What’s the Point of Knowing?



An imaginary conversation between a patient teacher and a very precocious student…

S: What’s the point in knowing this stuff?

T: It may be important in your career someday.

S: No it won’t.

T: How do you mean?

S: None of the content I have been taught in class will matter once I’ve finished college and I  go out into the world. I will pick up what I need as I go, and I will learn by doing.

T: But you will need to know some of what we call ‘procedural knowledge’ – how to do certain specific things.

S: Um. There’s a term for that: a semi-skilled worker. Like someone who works a crane, or works in a factory. I don’t want to do that. I want to create new ideas and new products and new ways of doing things.

T: OK. But to do that you need to be able to interact in groups, have self-confidence, use technology and think in an innovative way.

S: I agree. But that’s got nothing to do with what you’re teaching me. Those are things I pick up in-between. You still haven’t told me what the point is in knowing this stuff.

T: Because it’s interesting.

S: Yes, some of it is. But I can learn far more about what interests me on TV and on the internet. I still don’t get why I need to know this stuff.

T: To pass your exams and get into a good college?

S: But that means I can cram all of this into my head in the few weeks before the exam. If I really don’t understand something, I can look it up and set up an on-line study group. With respect, I really don’t need you.

T: But I know this stuff, and it works better for some to hear it from an expert. I can dilute the syllabus and make it easier to understand.

S: But you’re not an expert. Google knows more than you. And there are plenty of sites and services on the web which explain our syllabus better than you ever could.

T: That is a bit hurtful.

S: I’m sorry, but I am only trying to be honest here. I think you may be offended because you don’t get to show off your knowledge as much anymore. Many of us know more than you about some parts of the syllabus. I’m sure you know who!

T: Is that the only point in knowing stuff – to show off?

S: Yes, I think so. Think about the people you admire most. Isn’t one of the main reasons you like them because they have a large amount of facts in their heads?

T: That’s one of the reasons, yes. But I also like people who are compassionate and who think differently.

S: But that’s got nothing to do with what they studied, or what they know. That’s got to do with their being open to other people’s emotions and to new ideas. Cramming our heads full of facts actually shuts that down, and turns an inquiring, concerned mind into a robotic one.

T: So forcing knowledge into your head stops you thinking?

S: Yes. It gives people control of what goes into my brain. People in positions of authority don’t really want critical, creative thinkers – they want worker-drones.

T: I read something about that happening in Texas. The Republican Party wants to put an end to higher order thinking skills because it undermines the authority of parents and teachers (and the church).

S: Exactly. They feel they have to protect themselves by dumbing kids down with facts instead of encouraging them to think for themselves.

T: I would have to think about that some more. Is knowledge important to you at all, then?

S: It is. Everyone needs to know stuff. But I can always look it up when I need it. Google Chrome now has a voice search function, imagine what that’s going to be like in a year or two… and in just a few years, Google Glass and some search engines will allow you to find out whatever you need to know within a few seconds.

T: What if you don’t have an internet connection? What if you’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere?

S: That’s a silly argument. Those will mostly be the exceptions. You cannot disqualify a valid argument because of the exception. It is illogical. It’s like you giving me a bad end of year grade because I failed one assessment.

T: I’ll have to look that up before we debate that.

S: Exactly.

T: So to summarise. You are saying that learning content is meaningless for three reasons:

     1) Because you can easily look it up if you need it.                                                                                        

     2) Because mostly you only need it for an exam and those are easy enough to cram for… and         

     3) Because mostly, having knowledge either makes you a semi-skilled worker or a braggart.

S: Pretty much, yes.

T: So teachers should all resign and schools should go online?

S: A big part of school should be online, but teachers don’t need to give up… they just need to change how they do things.

T: How?

S: Perhaps we could do more of this and less of what’s in the textbook?

T: Perhaps.

S: I would like that.

T: I would too. I think somebody learnt something today.

S: I think so too.

T: Can we get back to volcanoes now?

S: If we must.

T: We must.

Two questions:

1)      Does the teacher need to report the matter to the principal?

2)      If so, what does she say?


About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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