I no therefore I can. Or knot.
There’s an old country joke that you probably know. A Lost Driver stops to ask the way from a gentleman walking along the narrow lane. The Walker has the knees of his moleskins tied with baler twine and the band of his battered felt hat decorated with two cock pheasant tail feathers. The Lost Driver pulls up beside the Walker and opens his window. ‘Good morning”, he says, “can you tell me how to get to Manuden?’ The Walker stops, turns to look at the Lost Driver and takes the straw out of his mouth, he clasps his hands behind his back and answers, ‘Hmm. Get to Manuden eh… Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’
On January 10, 2014, the TES published a feature article by their behaviour expert, Tom Bennett, entitled, ‘I know Therefore I Can’. (http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6389557) In the article, Tom makes the argument for schools privileging the teaching of knowledge (by which he means know-what or facts) over time spent developing (by which he means know-how or knowledge). He maintains there is no false dichotomy in categorising these two separately things and the impact of losing time on developing knowledge (he calls doing skill acquisition tasks) He states that this disproportionately affects the poor, magnifies the disadvantages they already suffer and is unhelpful in the fight against inequality. A solid core of Knowledge (meaning know-what), he maintains, attracts other pieces of knowledge, by a process similar to gravity. Knowing stuff can be represented as physical mass. The existing mass of knowledge captures and drags in what he terms ‘other fragments of wisdom’, further increasing its own mass gravitational influence; its own power to capture more matter.
This is a beguiling argument. It offers an interesting and uncomplicated analogy and cloaks itself in the language of empowerment. Teaching children facts, it seems, is a virtuous cause, practiced by those on the side of the good. It is a moral and social crusade that will educate and emancipate the poor, freeing them from their ignorance and gaining them access to social mobility. Who could argue against that?
Social responsibility is certainly a fine cause and one we would all agree is worth supporting. But is Tom’s suggested route the best way to get there? Before we set off it would be a very good idea to make sure the suggested path is, in fact, the road to Manuden.
We should start by ignoring the argument that one path is morally superior to the other. Tom implies that some people in education, notably those supporting the idea of developing students’ know-how are advocating keeping children ignorant or denying them access to know-what, facts or information. That is clearly a false argument, misrepresenting one side of the argument and then arguing against it. It’s easier than dealing with the substantive issues, because the misrepresenter retains control without doing any hard work.
But what about this idea that schools should privilege the teaching of know-what (facts) over the development of know-how (skills)? There is after all only a very limited amount of time that children spend in school and shouldn’t schools spend as much of that time as possible doing what is most effective? Again, who would argue against this?
It is, after all, the central business of education to teach children in the best way possible. So, let’s take a closer look at Tom’s argument and see if it tells us the best path to take.
Tom’s article is about knowing and knowledge. He uses his central term ‘knowledge’ to mean a fact, a piece of information; and also a collection of facts, a store of information. (‘information’ meaning raw data, not acted upon by the receiver). He attributes some attractive, gravitational property to the discrete pieces of information, such that they tend to accumulate.
He also uses ‘knowledge’ in a different way to mean a process in which context related information is deployed, what might be called a skill.
He uses ‘expertise’ in the same way, as both an object (a fixed body of interlocked facts) and a process (given sufficient practice, the facts appear in the world as expert action).
He asserts that skills are based entirely on knowledge. He also refers to skill as habit but does not expand on this.
He supports his argument against the teaching of skills by stating that; skills cannot be easily obtained by doing tasks centred on skill acquisition. in other words skills aren’t generalisable. He also states that children can be taught to apply learned skills in unfamiliar areas through the use of inductive inference. In other words skills are generalisable. This is getting a bit confusing.
Tom’s argument is weakened by his use of the term ‘knowledge’ to mean both a thing and a process. Here he’s introducing the concept of a dual state. This is a difficult concept to understand, it’s similar to the idea of the wave-particle duality of light and electrons.
This isn’t getting any easier. It’s a big muddle. Where exactly are we going? What does Manuden mean?
Maybe we need to agree some terms so we can hear what we are saying to each other. Here’s my suggestion:
Community: I am member of the community of educators, which I take to include teachers, academic educationalists, psychologists, sociologists and anyone who feels themselves to be entitled to membership because of their commitment to learning and flourishing.
Know-how: As a community we use the more every-day term ‘Know-how’ in place of the cognitive psychologists term procedural knowledge, what the behaviorist psychologist Bloom called intellectual skills in the early 1950s.
Know-what: In place of the term declarative knowledge, what Bloom termed knowledge and is also variously termed descriptive or propositional knowledge I suggest we use the term know-what. Information or data are examples of know-what.
Know-how is a process, an activity, it’s the graceful, artistic and balanced skater, there, in front of you on the ice. Know-how is knowledge; it is unique in its context, is difficult to communicate, is impermanent and known only to the performer inasmuch as it can be known.
Know-what is the store of information that is drawn on by the skater to make her beautiful performance. Know-what is information, it persists over time, it is communicable, it can be known and understood by both the performer and a person they are talking to.
Know-how = process = knowledge
Know-what = store of facts = information
There’s ‘The Yew Tree’. We’re getting close.