The plug, then.
I’ve just posted the following article with comics store Legion City. The plug is partly for me, of course, but just as much for the site and store (please note, I‘ve hyperlinked to the home page, not my piece; there are a number of interesting and entertaining contributions to be read).
It was a real pleasure writing about the work of the great Jeff Lemire: freeing, yet a little nerve-wracking; in part because all the old platitudes about leaving one’s comfort zone applied; in part because the commission came from an ex-student. Couple months back, Chloe contacted me, telling me about her job managing Legion City’s online presence, and asking me to write for the website. Of course, it’s always flattering to be invited to take part in such things; but it’s particularly gratifying both to reconnect with a past student and to slightly recast the relationship: now I’m been given deadlines and tasks (but within very generous limits and remits); now I’m waiting on feedback.
And now I get to push and redirect my learning. Which is something that does, certainly, happen in the classroom, but it’s nice to feel it happening in, as it were, another mode, a mode by which one comes to know what one learns and learn what one knows.
In my current work in educational philosophy, I’m bothered by knowledge and knowing; in particular, by the widespread talk of “knowledge-based education” and the equation of knowledge and facts. I’m still trying to give final – or at least interim – form to my thoughts on this. But I find myself distracted by a number of things: the first is the confusion of sentences (of a certain sort), facts, and knowledge.
Here’s a rough sketch:
The general form a so-called “fact” takes is that of a short, simple, declarative sentence (“There are x Smarties in the jar”; “David Cameron is the current prime minister of England”). Such sentences are often reeled off, list-like, after an announcement along the lines of “These are the facts…”, and they do a pretty good job at looking as if one sentence contains one fact (the number of Smarties in a jar; the name of the current PM). Such facts are, it is claimed, the stuff that knowledge is made of. So-called “higher order skills” are important, but need to be built on a firm foundation – a foundation of “knowledge.”
First problem: “There are x Smarties in the jar” and “David Cameron is the current prime minister of England” do not “contain” one fact each; they presuppose familiarity with a number of facts and competencies – syntactic-grammatical and semantic competencies; knowing that those are Smarties, that a jar, to what the number or quantity x refers; knowing that “David Cameron” names a particular man and no other (even though there might be other David Cameron’s in the world), what prime minister refers to… And so on. The point is this: sentences can be counted relatively easily; facts, knowledge-chunks, whatever you might want to call them, cannot. (John Searle has written about the vast amounts of “background” information upon which everyday “literal” language relies in order for successful communication. And Wittgenstein was keenly aware that so-called elementary propositions, while logically necessary, could not be enumerated or catalogued in full, in advance.)
Second problem: The defenders of “knowledge-based education” and the defenders of “higher-order skills” alike make a mistake when they treat knowledge/facts and skills/higher-level thinking as if different in kind. The Knowledge Lobby, in fairness, is not anti-skills or anti-creativity; it simply maintains that such competencies need to stand on firm foundations (and back we go to the first sketch). The problem with this, though, is that we don’t learn in a Bloomian way, first taking in the cold, hard facts, which are then neatly assimilated to increasingly “higher” orders of learning. Facts learned in relative isolation, as discrete chunks of knowledge, might be remembered for a few hours, days, even weeks; the more we rehearse the catechisms of knowledge, the better our chances of remembering them medium-to-long-term. Things really stick when they find a place in the larger networks of our beliefs: when something newly discovered contradicts, grounds, alters, explains, reaffirms… something already known, it is more likely to stay with us, because it has slightly adjusted our orientation to our world, or an aspect of it.
The knowledge-as-facts-as-foundation-to-learning view cannot, as far as I can see, be quite right. Not because there is no factual element to knowledge or knowing, but because it amounts to little more than a stylization of knowledge: short, simple, declarative sentences are not equivalent to indivisible facts or knowledge-chunks. And because in so many contexts spoken, written, and/or read sentences are the bread and butter of teaching and learning (indeed, communication generally), we are at all times dealing in facts (or propositions, as some would prefer). Supposedly “basic, factual knowledge” is styled differently to “higher-order” skills and learning; but at most it is different in degree, not in kind. Facts-as-knowledge have the apparent solidity they do partly because these are the sentences we often do very little with: Who is the current prime minister of England? David Cameron is the current prime minister of England. Good. So what? Well, what do you think of him, his party, his government? Of the opposition?
