Uncommon Sense

May 24, 2008

On being Educated…

Filed under: questions,thinking — Derek @ 2:10 pm

What does it mean to say one is ‘educated’? One definition says that it is ‘the ability to profit from experience’. Is this to say that we cannot learn vicariously, from another’s experience, or is it not necessarily our own experience that is required? If this is true, then it is not necessary for everyone to have experience, just knowledge of the experience of others, which we may refer to as knowing about someone else’s experience, or having information in relation to it.

But is it enough to have information about an event or thing or person in one’s memory which may be regurgitated at a moment’s notice, to know about something? If so, then a computer is ‘educated’, and a great deal more than any human, since it can recall (if programmed accordingly, of course) much more information and with greater accuracy than any human. Surely to be educated is a great deal more than recalling a database, which in any case is constantly changing? We could not safely leave someone to their own initiative if they only had the capacity to remember.

Perhaps it is the ability to comprehend – to be able to demonstrate understanding of a subject by organising, illustrating or relating concepts in a coherent fashion, that constitutes being educated . This is passive understanding – it does not mean the person possessing it can apply the knowledge learnt, but merely that they have an idea of it’s working. But am I educated if I know how things work but cannot use that understanding in the real world?

How about ‘know-how’? Active’ understanding brings the added dimension of being able to apply the principles learnt, even to another, somewhat different, situation. Some would say that a person who has this faculty is educated because they can ‘do’, not merely ‘see how it’s done’. But mere duplication is not enough – we use the phrase, ‘monkey see, monkey do’ to disparagingly illustrate that being able to ‘plug in’ a certain pattern of activities does not necessarily enable one to cope with high degrees of diversity. We are still missing an adaptive ability, because the events of tomorrow, while they may be similar in many respects, will be sufficiently different to require tailoring of our existing capability.

It is in the process of analysis that we find that the necessity occurs for departing from the rigidity of ‘standard’ approaches. The relationships between cause and effects, evidence and inferences must be explored and corroborated before arriving at conclusions. As opposed to the ‘static’ aspects of memory, comprehension and application, analysis is dynamic, changing. And yet it is still not enough to say we are educated, for what of the creative requirement necessitated by the changing world, which constantly offers new challenges?

It is not enough to analyse, and produce an explanation – we must also have ways and means of coping with current realities. And in many cases, existing strategies are unsuited to the status quo – we must develop new patterns, new ways of perceiving, and structuring reality, and then implementing those new approaches. This process is called synthesis, combining elements in innovative ways in order to develop alternative solutions. If we have this ability, can we say we are truly educated?

Not quite…

The task before us is not complete. Having a list of alternatives will not be sufficient, for we must evaluate alternatives in relation to the desired outcome, and choose the one most likely to succeed. The judgement faculty, the ability to assess the relative value of competing options, is crucial to the process of decision-making, and therefore critical in respect of the individual’s ability to derive value from any situation, since we select value through our decisions.

Having satisfied all of the above characteristics, one would be prepared for almost any eventuality; one would have all the necessary attributes to apply one’s intelligence to a given scenario.

Those who are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy will recognise his six levels of thinking. When I was at school, the education systems seemed to be focused primarily on the lowest level, as are quiz shows: that of memory, the ability to recall. While this ability is necessary for all the others to take place, it is not sufficient for the practice of thinking. Thinking is a skill gained partly by understanding the rules of logic, and partly by experience, testing constantly how our models of reality conform to the real world. It is a process, and one not easily learnt if the fundamental principles are not understood.

Ignorance is not merely lack of knowledge; it is inability to learn. If we wish to arm ourselves in the war against ignorance, we must pay more attention to equipping people better to learn for themselves, and as Ghandi once said, “Those who know how to think need no teachers”.

Teaching people how to cope with the current reality, enabling them to do according to the existing methods, is not good enough; we must prepare them for a whole host of future realities where the teacher is not present. Only by teaching people how to think for themselves can we achieve this.

How to teach people to think?

