Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Knowledge Transfer and Wisdom Transfer

I concluded my last post with a statement that I believe is both provocative and true.  The reason I believe that education does not equal invention is because of the issue of information transference for, or not for, profit (which I won’t drag you through again, as that is so last week’s post).  So where does this leave us?  I believe this leaves us where we are today, which is in a world where some information (usually knowledge-based) is freely shared.  I also believe that much of the information that is shared freely is of a nature that will not fundamentally shake up the way educational infrastructure works.  We know we need knowledge, and we don’t tend to always reach further.

My reasons for thinking this are based on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of critical information.  I think of this in terms of someone who reviews information and makes critical decisions on what is good and what is not so good.  They analyze both the qualitative and the quantitative, but will put a heavier emphasis on one or the other depending on who is using the results of the review.   Shared information becomes public information and in this day and age, everyone has an opinion about what the information means.   This added acknowledgement of the qualitative has moved us towards a type of “movie critic’s forum” way of deciding what works and what doesn’t in learning. 

Picking up on the movie theme, the parallels between movie directors and school principals, producers and school boards, actors and teachers and all the other comparable complex phenomena shouldn’t be too hard to visualize as similar.  In both worlds if enough people are saying nice things about the story you brought to the screen or the school year you just orchestrated, it doesn’t really matter if there is a better movie or learning result possible.  It is in this context that the idea of critics’ forums are springing up around education, becoming more prevalent and main stream. 

Let’s remind ourselves how this works in the movie critics’ domain.  Beyond good story/bad story, cool cinematography effects, solid acting etc., the conversation of what defines a better movie possibility (aside from the reviewer’s summary of story’s parts) isn’t the professional movie critic’s prime concern.  Their concern is what they just saw.  The cleanliness of the theatre doesn’t usually come up in a review no matter how spotless the locale.  “I dropped some popcorn on the floor during one particularly intense scene and felt secure that the sign that read ‘Operating J Theatre Clean’ meant the 5 second rule was in effect” just doesn’t come up in most movie reviews.  Questions like the potential full adoption of 3-D becoming the standard once the technology removes the need for glasses, seems to be left to the paying public to decide.  Along the same lines, immersiveness defined as the audience’s ability to interact with the plot, not in ways that option out alternative endings, but that provides the viewer the opportunity to play ‘What if?” isn’t something critics are lobbying for.   A movie critic might have a personal opinion on the value of this, but as an audience member, my willingness to go to a particular movie with this optionality is not something that necessarily needs to be judged by a movie critic in order for me to determine quality; I only concern myself about the option if it is available or not. 

So what do education critics look at?  All sorts of things obviously, but it is the debate about what information should be transferred in learning that will be today’s focus.  Let’s extend the metaphor a little further.   In this case, knowledge transfer sounds like: “I think this is a good movie because”…  which is then compared with wisdom transfer: “what were the chances prior to release that Avatar would make more than it cost, or, why don’t recently produced silent movies need 3-D effects?”  (It is worthy to note that I can read the movie critic’s advice for free about why they hated the movie, but the answer to the wisdom questions just posed will have a monetary price attached because the answers aren’t known for certain until sometime in the future.  Oh the power of uncertainty!  In the examples above, the sums of money wagered on what movie will work and what won’t based on box office sales, can turn into staggering monetary gains or losses.)

What to make of this then when taking a critical look at education?  On the knowledge transfer front I cannot predict with certainty how much knowledge a learner will retain, only the amount of knowledge I made explicit and available.  So I can quantify the number of problems I made available to solve, and can even count up the number of interventions committed to remediate learning difficulties.  If my goal is to have the student recognize the arithmetic patterns across a series of algebraic problems so they can answer a set of never before seen questions on a test, I’m at the mercy of the learner’s ability to ‘recognize’ the similarities and ‘discard’ the false positives.   The assumption here is, the more exposure to a wider range of problems the higher the likelihood that this will occur.  Of course if this doesn’t turn out to be true, I’ll have a qualitative reason at the ready (Oh mercy me, but I did my job and they still didn't get it!)

