The trouble with troublesome knowledge

//The trouble with troublesome knowledge

A recent blog post made some interesting assertions about knowledge. In doing so it presented a series of opinions as facts. That is not a criticism – we all have a tendency to do this. But in order to confront the troublesome nature of knowledge we should address these claims head on and to do so I will treat them as if they were factual.

Fact claim 1: we can teach children [about the world using a globe] as a set of facts to recall, but it just won’t go in like it does later on – they simply cannot place it within their mental maps of the world.

This is an empirical statement. It may be true, it may not. If it is true it’s in opposition to what many developmental psychologists have believe about children’s development for over half a century. Way back in 1960, Jerome Bruner dismissed the idea that some kinds of knowledge could be developmentally inappropriate saying, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” In Why Knowledge Matters, E.D. Hirsch refers to this as the ‘Bruner principle’: any topic can be taught appropriately to any age of child.

Most of Hirsch’s book is concerned with the possibility and practice of teaching of factual knowledge in “intellectually honest ways” to young children. This is not to suggest that you pitch up to a group of 4 year olds and expect them to readily grasp the concept that the world is spherical and that it can be represented on a globe just because you say so, but it would suggest that there are ways to communicate some sense of this in ways that can be understood.

Our immediate experiences no doubt informs the current state of our knowledge, but we are obviously not limited to it. Everyone has to start somewhere. Daniel Willingham has this to say about what is developmentally appropriate:

…suppose your preschool students have learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., but you are having a hard time getting them to understand that he was a real person who is no longer here, and that fictional characters such as Mary Poppins are not here and never were. If it’s hard for a 4-year-old to conceive of people living in different times and places, does that mean that history should not be taught until the child is older? Such an argument would not make much sense to a developmental psychologist. For children and adults, understanding of any new concept is inevitably incomplete. The preschoolers can still learn something about who King was and what he stood for. Their mistaken belief that they might encounter him at a local store, or that he lives at a school that bears his name, will be corrected in time. Indeed, how do children learn that some people are fictional and some are not? Not by a magical process of brain maturation. Children learn this principle as they learn any other—in fits and starts, sometimes showing that they understand and other times not. If you wait until you are certain that the children will understand every nuance of a lesson, you will likely wait too long to present it. [Emphasis in original]

Fact claim 2: By presenting knowledge rather than lettering children discover it for themselves we might inadvertently pass on things that aren’t true.

Well, we might. We might not. Whether we pass on things that are not true is a matter of some importance. We can go to lengths to ensure we don’t communicate a thing we know to be false, but we can’t be sure that future discoveries will not invalidate what we’ve said. In the recent past, advice to parents was to ensure babies slept on their backs to avoid the risk of choking on their own vomit. We current advice is to ensure babies sleep on their tummies to avoid the risk of choking on their own vomit. The previous advice is flatly contradicted by the current advice. During the First World War, doctors discovered that unconscious soldiers were much more likely to survive if lay on their backs because this reduced the risk of choking on vomit. It seemed reasonable to conclude that the same would hold true for babies. It turns out though that a sleeping baby is not the same as an unconscious soldier. Babies reflexively turn their heads to avoid choking on vomit. When they are lain on their backs they don’t have the strength to move and so the choking risk is actually increased.

Would things have been better if we let parents discover things for themselves? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a mistake to believe that if people are allowed to discover things for themselves they learn things that are factually correct. Should all doctors have individually discovered the germ theory of disease for themselves, or would it be better to tell them the current state of our knowledge on this subject?

Bruner, a champion of the discovery learning cause could see that existing knowledge and culture were not generally passed on by discovery. He wrote:

You cannot consider education without taking into account how culture gets passed on. It seems to me highly unlikely that given the centrality of culture in man’s adaptation to his environment – the fact that culture serves him in the same way as changes in morphology served earlier in the evolutionary scale – that, biologically speaking, one would expect each organism to rediscover the totality of its culture – this would seem most unlikely.

Neither approach can ever be error free, but telling people things that are empirically validated improves the probability that they will learn things that are true.

Fact claim 3: It’s heresy to question the idea that knowledge must come first.

