What Knowledge Is

“…ledge, the second element in the word knowledge, means sport. Knowledge is the result of playing with that we know, that is, with our facts. A knowledgeable person in science is not, as we are often want to think, merely one who has an accumulation of facts, but rather one who has the capacity to have sport with what he knows, giving creative rein to his fancy in changing his world of phenomenal appearances into a world of scientific construct.” Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, 1969 (pg. 181)

“Why are we doing this?” groaned a 16 year old girl I was tutoring while reading a chapter from To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t yet had the heart to tell her that she was going to have to write, too.

“Because your teacher assigned it,” I shot back.

“But whyyyy,” she stomped her feet like a baby, which was funny to me because she just had a baby less than a month before (hence the home tutoring).

I thought for a moment before giving her more of the canned stuff: “Because you have to do well in school to be successful in life. And this is what they’re doing in school.”

“Can’t we work on chemistry? I like science.” As a home tutor, I was responsible for all of the subjects.

“I just got your chemistry work today,” I explained. “I need some time to look it over [google all the answers] before I can help you with it.”

“You mean you don’t know it?”

“I will,” I said curtly, then smiled. “Let’s just focus on English. Or history, if you want, I have something about trench warfare here, that could be fun!”

“Mister, are you successful in life?”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t know chemistry; you said I need to know this to be successful, so I want to know if you’re successful. How much money do you make?”

“Uh- [shit! she caught me!]”

“How much? ’cause I’m not doin’ this work if you make more than, like, a good amount.”

This girl, who didn’t know that hamburgers or chicken nuggets are made of meat (different story for another time), had left me totally speechless. For a moment. Then I remembered to open my other can of sagely teacher platitudes. The one about perseverance and doing things you don’t like or want to do in order to build character and I had taken chemistry and I struggled but that’s what made me successful and you won’t like all of your teachers just like you won’t like everyone in life and so on and so on. I bullied her into history and, happily, neither of us had to think for the next ninety minutes.

Two years later I had an epiphany. I was in a professional development (PD) and the topic was “Depth of Knowledge”. For those of you in the profession, “Depth of Knowledge” is the new and improved “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” For those of you not in the know, it’s basically just a way of thinking about how “deep” you can go with information, a convenient hierarchy of smartness, e.g. remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

Fast forward to the end of the PD. The instructor hands out a packet of old Regents exam questions from seven different disciplines, with about two multiple choice questions per discipline. The activity was to identify which sphere of smartness each question fell into (remember, understand, apply, etc.). It quickly devolved into everyone just trying to answer the questions. The facilitator didn’t mind, but also didn’t have any of the actual answers, so it turned into a fun game; a misprinted Trivia Pursuit that only had cards with questions. We answered the questions individually, and then came to a “correct” answer by consensus.

I got the English, World History, and US History questions all right (thank you, years of tutoring!) The math I had right conceptually but miscalculated. I don’t remember which science questions I got right or wrong, but I know I answered all “C”. For the most part, that’s how it played out; the humanities folks got those questions mostly right, and the hard science folks did best in their discipline.

With two exceptions: there was a math teacher who insisted that the statistics question didn’t make sense, and a Social Studies teacher (our facilitator) who couldn’t remember a US History question (“Man, I haven’t taught US in, like, four years”). At exactly that moment it dawned on me. I had answers to questions that I hadn’t known were being asked. Take, for example, the “summer drop” (or whatever they call it). You know, when students know so much in May and June but by September have to learn it all over again, and teachers huff and puff and blame everything in the world: why didn’t your parents review your geometry over the summer? Why didn’t your teacher last year teach this? Why can’t you remember things from June? Why don’t I ever get “good” classes? Some of the braver teachers may even say something like, “This is why we need a 12 month academic calendar.”

I tell my students all of the time, “If you ask a better question, then you’ll get a better answer.” Well, there you go. The first question that popped in my head was, Why do we teach what we teach if we as instructors lose the knowledge within a year? Next was more of an observation: When taken out of context of the test as a whole, and lumped with other disciplines, it becomes obvious how the questions were the kind of disjointed facts you might find in a trivia game. That’s fine for a snowy winter night at home with the family, and was even fun in a PD where absolutely nothing was at stake. But what if our paycheck depended upon how much trivia we could answer? Then I started asking, not sarcastically or rhetorically, but deeply searching my thoughts and feelings for, What is the purpose of school? What’s the point? Can you remember what was taught in High School? How much did it help you in college? How much has it helped you in your career? What are your fondest memories of High School? Mine are of the bus ride back and forth, where I could talk and joke with my friends for nearly an hour; tormenting my homeroom teacher (deepest and sincerest apologies, Mr. Perlee, but ’twas I who climbed through the window and unlocked the door every day); lunch; football. There were some one-off things, like the one and only party I went to, climbing on the gym roof, throwing a dead frog into the drop ceiling in the lab because a girl dared me to (not so funny 3 late-spring days later).

In fact, the only teacher I clearly remember was my Trigonometry teacher. I hated him and he hated me. I answered in haikus on his homework to spite him. I drew on his tests to mock him. And he couldn’t do a damn thing about it except fail me. My final ef-you to Mister Whatshisface was a 98% on the trig Regents exam. It took me one weekend of practice regents after practice regents, and was my highest state exam grade ever.

