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.