What Is Knowledge?

In a video roundtable, HGSE faculty consider the biggest question of all

February 24, 2015
Video

The question of what it means to know something “has been on philosophers’ minds for 2,000 years or so,” says Professor Paul Harris, one of three faculty members who gamely entered the fray in a conversation hosted by Usable Knowledge for its video roundtable series.

There are several ways to think about knowledge, said Associate Professor Tina Grotzer as the conversation opened. There is conceptual knowledge — “the framing of ideas and mental models, how we construct information in our head” — and there is procedural knowledge: “how we do things — algorithms, recipes, know-how.” Much of Grotzer’s work explores a subset of conceptual knowledge, something she calls structural knowledge — “how concepts are structured in the deepest sense … what we think about numeracy, how we reason about cause and effect, those very basic assumptions about the nature of how the world works.” 

Harris is interested in notions of how static or adaptable children’s perception of knowledge is. Is knowledge seen as objective — is it “associated with information that’s out there, and fixed and true … and you either have it or you don’t”? Or is it seen as  “under construction” and steadily changing? Conceptions of knowledge likely have a big impact on the way students approach information in the classroom, he says.

Thinking about how best to build knowledge in children, Assistant Professor Gigi Luk says that acquisition of knowledge differs over the stages of childhood. In early childhood, “we take knowledge as building blocks, but later on we need to teach children the critical thinking skills to evaluate that knowledge, to ask questions, to be skeptical. Then they may become the next generation of knowledge builders, or knowledge generators.”

Brief video excerpts from the roundtable discussions are below, or you can watch the entire video roundtable.

When Is a Phone Not a Phone?

“For me, I consider knowledge as process, as a consequence, of life experience,” says Luk. She relates the example of her son, who saw a home telephone — a landline — for the first time and didn’t know what it was or how to use it. “So his knowledge of the phone is very different than my knowledge of the phone, even though we’re talking about the same thing.

In Defense of Ignorance

“I would want also to say a word in favor of ignorance, “ says Harris. After early childhood, schools and society don’t do much to nurture a child’s sense that not knowing something is OK — that the process of inquiry is how we learn. “We should be helping children to realize that knowledge is under construction,“ he says.

What You Know You Know — and Don’t Know

Grotzer talks about mapping out four different spheres of knowledge with her graduate students: What you know you know (“a very comfortable space”); what you don’t know you know (the knowledge that is functioning in the background); what you know you don’t know (“an interesting space,” “where new energy for learning can grow from,” but can be uncomfortable); and what you don’t know you don’t know (“the biggest, most wonderful space,” “a great area for exploration”).

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.