Thinking with and about

//Thinking with and about

There are mighty few people who think what they think they think.

Robert Henri

How we think is astonishingly complex and I don’t want to pretend I have any real understanding of the processes involved, but It does seem clear that we can’t think about something we don’t know.

If I wanted to think, say, about molecular biology, my thoughts will be strictly limited. I know molecules are very small particles (but I’m not sure how, or if, they differ from particles in physics) and so I assume that molecular biology must be the biology at a microscopic level. Further, I know biology is the study of living organisms and so I conclude that the molecular kind looks at how workings at the microscopic level affect organisms at the macro level. This is, as any biologists reading this will quickly point out, very superficial and no doubt completely full of holes. Happily, though I can look it up on the internet. The Wikipedia page for molecular biology suggests I wasn’t too far wide of the mark:

Molecular biology /məˈlɛkjʊlər/ is the branch of biology that deals with the molecular basis of biological activity. This field overlaps with other areas of biology and chemistry, particularly genetics and biochemistry. Molecular biology chiefly concerns itself with understanding the interactions between the various systems of a cell, including the interactions between the different types of DNA, RNA and protein biosynthesis as well as learning how these interactions are regulated.

I actually know most of the terms used (although again, I have a very shallow knowledge of most of them) and see that the molecules I was potentially confusing with atoms are actually cells. The point of this isn’t to parade my ignorance, rather it’s to demonstrate that my ability to think about molecular biology is limited by my lack of knowledge. I’m reduced to trying to establish what the term means. My ability to think with molecular biology is non-existent.

The more we know on any given subject, the more we’ll be able to think about. And the more we’re able to think about, the greater our ability to think with. For instance, I know enough about grammar to be able to be able to parse a sentence – to break it into its component parts and identify the function of each. I can also use the meta-language of grammar to label these components. I can think about the effects of grammatical structures to consider a writer’s intentions and nuances of meaning. This is more than pedantry. Because of the quantity of what I know, I can diagnose, often quite precisely, what it is others might not know. All this has become a very conscious part of the way I use language. When I read, and even more so when I when I write, I think with grammatical knowledge.

Understanding then depends on having sufficient knowledge of a subject; the more you know, the greater your capacity for understanding. This is, I think, uncontroversial. I can’t think of a situation where I could display an understanding of a subject without knowing quite a lot about it. Neither can I think of a subject that I might know an awful lot about and yet fail to understand (unless we’re going to argue that understanding must be complete in which case I’m not sure we could ever be said to understand anything.)

The prompt for writing this came from an exchange with poet, Michael Rosen in the comments section of a post a wrote last week. I had defined  learning as being a combination of retention, transfer and change. Rosen seemed to be taking issue with the inclusion of retention. He said:

So, we can’t talk about ‘retention’ without talking about ‘retrieval’. And ‘retention’ itself is mechanistic and assumes that it takes place separately from ‘interpretation’. Indeed, a good deal of education deliberately tries to exclude interpretation from learning as it produces ‘wrong’ answers.

It may be the case that there are teachers who try to exclude interpretation from learning, although how they might go about such an impossible task is quite beyond me. When we have retained a thing we can be said to know it. And with that knowledge comes, whether we intend it or not, interpretation. In order to retain something it must be transferred to our long-term memory store and for this to happen it must be embedded in the pre-existing schemas – or webs – or knowledge. As we each have unique prior knowledge, the way we integrate new knowledge will also be unique. This process of integration is, I think, impossible to separate from ‘interpretation’.

Rosen went on to say this:

Now what if we add the words ‘how’ and ‘what’ to the word knowledge? If you google the word ‘google’ you get a long list of ‘results’. Under normal circumstances, the list of results are ‘knowledge what’ e.g. the info on Arsenal or winners of X-factor or train timetables. However, a lot of what comes up when you google ‘google’ are about how to use google. Now, to start off with – I didn’t ‘know’ or remember these methods of using google. I did know where to look for them though. So whenever I needed the process in question – I knew how to go and get it, use it and apply it. So my knowledge was very know-how and not very know-what. As it happens, in this case I used the ‘how’ a lot and I can now do these procedures without consulting the info. On the other hand, there are other digital procedures which I do very rarely, e.g. sending photos from my phone to friends. I keep forgetting these. However,again, I know where to get them. So I do.

All this tells me that a good deal of the ‘dichotomisation’ (!) of stuff to do with ‘knowledge’ and ‘transferable skills’ is false.

