perhaps we should think of those elements as just that, “facts,” or “information.”  “Information” should be thought of as the noun (a person, place, or thing), while “knowledge” is thought of as a process. What we “know” changes, grows, bends, connects, morphs in an ongoing manner.

What does this mean for each of us?  The creation or acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing and dynamic process.  Our brains are constantly taking in new information, new stimuli, and reconciling it against what it already knows and believes.  From that process of continual mushing, mashing, synthesizing, we come to know things in new ways, in better ways, in different ways (but rarely in permanent ways).

Learning is now as much about finding the information one needs as it is about memorizing the information.  There is simply too much information to memorize, anyway. Even the physicians I visit have changed from relying on their memory and intuition about what maladies my symptoms might be suggesting, to using their computer (whatever shape it may take) to quickly filter the mass of information about symptoms, combinations of symptoms, the impact of my age/weight/medical conditions/drugs/lifestyle before making a determination about how best to treat me.  I for one like the fact that my physicians are leveraging the sum of all accumulated knowledge regarding my status before making a decision about my treatment.  It seems wise to me that they would choose this more exact approach before dosing me with medicines, or cutting me open.

Schools, too, are changing in response to this way of thinking about knowledge.  Schools must equip our students with the skills to learn on their own, to unlearn that which is no longer useful or relevant, and to relearn the things that will better prepare them to be successful in their work and life. 

Standardized testing, as we have known it, does not represent an adequate, perhaps not even a useful, means of telling us about whether or not students have those skills.  Blanchard and Hodges (2005) describe the process of moving through stages toward mastery.  They tell us that one begins as a Novice, then becomes an Apprentice, then a Journeyman, and finally a Master (or Expert) in whatever field they have chosen to pursue (whether a vocation or an avocation).  When you think about it, each of those phases implies a level of desire, of collaboration, of coaching, of mentoring, of stretching, and of growing (even at the Master level).  In effect, the “knowledge” is fluid, changing, growing, being revised, on a continual basis.

In my mind, we ought to be rethinking how schools serve our students, who will be living and working in a world that literally “changes out from under them” on a daily basis. We need to focus our efforts on helping students learn how to learn, how to unlearn, and how to relearn.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Value of Booksmarts?

I’ve spent a large chunk of my 54 years on the planet either formally engaged in the act of learning, or thinking about how learning happens.  It seems to me that we’re all engaged in the learning process, pretty much all day, everyday (whether we’re aware of it or not).  Much of that learning is done on automatic pilot; for instance, once we get a ticket (or two) for passing a school bus with flashing red lights, we learn to STOP when the bus has its red lights flashing.  That powerful lesson was probably not something we got up one morning planning to learn.  It’s just learning that occurs in a happenstance sort of way.

Other kinds of learning we do in a very intentional way, some of it because we really want to - like learning how to put make-up on to make ourselves beautiful, learning how to drive so we can get that precious drivers license, learning how to operate our cool new iPhone, etc.  Sometimes it’s a very intentional AND formal way of learning – like going to college or trade school to learn to be an accountant, or teacher, or welder.

Looking back on many of my learning experiences I see that I learned from a variety of sources and through various “teachers” such as:  the school of hard knocks, books, observing events and people, trying and failing repeatedly, many sermons (mind you, I didn’t learn from all of them), loved ones, teachers, experiences of all kinds, coaches, allies, hundreds of hours of college work, even my enemies.  Again, that learning was the combined result of both formal and informal processes.

My guess is that my experience is not all that different from yours.

Since we all engage in the process of learning every day, then one might argue that there is little point in accumulating the formal evidence that documents our learning (such as diplomas, degrees, and certifications). 

Howard Gardner, the noted Harvard psychologist and educator, says that intelligence “…is the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings.”  That’s a fairly high-brow way of saying that smarts is when you know something or can do something your friends and community value.  In that case, there’s a whole lot of stuff that would make one “intelligent.”  I’m thinking of my grandfather on this note.  He dropped out of school in 8th grade, and went to work to help support his family.  I’ve not personally known anyone with a brighter mind than he had.  However, his “smarts” were not “booksmarts.”  Translate that to mean that he didn’t have any paper credentials documenting his learning/intelligence.  But, as Gardner has rightly noted, my grandfather was held in the highest regard by his community for what he knew and the skills he possessed.  So, what would have, could have, possibly been the added value to him had he actually formalized his expansive knowledge and skills repertoire?

Here’s the deal.  It’s true; learning is learning, whether informal or formal.  True, intelligence is something that is valued by your community, usually (even if it’s the kind of intelligence possessed by mob bosses or gang leaders).  So, like my granddad, what is the need in getting a diploma, pursuing the degree, becoming certified?  What do booksmarts get for you that streetsmarts don’t?

Here’s the way I see it.  The learners that go to the trouble to document their learning and accumulate the evidence that goes with it have a significant advantage over those that don’t.  They get the job interviews the others don’t, they have doors opened that the others don’t, they get the jobs the others can’t.  They’re not one ounce smarter, but they have more opportunities, more options.

It’s really the value of education.  Learning counts.  Proof of that learning counts even more.