Car trips provide wonderful opportunities for deep conversation. I recently had the pleasure of driving over the Crown Range with Anat Zohar, a professor of education from the Hebrew University in Israel. We discussed a range of topics but of particular interest was the work she has done around the role(s) and place(s) of knowledge in education. Given the work The Education Hub did last year On Knowledge, this conversation was of particular interest.

Anat suggested there are three key ideas about knowledge that are particularly pertinent to education (she drew on the Israeli context but to my mind they are equally relevant to the New Zealand context).

The need to distinguish between information and knowledge

This need responds to the populist call to dismiss or minimise the role of knowledge in 21st century education because of the supposed omnipresence and accessibly of knowledge and a corresponding rise in the primacy of skills. There are several issues with this line of argument. As previously discussed, knowledge and skills are not binary terms but rather two sides of the same coin. Furthermore, knowledge is incorrectly used as a synonym for information. The Internet, and more particularly Google, has ensured that information – which may be defined as ‘a message that is designed to change the way the receiver perceives or understands something’1 – is indeed readily available. However, information should not be conflated with knowledge, which is constructed through the active employment of information in a specific context of action. That is, information is raw material gained from reading a book or watching a video clip, and knowledge is what an individual does with that information.

So, while information is more easily accessible than ever before, the ability to select, interpret, and utilise this information, that is to build knowledge remains vital. Information may have latent power. However, it is only when it is combined with corresponding action that it becomes the far more powerful (and useful) knowledge

A cognitive argument for the role and place of knowledge

The research on how we learn has clearly established that a new concept is always learned in association with already existing knowledge. This means, the more you know, the more you are able to know. Knowledge not only supports our ability to gain new knowledge, it also facilitates our ability to think and to apply our knowledge in relation to particular tasks and problems. This is particularly the case for higher-level tasks such as solving a complex problem or thinking critically. If we do not have sufficient existing knowledge on the topic in question, simply understanding the problem or task can take up most of our working memory, leaving limited space for devising solution.

Constructivism, a pedagogy that seems to dominate much educational discourse, is in fact reliant on exactly this premise of knowledge. In a constructivist classroom, the teacher identifies and builds from students’ pre-existing conceptions and knowledge, devising and guiding instruction and activity to address them and then to build on them. Where this can become problematic is when students have wildly different funds of knowledge to draw upon in their learning. In New Zealand I would argue that we are yet to grapple fully with the implications of these differences.

Determining common knowledge.

For Anat, common knowledge is the knowledge, connected to the broader purpose(s) of education, that every person should have access to and know. It is similar to valuable knowledge or powerful knowledge but also goes beyond this. While it may incorporate disciplinary, epistemic knowledge, common knowledge also must go beyond this. In the Israeli context, Anat considers knowledge of democracy and citizenship as central to the moral, civic purpose of education, and therefore relevant to all students.

Common knowledge represents a challenging concept in New Zealand. It raises tensions between local control of the curriculum and the central mandating of certain types of knowledge (a tension that has surfaced recently in the New Zealand History Teachers’ Association’s petition to parliament regarding the teaching of New Zealand history in schools). It further raises questions about what constitutes this common knowledge and who gets to decide.

The debate around knowledge in New Zealand education continues to grind on. It seems to me that the three ideas Anat discussed with me provide a useful way into this debate.

 

References

Davenport, T. and Prusak, L. (1998) Working Knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

 

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