Knowledge Series Part 4: In Defense of Knowledge cont’d

Knowledge Supports Lifelong Learning

I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner. I read books, mostly about teaching. I read a lot of blogs, mostly about teaching. I’m trying to replace my Netflix binges with documentaries. I took some online courses this summer. My motivation for this lifelong learning certainly comes from having the freedom to pursue whatever topics catch my interest. This appears to support allowing students to pursue their own interests and independent study. However, my ability to do so comes from my education, my reading ability, and the mental schema I have already developed.

Much of the information available for lifelong learning is in text-based form. Yes, there are MOOCs and Ted-Ed Youtube videos, but students shouldn’t have to rely on information being carefully curated or colourfully animated in order to be accessible. They should be able to seek information in all forms, including dense, challenging text. As already argued, knowledge underpins reading skills, and if reading is important for lifelong learning, then knowledge is as well.

Knowledge also begets more knowledge. If students already have robust schema in their minds for a given topic, it is easier for them to learn and remember more about it. This is because there are more connections that can be made between the new information and the schema in long-term memory. Picture this as putting up a large poster in your classroom using blue sticky tac. If you only use one little ball of sticky tac (one connection), your poster will fall off the wall. If you use twenty, it will probably stay up.

For example, when I was reading The Story of Philosophy, the author mentions how the diffusion of paper from Egypt to Europe helped Europe make more effective use of the printing press; the result was that “printing, which had long awaited an inexpensive medium, broke out like a liberated explosive” (pg. 116). Now, I already know about the printing press and the significance of this invention. This fact slots neatly into my schema and builds my understanding of the era. If I lacked this background knowledge, I doubt I would be able to so easily recall this fact now.

The importance of background information is demonstrated in the difference in how experts and novices acquire information in a particular domain. While you may expect experts to learn less than novices when they look something up in their area of expertise, because they already know so much, the opposite is true; the experts learned more, because most of the information is familiar so they are able to focus on just the novel features, while for the novice, everything is new and must be assimilated. The research backs up the importance of background knowledge in learning new information; it is important across age levels and operates independently of the students’ aptitude level.

Having knowledge about a topic also creates interest in the topic. This summer I attended two performances of Shakespeare by the Bow in Calgary. The stage sat at the bottom of a grassy hill, and the slope was filled with spectators. Looking around, as we all enjoyed the work of a 16th century playwright, I wondered if as many people would be here if we did not study Shakespeare in school: if we would have been turned off by the language and uninterested in reading more as adults, if a teacher did not guide us through the texts during our adolescence. One of the performances was a medley of different scenes and monologues from a range of Shakespeare plays. When I was familiar with the play, and understood the context from which the excerpt was drawn, I enjoyed it more: “Hey, that’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” When I was unfamiliar with the play, my attention wandered.

Achievement leads to motivation. A study of 1,478 Canadian elementary students found that achievement in mathematics predicted intrinsic motivation, but intrinsic motivation did not predict achievement. We are motivated to do more of something we are good at.

We want students to be independent, lifelong learners, but err when we give them independence too early. Providing them a broad base of knowledge would better serve this purpose.

Knowledge Equips Students to Participate in Public Discourse and Become Agents of Change

This is one of the main goals of education for me is to equip citizens to engage intelligently in society. To discuss. To converse. And in the age of the internet, this isn’t limited to the forum or in parliament. Actually, we can consider how the meaning of forum has change, from the public space of Roman times to online discussion places.

Twitter is a good example of this public conversation, though a bit constrained by its 140 280 character limit. I have a different forum in mind. When I think of public conversation, on current issues, pop culture, anything, I think of Reddit.

I use Reddit. I’m a Redditor. I’m more of a lurker than a poster, but I’m on there. For those unfamiliar with the website, it’s for people who like to read the comment sections under news articles. It is a place of conversation, of varying quality. The best contributors are those with something interesting to say, whether stemming from personal experiences, their expertise, or a unique perspective. Knowledge is important for these conversations; it helps people have something meaningful to contribute.

Here is a selection of posts I found using /r/bestof, which collects the best posts from across Reddit, as well as other subreddits, such as the excellent /r/askhistorians. (Warning: This is Reddit, and discussions threads often include profanity and crude jokes. This is still the internet. Click with caution.) Browsing the site, you can find discussion of military spending in the United States, explanation of how doctors break bad news to patients, a summary of the Book of Job, evaluation of trickle down economics, and an analysis of why dandelions are considered weeds. Evidence and examples (in other words, knowledge) are what makes these posts high quality. While a lot of the /r/bestof posts are based on interesting personal experiences, we need to think about how schools can equip students to participate in these discussions. We can’t give them the challenge of having a disabled sibling, the experience of living through a natural disaster, or the obstacle of gender discrimination in gaming, but we can give them knowledge, and through knowledge, they can make meaningful contributions to these conversations.

