Teaching in Mind

Helping Teachers Mindfully Transform Education

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The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

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Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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Beliefs About Knowledge

"We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge."
~ Rutherford D. Roger

T

he word knowledge is central to education. People often assume that everyone who uses the word knowledge is referring to the same thing. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Beliefs about the nature of knowledge—what it is, where it comes from, and how people acquire it—abound. Those beliefs are fundamental to the way education works. Therefore, we must question what educational policy makers, teachers, parents, or students really mean when they use the word knowledge.

John Dewey1 suggested that the word knowledge has several meanings. First, it is the result of one individual's process of inquiry. Assuming the inquiry has been competent and sufficient, the conclusion—the knowledge—is trustworthy. For example, archaeological evidence shows that early man had a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and its relation to weather. The first humans who noticed that connection "created" that knowledge.

A second meaning of knowledge—one that regularly overshadows the first—arises when a significant number of individual inquiries result in the same conclusion. People generally accept such a conclusion as more significant—more "true" than the inquiry of a single person. This Knowledge (with a capital K) takes on a life of its own outside of the individual processes of inquiry that generated it. From there, it is a small step to perceiving this Knowledge as "true" in some absolute way—apart from the minds that conceived it.

The downside is that, in this view of Knowledge, the cognitive processes—the inquiries—that created the Knowledge are ignored. Rather than viewing Knowledge as a total package—the process of inquiry plus the products of that inquiry—the products become answers devoid of questions and removed from the contexts in which they were developed. They become "facts"—or what some people perceive as objective "truth." (Not to mention that they become prime fodder for multiple choice questions with single "correct" answers!)

Objectivist Beliefs About Knowledge

T

his objective truth is what many educators believe they must give or transmit in some way to students—as if these "truths" are objects of some kind that can simply be transferred from one person to another. The word objective literally means "apart from the human mind." Newton's Laws of Motion and other so-called "laws" of nature, Euclidean Geometry, and the rules of grammar are Knowledge in this sense. So are many other items included in the content standards and benchmarks or in the lists of "essential knowledge" identified by some theorists. Typically, these knowledge objects are "taught" with little concern for where they came from or the inquiry process through which they were developed. What effect does this deliberate separation of product from process have on teaching?

In The Courage to Teach2, educator Parker Palmer identifies four elements of what he calls the "objectivist myth of knowing":

Myth of Learning

Notice the metaphors contained within this view.

[Note: For more background on these metaphors, see this article.]

In the school context, the experts decide which of these Knowledge objects the amateurs should possess. (For example, the over 5000 "benchmarks" in 13 different subject areas developed for No Child Left Behind standards, or the "specific skills" identified in Common Core Language and Math standards.) Teachers are then given the task of dispensing the chosen objects whether or not the amateur wants them.

The baffles in Palmer's model represent the efforts of objectivists to keep the knowledge free from subjectivity. Students are not allowed to probe knowledge for weaknesses lest they somehow damage it. They are rarely permitted to engage in the same process of inquiry that yielded the knowledge in the first place. On the rare occasions when this is permitted, as for example, in a science "experiment," the expert carefully guides the amateurs so that they follow closely in the steps of the master. "All visitors must stay on the path." And if a student happens to get results that don't support the hypothesis, it is labeled "experimental error" rather than being used for further inquiry.

Objectivist educators consciously or unconsciously accept the definition of objective as "apart from the human mind." There are those who reject the argument that the categories by which we conceptualize the world and our experience are products of the mind. For them, the categories actually exist in nature, waiting for the perfect human mind to discover them. Objectivists work toward the attainment of this perfect mind that will eventually learn to abstract the true essence of nature as it exists "out there."

Many teachers have been caught up in the objectivist myth. They have, for so long, experienced Knowledge as something "given" to them by their own teachers that they assume they must now "give" to their students in the same way. The adherence of those teachers to the objectivist myth is mindless in the sense that it is unexamined. According to Palmer,

"In the objectivist myth, truth flows from the top down, from experts who are qualified to know truth…to amateurs who are qualified only to receive truth. In this myth, truth is a set of propositions about objects; education is a system for delivering those propositions to students; and an educated person is one who can remember and repeat the experts' propositions. The image is hierarchical, linear, and compulsive-hygienic, as if truth came down an antiseptic conveyor belt to be deposited as pure product at the end. There are only two problems with this myth: it falsely portrays how we know, and it has profoundly deformed the way we educate."3

Palmer points out that, although many classrooms maintain this image of teacher, students, and subject as separate entities, "…I know of no field—from astronomy to literature to political science to theology—where the continuing quest to know truth even vaguely resembles this mythical objectivism."


If you would like to read more about how educators conceptualize knowledge, how it is acquired, and how those beliefs influence education, you may wish to read Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education. The discussion continues in Chapter 10. Additional information on the types of knowledge can be found here.


References

  1. Dewey, J. (1939). Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 8.
  2. Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 100-101. The diagram is adapted from Palmer's book with his permission.
  3. Ibid, p 101.

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New!

The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.


Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

Email Updates

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