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Rohit Dhankar

[WARNING: IT’S LONG AND BORING]

(Based on a talk given in All India Peoples Science Congress, on 23rd May 2015, at Bangalore. I thought the talk is delivered that’s all. But a friend has shown interest in it, so am putting on the blog.)

The original title given to me for this session was too complex: “Issues of Pedagogy and Strategy in Knowledge Production and Skill Development”. I found it daunting for a short talk. Therefore, I am cutting it short and modifying to a certain extent as: “Impact of Pedagogy on Construction and Production of Knowledge”.

Before I come to pedagogy and its impact, it seems necessary to define what I mean by knowledge, knowledge construction and knowledge production.

Knowledge

It seems to me that two types of knowledge are important in this kind of discussion. One what is usually called “procedural knowledge” or knowledge about how to do something, or “knowledge how to”. For example: knowing how to make tea, or climb a tree, or drive a car, or do plumbing, or apply multiplication algorithm in mathematics, or set up an experiment, or repair a car. Usually we call this type of knowledge a ‘skill’. The most important thing here is not ‘theoretically knowing’ of ‘how to repair a car’; but the actual capability of being able to repair a car. This, however, is a matter of emphasis, it does not mean that ‘knowing how’ to does not need any theoretical knowledge at all. To understand the difference between ‘theoretical knowledge’ and ‘ability to do’ let us take an example. Imagine a professor of physics who can work-out exactly how to hit a cricket ball to score a sixer—at what angle, with what force, how to swing the bat, etc.—and can also show you a computer simulation of this. But if you send him to the field against a good bowler, he may be out in the first throw. Now imagine a good rate batsman, he may be able to hit many sixers but may not be able to explain the physics of a sixer. The physics professor has the ‘theoretical knowledge’ of how to hit a sixer, but cannot do it. The batsman can hit a sixer but may not have the ‘theoretical knowledge’ of how it is done in terms of physics.

This type of knowledge, procedural knowledge or skill does not have much of a place in our curricula. But is certainly represented there and is very valuable in real life; particularly to earn one’s bread and butter; and also to keep a society going.

The second type of knowledge, which I have been referring to as ‘theoretical knowledge’ above, is often called ‘factual knowledge’. Some examples of this could be: “Population of Bangalore in 2015 is 1,08,39,725”[1]. “Squire root of 1,08,39,725 is 3,292”. “The force of gravity between two bodies of mass m1 and m2 placed at a distance d is F=G*m1*m2/d2”.

To understand what does ‘knowing’ in this sense mean we have to spend some time on three different meanings we often have ‘knowing’ in statements like the first one, that is, “Population of Bangalore in 2015 is 1,08,39,725”.

We often hear that our education system ‘teaches only theory’ and does not ‘develop skills’. I am not at all convinced that our education system teaches ‘theory’. Rather I will claim that our education system fails to teach theory at all.

The statement “Population of Bangalore in 2015 is 1,08,39,725” is easy enough for any child of standard 6 to remember and reproduce in a written test. But does everyone who can reproduces this statement ‘know’ the population of Bangalore? Let’s examine four cases.

Case 1: There is a possibility of teaching to utter this sentence to a person who does not understand the terms ‘population’, ‘Bangalore’, ‘year 2015’ and ‘1,08,39,725’. Does this person know anything? I would propose: No, knows nothing at all. To ‘know’ one has to make some meaning in one’s mind; just uttering a sentence is not enough. One has to ‘understand’ what is being said and about what. Your guess on how many of our children learn factual knowledge in this sense in our schools is as good as mine.

Case 2: Now let’s imagine a person who can reproduce this statement and also understands the meaning of terms ‘population’, ‘Bangalore’, ‘2015’ and ‘1,08,39,725’. But actually does not believe that it is true; he thinks the population of Bangalore is about 60 lakhs only. Shall we say that this person ‘knows that population of Bangalore in 2015 is 1,08,39,725?’ In normal conversation we say that yes, he may know. Philosophers, however, often would say that ‘NO, this person does not know’. That brings us to the second condition of knowing: to know something, one has to believe it. Someone who can reproduce the statement that “Smoking causes cancer” and also understand it; but believes that illness is a matter of ‘grah-dasha’ (impact of planetary position) at the time of birth does not know it.