The Great Conversation occurs in other places. For Michael Fordham, it happens while hiking mountains.; meandering conversations on a range of topics, where the participants all know enough to engage, and there are no interruptions to look something up on a phone. For others, maybe it happens on Nerd Nights, in op-eds in newspapers or at the family dinner table. Knowledge is the entry ticket to meaningful participation in these conversations.

It is also important to think about the purpose of engaging in these conversations, and when the goal is to create change in society and how that can be done effectively. Left History Teaching talks about “knowledge that empowers people to be intellectually independent.” We don’t want our students to be reliant on politicians and others to deliver accurate and trustworthy information on the economy, climate change, conflict in the Middle East, when they prove so often to be unreliable sources. They need knowledge to spot the lies; “without knowledge they will be pliable [but] with knowledge they could be powerful.”

E.D. Hirsch also highlights how knowledge, even the body of knowledge defined and perpetuated by the powerful, can be used to enact change in society. In his 1987 book Cultural Literacy, he quotes from the 1972 platform of the Black Panther, demonstrating their use of references to the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, and the Nixon campaign: that is, drawing on a traditional body of knowledge in pursuit of their radical agenda. To quote Hirsch, “[t]o be conservative in the means of communication is the road to effectiveness in modern life, in whatever direction one wishes to be effective.”

Finally, cultural literacy is simply a mark of education, and this becomes a form of cultural capital: a way to gain respect in this public discourse. Take Shakespeare, whose place in the curriculum will continue to be controversial, with the dated language and representation of women and minority groups and an aura of elitism, but whose influence in Western culture is persistent and large. To quote David Didau:

The consequences of this decision [to not study Shakespeare] are enormous and not knowing at least a smattering of some of the plays is to mark oneself out as a pariah and a philistine. Familiarity with Shakespeare is a mark of culture and education; depriving children of this cultural capital is to deny them the opportunity to decide for themselves…There’s nothing liberating about not studying Shakespeare. The ability to criticise, analyse, reinterpret and deconstruct rests on what you know. If we allow students not to know anything about Shakespeare, we are marking them out as less than those who do.

Certain areas of knowledge build cultural literacy and provide access to power structures. It is from within these power structures that we can change the world to be a more egalitarian place. It might not seem fair, that this knowledge is necessary, but we don’t make the situation fair by declining to provide this knowledge in schools. Those who are more privileged will still get it. We must educate students for the world as it is, in order to equip them to make the world into what we want it to be.

Knowledge Makes Life Worth Living

This section was the last argument I added in favour of knowledge, inspired to do so by Martin Robinson’s post on a liberal arts education. His argument for the teaching of knowledge for the sake of knowledge contradicts the more utilitarian arguments I’ve taken here, but merits inclusion because he effectively argues a difficult position.

It is a difficult position, because most discussions revolving around education want to equip students for certain goals, social mobility, entrance into college, success in the 21st century workforce, literacy, and how we can most effectively do so. To argue that education, knowledge, is not a means to an end but an end itself is brave, because it means to stand outside of this debate.

Robinson argues that a knowledge-based, liberal arts education is liberating, as children are free to think and reason, a freedom that is taken away by narrowing education to a specific economic purpose. Instead, knowledge equips students to pursue the truth, and guides them in understanding what it means to be human; it creates purpose in life, because, to quote Socrates, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

For me, intellectual pursuits add to my quality of life. Writing this blog post series has been challenging but enjoyable work. I enjoy reading poetry, a more recently discovered pleasure, and take delight in understanding the world around me, whether it is erosion patterns on mountains or historical influence on architecture. Mindlessly browsing the internet, going out on a Friday night, or binging on Netflix can be relaxing and fun, but they don’t satisfy me in the same way. I am free to think and reason. This makes life worth living.

While I may be unusual in the joy I take in intellectual pursuits, let’s not label children as academic and non-academic and prematurely make this decision for them: “knowledge is for all, because it is about ensuring all have a stake in their society…[and are] able to make a difference to themselves.”

What is knowledge for? Reading comprehension. Developing schema. Critical thinking. Lifelong learning. Public discussion and social change. Life itself.

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