Now there are some sentences that might prompt other sentences worth producing other sentences about.
The stylization of knowledge-as-facts is also a function of the desire to make what counts as knowledge explicit – that is, for knowledge to count as knowledge, it should be possible to express it, to codify it, to define it. If knowledge can be codified and defined, then it can be assessed, measure, gauged, and so on. But there is also such a thing as tacit knowledge (see here and here for easy[ish] overviews) – modes of knowing that cannot be articulated, or not in general, context-independent terms at least. Alongside tacit knowledge (or knowing), some interesting work in educational philosophy has been done on the idea (drawn from Wittgenstein) of intransitive learning – experiences where one knows one has learned something, but cannot say just what one has learned.
The difficulty and challenge of all this for formal education is that tacit knowing and intransitive learning are foundational, in ways that I cannot go into here. But these are modes of knowing and processes/experiences of learning that can be registered but not easily measured. Capital-E Education is, almost by its “nature,” ill-equipped to factor in these modes of learning and knowing.
And with that, back to the beginning. Writing the piece on Lemire’s comics was a refreshing experience not least because it involved an encounter with instransitivity and a sort of dialectical struggle between tacit and – I won’t say “explicit” – more “vocal” modes of knowing; modes of knowing that cannot be measured, but which have led to a feeling of having learned something that, were I so inclined, I could perhaps make half-articulate.
As for the relationship that led to the piece being written, I can only be grateful to my former student for taking the punt she did on my work; grateful for having taught her; grateful that, from time to time, teacher-student relationships outlast, in immeasurable ways, the run of an exam course and exceed the boundaries of national curricula. Trite though it may sound, such relationships are a big part of teaching’s rewards and consolations. They certainly make a positive difference to teachers; I’d like to think they make a positive difference to students. If or when they do, such relationships should not be regarded as mere by-products of school life. Schools are not hermetically sealed off from “the real world,” despite the continued talk of them as training grounds for life there (where?). My school is a very real part of my world, for better or worse, as it is, for better or worse, for its sixteen-hundred-or-so students.
Such relationships as are made and broken in and by school are part of the so-called knowledge one learns while at school. I still find myself recalling the kindness, grace, and wit of several teachers from my secondary school, though I lost contact with them once I left: I am still learning from Mr. Broomhall (English), Mr. Stannard (Music), and Mr. Hayes (Maths). And when I think of them, and when I think of the knowledge one is supposed to learn at school, I also think of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, quoted with approval by Michael Gove some years ago, no doubt because Oakeshoot seemed to stand for the blend of traditionalism and progressivism Gove aspired to. The following is from an essay by Oakeshott called “Learning and Teaching”; for all its imperfections, its bearing on tacit knowing and moral growth is a far cry from Gove and the “knowledge lobby”:
When I consider, as in private duty bound, how first became dimly aware that there was something else in learning that the acquisition of information, that the way a man thought was more important than what he said, it was, I think, on the occasions when we had before us concrete situations. It was when we had, not an array of historical “facts,” but (for a moment) the facts suspended in a historian’s argument. […] It was on those occasions when one was not being talked to but had the opportunity of overhearing an intelligent conversation.
And if you were to ask me the circumstances in which patience, accuracy, economy, elegance and style first dawned upon me, I would have to say that I did not come to recognize them in literature, in argument or in geometrical proof until I had first recognized them elsewhere; and that I owed this recognition to a Sergeant gymnastics instructor who lived long before the days of “physical education” and for whom gymnastics was an intellectual art – and I owed it to him, not on account of anything he ever said, but because he was a man of patience, accuracy, economy, elegance and style.