In order to enable students to learn how to apply each of these levels, we must know how to provide them with activities in which the principles and practices of Thinking become understood and practicable. Exercises must be conducted for each level that ensure that the student practices the disciplines associated with critical thinking. Not only that, but we must engender the desire to think – we must make thinking stimulating and fun, not predictable and boring.

So let’s apply this rule to each level of thinking, and see whether we come up with a substantially different model of education.

Level One: ‘Knowing’

Having people know the answers will not benefit us; the answers must change because of the growth of knowledge itself. All human progress has been the result of the enquiring mind in action – if people are encouraged to question what is known, the next steps in the growth of human knowledge are engendered. The illusion that what is known is final should be resisted at all costs; the notion of teachers as authority figures has retarded the education process, resulting in a generation who believe too easily, who merely accept the dubious claims of charlatans who lie in wait at every corner. Popularity has somehow become equal to quality; Pseudoscience gets more media coverage than Science, and every time we look around, another company has taken it’s shareholders for a ride. More than ever, people need to know which questions to ask, how to ask them, and where to get answers.

Once the answers are provided, how to verify? Spurious information will not do – there exists a need to ensure that the answers provided have integrity. Once again, it is necessary to question: the source, how the information was obtained, how the conclusions, if any, were arrived at, and the host of other questions that must be answered before we should accept that an assertion is correct.

To be educated, then, would be to have the capacity and the willingness to question whether an assertion was factual. One would have a built-in cynicism, rather than a gullible trust.

The first step, then, of education, is to instil in students a wonder instead of a fear of the unknown, by teaching them how to question and engaging them in a culture of scepticism, in which everything is negotiable, rather than immediate acceptance…

Level Two: Comprehending

Comprehending is about interpretation, making sense of the information presented. What exactly do we mean by sense? And how do we get there?

Comprehending involves the process of assimilating the information and making it part of one’s own reality model – of making it ‘fit’, so to speak. In this way, we make it real, part of ourselves, rather than some remote fact about something external. It is personal contextualisation, bringing the knowledge into dynamic ‘being’ rather than passive ‘existence’.

Too often, this step is not taken by students and not engineered by teachers. It is a difficult step, requiring time, patience and energy, and of course there is always the pressure of the sheer volume of the curriculum. The consequence of avoiding the complexity of bringing about this outcome is that students accept things at ‘face value’, and so we have an entire generation which is lured by the superficial and pretentious, and yet see neither.

Students should be encouraged to relate the information to their own world – how can the foreign concept be incorporated into the individual’s reality map, so that it makes sense? When we speak of sense, we mean logical sense: the assertion must be tested against reality using the rules of logic. The assertion must follow from a set of grounds; All necessary grounds must be present, and they must be sufficient for the conclusion to be justified, while the conclusion must follow specifically from the grounds. These ‘laws of legitimate argument’ are only taught to students of philosophy and law, but everyone has a need, if they wish to successfully apply their minds to any environment, to understand how to use these principles. Most teachers are not even aware of them…

By applying these rules, one can adopt a disciplined approach to the process of gaining understanding, rather than the knee-jerk habit employed by most people, that of interpreting events and information within the confines of one’s existing preconceptions.

One way of bringing this about is to teach students the ‘moment’s pause’, the action of suspending interpretation until reflection, a logical ‘due diligence’ that takes place before comprehension is finalised. Developing the habit of considering carefully before concluding will increase the likelihood that they will arrive at an accurate internal representation of the reality.

Level Three: Application

“Practice makes Perfect” says the adage, and in the area of thinking nothing could be more true. It is in the application of one’s mind that one learns how to think – merely knowing the rules of logic may give one the foundation, but, like having a toolbox full of tools but only knowing how to use the hammer, it is in using those rules in real-world situations that one is empowered to think for oneself.

Engage people’s minds, and suddenly they discover that the world of knowledge is not a frightening one, it is one of stimulation and growth. With the passing of time, no longer are they dependent on the teacher to explain, they can work things out for themselves, and with each victory over ignorance, their confidence grows, until the mind is truly independent, surely the goal of education? It is by thinking that we learn to think, and no amount of spoon-feeding and carbon-copying can bring this about. We must insist that the student does it for themselves, while we guide, not what they think, but how they think about what they think.

