NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!
Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Gradgrind was a fictional character. Dickens invented him as a caricature of what was no doubt some fairly awful teaching in Victorian England. But, he isn’t real. If they ever did, no one thinks like that today. Or if they do, I’ve yet to encounter them. Every teacher want his or her students to be creative, good at solving problems and a critical thinker, don’t they?

Critical to understanding how we get to what we all want is that knowledge is not the same thing as facts. Facts are just one part of a much greater whole. Philosophers have been trying to work out what knowledge is for millennia. When Greece was still ancient, Aristotle broke it into three components which he called episteme, techne and phronesis. Episteme, or propositional knowledge is what we know, whereas techne or procedural knowledge, is ‘know how,’ and is basically synonymous with ‘skill’. Phronesis, often translated as practical knowledge or practical wisdom, is perhaps best thought of as tacit knowledge and is made up of things we’re unable to articulate and don’t necessarily know we know.

From episteme we get the word epistemology – the study of knowledge. Philosophers tend to think about knowledge as justified true belief. Getting to grips with this would involve recapping some drawn out, tangled philosophical debates. I’m not going to do that here.[1] Instead I’m going to think about knowledge from the perspective of cognitive science, which can best be thought of as structured collections of information, acquired through perception, or reasoning. This doesn’t have to be justified, or true, or even necessarily believed, it just has to be stored in the repositories of our long-term memory. Our brains are as full of misconceptions, confusions and falsehoods as they are anything.

My contention is that you are what you know. Knowledge is all there is. This might sound a little extreme and is sometimes dismissed as unduly cognitivist, so I’ll try to explain what I mean. Psychologists used to believe that people could be entirely understood by observing their behaviour and that behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings. Importantly behaviourists believed that the mind was a blank slate – tabula rasa – on which any instructions could be written. That’s no longer believed to be the case.

Behaviourism fell from grace and was replaced, in the 1960s, by cognitivism. The so-called ‘cognitivist revolution’ focuses on our inner mental activities. In order to understand ourselves we need to peer into the black box of the human mind wherein mental processes – thinking, memory, knowing, and problem solving – can be explored. Knowledge and schemas are viewed interchangeably and learning is defined as change in a learner’s schemas.

I’m not subscribing wholesale to this paradigm, but that’s certainly where my sympathies lie. Everything we are – our personality, experiences, preferences, thoughts and feelings – are all stored in memory. There is nothing outside of these biological processes; mind and body are not distinct and there is no ‘little man’ or spooky stuff required to explain how and why we do what we do. [2]

My position is summarised in these three propositions:

  1. Knowledge is both what we think with and about.
  2. We cannot think with or about something we don’t know.
  3. The more we know about something, the more sophisticated our thinking.

Thinking depends on knowledge; we are what we know. You can’t think about something you don’t know. Try it for a moment. The best you can do is to ask, ‘what don’t I know?’ but even that is something you know. What we think about are concepts, ideas, experiences and facts, nothing but facts. We can think about the capital of Chad or the length of the Nile. We can think about our favourite colour or what we’d like for our birthday. We can think about anything we know at least something about, but this can be a shallow, unfulfilling experience. The more things we know, the more detail we posses, the more links and connections we can make. Seeing these links is insight; making these connections is creative. What you know is like intellectual Velcro; new stuff sticks to it, so, the more you know, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you are.

But all this propositional knowledge is just the tip of an unimaginably enormous iceberg. Although you probably can’t explain it, you know how to balance. You know how to recognise thousands of different human faces. You might not know you know this, but if you’re reading this blog post you know the relationships between the 44 phonemes and over 170 graphemes that make up the English alphabetic code. These aren’t things most people think about, but we use them to think with all the time.

Michael Polanyi suggested that the closest we could get to articulating tacit knowledge is to come up with proxies or maxims:

Maxims are rules, the correct application of which is part of the art which they govern. The true maxims of golfing or of poetry increase our insight into golfing or poetry and may even give valuable guidance to golfers and poets; but these maxims would instantly condemn themselves to absurdity if they tried to replace the golfer’s skill or the poet’s art. Maxims cannot be understood, still less applied by anyone not already possessing a good practical knowledge of the art. They derive their interest from our appreciation of the art and cannot themselves either replace or establish that appreciation.