Case 3: Imagine someone who can reproduce the statement, understands it, and also believes it. Does this person necessarily ‘know’ it? I would still say: NO. Suppose I repeat the statement “Population of Bangalore in 2015 is 1,08,39,725”. Whether you believe me or not, I also happen to understand the meaning of the statement. Suppose that I believe (actually I don’t, and will explain why not) it. But if you ask me how do I know that population of Bangalore is 1,08,39,725? What are my grounds for believing this? What evidence do I have? And all I can say is “I googled it this morning”, would you consider it good enough justification? Is everything Google baba says true? NO. So I do not have any good grounds to believe this statement; therefore I do not know. Which means to know something I must also have its justification as well.

Case 4: Now suppose I can reproduce, understand, believe and also have justification; something like that I got it from a site which actually keeps track of population of India, is very reliable, and I also know the methods of survey, statistical techniques of calculations and projection, etc. But the statement happens to be actually false. Then do I know? Some philosophers would say “NO”. Knowledge has to be true, otherwise it is only your belief, even if justified. This statement, strictly speaking. is obviously false. Population of a city of Bangalore’s size can never be known to the precision it shows. Look at 725 at the end. Within two minutes of the time you utter it, it will change, either a child will be born or a Bangalorian will depart to his heavenly abode.

Now that is a very strict definition of knowledge. And many of you will find such strict a demand totally unjustified; as it will make knowledge of anything quite difficult. I would maintain if we are talking of ‘knowledge production’ then we need this kind of a strict definition. Theory, as we all know, is no ‘theory’ unless it can describe, explain and predict a phenomena be that natural or social. The kind of knowledge that does not have these characteristics cannot be used in reasonably accurate description, or explanation or prediction. That is why I say we do not teach theory at all; all we each is retargeting of statements: half understood, un-believed, unjustified and often untrue.

Now where does the pedagogy come in all this? Well, we still have to understand the distinction between ‘knowledge construction’ and ‘knowledge production’ to get to pedagogy.

Knowledge construction

What was earlier called ‘learning of’, ‘acquisition of’, ‘gaining of’ knowledge is called ‘construction of knowledge’ in the constructivist paradigm of pedagogy. The idea behind this change is that knowledge cannot be ‘transferred’ from one mind to another like we transfer water from a pot to a jug; or, more interestingly, whisky from a bottle to a glass. One who wants to acquire knowledge has to actively engage in constructing it in his/her own mind through the kind of concepts and previous knowledge she has. She has to construct it in her own mind. Knowledge construction in this sense is a pedagogical term; it brings in focus the mental activity of the learner. But in the school and college situation the knowledge thus constructed is almost all the knowledge which human race already has, already possesses. This is very rarely something which is new to human race, even if it is totally new to the learner.

Knowledge Creation

Actually I don’t like the term ‘production’ for knowledge. It gives me a feeling of producing potato chips, or TV serials, or mobile phones and so on. And of an assembly line. In all these examples the procedure is well known, well established, routinized and people can produce these things in abundance without much active engagement of mind, without anything new and hither to unknown being formulated.

So, if by knowledge production we mean creation of new knowledge, furthering the boundaries of human understanding, this is not the right word. It is actually misleading, like many other words these days in the educational discourse. I would call it knowledge creation and would make a distinction, stipulative one, between ‘construction’ and ‘creation’. Construction I will use for re-creating already known human knowledge in an individual mind; creation to indicate ‘coming to know’ something hither to unknown to human race.

