2 Chapter 2. The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching

Purpose of the chapter

This chapter discusses the relationship between our views on the nature of knowledge and the way we decide to teach.

After reading this chapter you should be able to:

  • recognize your own epistemological/philosophical position that determines the way you are currently teaching
  • reflect on the similarities or differences between academic and everyday knowledge
  • decide whether technology changes the nature of knowledge, and consider the implications for teaching
  • decide on whether or not to change your overall approach to teaching in the light of the issues raised in this chapter.

2. Scenario: A pre-dinner party discussion

List of characters.

  • Peter and Ruth (hosts)
  • Stephen (a mechanical engineer and Peter’s brother)
  • Caroline (a writer and Ruth’s friend)

Peter to Stephen. I think Caroline’s arrived. Now I know you’ve not met Caroline before, but for goodness sake, do try to be polite and sociable this time. The last time you were here, you hardly said a word.

Stephen. Well, nobody said anything that interested me. It was all about books and art. You know I’m not interested in that sort of thing.

Peter: Well, just try. Here she is. Caroline – lovely to see you again. Come and sit down. This is Stephen, my brother. I don’t think you’ve met, although I’ve told you about him – he’s a professor of mechanical engineering at the local university. But first, what would you like to drink?

Caroline. Hi, Stephen. No, I don’t think we have met. Nice to meet you. Peter, I’ll have a glass of white wine, please.

Peter. While you’re introducing yourselves, I’ll go and get the drinks and give Ruth a hand in the kitchen.

Stephen. Peter says you’re a writer. What do you write about?

Caroline (laughing). Well, you do like to get straight to the point, don’t you? It’s a bit difficult to answer your question. It depends on what I’m interested in at the time.

Stephen. And what are you interested in at the moment?

Caroline. I’m thinking about how someone would react to the loss of someone they love due to the action of someone else they also love deeply. It was prompted by an item on the news of how a father accidentally killed his two year old daughter by running her over when he was backing the car out of the garage. His wife had just let the girl out to play in the front garden and didn’t know her husband was getting the car out.

Stephen. God, that’s awful. I wonder why the hell he didn’t have a rear view video camera installed.

Caroline. Well, the horrible thing about it is that it could happen to anyone. That’s why I want to write something around such everyday tragedies.

Stephen. But how can you possibly write about something like that if you haven’t experienced that kind of thing yourself? Or have you?

Caroline. No, thank goodness. Well, I guess that’s the art of a writer – the ability to embed yourself in other people’s worlds, and to anticipate their feelings, emotions and consequent actions.

Stephen. But wouldn’t you need a degree in psychology or experience as a grief counsellor to do that in that situation?

Caroline. Well, I might talk to people who’ve undergone similar kinds of family tragedies, to see what kind of people they are afterwards, but basically it’s about understanding how I might react in such a situation and projecting that and modifying that according to the kind of characters I’m interested in.

Stephen. But how do you know it would be true, that people really would react the way you think they would?

Caroline. Well, what is ‘truth’ in a situation like that? Different people are likely to act differently. That’s what I want to explore in the novel. The husband reacts one way, the wife another, and then there’s the interaction between the two, and all those round them. I’m particularly interested in whether they could actually grow and become better people, or whether they disintegrate and destroy each other.

Stephen. But how can you not know that before you start?

Caroline. Well, that’s the point, really. I don’t. I want the characters to grow in my imagination, and the outcome will inevitably be determined by that.

Stephen. But if you don’t know the truth, how those two people actually responded to that tragedy, how can you help them or others like them?

Caroline. But I’m a novelist, not a therapist. I’m not attempting to help anyone in such an awful situation. I’m trying to understand the general human condition, and to do that, I have to start with myself, what I know and feel, and project that into another context.

Stephen. But that’s nonsense. How can you possibly understand the human condition just by looking inwards at yourself, and making up a fictional situation, that probably has nothing to do with what actually happened?

