Thursday, February 12, 2009

To Know, Learn

Link Education, Learning & Knowledge.

The ability to continue learning, begun through education, leads us on to the knowledge that we most dearly need.

Education, too often conflated with learning, is the process of moving each learner to greater knowledge and ability. The education process, begins as soon as a child is present, but does depend upon a rudimentary sensate ability to learn and continued willingness to learn, or assent. Educators are those who expose learning situations to a learner. Though perpetually thought of as teachers in schools or other formal settings, educators may also be others who operate with various intents and levels of explicitness. Educators typically include parents and other relatives, various professionals besides teachers, especially clergy, the communications media allowed or followed and later sought, and one’s peers that in time become all other personal contacts.

Learning is most dependent upon education in its early stages, but learners at all stages must assent to what is being presented otherwise what is intended in education is not learned. Learning, in time takes over from education, and thereby self-directed learners become their own teachers, which opportunity they may perform well or poorly. Learners may also learn from their own thinking by post-operative examination of what they have previously learned.

The processes of education that adhere in all societies tend to become institutionalized in rituals, programs, schools, libraries, museums and other agencies. We think of schools as most prominently established and central to education. Schools, largely through teaching or instruction, aim to impart a common base of knowledge, regarded as most relevant to the society. Hopefully, schools also purposefully embed that content with the process of learning how to learn. In this manner, educators eventually make themselves unnecessary when the learners in their charge have gained mastery and can go on to the next level of education or unto learning on their own. Successful teachers put themselves out of business, except than another wave of ignorance is due to follow those who move onward to further stage teachers and their own direction.

Accessible knowledge consists of what all minds know together with what anyone has known and recorded where those records still exist. Knowledge, also said to exist in full form in the mind of God, is another delightful possibility but outside the scope of this article. Thus in human terms, knowledge is both personal and immediate, but relatively limited, while knowledge beyond the personal is vast and of long duration. Over history, various people reputedly have known everything about everything, a limited possibility. What historians meant by the expression is that the learned had knowledge of what could be conceptualized and categorized into subject disciplines. According to this latter meaning, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646-1716, receives credit for being the last person to know everything that a human could know. Since then knowledge has expanded with increasing velocity, and try as we might no one can know but a part of it all. Rather, we can know about a great deal.

Knowing everything, certainly, is not our real problem as we live our lives. Our problem, and still a challenging one, is to gain and maintain sufficient knowledge so that we can live humanely and well, fulfill our responsibilities, and enjoy the benefits of civilization.

Thus, education starts us on the path of learning by which we are equipped to gain knowledge and the abilities attendant to knowledge throughout our lives. Learning becomes a lifelong endeavor for a number of reasons. The more we learn, the more we realize the limits of our knowledge and the immensity of our ignorance. Knowledge continues to advance through discovery, new activity around the world, and reformulation of prior knowledge; therefore, matters we once knew no longer fit present reality as currently understood. Just as researchers and thinkers discover they have been in error or mistaken, we can admit our own failings, and must replace discredited knowledge with new information. Alas, we have a great tendency over time to forget or misremember what we once knew or thought we knew. The joy of learning is also a powerful stimulus, beyond any utility.

Chiefly, however, we need to learn because, as humans, we are the chief actors in our own lives and destinies. So much comes to us that requires us to learn what we did not know before. Knowledge furnishes and equips life – health, family, housing, location, aging, retirement – and work and recreation and civic responsibility and philosophy of life and religion if we have one, and so on.

What then is the task that education faces to prepare us as learners for the knowledge that is always pressing at our brains and waiting for our minds to integrate the previously unknown with what we already know? Here are a few major challenges.

Determine knowledge needs. Over time, we gradually shift from following the leading dictates of others as to what we ought to learn. Following an established path in learning is a safe mode in some guarantee of less error. The first messages are healthy doses of conservatism that suit us for life in the culture and society we inhabit. Soon, however, we follow our own preferences as we are no longer just receivers but seekers and initiate our own directions. How do I see my future at this point? What is it that I want to become? What are the requisite knowledge and skills to do what I need and want to do? Am I prepared to begin? How do I have to prepare myself in the short and long range? Where is the information?

Acquire the processes of self-direction. What is the available environment for my learning? What choices do I have? What resources, personal and published, that aid choices are available? Am I able to distinguish good advice, obtain it, and upon the information received make my own choices? How do I like to learn? Can I then effectively learn in my preferred manner what I need to learn? Do I have requisite information-seeking and judging skills? How can I get them, hone them? Am I disciplined? Do I look for achievement or ease? What will pay off in my present estimation in the long-term?

Determine accuracy or truthfulness. Does what I find fit what I know? Am I in error somewhere? What is the evidence for the information and how does it fit criteria for validity: up-to-date, authoritative, publicly tested, corroborated by other sources, appropriate to the question? What other questions does this new information open? Where do I go next? What choices do I make?

Whether inquiry-based learning will ever obtain much ground remains debatable at present. Although inquiry is how scientists and other scholars work, the approach is not the practice among most folk. State departments of education and school districts that have tried to implement inquiry as a means of authentic learning usually face a persistent public uproar until they have to give it up or state legislators put a stop to strategies of learning through questioning and testing information. Inquiry is messy, confusing, unbounded and questioning of traditional values, ones that parents and the public feel are endangered. Children can be at odds with their parents over such sensitive subjects as U.S. history, classics of literature, logic and fallacy, evolution, environmentalism, economics, sex education and a host of other subjects on which the public divides.

The debacle over inquiry vaults the politics of education, learning, and knowledge to the forefront. Individuals may learn all they want, despite obstacles. However whenever an environment based on learning and not teaching occupies public institutions, some constituents will fear those choices and muster complaints. Then those authorities, the ones who do not realize that the Bill of Rights grants freedom to all, will always make learning subservient to education and bind up its content. Limitations settle upon us, as knowledge becomes what some middle of the road position says it is.

© 2008, 2009 by Roger Sween.

This article, here revised, appeared in a slightly different form on

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