It seems to me that ‘knowledge creation’ has something in it which is very much like what Kant says regarding scientific knowledge:

Reason, in order to be taught by nature, must approach nature with its principles in one hand, according to which the agreement among appearances can count as laws, and, in the other hand, the experiment thought out in accord with these principles—in order to be instructed by nature not like a pupil, who has recited to him whatever the teacher wants to say, but like an appointed judge who compels witnesses to answer the questions he puts to them.”

What Kant suggests here is not that the ‘nature’ gives knowledge; but that the human reason forms it on the basis of experience.

Pedagogy

Now we can come to pedagogy. Pedagogy is the art or method of teaching. It is more than mare technique of teaching something specific, or activity, or classroom management. While pedagogy involves all this, it is simultaneously aware of the aims of education, of the social situation of the child and of the mind of the child. It is the art of taking the child from where she happens to be (mentally speaking) to acceptable human knowledge that one wants to impart to the child. And its activities are always simultaneously aligned with the aims of education on one hand and the learner’s mind on the other.

In this sense pedagogy is concerned with ‘construction of knowledge’ rather than with ‘creation of knowledge’. But it has profound impact on the capabilities of creation of knowledge as well. A pedagogically well taught person is more likely to ‘create new knowledge’ than a badly taught one.

Let’s take another very famous statement from Kant:

Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” This demands coming together of the thoughts and sense perceptions through concepts. The thoughts which invoke no meaning in our minds are ‘empty’, of no use. And the sense perceptions generated representations which are not connected with thoughts are blind, provide no light to us. So each thought has to invoke a meaning, and each representation has to be associated with a thought. And this is what construction of knowledge means.

So what kind of pedagogy can help in teaching in such a manner that learner is able to construct her knowledge while in the school/college and can create knowledge as a grown up adult?

Since I have to be brief, so let me be eclectic and borrow from two great philosophers of education, namely, John Dewey and Israel Scheffler. Dewey in his famous little book “The child and the curriculum” published in 1902 proposes a reconciliation between child-centred education and traditional education of his time. He sees the problem as both sides taking their respective dogmatic positions: the child-centrists assuming that the child’s give interests and capabilities are the only guide; and ignore human traditions of knowledge. On the other hand, the traditionalists give all the importance to the codified knowledge in the curriculum but ignore the child’s interests and capabilities. I will pick up three ideas from this little book for our current purposes.

Dewey suggests “psychologizing the curriculum”. What he means is: one, to understand the psychological make-up of child’s mind; in terms of her interest, her ways of understanding, her current conceptual repertoire, and her experiences and so on. Two, to look at the codified human knowledge you want the child to achieve and see the connection between the child’s mind and that knowledge. And three, chart out a route from where the child is to the knowledge you want her to achieve. If we want to summarise it, could be:

  1. Start from where the child is.
  2. Psychologize the curriculum.
  3. Aim at coming to grasp the codified human knowledge as it is today.

Now, let’s jump to Israel Scheffler and cull out three more points from his “Philosophical models of teaching”. In this essay Scheffler argues for understanding and autonomy of the learner. For our present discussion we can take three hints from him:

  1. Ensure learning with concepts; that is, make clear cognitive sense to the child.
  2. Teach the child to demand justification for everything that is taught and questions to all authority; including that of the teacher.
  3. Accept only that which stands her own rational scrutiny however immature that may be.

I am aware these are difficult conditions to demand from any teacher. But so is ‘creation’ of knowledge; you cannot get gold for the price of brass, even if both look similar to unaccustomed eye. If one wants gold, has to pay for it; or settle for brass. Same here: if we want ‘creation’ of knowledge we have to find an appropriate pedagogy; or settle for ‘regurgitation of something that looks like knowledge’ but is much inferior.

Such a pedagogy, then, is likely to give the tools which will help in creation of knowledge. However, there is no guarantee. And that is why pedagogy is more of an art than a settled science. And that is why all the managerial approaches to pedagogical improvement are likely to bear little fruit. But it seems to me it is worth striving for, in spite of lack of a guaranteed method.

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[1] http://www.indiaonlinepages.com/population/bangalore-population.html