Caroline (sighs). Stephen, you’re a typical bloody scientist, with no imagination.

Peter (arriving with the drinks). Well, how are you two getting along?

Obviously at this point, not very well. The problem is that they have different world views on truth and how it can be reached. They start from very different views about what constitutes knowledge, how knowledge is acquired, and how it is validated. As always, the ancient Greeks had a word for thinking about the nature of knowledge: epistemology. We shall see that this is an important driver of how we teach.

2.1 What is covered in this chapter

In this chapter, I will be discussing different beliefs about the nature of knowledge, and how that influences teaching and learning..

In particular, this chapter covers the following topics:

  • 2.2. Art, theory, research and best practices in teaching
  • 2.3 Epistemology and why it’s important
    • 2.3.1.The nature of knowledge: a brief introduction to epistemology
    • 2.3.2 Academic knowledge
    • 2.3.3 Implications for teaching
    • 2.3.4 Conclusions
  • 2.4 Does technology change the nature of knowledge?
    • 2.4.1 Knowledge as a commodity
    • 2.4.2 Academic vs applied knowledge
    • 2.4.3 The relevance of academic knowledge in the knowledge society
    • 2.4.4 Academic knowledge and other forms of knowledge
  • 2.5 Knowledge and new technology

Also in this chapter you will find the following activities:

  • Activity 2.1 How good a teacher are you?
  • Activity 2.2 More on epistemology and teaching
  • Activity 2.3 Epistemology and academic knowledge

2.2 Art, theory, research, and best practices in teaching

All teaching is a mix of art and science. It is an art because any teacher or instructor is faced with numerous and constantly changing variables, which require rapid judgement and decision-making. Good teachers usually have a passion for teaching so the emotional as well as the cognitive side is important. In many cases, it’s also about personal relationships, the extent to which an instructor can empathise with students or appreciate their difficulties in learning, and the extent to which the instructor can communicate effectively.

There is also a science of teaching, based on theory and research. We shall see in fact there are many, often conflicting theories, driven primarily by epistemological differences about the nature of knowledge, and by different value systems. Then over the last 100 years there has been a great deal of empirical research into how students learn, and effective teaching methods, which at its best is driven by a strong, explicit theoretical base, and at its worse by mindless data-collection (rankings, anyone?).

Lastly, there are what are known as best practices, based on teachers’ experience of teaching. While in many cases these have been validated by research or are driven by theories of learning, this is not always the case. As a result, what some people see as best practices are not always universally shared by others, even if best practices are seen in general as current accepted wisdom.

As a result, the most extensively trained teachers don’t always make good teachers if they don’t have the talent and emotional connection with learners, and untrained teachers (which covers virtually all university instructors), sometimes succeed, even with little experience, because they have a knack or in-born talent. However, although such instructors are often held up as the triumph of art over science in teaching, they are in practice very rare. Many of these untutored, brilliant instructors have learned rapidly on the job by trial and error, with the inevitable casualties along the way.

For all these reasons, there is no one best way to teach that will fit all circumstances, which is why arguments over ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ approaches to teaching reading or math, for example, are often so sterile. Good teachers usually have an arsenal of tools, methods and approaches that they can draw on, depending on the circumstances. Also teachers and instructors will differ over what constitutes good teaching, depending on their understandings of what knowledge is, what matters most in learning, and their priorities in terms of desirable learning outcomes.

Nevertheless, these apparent contradictions do not mean that we cannot develop guidelines and techniques to improve the quality of teaching, or that we have no principles or evidence on which to base decisions about teaching, even in a rapidly changing digital age. The aim of this book is to provide such guidelines, while recognizing that one size will not fit all, and that every teacher or instructor will need to select and adapt the suggestions in this book to their own unique context. For this approach to work, though, we need to explore some fundamental issues about teaching and learning, some of which are rarely addressed in everyday discussions about education. The first and probably most important is epistemology.

Activity 2.1: How Good a Teacher Are You?