If you possess the tacit knowledge then you can understand the maxim. If you can water-ski, you’ll grasp an explanation of how one water-skis, but if you’ve never water-skied then the maxim misses out too much – is too vague – for you to have any understanding what they’re really describing.

Why does this matter? Well, the ‘curse of knowledge’ is a predictable blind spot in our ability to think. Because something is simple and obvious to us we assume it is simple and obvious. We can’t see how dependent we are on what we have mastered. That much – most – of our knowledge is tacit means we’re routinely unaware of many things that are of crucial importance to our ability to think. This results in absurdities like, ‘knowledge isn’t all that important because you can always look up whatever you need to know on the internet.’ People really do seem to believe this. This lazy, uncritical thinking has been recently trotted out by Caitlin Moran and George Monbiot, but the most egregious examples of this logical fallacy tend to come from physics professor turned edu-preneur, Sugata Mitra who is on record as having said, “…knowing is obsolete. People often think I’m saying that knowledge is obsolete, which I’m not. I’m saying putting knowledge in your head – that’s obsolete, because you can know anything when you need to know it via the internet.”

Persuasive as these arguments can seem, they ignores the fact that a lot of tacit, procedural knowledge – stuff we’re not consciously aware of thinking about – is what we think with. Our minds are full of different kinds of knowledge and it’s what we know that, as much as anything else, makes us who we are. Our ability to think, reason, problem-solve, create and collaborate all entirely dependent on what we know. In order to think we have to have something to both think with and about. If you don’t know lots of useful, powerful and interesting stuff then you’ll struggle to be useful, powerful or interesting.

Anything we are dependent on looking up we are unable to think with. ‘Thinking with’ and ‘thinking about’ are different ways of handling knowledge but both depend on having the stuff in our heads. If only know where to look something up, that’s the extent of your thinking. You hold it in your head long enough to complete a task and then let it go. If we don’t value the knowledge of how to send photos to friends sufficiently to want to memorise it, that’s fair enough but what you look up only makes sense when it’s integrated with all that you already know. Only being able to look things up is an impoverishing experience. Knowledge is only knowledge if it lives inside us.

E. D. Hirsch explains further:

There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.

All skills require knowledge, and thinking, in whatever form it takes, is procedural knowledge. There’s no such thing as a generic ability to be analytical or creative; you can only analyse some thing or be creative in a particular field. To understand this we need to deconstruct the idea of skills. Instead of seeing skills as somehow separate from knowledge it’s more useful to view knowledge and its application as inseparably intertwined and mutually interdependent. It might be better, as I argued here, to abandon the term ‘skills’ altogether and replace it with the more neutral and useful term ‘expertise’.

To become an expert in a domain you must have something to think critically about and practice thinking critically. But, sadly, this will not make you more expert in any other but the most closely related domains. You have to think critically about the facts you have learned; this is part of the domain. This post from James Mannion co-opts Willingham to really illustrate the confusion. He says,

…. knowledge is necessary for critical thinking, but it is not sufficient. It is abundantly clear that Willingham’s central message is one of balance, and he sums up the twin insights of cognitive science succinctly:
“It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.”

What Mannion has missed, due to the unhelpful muddle of putting ‘factual knowledge’ on one side of the scales and ‘thinking skills’ on the other, is that they are both knowledge.

Knowledge is both necessary and sufficient; there is nothing else. What are thinking skills if they are not knowledge? Expertise requires domain specific knowledge which obviously is more than just a bunch of Gradgrindian facts.

[1] Suffice it to say that, broadly speaking, I’m an empiricist with a dash of idealism.
[2] This is not an uncontentious view and there will be plenty of people ready to disagree with this attack on dualism. The debate is beyond the narrow scope of this post but if you’re intrigued, you should have a go at Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.