Let’s compare this with what we can predict about wisdom.  Imparting  wisdom is even more nebulous in that neither inputs nor outputs can be quantified in isolation and still retain the title of Wise.  Through this effort we may discover what is true, but only under controlled circumstances.  In order to exhibit wisdom, the expectation is that emotion and opinion will defer to universal principles (Note: these are not laws…these are best guesses as we control less and less).  These principles are grounded in the repetitive nature of history, and history, as we know it, is never simple. We can’t guarantee that history will repeat itself, but we can’t ignore history either.  There is wisdom all around us, but to the uninitiated a tempting decision to ignore wisdom comes from the belief that one can defy history.

To me there is a great irony in all of this, and that is we believe that in transferring knowledge we are giving our learning ‘customers’ ALL the intelligence (in information form) they need to make better decisions (That they become wise).  This to me is an incredible assumption…that because you have the information, that you’ll know what to do with it.  I know I’m not the first person to point this out, but I’m also dumbstruck by the number of people who are convinced that this connection between ‘have’ and ‘do’ will become automatic for learners (never mind the bigger issue of ‘have …and do the correct thing’).  

Perhaps it is time to examine the Have/Do connection more closely.  Let us  assume just for a moment that cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham have it right when they say that for most people the have/do function in our brain is memory-based and that as a species we would rather do things from memory than think our way through something.  Based on this, wisdom is never going to be developed if the “do” side of this relationship draws only upon that which we already “have.”   The reason for this should be obvious, in that, wisdom recognizes and draws upon what we know and what we don’t yet know -but may be able to connect to through a shared, rather than individual, past.  The reality is that knowledge transfer is easier to impart, while wisdom transfer requires co-opted study.  Complicated?  Very much so.  Vital?  This may be the thing that can save our schools.

Regardless of complexity of task, through multiple student observations I have come to recognize that to move a learner from someone who is knowledgeable to someone who understands, requires the cognitive exercise of determining which knowledge variables must be present in order to avoid misinterpretation or information loss.  I realize there are other factors at play when the mind is making meaning, but determining if both of these conditions have been met, seems to me to be one of the most powerful ‘doing’ exercises one can perform to move along the path to understanding, and eventually wisdom.   Notice two things here:

1.     The exercise builds off what we know, but requires both analytical and creative discovery efforts in order to succeed;
2.     That avoidance and loss sit prominently in this determination, which lends itself nicely to the belief that the brain is a survival tool.

If you opened the hyperlink to the co-opting science study you see high complexity (fact-value distinction) academics at its best, but this type of learning scenario based on the requirement of ‘doing’ wisdom can be constructed on much simpler platforms. One of my fellow bloggers, Dr. David Eubanks, does an amazingly thorough job of explaining this kind of survivability game

For me the continuum of knowledge - understanding - wisdom must be fully articulated if, as educators, we are going to fulfill the obligation of learning transfer with any degree of success.   I want the option of accessing wisdom in secondary school.  Dealing with difficulty and trouble should not be the exclusive domain of those beyond school.  Raising the outcomes stakes to substantial by making the use of wisdom a pre-requisite, gets people’s attention and shows them that the connection between learning and life is not transitory. 

I realize that everyone will have an opinion about the merits of this kind of risk exposure, but perhaps if the efforts to improve education aren’t focused solely on the ‘storyline of knowledge’, our understanding of how to achieve a better educational possibility might get advanced.  While many in the world of education are opining about the need for better knowledge transfer, I think it is time for that, and wisdom transfer as well.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting ideas! Thanks for the link to Survival Strategies. One of the things I found in the simulations, which pit an ecology of small computer programs against an environment so that they evolve for survival, is that memory-based solutions occur much more often than causal once. Even when I try to tweak the programming language that runs these digital critters to favor if-then type thinking, it's rare that such solutions evolve. If I completely force it by creating an environment that cannot by survived by cyclical memory reproduction alone, it's rare that an ecology survives at all. This is a 'brittle' result because there are many types of languages, and I obviously can't try them all. However, it's something that jibes with your article. When I get a chance I'll post some of the specifics on my blog and link back here.