1. Write down, in order of priority, what you consider to be the three most important characteristics of a good teacher

2. When you’ve done that, go to the comment section, add your contribution under the heading 2.1, then compare your answers with those of others who have done this. You can also compare it with my answer in the comment section.

3. Add your explanation of why your answer differs from others (and mine!).


2.3 Epistemology and why it’s important

We saw in the dinner party scenario that Stephen and Caroline had quite different beliefs about the nature of knowledge. The issue here is not who was right, but that we all have implicit beliefs about the nature of knowledge, what constitutes truth, how that truth is best validated, and, from a teaching perspective, how best to help people to acquire that knowledge. The basis of that belief will vary, depending on the subject matter, and, in some areas, such as social sciences, even within a common domain of knowledge. It will become clear that our choice of teaching approaches and even the use of technology are absolutely dependent on beliefs and assumptions we have about the nature of knowledge, about the requirements of our subject discipline, and about how we think students learn. We will also see that there are some common, shared beliefs about academic knowledge that transcend disciplinary boundaries, but which separate academic knowledge from general, ‘every day’ knowledge.

2.3.1 The nature of knowledge: a brief introduction to epistemology

The way we teach in higher education will be driven primarily by our beliefs or even more importantly, by the commonly agreed consensus within an academic discipline about what constitutes valid knowledge in the subject area. The nature of knowledge centres on the question of how we know what we know. What makes us believe that something is ‘true’? Questions of this kind are epistemological in nature. Hofer and Pintrich (1997) state: ‘Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and justification of knowledge.’

The famous argument at the British Association in 1860 between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, over the origin of species is a classic example of the clash between beliefs about the foundations of knowledge. Wilberforce argued that Man was created by God; Huxley argued that Man evolved through natural selection. Bishop Wilberforce believed he was right because ‘true’ knowledge was determined through faith and interpretation of holy scripture; Professor Huxley believed he was right because ‘true’ knowledge was derived through empirical science and rational skepticism.

An important part of higher education is aimed at developing students’ understanding, within a particular discipline, of the criteria and values that underpin academic study of that discipline, and these include questions of what constitutes valid knowledge in that subject area. For many experts in a particular field, these assumptions are often so strong and embedded that we may not even be openly conscious of them unless challenged. But for novices, such as students, it often takes a great deal of time to push down through the immediate content to see the underlying value systems that drive choice of content and methods of teaching. Two dominant epistemological positions in education today are objectivism and constructivism. Objectivism

Objectivists believe that there exists an objective and reliable set of facts, principles and theories that either have been discovered and delineated or will be over the course of time. This position is linked to the belief that truth exists outside the human mind, or independently of what an individual may or may not believe. Thus the laws of physics are constant, although our knowledge of them may evolve as we discover the ‘truth’ out there. Constructivism

Constructivists believe that knowledge is essentially subjective in nature, constructed from our perceptions and mutually agreed upon conventions. According to this view, we construct new knowledge rather than simply acquire it via memorization or through transmission from those who know to those who don’t know. Constructivists believe that meaning or understanding is achieved by assimilating information, relating it to our existing knowledge, and cognitively processing it (i.e. thinking about it). Social constructivists believe that this process works best through discussion and social interaction, allowing us to test and challenge our own understandings with those of others. For a constructivist, even physical laws exist because they have been constructed by people from evidence, observation, and deductive or intuitive thinking, and, most importantly, because certain communities of people (in our example, scientists) have mutually agreed what constitutes valid knowledge. Connectivism

A third epistemological position, connectivism, has emerged in recent years that is particularly relevant to a digital society. In connectivism it is the collective connections between all the ‘nodes’ in a network (and some of the nodes may be databases or non-human appliances such as servers) that result in new forms of knowledge.

For Siemens (2004), it is the connections and the way information flows that result in knowledge existing beyond the individual. He argues that:

‘Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity….Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database).’ 

