13 March 2006

Who creates knowledge?

From a cover letter I found on the internet:

A teacher’s role is not to impart knowledge, but rather to help students create knowledge.

The so-called revolution in education has been going on, in the U.S. at least, for a long time now—at least since Emerson wrote his seminal essay, “Education,” and I suspect some time before that as well. It has never made much progress because it has tended to focus on methods of instruction, student-teacher ratios, curricular composition, etc. But it is neither the tools nor the circumstances of schools which restrain us from making real improvements in education. It is our concept of knowledge.

Can you spot the knowledge in this picture?

Contained in the rather unassuming remark quoted above, tossed off in a cover letter, is a radical critique of our concept of knowledge as a kind of “bundle of facts,” or a “collection of information.” Knowledge does not exist in the abstract; it exists only within the horizon of some person’s real engagement with herself and her world. No one else can give me her knowledge in the way she might give me a book. Mediocre teachers simply fail to understand this, and so they fail to understand the difference between the student parroting the teacher and real knowledge. Good teachers understand where knowledge originates, so they encourage their students to engage the world on their own (i.e., the students’) terms. Great teachers provoke students to create knowledge by engaging students strategically. With a great teacher, neither the teacher nor the student sets the terms; instead, the teacher tailors every aspect of his practice to his most honest perception of his students’ best selves. In a sense, the teacher acts like a shaman, assisting the students to become whole through their active engagement with the practice of learning.

Revisioning knowledge as something created anew in each generation entails profound consequences for nearly every aspect of our culture: science, technology, politics, industry, etc. etc. Indeed, the entire idea of culture in general takes an interesting turn. One this new view, culture is not a shared body of knowledge; it is a collection of insights about how to help the next generation find the knowledge necessary to keep things running smoothly. The distinction between facts and values here collapses into their common origin in education.

The issues of pedagogical methods, student-teacher ratios, curricular composition must take second fiddle to the essential issue of knowledge generation. We keep making silly decisions because we don’t understand what’s really happening when teaching occurs. Once we understand where knowledge comes from (we don’t even have to understand what it is!), we can begin to make more intelligent choices about other educational issues.