January 5, 2019

What Do You Mean by “Knowledge”?

This post was last updated on January 8th, 2019 at 07:13 am

One of the most frustrating things in education is the tendency to have conversations about ideas and issues when we don’t share the same definitions. We also make false assumptions about what others believe. We spend a lot of time talking past each other. Add to that a tendency to create false dichotomies and instead of working toward understanding and meaning solutions, we follow the ugly trend of today’s political world and polarize people.

Among the topics and questions that fall into this trap include:

I acknowledge that I’ve simplified these debates and those invested in them would likely argue my statements themselves are flawed but you get the gist. One of the challenges falls in how we define things. It’s always a good idea to begin any discussion with the question: “And what do you mean by _____________”

Certainly, the idea of inquiry learning has gained traction worldwide in the past decade, largely because of the Internet. I used the term “inquiry learning” to refer to an approach that allows the learner more agency and choice as well as an expectation that the learner will demonstrate understanding and competency through a variety of measures that extend beyond tests but include but aren’t limited to models, papers, videos and presentions. Access to information means memorizing is less important than it used to be. Acknowledging that this shift means we might need to change how we teach is the work of many people including myself. Criticism suggests that this belief means knowledge isn’t important. While this debate lives in many places I’d like to address a recent tweet and article from Brian Aspinall.


It takes guts to acknowledge critique and I like that Brian wasn’t afraid to share this. I respect his right to ignore it and while there are reasons to fully dismiss his critic, I think there are a few conversations worth having here:

  • What’s difference between knowledge and information?
  • Is the research definitive?
  • Is anyone really advocating for one pedagogy over another?

While much of the article is somewhat sarcastic and disparaging, the author raises some interesting points that warrant discussion. In the article, Bennett writes,

What’s contentious about the edtech evangelists is their rather uncritical acceptance of constructivist pedagogy and utopian belief that “students learn by doing’ and require minimal teacher guidance.  A few, like Brian Aspinall, are ideologues who believe that “knowledge is readily available” on the Internet, so teachers should reject teaching content knowledge and, instead, “teach and model an inquiry approach to learning.”


I know Brian and I know he doesn’t “reject knowledge” or teaching it. What I think needs to be discussed here is the difference between knowledge and information. I would argue that inquiry requires information but leads to knowledge. You can be informed about a topic or concept but that doesn’t necessarily make you knowledgeable.

Let me attempt an example. I’m fairly informed about politics. I read, watch and listen to various outlets and pundits. I know a lot but I would hesitate to say I’m knowledgeable mostly because I’ve not participated in it other than to vote. That’s not to say you have to be involved in something to be knowledgeable but without getting your hands dirty, it’s difficult to consider yourself knowledgeable on most topics. Golf, on the other hand, is something I feel very knowledgeable about. Not only do I spend time reading, listening and watching all aspects of the game from instruction to architecture to equipment to the PGA tour but I play the game as well. I’m not a great player but I know it on a level that those who don’t play or play sparely can’t understand. I feel I could speak with virtually any expert on the game and have a intelligent conversation. My understanding of the game would likely be because of a personal inquiry approach. It certainly required and continues to require information but it goes way beyond that.

So yes, we need content and perhaps today more than ever we need high quality content. I’ve not met anyone who argues this point however I do see some who see no value in textbooks or core resources. This is indeed a dangerous idea as it suggests that the knowledge and expertise of others aren’t important. Textbooks and core resources are supposed to be memorized but used to help create personal knowledge and understanding. What Brian and others, including myself, would say, that content isn’t enough. Content, without context and inquiry isn’t knowledge, it’s information. Most of the advocates for a more content heavy, memorization laden curriculum might cite test scores. Even if they can cobble together data, my argument has always been that tests are great at measuring short-term memory, not necessarily learning. Frank E. Smith from The Book of Learning and Forgetting which might be the best book on learning ever written says this:

Forgetting occurs when we are unable to commit our learning to long-term memory. In the official view of learning, this comes from not being able to understand the content being studied, and only cramming the information for a given task or assessment.

This is by no means a deep analytical review of either Bennett’s article or the bigger issues at play. But it’s these exchanges or critiques that allow us to learn. Here are my reflections:

I think as educators we need to be more precise with language. We see those outside of exchanges toss out terms without knowing the nuances and implications. At the same time, educators are often guilty of this as well. Let’s get in the habit of asking “And what do you mean by __________?” I think it would save us a lot of time and frustration.