In particular, new knowledge is created based on the flow and patterns of information and communications over the Internet, and learning is the ability to recognize and interpret such flows. According to Siemens, knowledge is created beyond the level of individual human participants, and is constantly shifting and changing. Knowledge in networks is not controlled or created by any formal organization, although organizations can and should ‘plug in’ to this world of constant information flow, and draw meaning from it. 

Downes (2007) makes a clear distinction between constructivism and connectivism:

‘In connectivism, a phrase like “constructing meaning” makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not “constructed” through some sort of intentional action. …Hence, in connectivism, there is no real concept of transferring knowledge, making knowledge, or building knowledge. Rather, the activities we undertake when we conduct practices in order to learn are more like growing or developing ourselves and our society in certain (connected) ways.’

Knowledge in connectivism is a chaotic, shifting phenomenon as nodes come and go and as information flows across networks that themselves are inter-connected with myriad other networks. The significance of connectivism is that its proponents argue that the Internet changes the essential nature of knowledge. ‘The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe,’ to quote Siemens again.

2.3.2 Academic knowledge

Academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. In summary, academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence.

Fundamental components of academic knowledge are transparency, codification (written or recorded in some format), reproduction, and communicability. Transparency means that the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified. Codification means that the knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video). Knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies, necessary for communication. Lastly, knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others.

Laurillard (2001) recognizes the importance of relating the student’s direct experience of the world to an understanding of academic concepts and processes, but she argues that teaching at a university level must go beyond direct experience to reflection, analysis and explanations of those direct experiences. Because every academic discipline has a specific set of conventions and assumptions about the nature of knowledge within its discipline, students in higher education need to change the perspectives of their everyday experience.

As a result, Laurillard argues that university teaching is ‘essentially a rhetorical activity, persuading students to change the way they experience the world’ (p.28). This means that the student has to acquire knowledge of the teacher’s way of experiencing the world (or, more accurately, the agreed conventions within a discipline about how the subject area should be approached). Laurillard then goes on to make the point that because academic knowledge has this second-order character, it relies heavily on symbolic representation, such as language, mathematical symbols, ‘or any symbol system that can represent a description of the world, and requires interpretation’ (p.27) to enable this mediation to take place. If academic knowledge requires mediation, then this has major significance for the use of technology. Language (i.e. reading and speaking) is only one channel for mediating knowledge. Media such as video, audio, and computing can also provide teachers with alternative channels of mediation.

Laurillard’s reflections on the nature of academic knowledge are a counter-balance to the view that students can automatically construct knowledge through argument and discussion with their peers, and self-directed study. For academic knowledge, the role of the teacher is to help students understand not just the facts or concepts in a subject discipline, but the rules and conventions for acquiring and validating knowledge within that subject discipline. Irrespective of the discipline or subject domain, though, academic knowledge shares common values or criteria, making academic knowledge itself a particular epistemological approach.

2.3.3 Implications for teaching

Our epistemological position has direct practical consequences for how we teach. Objectivist approaches to teaching

A teacher operating from a primarily objectivist view is more likely to believe that a course must present a body of knowledge to be learned. This may consist of facts, formulas, terminology, principles, theories and the like. The effective transmission of this body of knowledge becomes of central importance. Lectures and textbooks must be authoritative, informative, organized, and clear. The student’s responsibility is accurately to comprehend, reproduce and add to the knowledge handed down to him or her, within the guiding epistemological framework of the discipline. Course assignments and exams would require students to find ‘right answers’ and justify them. Original or creative thinking must still operate within the standards of an objectivist approach – in other words, new knowledge development must meet the rigorous standards of empirical testing within agreed theoretical frameworks.  An ‘objectivist’ teacher has to be very much in control of what and how students learn, choosing what is important to learn, the sequence, the learning activities, and how learners are to be assessed. Constructivist approaches to teaching