Level Four: Analysis

Having introduced the students to Wonder in level One, getting them to take Ownership in level Two, and building their Self-belief in Three, we now need to get the student to ‘dig down’, get below the surface of things and extract beliefs, underlying assumptions, drives et al – all the stuff that makes us think the way we do. Breaking assertions into ‘bite-sized’ chunks enables the student to understand bit by bit and thereby build the detail into a big picture view.

This process takes the student out of that comfortable, relatively simple world of high-level understanding and makes them aware of complexity, the way variables interact in a maze of dynamic relationships between things and ideas, causes and effects, grounds and assertions. It is in building these elements into a coherent whole that provides another level of understanding, and with it a sense of the nature of existence, an insight into patterns that are repeated in many disciplines, providing an approach template which one can use in any environment.

“Everything is more complex than it first appears” said Einstein, and the student is at this level introduced to the amount of work required if one is to think for oneself. It requires diligence, discipline and patience, and prepares one for the requisite effort in any situation if one is to understand correctly.

Only by asking students to dismantle current ideas, much like a child dismantles a mechanical device to ‘see how it works’, can we strengthen their analytical ability. We must subject our most treasured assumptions to investigation by a fresh set of minds who have not been enured by their circumstances to a non-viable set of assumptions about life.

Perhaps they can indeed create a better world, if only we allow them to draw their own conclusions rather than force-feeding them our packaged preconceptions…

Level Five: Judgement

Most people seem to jump straight from Level One to this level, somehow being willing to make judgement without due consideration for the possible existence of alternative models of reality, including differing values, beliefs, even assumptions about the nature of reality.

When Judges retire to their chambers to consider their verdicts, they do so to ‘weigh up’ all the aspects of the case, to assess the merits of each protagonist’s argument. Any form of evaluation involves this process, but it seems most people do not practice it. Their ‘knee-jerk’ results in prejudices turning into destructive actions, and leads to most of mankind’s maladies.

Development of this potential and the desire to conduct the due diligence can only occur if students are shown that any choice is a value judgement, and that each one has consequences, not only to oneself but to one’s environment.

Scenario-solving and conflict resolution exercises can go a long way to enhancing student’s abilities to contemplate before arriving at a conclusion – but these must occur if students are to learn about the nature of judgement and it’s consequences.

Level Six – Synthesis

I part ways with Bloom here. I believe that synthesis is far more difficult than judgement, since many can identify that something is incorrect or will not work. Few can develop new ways of thinking about and doing things This is a step beyond unravelling the nature of reality; it is a step is into the unknown, rejigging the jigsaw, so to speak. Some say that one should be able to understand the current paradigm before you can assemble new patterns, but many discoverers did not bother – they simply went straight to the innovation since it worked better. We should never restrict anyone to embark on the road to mature thought along linear lines – some can move straight to synthesis without bothering with analysis.

For the rest, this step is often very difficult to take, partly because they have learned to depend on others rather than maintain their independence, and perhaps that is the fault of the current education process. Too often, students are asked to accept without question the existing notion – this brings about compliance without real understanding, and does not lend itself to a motivation to seek new ways of thinking about current realities.

Motivation is the key to synthesis. If we exhort students to bring their own viewpoint to the table, we provide some incentive to students seeking to express their individuality. By demanding conformance, we subdue and eventually destroy the creative spark.

We need to engender irreverence for what is known, not agreement based on authority, which is tantamount to faith…

Education is at a crossroads.

The challenge is complex, partly because educators are so ill-prepared, barely being capable of critical thinking themselves. The senseless path-of-least-resistance approaches of the past which barely constitute more than assisting students with levels One and Two do not result in educated graduates; they result in clones of conformance to an outdated ideal, and exclude the mavericks and gifted ones who stand outside the doors. We make misfits of marvels…

The quality of a culture or a nation or a generation is dependent upon the quality of it’s Thinking.

We must take the steps now to ensure that future generations are equipped to Think for Themselves.



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