The connections between knowing and learning

A widely held view of knowledge is that it is stuff that is made and kept in your head. It is a matter of the mind. In this chapter, we put the case that knowledge is more than that. What’s inside your head (memories and thinking processes) and what’s outside (your body sensing the world and the social knowledge on which you depend) are intimately connected. In fact, they are so interconnected that we have to conclude knowledge is everywhere, always and at once inside and outside an individual’s mental and corporeal space.

The knowledge that is made in your head consists of memories of things you have sensed and done, the sum total of your experiences. You can only recall a tiny fraction of these experiences at any one time. Some you will have forgotten. But the experiences that you have remembered are still there in your mind, ready to be recalled if and when you need to or want to recall them. The mind consists of impressions that have been made upon you while growing up and living in the world. It also consists of your mental capacity to figure things out – to put things into categories, to name individual things or categories of things, to make logical connections and to draw conclusions. The mind, moreover, contains social capacities – to communicate, to persuade, to negotiate, to collaborate, to mislead and to deceive.

The stuff that’s inside your head, however, would be nothing without a lot of ‘knowledge stuff’ on the outside. One kind of ‘outside’ is our bodily presence in the world. Knowledge, in this sense, is much more than what is in your head. We connect with the world. We cannot help but believe something exists outside of our heads because we note things that we perceive through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. We have a sensuous bodily presence in the world. Our brain is itself a physical presence in the world, and the mind only exists because we physically exist in the world (Damasio 2010).

Another kind of ‘outside’ is the intrinsically social character of knowledge – the things you know because you have been told, things that you rely on other people to know and things that you can find out when you need to. When we make knowledge, we rely heavily on these outside resources. We connect with outside knowledge resources in the form of knowledge handed on to us by other humans from their accumulated experiences – their ways of categorising things, their ways of making logical connections and the conclusions they have come to about the nature of the world. These are given to us in the form of already constructed and always-ready-to- be-shared meanings: in language, patterns of gesture, imagery, and spatial and tactile environments. These meanings are the raw materials of human society and culture. They are the stuff of beliefs, values, rules, ideologies and identities (Gee 1992).

Learning is the process of coming to know, not just in the conventional sense of getting knowledge into your head, but also in the senses of learning to do and learning to be in the world. Individuals learn, and so do groups. Individual learning is how the knowledge around a person comes to connect with the knowledge in their head and their enacted behaviours. Social learning is how groups of people make knowledge that can be shared, and this, of course, is far greater in sum than what could ever be kept in one person’s head.

The status and effectiveness of knowledge vary. Some knowledge may be unreliable. It may consist of casual impressions that are fleeting, observations that are superficial, perceptions that turn out to be illusions, conclusions that prove to be erroneous, emotions that cloud sound judgement, intuitions that are ill-informed, opinions that are based on personal prejudice, ideologies that represent narrow self-interest, statements that can be shown to be illogical, perspectives that are based on limited experience, generalisations that are inappropriately applied beyond their parochial source, lore or myth that has been handed down and accepted unquestioningly, or wishful thinking that something could be true. Everyday lifeworld understandings that seem like knowledge, you may realise later, are less reliable than you would expect of knowledge worth its name.

What kinds of knowledge might be regarded as more reliable than the casual forms of knowledge of the lifeworld? There are many ways of putting more careful effort into knowing and, as a consequence of that effort, making more reliable knowledge. Some of these include systematic examination, checking your observations, corroborating perceptions with others who have seen the same thing and that can be further tested and verified by others, tempering immediate emotions with experience, justifying opinions and beliefs to oneself and others, taking into account ideologies that represent interests broader than one’s own, making statements whose logical consistency can be demonstrated, drawing on perspectives based on long and deep experience, and critical reflection that balances knowledge claims with an honest recognition of one’s own motives. These knowledge-making practices are the mark of a person who may be regarded as knowledgeable, a person who puts a special kind of focused effort into aspects of their knowing.

Modern science requires that we employ certain knowledge-making practices, and by so doing produce deeper and broader understandings that do justice to the knowledge ideal. Learning is like science. It uses the same kinds of systematic focus as science. In fact, creating new knowledge at the frontiers of science and innovation is a learning process. And for every learner, no matter how elementary the knowledge they are working to know at a particular moment, it is new knowledge for them.

Our intuitions may tell us that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Five hundred years ago, through careful observation and calculation, the Polish astronomer Copernicus came to the conclusion that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Young science learners need to overcome their intuitions the same way Copernicus did. Of course, there is a difference, and that is they have Copernicus to help them. However, to understand the science, they need to bring to mind some of the same powers of knowledge perception that Copernicus did to draw his original conclusions. Science and learning are processes of coming to know, and know more deeply and broadly than is possible in everyday, commonsense or casual lifeworld experience. The science of learning is the science of how one comes to know.

Figure 7.1: Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473–1543

How do we achieve deeper and more reliable forms of knowledge? Are some ways of making knowledge more productive and trustworthy than others? There are several kinds of answers to these questions. In this chapter we sample some ways of making knowledge, the theories of learning that come with them and the places in which these kinds of learning typically occur. These ways of knowing we place into three groups:

  • Committed knowledge – in which knowers make clear assertions of an ideal way of knowing and learning, which at least implicitly considers itself to be more powerful than others. Didactic teaching is mostly based on committed knowledge.
  • Knowledge relativism – where the knower concedes that there are many ways of knowing and learning, and no one can ever claim legitimately or definitively prove that theirs is superior to others. Authentic education is often based on knowledge relativism.
  • Knowledge repertoires – where you can do a variety of things to know, and the wider the range of things you do, and the more appropriate this mix to the kind of knowledge you are creating at any particular time, then the more solidly grounded the knowledge will be. This is the agenda for knowledge and learning that underpins what we have called a transformative education and the New Learning.

In describing these ways of knowing, we examine several dimensions of the knowledge-making process:

  • dimension 1: ways of knowing – the nature of each way of knowing
  • dimension 2: ways of learning – what this means for the process of learning
  • dimension 3: sites of learning – the sites where this kind of learning typically takes place.