Contrast this approach to the constructivist one in which students are presented with a problem, and can choose how to go about solving that problem. The level of teacher guidance can vary, from none at all, to providing some guidelines on how to solve the problem, to directing students to possible sources of information that may be relevant to solving that problem. If the teacher is a social constructivist, students will probably work in groups, help each other and compare solutions to the problem. There may not be considered one ‘correct’ solution to the problem, but the group may consider some solutions better than others, depending on the agreed criteria of success for solving the problem. It can be seen that there can be ‘degrees’ of constructivism, since in practice the teacher may well act as first among equals, and help direct the process so that ‘suitable’ outcomes are achieved. The fundamental difference is that students have to work towards constructing their own meaning, testing it against ‘reality’, and further constructing meaning as a result. Learning is a constantly dynamic process, in which understanding changes and becomes deeper over time. Connectivist approaches to learning

Learning becomes the ability to tap into significant flows of information, and to follow those flows that are significant.

Siemens (2004) identifies the principles of connectivism as follows:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

Downes (2007) states that:

‘at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks….[Connectivism] implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)).

2.3.4 Conclusions

I have chosen just three epistemological approaches that influence teaching and learning, but I could have chosen many others. For instance, in medieval times, scholasticism was a driving force in European universities.

Scholasticism places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. In the classroom and in writing, it often takes the form of explicit disputation: a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, opponents’ responses are given, a counterproposal is argued and opponent’s arguments rebutted.(Wikipedia, accessed 13 July, 2014)

Elements of scholasticism can still be found at undergraduate level in elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and at graduate level in other universities, within their tutorial systems or small seminars.

It can be seen then that there are different epistemologies that influence teaching today. Furthermore, much to the consternation and confusion of many students, teachers themselves will have different epistemological positions, not just across different disciplines, but sometimes within the same discipline. For instance, subject areas such as psychology and economics may contain different epistemological foundations in different parts of the curriculum: statistics is validated differently from Freudian analysis or behavioural factors that influence investor behaviour. Epistemological positions are often not always explicity discussed with students, are not always consistent even within a subject discipline, and are not mutually exclusive. Thus a teacher may deliberately choose to use a more objectivist approach with novice students, then move to a more constructivist approach with more experienced students. Even within the same lesson, the teacher may shift epistemological positions, but this may cause confusion for students if not explained.

At this point, I’m not taking sides (although it will become clear that I favour in general a more constructivist philosophy). Arguments can be made for or against any of these epistemological positions. However, we need to be aware that knowledge and consequently teaching is not a pure, objective concept, but driven by different values and beliefs about the nature of knowledge. Furthermore, there is an added wrinkle, because in Western societies, academic knowledge is considered by many to be different from everyday knowledge. This will be discussed in the next section.

Activity 2.2 More on epistemology and teaching

I’ve really just touched on highly complex topics here. No matter how objective I’ve tried to be in summarizing these epistemological positions, I have done scant justice to them. So I strongly recommend that you do further reading on these topics.

Epistemology in general

Hofer, B. and Pintrich, P. (1997) ‘The development of epistemological theories: beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning’ Review of Educational Research Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 88-140

The knowledge society and implications for teaching 

Gilbert, J. (2005) Catching the Knowledge Wave: the Knowledge Society and the Future of Education Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Not available online. To order, go to: http://www.nzcer.org.nz/default.php?products_id=1215

Castells, M. (2000) The Rise of the Network Society Oxford: Blackwell

Lyotard, J-F, (1984) The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Manchester: Manchester University Press

Objectivism and constructivism

Searle, J. (1996) The construction of social reality. New York: Simon & Shuster

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge


Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: a theory for the digital age’ eLearningSpace, December 12, http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Downes, S. (2007) What connectivism is Half An Jour, February 3

Siemens, G., Downes, S., and Cormier, D. (2011) Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (a MOOC)

Kop, R, and Hill, A. (2008) Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? IRRODL, Vol. 9., No. 3