I think this is probably deliberately hyperbolic. It’s fine to question the idea that knowledge should come first. In fact, scepticism is, in the main, a very good thing. There does, however, come a point when questioning leads us astray. At what point should we accent that astrology isn’t a science? Should we allow people in positions of responsibility and influence to claim that homeopathy is just as effective as conventional medicine? What about claims that vaccinations cause autism? It’s fine to ask questions but you need to be prepared to accept answers when evidence and logic suggest they are probably correct. Before asking a question about the validity of an educational approach we should ask ourselves, what sort of answer would convince me I was mistaken? What sort of evidence would I be prepared to accept? If your answer is that no answer and no evidence would sway you, you have placed yourself outside of rational debate and critical thinking.

In order to be convinced that knowledge doesn’t have to come first I would need to be shown that something else could precede knowledge. What could this thing be? As far as I can work out, the only thing we might possess in addition to knowledge is instinct. Maybe it’s true to say that instincts or innate responses must precede knowledge. If it is true, it’s meaningless; f they’re innate, we’re born with them. We can’t acquire something we already possess. So, what else could precede knowledge? Understanding? But what is understanding if it is not composed of knowledge? If someone can demonstrate that there is a category of mental stuff which is not knowledge, then I would be prepared to accept that I’m in the wrong and those committing the “heresy” of questioning this position are correct.

Michael Fordham explores whether knowing precedes understanding here.

Fact claim 4: You can practise the act of being creative.

How? There’s pretty good evidence that creativity is domain specific. It might be true to say that you can practise writing creatively, but it’s hard to see how you could practise creativity without trying it to something. A skill is something that improves through practice. If you practise juggling you will get better at juggling. But what if you practise juggling creatively? Well, you’ll still get better at juggling, but will you become any more creative? In order to answer yes, we’d have to show how practising creativity in one domain could transfer to another, unrelated domain. As far as I’m aware this has never been demonstrated but I’m willing to accept that I’m wrong about this. In order to change my mind, I’d need to see some sort of evidence that creative writing could lead to creative engineering, or creative mathematical problem solving. Maybe I’m setting the bar too high? How about domains that are more closely related: could you show that creative writing could lead to more create acting?

The idea that skills taught in one context transfer to other, unrelated contexts is one of the Holy Grails of education. But the evidence is not positive. Such transfer rarely, if ever, occurs. Bryan Caplan says in The Case Against Education, “Though some educational psychologists deny that education must yield minimal transfer, almost all admit that actually existing education does yield minimal transfer.” He points out that teachers claims at being good at teaching transferable thinking skills is “comically convenient” and that “When someone insists their product has big, hard-to-see benefits, you should be dubious by default – especially when the easy-to-see benefits are small.”

Psychology professor Douglas Detterman relates his personal journey to the depressing realisation that transfer just doesn’t happen:

When I began teaching I thought it was important to make things as hard as possible for students so they would discover the principles for themselves. I thought the discovery of principles was a fundamental skill that students needed to learn and transfer to new situations. Now I view education, even graduate education, as the learning of information. I try to make it as easy for students as possible. Where before I was ambiguous about what a good paper was, I now provide examples of the best papers from past classes. Before, I expected students to infer the general conclusion from specific examples. Now I provide the general conclusion and support it with specific examples. In general, I subscribe to the principle that you should teach people exactly what you want them to learn in a situation as close as possible to the one in which the learning will be applied. I don’t count on transfer and I don’t try to promote it except by explicitly pointing out where taught skills might be applied.

Quite.

Fact claim 5: Knowledge can never be value free.

Can’t it? I can accept that some ‘knowledge’ may be drenched in values, but all? Are mathematical facts dependent on our values or are basic number facts true whatever we believe? How about the physical sciences? Is gravity value free? Or what about something slightly more contentious? Is the theory of evolution value free? Clearly there are lots of values tied up in the belief or disbelief in evolution, but are the facts of natural selection value laden?

Maybe I’m guilty of assuming facts and knowledge are synonymous? Maybe it’s true that facts are inseparable from values? That lesser claim might be true, so perhaps this is just another case of hyperbole. The danger is that when we say things like this, some people think we’re making a factual statement. (See Fact claim 2)

Fact claim 6: The only way children can understand that knowledge is contingent is by “giving them agency in their learning”.

It would be true to make the lesser claim that a way that children can come to understand that facts change might be to give them agency in their learning, but is it the only way? In order to demonstrate that this claim were false, all we would have to do is present a single example of a child coming to understand the contingency of knowledge through some other means. Here’s one possible way: What if I told a child today that you put a comma where you take a breath and then tomorrow I said, “Sorry, I made a mistake – if you went for a run you’d be out of breath. You certainly wouldn’t want to put a comma where you took all those breaths.” Could they understand that the knowledge they had yesterday was incorrect and that this new knowledge changed how they thought? I suspect this would be relatively straightforward, but this is another empirical claim. We can test it.

