Teaching Beyond Knowledge

–Instruction plus experience equals education

Mrs. Miller was my fifth-grade teacher. Both of my sisters had passed through her justifiably famous hands. She was an imposing, loved, and feared presence. We did okay together, even though my sisters’ reputation for politeness and manners was not present in equal measure for yours truly.

Like all my best teachers, Mrs. Miller apparently knew everything. She was sort of the internet for the 1950s.

Much has changed since. The world seems like an increasingly equivocal place. We’ve seen huge shifts in demographics, technology, economics, politics and education. It doesn’t appear that the dust is going to settle. Our schools are struggling to adapt to more changes than I could hope to list here.

Three of these changes, however, we can deal with at the classroom level to increase our own, and our students’ capacity to learn:

First, we have practically instantaneous access to all knowledge that has ever been known and recorded.

Second, we have a huge body of new information about things like neurolinguistics, brain function, and how humans learn.

Third, we have a much more ambiguous state of affairs. It may be hard to see the advantage to this one, but my own journey as a teacher took a hard turn for the better (as in more effective learning for my customers, a.k.a. students) once I accepted my own discomfort with change and embraced the possibilities it offered.

Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of a donkey. 

–Japanese Proverb

The Promise and Perils of Instant Knowledge

I research every day for my work. I have to in order to keep current. I love researching anyhow. When has research ever been this quick and powerful? If I take a little care with what I type into my search engine (and navigate pop-ups and sites that want to redirect me), I’m in the greatest of libraries.

This ease of access is not a free lunch

When we gain our knowledge through interaction with another person, we can have a dialogue. If we trust each other, we can ask questions, push back if we disagree, ask for clarification and sources. That dialogue is enriching in many ways. It increases the vibrancy of our relationship and connects us to the habit of clarifying and listening to others’ perceptions and perspectives. These are important learnings for our intellectual growth and for our social and emotional development. I’m careful to keep in touch with a cadre of friends in the learning community. We bounce ideas. In my sessions, I encourage my fellow learners to challenge me and help me develop my ideas and my thinking—every session I deliver is different by the end of the day based on their input and feedback.

So, we who teach can make clear our role as knowledge coaches. We don’t need to know everything, but we can bring our experience to bear with our students to help them be discerning and skeptical about information. Wisdom is about managing the application of knowledge. So instead of knowledge dispensers, we can become knowledge managers and help our students develop a healthy skepticism.

A couple of quick exercises

Have your students work in teams to find as many different sources of information about a topic germane to the class, say history or government, retirement planning or music. Challenge them to generate via the Web the widest possible universe of “facts” and opinions, then to have a conversation that allows for different perspectives within a framework of fact v. opinion. As their coach, you can help them focus on their differences of opinion without judgment.

Pair your students off by differences, e.g., those who prefer a certain artist, food, or athletic team—or their stance on a topic you’re exploring. Give them a Venn diagram (two overlapping circles). This diagram has three interior spaces. Each puts her/his name on one side. The rules of the game? They list their differences on the outer sectors (Cowboys and Patriots) and must find something they agree on (both teams have top-ten quarterbacks) before they can move on. Ask them to find ten things in each sector (left, right, center). This is a great exercise to help us listen with less bias and more acceptance. When we listen with bias, we don’t learn; we merely reinforce that bias.

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. 

–Albert Einstein

How We Learn

Much of my education took place in an industrial-model environment. Sitting in rows, grouped by age, all expected to learn at the same speed and the same way. Even today, I attend training events that, despite all the research, follow this model.

A fellow by the name of Gilbert Ryle gave an important lecture in 1945. A long time ago, I’ll admit. On the other hand, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs surfaced about the same time, and it’s still a wonderful, useful insight. Mr. Ryle suggested there are two realms of knowledge. The first he called “knowing that.” He used the example of a child knowing that a bicycle has two wheels, inflated tires, and is powered by pushing on the pedals. This kind of knowledge is factual and what he called “propositional”—it can be proven true or false. It’s valuable, yet it does not enable a child to ride a bike.

“Knowing how,” the other realm of knowledge, is experiential, skill-based, and learned through doing. Rules, he suggested, “like birds, must live before they can be stuffed.” Watch your children learn how to ride up a steep hill as they stall and figure out how to lean forward and lift their buttocks off the seat. We teachers (and I’ve fallen into this trap myself) must watch for the temptation to think that “knowing how” can be reduced to “knowing that.”

What can we do about this in the classroom?

“Knowing how” occurs through experience, and it can occur independent of instruction. So we can provide our students with a baseline of knowledge and turn them loose to round out that knowledge through their own shared research (via the internet and guided dialogue). During this stage of discovery, we can offer lots of alternative paths to help everyone (including ourselves) accept and celebrate that we each learn differently. Every topic does not lend itself to multiple learning styles — art demands visual learning, music auditory. Whenever possible, we can offer our students multiple learning avenues, e.g., in groups or individually, reading or talking, speaking to the class or passing out what they’ve discovered, mentoring, and so forth.

And we can increase opportunities for creation — making something. We know from research as well as from observation that people (children as well as tall children, aka adults) need to get their experiential brain engaged to get in the habit of tying learning to doing. Weave goals and objectives into this process; have learners work together to define how they will measure successful learning and mastery (with your guidance). When we are responsible for defining measures of achievement, we are much more highly invested in outcomes.

The narrow-gauge mindset of the past is insufficient for today’s wicked problems. We can no longer play the music as written. Instead, we have to invent a whole new scale.

–The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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    • OK, but “too much” and the “wrong things” overlap, no? When you look at the plethora of standards that teachers have to cover, no one is able to achieve any depth.

  1. Well said, Mac. This was the line I was looking for: “Never before have we needed to be more discerning and skeptical.” I am struck today by the growth of conspiracy theories, which nourish themselves with air instead of proof, e.g., there is NO proof that the election was stolen, but millions of people breath in the notion and act as if it’s true. There is NO proof that Democrats represent an evil cabal of blood-sucking child molesters, but millions of people breath in the notion and act as if it’s true. We already ask our schools to do so much, but somehow we have to figure out how to make media literacy a requirement.