2.4 Does technology change the nature of knowledge?

Connectivists such as Siemens and Downes argue that the Internet has changed the nature of knowledge. They argue that ‘important’ or ‘valid’ knowledge now is different from prior forms of knowledge, particularly academic knowledge. Jane Gilbert’s book, ‘Catching the Knowledge Wave’ (2005), directly addresses the assumption that the nature of knowledge is changing. Drawing on publications by Manuel Castells (2000) and Jean-François Lyotard (1984), she writes (p. 35):

  • ‘Castells says that…knowledge is not an object but a series of networks and flows…the new knowledge is a process not a product…it is produced not in the minds of individuals but in the interactions between people…..
  • According to Lyotard, the traditional idea that acquiring knowledge trains the mind would become obsolete, as would the idea of knowledge as a set of universal truths. Instead, there will be many truths, many knowledges and many forms of reason. As a result… the boundaries between traditional disciplines are dissolving, traditional methods of representing knowledge (books, academic papers, and so on) are becoming less important, and the role of traditional academics or experts are undergoing major change.’

One way knowledge is certainly changing is in the way it is represented. It should be remembered that Socrates criticised writing because it could not lead to ‘true’ knowledge which came only from verbal dialogue and oratory. Writing however is important because it provides a permanent record of knowledge. The printing press was important because it enabled the written word to spread to many more people. As a consequence, scholars could challenge and better interpret, through reflection, what others had written, and more accurately and carefully argue their own positions. Many scholars believe that one consequence of the development of mass printing was the Renaissance and the age of enlightenment, and modern academia consequently came to depend very heavily on the print medium.

Now we have other ways to record and transmit knowledge that can be studied and reflected upon, such as video, audio, animations, and graphics, and the Internet does expand enormously the speed and range by which these representations of knowledge can be transmitted. We shall also see in Chapter 3 that that media are not neutral, but represent meaning in different ways. Maybe this will eventually lead to a ‘knowledge revolution’ equivalent to the age of enlightenment. But I do not believe we are there yet, for the following reasons.

2.4.1 Knowledge as a commodity

All the above authors agree that the ‘new’ knowledge in the knowledge society is about the commercialisation or commodification of knowledge: ‘it is defined not through what it is, but through what it can do.’ (Gilbert, p.35). ‘The capacity to own, buy and sell knowledge has contributed, in major ways, to the development of the new, knowledge-based societies.’ (p.39)

I have no argument with the point of view that knowledge is the driver of most modern economies, and that this represents a major shift from the ‘old’ industrial economy, where natural resources (coal, oil, iron), machinery and cheap manual labour were the predominant drivers. I do though challenge the idea that the nature of knowledge , or at least academic knowledge, has undergone radical changes.

The difficulty I have with the broad generalisations about the changing nature of knowledge is that there have always been different kinds of knowledge. I am reminded of my first job in a brewery in the East End of London in 1959. I was one of several students hired during our summer vacation. One of my fellow student workers was a brilliant mathematician. Every lunch hour the regular brewery workers played cards (three card brag) for what seemed to us large sums of money, but they would never let us play. My student friend was desperate to get a game, and eventually, on our last week, they let him in. They promptly won all his wages. He knew the numbers and the odds, but there was still a lot of non-academic knowledge he didn’t know about playing cards for money, especially against a group of friends playing together rather than against each other. Gilbert’s point is that in education academic knowledge has always been more highly valued in education than ‘everyday’ knowledge. However, in the ‘real’ world, all kinds of knowledge are valued, depending on the context. Thus while values regarding what constitutes ‘important’ knowledge may be changing, this does not mean that the nature of academic knowledge is changing.

