05 July 2010

Random Thoughts on Knowledge and Learning

    Kristen Weatherby, sharing her thoughts after Reform event held in UK, writes on “The Teachers Blog” in “Knowledge versus Learning” post:

    “I believe very strongly that education is about the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.”

     “Knowledge is the basic building block for a successful life…. What is to be criticised is an education system which has relegated the importance of knowledge in favour of ill-defined learning skills.”

      I’m not a teacher, even if I coquetted with the idea of teaching, and it’s not (yet) in my attributions to criticize or defend the past or future of education, however as a simple mortal who spent some time in schools, I hope I’m allowed a few observations.

      Taking the first quote from above I would like to start with two other quotes that worth to meditate on:

    “Where is the Life we have lost in living?
     Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
     Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
     (T.S. Eliot,  "The Rock")

    “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.” (Frank Zappa)

    Knowledge is not the most important asset that we have to transmit to further generations, but the wisdom we’ve acquired, teaching them how not to make the same mistakes that we did. Philosophers and spiritual leaders attempted in many books to reveal the importance and the many facets of wisdom, highlighting in parallel the limitations of knowledge. Spending our lives on the quest of knowledge has quite a high price that might cost us the future of our children. Also wisdom might not be enough, but together with love, beauty and music, could make a difference.

     Coming back to the actual subject of this post, I strongly believe that it's important to make the educational system adaptable to the changes occurring in our society, to create an infrastructure that sustains and embraces change. In many countries the educational systems remained the same for years, even decades, or the changes are insignificant when compared to the changes occurred in our society, especially in the area of technologies, business’ dynamics or culture. Change is inevitable, and there is a time for change, propitious for change, and when this time passes, the system is forced to change from outside, and then there are also victims. It’s not a personal theory, but the laws of nature - an educational system is part of another ecosystem, which at his turn is part of a bigger system, and so on, thus a change occurring in an upper system has greater impact in lower ecosystems if the respective ecosystems are not prepared to support the change. The actual economical crisis is maybe the best example in this direction.

     Something needs to change, but what? We are living in a world overloaded of information, we are attempting to derive knowledge from information, but the sea of information is so deep that we risk to sink, we are attempting to process information using the processing power of computers and that’s not so easy, as the attempt of mimicking meaning, which has an important role in the identification of knowledge, it’s still in its baby steps. Einstein was saying something like "a problem cannot be solved at the same level (of consciousness) it was created" ( I hope is the right quote).  Until we find the right solution to the big problem, we could try to solve the common small issues we deal with.

    The debate between memorization of facts and figures, respectively personalized learning, in fact could be reduced to the attempt to find a balance between quantity and quality – quantity as a measure of what is learned, and quality as a measure of what remained after. (Maybe it’s not the best formulation, but the meaning is close to what I intended to say.)  In theory all we have to do is to optimize the equation based on the two, and most probably many other aspects (e.g. financial, personal or technological resources). Normally the solution is somewhere in between, and rarely at extremes. In this case, again, at least in theory, should resume in using effectively and efficiently what we have, in strengthening the weaknesses.

    For me as a student and later as hobbyist “researcher”, the most time consuming activities are searching for information, indexing and mapping the information found. I’ve been spending lot of time for searching simple definitions, definitions that should help us define the world we live in. In addition, often it’s not easy to fish for the facts, having to read a whole book in order to find 2-3 important ideas. For sure we need to simplify the content, to personalize it to the degree of interest and understanding for each person, but in order to reveal the networked structure of network, I think that we need to provide the same type of structural knowledge navigability. Wikipedia is somehow providing that, but it’s just a start.  Only relatively I was introduced in the world of visual representation of knowledge. Various types of simple tabular diagrams, circle, trees or brace maps have been used for decades in almost all fields, but I have hardly seen in manuals or teachers to refer to more complex knowledge maps like Mind Maps, Cognitive Map, semantic networks or Vee-diagrams, and I feel that they better reflect the structural patterns of knowledge than the text. The promoters of such maps insist on the importance of associations, visual rhythm, patterns, colour or spatial awareness, on the role of left brain vs. right brain, on the cognitive processes, the methods of memorizing, how knowledge is created, stored, processed, mixed and remixed, on how to collaborate in order to solve problems. Making people aware of these is a step, and it starts with learning people how to learn, on how to use the tools and resources effectively and efficiently, on how and where to find information, how to take notes and map knowledge. I don’t think this requires a huge amount of investment, and there are schools that made important steps in this direction.

    The personalization of the learning process is required by the different learning needs, of the different aptitudes and attitudes toward learning. For many people learning could be regarded as an unpleasant endeavor, I think that some effort must be spent in order to make learning pleasant, to make things "attractive to learn" – games work well for small and mature alltogether. In addition many students don't see the necessity of learning so many things, there should be a trade between theory, utility and applicability. For example in Mathematics behind each theory there is a problem that the respective theory attempts to solve, graduating in Math, I found the applicability of many of the theories learned only many years later. 

    Talking about University, I've seen that the professors were often avoiding, most probably from lack of time, to explain people the grounds of theories, but expecting people to understand the grounds even if they are not so simple to see. From time to time I was hearing a professor asking himself how is it possible that the students don't understand the grounds behind the theories, how they can't perceive such basic stuff. Of course, the true is somewhere in between, what I'm trying to point here is that not for everybody all the facts are evident. Especially in Mathematics we are talking about several hundred/thousands years of evolution in mathematical thought, in teaching of Mathematics being avoided subjects like: why, when, where, how, by what means, questions essential in acquiring of knowledge.  There were also professors who preferred that students learn less material, that they understood the principles behind each theory, that they can make use of the knowledge they have. I think is important to invest effort in making knowledge, implicitly also knowledge resources, available at the level required by a student.

    Looking into the future, at the impact technologies have in our life, I expect that the role of a teacher changes from knowledge provider to enabler/facilitator of the learning process, of course this most probably can't be done starting from the first grade but introduced gradually. This doesn't mean that there will be no more need for skilled teachers, only the roles will change, and I feel that will be a win-win outcome.

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