Dichotomies are just a way to view the world. They’re either useful or they’re not. Separating ‘skills’ from knowledge is pointless – a skill is just procedural knowledge. 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.

2016-06-12T12:11:40+00:00December 30th, 2014|Featured|


  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. Andy Day December 30, 2014 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    You’ll have read far more on this than I have, but would be interested in your response to various points I’ve been pondering since I first read this post a couple of hours ago. All asked in the spirit of enquiry and ‘help me out here’…

    1.”We can’t think about something we don’t know” – surely that is how imagination works and where ‘invention’ takes off from? From the first locomotive to a Higgs Bosun particle – no-one has seen it, but the theoretical basis for it is that it’s the only existing explanation that fits the evidence of other sub-atomic particles that we do have. It’s a hole that we fill with a possibility – that will exist until any evidence comes along to disprove it? What little I understand of the quantum world – we can’t see it, we can’t ‘know it’ – we can only infer it. Does that make it ‘knowledge’ or ‘working hunches’? But the holes we fill with the hunches are the zones we don’t know, but are thinking about.

    2. With more knowledge comes the greater possiblity of understanding – agreed. But what’s the differrence between the Mastermind winner on the novels of the Brontes – and the academic expert on them. What distinguishes the two?

    3. I’m sure your forthcoming book will answer much of this – but what’s the place of ‘conceptual capacity’ alongside knowledge accumulation? Are you saying we could all become experts in chosen subjects if we studied hard enough and long enough, were taught well enough, accumulated enough, retained it all, and so expanded our capacity for understanding’? I remember well, hitting my capacity for chemistry during O levels – on ‘valency’ – just couldn’t get past how an atom ‘knew’ how many electrons it would make available for bonding. That was it – conceptual landscape for chemistry hit a wall. Isn’t that the same reason why 90% of readers don’t get further than page 20 of Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ – we can read the words on P21, understand the English, but the conceptual requirements spin away. It’s not that we don’t have enough ‘knowledge’ – but our capacity to hold on to and make continuing sense of the concepts wheels aside and into a foggy haze. (Just asked my OH the difference between ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ scientific approaches – she dug out her degree-course philosophy books and sighed with pleasure on reading saying – “Isn’t philosophy great…. it just fits the shape of my brain” – and isn’t that the case, that we have brains suited for different conceptual landscapes into which certain knowledge fits snuggly – and other bits bounce around finding no anchorage? Is this where ‘threshold concepts’ come in – which I see you mentioning in the referred-to post – and most of us encounter a place where it’s a threshold-concept-too-far?).

    4. Is a skill really just procedural knowledge? Yes – I can see how it is in many instances – working out grid references in my subject, or knowing how to apply a statistical measure to data. But a member of my family has no capacity for music – tone deaf. No sense of pitch, not much timing. And the family runs through to one who has ‘an ear’ for music – can listen to a song once or twice – then pick it out on the piano. That is a capacity that it would be difficult to ‘improve’ in the former case, or ‘deny’ in the latter. In contrast – we can all hold a pencil and apply it to paper and create images of a landscape. We can all improve with knowledge of technique – but I know one who is far ahead of any of the rest of us to ‘see’ a landscape. I just wonder where these innate capacities (or lack of them) feature in your ‘knowledge’ analysis.

    As ever – very provocative post (in a fine – ‘that poses some things I’m not sure I agree with, but don’t know why…’ kind of way) – and suspect I’m being somewhat naive with some of the questions – but you did ask for feedback.

    Oh – and as follow-up reading on the inductive/deductive thing – came across this article. Neat concept of ‘collective emergence’ referred to in it – which might work alongside your ‘threshold concepts’ – the creation of attributes that are greater than the sum of their constituent parts. Maybe we can get our heads around the ‘constituent parts’ – but then get lost with the emergent concept that arises from their accumulation.

    • David Didau December 30, 2014 at 10:12 pm - Reply

      Hi Andy

      here are my thoughts:

      1) Our imagination is limited by what we know. What is it like to die? We have no idea, so we compare it to what we do know.

      2) Maybe nothing except pretension?

      3) We all have different and differing capacities. this is uncontroversial. I’m not really sure what, if anything, you’re asking here? Threshold concepts and liminality are fascinating – I might blog more nearer to publication 🙂

      4) I think so, yes. I’m reliably informed that the ‘tone deaf’ can be taught to sing. Maybe you could find a ‘skill’ which isn’t entirely dependent on knowledge if you try hard enough but I’m not sure what you’d prove. Maybe just that there are always exceptions. But it’s still useful to generalise.