In a knowledge-based society, knowledge that leads to innovation and commercial activity is now recognised as critical to economic development. Again, there is a tendency to argue that this kind of knowledge – ‘commercial’ knowledge – is different from academic knowledge. I would argue that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

2.4.2 Academic versus applied knowledge

Gilbert makes the distinction between academic knowledge and applied knowledge (p. 159), and argues that in a knowledge society, there has been a shift in valuing applied knowledge over academic knowledge in the broader society, but this has not been recognised or accepted in education (and particularly the school system). She sees academic knowledge as associated with narrow disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy, whereas applied knowledge is knowing how to do things, and hence by definition tends to be multi-disciplinary. Gilbert argues (p. 159-160) that academic knowledge is:

  • ‘authoritative, objective, and universal knowledge. It is abstract, rigorous, timeless – and difficult. It is knowledge that goes beyond the here and now knowledge of everyday experience to a higher plane of understanding…..In contrast, applied knowledge is practical knowledge that is produced by putting academic knowledge into practice. It is gained through experience, by trying things out until they work in real-world situations.’

Other kinds of knowledge that don’t fit the definition of academic knowledge are those kinds built on experience, traditional crafts, trail-and-error, and quality improvement through continuous minor change built on front-line worker experience – not to mention how to win at three card brag.

I agree that academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge, but I challenge the view that academic knowledge is ‘pure’, not applied. It is too narrow a definition, because it thus excludes all the professional schools and disciplines, such as engineering, medicine, law, business, education that ‘apply’ academic knowledge. These are just as accepted and ‘valued’ parts of universities and colleges as the ‘pure’ disciplines of humanities and science, and their activities meet all the criteria for academic knowledge set out by Gilbert.

In a knowledge-based society, particular emphasis is placed on the utility of knowledge for commercial purposes. This may result in putting more emphasis on certain types of immediately practical knowledge over longer term research, for instance, but because of the strong relationship between pure and applied knowledge, this would probably be a mistake, even in terms of economic development. The issue is not so much the nature of knowledge, but how students or learners come to acquire that knowledge and learn how it can be used. This requires a movement away from a focus on merely teaching content, and more emphasis on developing and learning skills of how best to apply knowledge. Since knowledge is dynamic, expanding and constantly changing, learners need to develop the skills and learn to use the tools that will enable them to continue to learn.

Making a distinction between academic and applied knowledge misses the real point about the kind of education needed in a knowledge society. It is not just knowledge – both pure and applied – that is important, but also IT literacy, skills associated with lifelong learning, and attitudes/ethics and social behaviour. Gilbert surprisingly plays down the importance of both developing learning skills and the role of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in teaching and learning, in the latter case, arguing that they are not properly integrated into teaching. Again, I don’t disagree that this is often a problem, but integrating ICTs into the curriculum needs to be part of the solution.

Knowledge is not just ‘stuff’, as Jane Gilbert puts it, but it is dynamic. However, I also believe that knowledge is also not just ‘flow’. Content or ‘stuff’ does matter as well as the discussions or interpretations we have about content. Where does the ‘stuff’ come from that ebbs and flows over the discussions on the internet? It may not originate or end in the heads of individuals, but it certainly flows though them, where it is interpreted and transformed. Here we get into the differences between learning, thinking and knowledge. Knowledge may be dynamic and changing, but at some point each person does settle, if only for a brief time, on what they think knowledge to be, even if over time that knowledge changes, develops or becomes more deeply understood. At this point it does become ‘stuff’ or content. I still contend then that ‘stuff’ or content does matter, though recognising that what we do with the stuff is even more important.

My point is that it is not sufficient just to teach academic content (applied or not). It is equally important also to enable students to develop the ability to know how to find, analyse, organise and apply information/content within their professional and personal activities, to take responsibility for their own learning, and to be flexible and adaptable in developing new knowledge and skills. All this is needed because of the explosion in the quantity of knowledge in any professional field that makes it impossible to memorise or even be aware of all the developments that are happening in the field, and the need to keep up-to-date within the field after graduating.

To do this learners must have access to appropriate and relevant content, know how to find it, and must have opportunities to apply and practice what they have learned. Thus learning has to be a combination of content, skills and attitudes, and increasingly this needs to apply to all areas of study. This does not mean that there is no room to search for universal truths, or fundamental laws or principles, but this needs to be embedded within a broader learning environment. This should include the ability to use ICTs as an integral part of their learning, but tied to appropriate content and skills within their area of study.