I’m not suggesting that fiery hate be the thing that drives you, because that seems awfully unhealthy, but it was what drove me to rock that exam. I had focus and strategies because I had a purpose…I wanted to embarrass this guy. I wanted him to have to go to the principal and explain how he gave a 50% for each of the four quarters to a kid who scored a 98 on the regents. I wanted him to know that I can learn trigonometry without him. I don’t remember why we butt heads to begin with, but I wanted to have the final word in mid-June.

Here’s the epiphany. There is too much “know” and not enough “knowledge”. There are too many activities and not enough goals. There is too much “work” and not enough “sport”. The use of the word “work” as it pertains to students was one of the first things I noticed when I got into education. “He’s not doing my work,” or “I can give him some work to make up for the past week when he was absent,” or “If you do the work, you’ll be fine [grade-wise, I assume].” Work hard and you’ll be successful. Well, yeah, unless you are working hard painting green rocks yellow on Wednesdays and yellow rocks green on Sundays. I can do all the work for my Underwater Fire Preventionist Certification and even graduate top in my class…but so what? There is too much focus on facts and not enough practical exercises in doing things with those facts, and even when there is a “doing” element, it rarely (unless by luck) aligns with the student’s goals, and even if it does align with the student’s goals it only does so for the 42 minutes until the bell rings and the student is compelled to move on to five and a half hours of not reaching their goals, all the while surrounded by people who likely do not share his goals. Diversity of thought is awesome, but when you have a group of diverse people working towards the same goal, that’s magical. That’s why, myself included, if you ask 10 people what their five most memorable High School memories are, I bet you being on a sports team would rate very high. And of those 10, how many play that sport professionally? Probably none, but you are on a team of people who may think and act differently but who share a same goal; you are taught the skills of the game (knowing) and are able to implement those skills in new, exciting, and practical experiences (knowledge).

I don’t know trigonometry anymore. But I bet I could learn it, if I wanted to. You could make a case for learning anything. Of course literacy is high on the list of things you should learn; but my 4 year old read me three books last night, and his vocabulary will improve the more he reads. Enough math to not get ripped off at the stores and to balance a checkbook is a requirement. Again, it doesn’t seem like that would take long to learn, especially when the motivating factor is money. I replaced my hot water heater a month ago with a bucket of tools, about $500, and a stubborn sense of self-reliance, my only weapons foul language and youtube. “Knowing”, i.e. a base of unchanging facts, is important to “knowledge”, i.e. playing sport or implementing those facts in conventional or innovative ways; when you have a destination, you learn things on the journey.

So then, what should we teach? It’s better to know than to not know, but if you choose one then you choose not to choose infinite others. Worst of all, as teachers and school staff and governments, we are choosing for other people; making decisions as to how they should act and what they should be and what kind of society we want, not what kind of life or society the student imagines.

I’ll leave you with contrasting examples:

First example, in NY state public High Schools, where I teach, a student is considered career and college ready when they complete 4 credits of ELA, 4 credits of Social Studies, 3 credits of math, 3 credits of science, .5 credits of health, 1 credit of the arts, 1 credit of foreign language, 2 credits of physical education, and 3.5 credits of electives. They also must successfully pass 5 Regents examinations. I’ll save you a diatribe on how what is taught does not imply what is learned. Suffice to say, in my experience, the biggest obstacles to graduation are those 5 Regents exams (you know…those trivia questions that we all forgot the answers to one summer after graduating high school).

For the second example, a “down and dirty” sketch of Brian Huskie’s ideal High School. Each student is interviewed and goals are set; they may not be set in stone forever, but the essence of them are teased out. For example, when I was in Kindergarten I wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad my eyesight is terrible and I have no interest in science. No need to fear, however, because as it turns out I didn’t really want to be an astronaut, per se, but what I wanted was to have adventures, take risks, be dangerous, and make a lasting difference. So my life has kind of followed that path: I was in the Army and then I became a teacher, and I remain an avid hiker/camper/fisher to this day. So the question is not just focused on the “thing”, but the “why”. Once we have some goals, we set some plans in motion. You want to go to Harvard? OK, 13 year old girl, go visit a Harvard admissions officer and also interview people who were recently admitted; next, do what they did. I imagine it means to become well read in the arts and sciences (first, find out what “well read” means), participate in sports, work on projects like creating nonprofit organizations that help those in need, etc. But don’t take my word for it. Find out what you need to do and, under the guidance of your “teachers” (I’d rather think of them as mentors), go do it! You want to be a bestselling author? Read a hundred books a year and write 2,000 words a day. You have no idea what you want from life? Take these aptitude tests and also go out and do 1,000 hours of volunteer work or internships in a variety of different settings, then come back and talk to me. It’s not that you don’t know, it’s that you don’t know yet. People want to learn. They aren’t lazy by nature. But even a great teacher who motivates and inspires is still an external agent. Young people won’t become responsible and ambitious adults until they find what drives them from within.

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