      Thanks for the link, David

  3. chemistrypoet December 30, 2014 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    Indeed. Also, it takes time for new information to become integrated into long term memory….takes time to place new information in the framework of understanding that is the context for long term memory….sometimes hours…I know (or knew) lots about molecular biology, but it is a bit hazy now. I’m pretty sure that with this prompt lots of stuff about it will come back into conscious thought over the next day or so. I’m already starting to see bits of the Krebs cycle in my head (you mentioned Biochemistry) and Michaelis Menten kinetics….

    • David Didau December 30, 2014 at 10:13 pm - Reply

      This is the powerful and deeply counter-intuitive role of forgetting. Once acquired information is rapidly relearned.

  4. mroberts1990 December 31, 2014 at 9:10 am - Reply

    I think this is one of the dangers of the digital world which we live in today. It has been argued that there is more knowledge in the world today then ever before. However, is there understanding with that knowledge? And are our individual ‘banks’ of knowledge, as it were, larger than ever before?

    I would argue they may, in many cases, even be smaller because of the facility to ‘Google’ or search things becoming more and more accessible.

    • David Didau December 31, 2014 at 9:47 am - Reply

      Quite so. For all our vaunted access, our minds may be impoverished

  5. J Valdez December 31, 2014 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    I agree that “thinking about” leads to better “thinking with” understanding. But sufficient proficiency to “thinking with” is subjective & relative only to the superior proficiency of those in competition/cooperating in “thinking about”. Thus rigidity in standards for one’s “thinking about” being of sufficient knowledge utility and/or gains is only useful in justifying dismissing, being critical, or excusing one’s contribution lacking enough, or the most, quality “thinking with” regardless of the potential of contribution’s possible knowledge utility and/or additive gains.

    Worse still, if not counter productive and/or criminal IMHO, is when used to validate prohibiting any offered contributions of “thinking with” or inhibiting one’s own attempts to try to contribute one’s “thinking about” no matter its final assessment of adequacy or proportionality to final knowledge utility and/or gains. As example, a number of publishers regret having turned down a homeless unknown woman pitching an original book concept she had been “thinking about” based on the ridgity of “thinking with” superior standards when assessing her script which turned out JK Rowling’s “thinking with” Harry Potter.

    • David Didau December 31, 2014 at 8:16 pm - Reply

      The idea that anyone might have a rigid idea of what might constitute sufficient foundational knowledge is interesting. I’m certainly not advocating any such approach. I’m really not at all sure that I’m following your logic – you appear to have imbued the terms ‘thinking about’ and ‘thinking with’ with a meaning far removed from that I intended. Let me clarify:

      To think about a thing, you have to know what it is. The more you know, the better able you will be able to think. This is not a precondition for ‘thinking with’, it’s separate. We use what we know to think about new things, therefore what we know determines how we integrate new information and construct new meaning. The main distinction is that ‘thinking about’ is deliberate and conscious whereas ‘thinking with’ is usually unconscious and unplanned. For instance I might choose to think about the beliefs of the Enlightenment, but I use my knowledge of scientific method, developed during the Enlightenment, as a lens through which I view all further knowledge. I *can* do this consciously, but usually I just get on with it.

      I *think* you’re making a point about cultural capital and hegemony? Rowling offers an interesting example. Her first Potter manuscript was (apparently) pretty rough and it wasn’t until Barry Cunningham saw some merit in it and undertook to knock into a shape which would sell that it became the text you know, and presumably, have enjoyed. Her later books increasingly suffered from lack of editorial input as she became ‘too big’ to suffer the intrusions of others. Thus what might have been a charming set of children’s books became a bloated publishing juggernaut consumed by a largely uncritical fanbase.

      • J Valdez January 2, 2015 at 6:46 am - Reply

        I feel honored to have garnered such a very thoughtful response. I am far derived from being worthy of having my thoughts and their woefully lacking expression formulated into words occupying your time. Thank you very much for having spent it nonetheless. Thus I will also try not to ask too much more of it by trying to be clearer and more consise.

        I apologize if I suffered any folly of hubris as it was not my intent to imbued your words and thoughts with any incorrect interpretation and/or any additional meaning of my own. It is quite likely my error, but I feel as it was I that missed the point of your piece’s final purpose. Is not one’s level of knowledge proficiency subservient to one’s knowledge being of sufficient utility for considering regardless of its final contribution deemed appropriate towards application as knowledge gains? Exceptions being for critiques of self and others, contests, and/or as justification for non-attempts.