Fact claim 7: If we focus on a narrow definition of “the best that has been thought and said”, we end up with a curriculum that is pale, male and stale.

Thinking about it, this probably isn’t a factual claim. I’m pretty sure it’s just an opinion. There a lots of weak points in it as a proposition, for instance, why would we focus on a narrow definition? Is there anyone who is advocating that teachers focus on a narrow definition of “the best that has been thought and said”? This looks to be an attempt to erect a straw man which is very easy to knock down. I suspect that it would be fairer to accept that most people who favour placing greater emphasis on knowledge in the curriculum probably want to focus on a broad definition.

The second problem is with the notion that focussing on about “the best that has been thought and said” results in “a curriculum that is pale, male and stale.” This is an oxymoron. Broad or narrow, who could possibly define the ‘best’ as stale? Stale is, by definition, sub par. ‘Male’ and ‘pale’ are mere categories of resentment; the attempt to reduce and co-opt culture to social enterprise.

But I’m not unsympathetic to these concerns. It’s right to ask whether instead of teaching the thoughts and works of the elite, we should prioritise the voices of the more marginalised. Should we set aside what is traditional in favour of what is politically progressive?

These are tough questions acknowledged by Hirsch in relation to his Core Knowledge programme:

Because of an inherent and inescapable inertia in the knowledge that is shared among hundreds of millions of people, the Core Knowledge plan was necessarily traditional, and was criticised in the 1990s for being so. It appeared to perpetuate the dominance of the already dominant elements of American life, while the aim of many intellectuals in the 1990s was to reduce that dominance and privilege, and valorize neglected cultures and women. So there was quote a lot of controversy attached to the Core Knowledge plan, which, though egalitarian in purpose and result, looked elitist on the surface. The aim of giving everybody entrée to the knowledge of power ran smack up against the aim of deprivileging those who are currently privileged.

The canon is not the preserve of any one class, ethic group of gender. It is a shared cultural heritage that has something to say to us all. Indeed, on reading Sonnet 29, Maya Angelou decided that Shakespeare “must have been a black girl”. Knowledge is knowledge, it’s provenance is interesting but does not determine its value. Lindsay Johns argues, “There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare.” Johns sees attempts by “trendy educationalists” as signalling their anti-racist credentials and post-colonial guilt by insisting on diversity in the curriculum. This, he argues, is ultimately disempowering, leaving those it seeks to help, cut off and adrift from the culture that shapes the world in which they have to live.

We should accept the truth of history, which is that white men have dominated intellectual life in the west. Let’s not resist this; let’s run with it. It is western history that has indelibly shaped our consciousness. We live in Britain, not Timbuktu. We might hail from Africa or the Caribbean, but our lives, for better or for worse, are lived in the modern western world, and shaped by the traditions that have moulded it. If we acquaint ourselves with the grammars of the west, it will indubitably help us to understand it and then duly succeed here.

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Is knowledge troublesome? Often, yes. Let’s embrace that fact and teach its troubling, troublesome nature. Let’s teach controversy. Let’s teach contingency. Let’s teach knowledge. After all, what else is there?

2018-06-16T07:32:11+00:00

5 Comments

  1. Tom Burkard June 16, 2018 at 8:39 am - Reply

    Excellent post, but a quibble on the last item: maths as we know it now, insofar as it concerns our number system and algebra, is a product of Indian and Arab civilisation. Even basic scientific concepts such as peer review and falsification originated with Muslim scholars such as Al-Biruni and Ibn al-Haytham. Sadly, by the 13th century, fundamentalism descended upon the caliphate, and one of the most fruitful periods of intellectual history came to an end–only to be surpassed by an even more dynamic and vital tradition that is indeed almost exclusively male and pale (this assumes that Jews are ‘pale’).

  2. goddinho June 17, 2018 at 2:49 am - Reply

    Here’s some troublesome knowledge: an example the best of what has been thought and said:

  3. Maud Young June 18, 2018 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    Assuming you agree with Johns, is there anything that would dissuade you from the opinion that “we should accept the truth of history, which is that white men have dominated intellectual life in the west”?

    • David Didau June 18, 2018 at 9:06 pm - Reply

      You don’t think that’s true? That seems a little … eccentric?

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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