Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Education reform and the two kinds of knowledge

"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries."
— Samuel Johnson

This came up while I was working on a longer piece but I decided it deserved a short post of its own.

In the two and a half centuries since Dr. Johnson's time, the amount and the value of the second kind of knowledge has increased substantially (as it had in the preceding centuries). Cheap printing, the internet and telecommunications (consulting an expert qualifies as the second kind) have given us ready access to a stunning array of information.

With a few exceptions, the ability to find and manipulate information is far more important than the ability to simply repeat it, but the push for accountability in education often focuses strictly on the first kind.

update: You can find a related discussion here.


  1. Education reformers should certainly let teachers and testers worry less about simple memorization, when possible... But don't you think there are MANY cases (not just a few exceptions) where it's critical to have information truly ingrained, not just findable?

    A guitar player who merely owns a chord fingering chart is very different from guitar players who *know* their chords!
    A programmer working in a familiar language is much more productive than someone who doesn't know the syntax or commands well but "can look things up when needed."
    If nothing else, knowing my times tables saves me time when calculating the tip, vs. using the calculator on my phone :)

    Looking forward to the longer piece coming up!

  2. I skimmed over a lot here. There's always a complex cost-benefit analysis behind whether a bit of knowledge is worth keeping at your fingertips. Keep in mind that there is a significant maintenance cost to keeping knowledge in ready access mode.

    Take programming. A really good programmer needs a lot of terms and rules at his or her fingertips, but there is a tremendous amount of information out there that is best used on a just-in-time basis.

    For example, I was recently asked to do some analysis of photographs so I located the appropriate python module and read through the documentation. If I were working with images on a daily or weekly basis, I would want that knowledge at my fingertips; otherwise, I just want to know where I can find it.