        I for one am often criticized for my attempts to make salient perspectives whether or not they have had previously been considered, deemed remote, extratropical, or ludicrously reinterpretted restatements. Still, I find for myself an understanding which for those things I stand up to say, I most often would rather be wrong than be right but better to lose knowing I tried than cower away from a worthy fight.

        • David Didau January 2, 2015 at 10:44 am - Reply

          I’m trying to work out if this is sarcasm. I’ll assume not, but I can’t work out what you’re saying.

          • J valdez January 3, 2015 at 12:17 am

            Not sarcasm. I apologize. I suppose knowledge that crosses disciplines is a good example. Insect swarms and software development are examples. Analytics is an example From my own past. As are network maps, statistics, geographical analysis, even genetic algorithms have been applied to a wide variety of domains.

            As a psychology student I landed a jr research assistant internship. I had limited exposure to statistical software but was proficient with MS office and database concepts enough to know that while I knew nothing well enough to progress development of statistics or software, I knew enough to know that using either was not beyond me. At the same time our PD wanted to create maps for our reporting. The sr RA decided that this was not her area of public health promotion and passed down the GIS software and task to me. What does geography have to do with behavioral health program evaluation? Lots as we later learned.

            To me it seems you are justifying knowledge silos based upon discriminating expertise knowing what knowledge is useful for adopting into one’s practices of use. But knowledge is neither discreet not static. What matters is learning knowledge for knowledge’s sake in the remote possibility it proves useful. Else how does one know what they do not know isn’t or couldn’t enhance and broaden their knowledge if they do not know it, even if at best their proficiency of that knowledge will never be anything more than shallow with only a remote change of having utility.

            You seem frustrated and I apologize again. I suppose it would be easy to dismiss me. I think it was Edison who said “many people overlook opportunity because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

          • David Didau January 3, 2015 at 1:22 am

            I don’t think I have to justify a knowledge silo – knowing things is always useful. But even if it wasn’t, as Houseman said, “All knowledge is precious whether it serves the slightest human use.”

            I’m only frustrated because you’re so hard to understand – is English your second language? Maybe you could make it clear what the opportunity is in this scenario?

  6. […] is this on ‘thinking with’ knowledge by David […]

  7. […] heralded as ‘a good thing’ that it’s in danger of becoming one of those memes we think with rather than about. A number of commentators have been critical of the way mindset theory has been uncritical adopted […]

  8. […] universally heralded as ‘a good thing’ that it’s in danger of becoming one of those memes we think withrather than about. A number of commentators have been critical of the way mindset theory has been uncritical adopted […]

  9. Gerald Haigh (@geraldhaigh1) January 25, 2015 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    I don’t think we should, as teachers, forget that everyone knows much more than they think they do. Music teachers for example, faced with someone who says, ‘I don’t know anything about music,’ will start with simple questions — do you know what a tune is? A note? Do you know any songs? How many musicians can you name? and gradually build up a quite formidable array of genuine knowledge. The same approach is sometimes used to counter, ‘I’m no good at maths…’ It’s a technique that provides lots of starting points and, more importantly, is a confidence booster. So if someone said to you, ‘what do you know about molecular biology’ you would start by thinking what you know about molecules, and would realise that just by knowing some stuff about molecules, you therefore really do know something about molecular biology, knowledge that begs to be built on and extended. Perhaps, just to continue the thought, we are all convinced that we are ignorant because ‘experts’ and the education system have persuaded us of that.

    • David Didau January 25, 2015 at 7:57 pm - Reply

      An interesting perspective Gerald. Not sure that knowing some tunes means that you’ll be able to think meaningfully about music though. The point I was clumsily trying to make is that the more you know the better you can think.

  10. mariegoodwyn January 25, 2015 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the mental workout – very enjoyable! Without any particular judgement I would think that a Mastermind contestant is interested discrete facts while academic thought looks at the spaces and patterns between – As per Forster “Only connect”.

    • David Didau January 25, 2015 at 7:58 pm - Reply

      You may well be right. Learning lists of unrelated facts would be a bizarre exercise rarely encountered in schools though, wouldn’t it?

  11. […] must think. But you cannot think about what you don’t know. And this is just the beginning. Once you can think about something, you can then think with it; what we know lives inside us and touches every aspect of our […]

  12. […] as David Didau puts it, “[k]nowledge is only knowledge if it lives inside of […]

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