The Bok Center’s “Designing the Course of the the Future” seminar met for the second time this past week to tackle the problem of “knowledge” (for more information on the seminar, click here).
Over the course of the session, one key theme that kept emerging was the connection between what we were terming “knowing” and what we were terming “ownership.” In “Cognition and Instruction,” for instance, we found Richard Mayer arguing that students gain ownership over their ideas by generating them rather than passively memorizing facts. And, in the Meno, we found Plato suggesting (a bit more provocatively, it must be said) that we already “own” all there is to know, we just need to recollect–or “un-forget”–this knowledge. Intriguingly, both the ancients and the moderns seem to concur that the knowing that is self-generated or “re-collected” (as opposed to a body of facts that is passively memorized) stands a better chance of staying put and not wandering off like one of Daedalus’s statues after the exam.
The path of memorization and regurgitation is tempting to learners who are “novices” rather than “experts” in a given field, but, as Bransford et al. argue in How People Learn, the move from novice to expert is less a matter of memorizing a “list of facts and formulae” than it is of organizing one’s knowledge “around core concepts or ‘big ideas’ that guide their thinking about their domains” (36). Just as crucially, becoming an expert in a given field involves knowing how to put one’s knowledge to use in particular “contexts of applicability” (31), so knowing something the way an expert knows it also involves the “metacognitive” knowledge of why one might want to know that something–the awareness of what one can do with a given idea.
After we broke up into divisional discussion groups, the logical flow of this line of reasoning led the humanities, sciences and social sciences groups to surprisingly similar utopian projects: each group dreamed of empowering each student with the ability to chart a coherent and integrated course of study for him or herself at the outset of his or her academic career. This would ensure that the various courses he or she took were means to some larger end, important elements in the larger project of his or her educational development. In this way the question of what one can do with the ideas offered in a given course would always be in plain view.
But this involved us in a paradox similar to the one we encountered in Plato’s Meno: if you already know something, you can’t discover it because you already know it; and if you don’t know it, you can’t discover it because you don’t know where to look. So the “novice” student who charted the course wouldn’t be qualified to do so were he or she not already an “expert” in the subject matter.
In response to this problem, our participants suggested that introductory courses should be less concerned with offering students a body of facts than a body of problems and paths–they would be dedicated to teaching students what they don’t know. Borrowing from the cryptic formulations of a former political official, we might say that these courses enable students to turn “unknown unknowns” into “known unknowns,” and, in doing so, introductory courses concerned with “big questions” as much as answers would prepare students to plot out sensible courses of study for themselves.