Maybe you’re sitting through some PD or training. Or a member of administration is trying to be inspirational during a meeting. Or a video is circulating through the school e-mail.
The presenter pulls out a smartphone: “The students of today don’t need to have their heads filled with knowledge, when they’re carrying a computer in their pocket. All the knowledge they need is right here, at their fingertips.”
I can’t remember when I first heard this. I can’t remember when I first started to doubt it. But I do know that, now, I firmly disagree. The accessibility of information today makes knowledge more important, not less, if we want to equip students to navigate the raging river of information, think critically about it, and use it to engage intelligently with the world.
Why I Wrote This Series
This series serves dual purposes.
First, it is an effort to solidify my ideas on the topic and think about my own learning. I started this blog in order to reflect on my practice, on my experience as a teacher and learner. These posts still pursue that goal, and will be generously seasoned with personal reflections and the insights educational research has provided.
At the same time, I will be defensive and argumentative, because I know my views run counter to those held by a lot of educators and pundits. I needed this argument to be a fortress, because I know I will be challenged for this perspective. So, if it seems like I a a little excessive with the examples and explanation, well, I’m a bit nervous. By the time I was done writing this article, I had ten windows open, and over 120 tabs spread between them. I did my research, and the more I researched, the more certain I became.
This is divided into four broad parts. The first part is a discussion of what, exactly, is knowledge, because it is important to define terms in a debate. The second part is my reasons for defending the importance of knowledge in education, a synthesis of arguments put forward by others and my own experiences. The third is my anticipation of, and response to, counter-arguments: questions and concerns people may have and my efforts to address them. Finally, I will discuss why this whole debate around the importance of knowledge matters.
So here it goes.
What is Knowledge?
It is not my goal to wade into a philosophical discussion here, but rather to make explicit the definition of knowledge commonly used when discussing its role in schools.
First, there are different kinds of knowledge, such as knowledge-that (declarative knowledge) and knowledge how (procedural knowledge). Since, generally, discussion about knowledge in philosophical and educational circles focuses on declarative knowledge, so will we. This type of knowledge can be stated in a declarative sentence (A clear sky at noon is blue), or a know-that sentence (I know that the sky is blue).
But there is a distinction between knowledge and information or facts. Here, I shamelessly turn to the Wikipedia definition:
Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.
Knowledge is something that is held by someone in their mind, something acquired. It is learned. This means what it knowledge for one is information for another, if it is not stored in the latter’s memory. Here is the crux of the debate. I don’t think anyone is arguing against the presence of information or facts in schools, but rather efforts to transfer that information into long-term memory.
There are three types of long-term memory: episodic, semantic, and procedural. Semantic memory is for facts, procedural memory is memory of how to carry out physical actions, and episodic memory is memory of life experiences. Knowing what the different parts of a bike are called is semantic memory, knowing how to ride a bike is procedural memory, and remembering how you learned to ride a bike is episodic. Again, focusing on how we use the word “knowledge” when discussing education, we are referring to semantic memory. When we are debating more knowledge or less, that is what we are discussing, not the formation of procedural or episodic memories.
So, here is my Frankenstein definition for knowledge: Knowledge, as the term is used in educational debates, is declarative knowledge held as semantic memory.
Or, as David Didau puts it, “[k]nowledge is only knowledge if it lives inside of us.”