Again, though, I don’t want to downplay also the importance of non-academic knowledge in the growth of knowledge-based industries. These other forms of knowledge have proved just as valuable, and there is a significant shift in business in trying to manage the every-day knowledge of employees within a company through better internal communication, encouraging external networking, and rewards for collaboration and participation in improving products and services.

2.4.3 The relevance of academic knowledge in the knowledge society

My concern about the purely functional rationale for the value of knowledge is that ‘academic knowledge’ is implicitly seen in these arguments as not relevant to the knowledge society – it is only applied knowledge now that matters. However, it has been the explosion in academic knowledge that has formed the basis of the knowledge society. It was academic development in sciences, medicine and engineering that led to the development of the Internet, biotechnology, digital financial services, computer software and telecommunication, etc. Indeed, it is no co-incidence that those countries most advanced in knowledge-based industries were those that have the highest participation rates in university education.

Although I accept that academic knowledge is not ‘pure’ or timeless or objectively ‘true’, it is the principles or values that drive academic knowledge that are important. Although it often falls short, the goal of academic studies is to reach for deep understanding, general principles, empirically-based theories, timelessness, etc., even if knowledge is dynamic, changing and constantly evolving. Academic knowledge is not perfect, but does have value because of the standards it requires. Nor do I think academic knowledge or methods have run out of steam. We see evidence all around us that suggests academic knowledge is generating new drug treatments, new understandings of climate change, better technology, and certainly new knowledge generation.

Indeed, more than ever, we need to sustain the elements of academic knowledge, such as rigour, abstraction, evidence-based generalisation, empirical evidence, and rationalism. It is these elements of education that have enabled the rapid economic growth both in the industrial and the knowledge societies. The difference now is that these elements alone are not enough; they need to be combined with new approaches to teaching and learning.

I make this point because I am deeply skeptical of claims made about ‘new’ knowledge resulting from the use of the Internet making academic knowledge outdated or irrelevant. Downes (2007) has argued that new technologies now allow for the de-institutionalisation of learning. James Surowiecki (2004) in his book, ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, argues that the aggregation of information in groups through diverse collections of independently-deciding individuals can result in decisions that are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group. Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired Magazine, has argued (2008) that massive meta-data correlations can replace ‘traditional’ scientific approaches to creating new knowledge:

  • ‘Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. …This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.
  • The big target here isn’t advertising, though. It’s science. The scientific method is built around testable hypotheses. These models, for the most part, are systems visualized in the minds of scientists. The models are then tested, and experiments confirm or falsify theoretical models of how the world works. This is the way science has worked for hundreds of years. Scientists are trained to recognize that correlation is not causation, that no conclusions should be drawn simply on the basis of correlation between X and Y (it could just be a coincidence). Instead, you must understand the underlying mechanisms that connect the two. Once you have a model, you can connect the data sets with confidence. Data without a model is just noise. But faced with massive data, this approach to science — hypothesize, model, test — is becoming obsolete.’

It should be noted this was written before derivative-based investments caused financial markets to collapse, mainly because those using them didn’t understand the underlying logic that created the data. My concern about much of the discussion of the ‘new’ knowledge is that it seems to depend on what I might call majority voting – it is the number of hits that matter, not the quality of the content. Because Al-Quaeda’s web site gets a lot of hits, does it make them ‘right’?

2.4.4 Academic knowledge and other forms of knowledge

As mentioned earlier, there are many other forms of knowledge that are useful or valued besides academic knowledge. There is increasing emphasis from government and business on the development of vocational or trades skills. Teachers or instructors are responsible for developing these areas of knowledge as well. In particular, skills that require manual dexterity, performance skills in music or drama, production skills in entertainment, skills in sport or sports management, are all examples of forms of knowledge that have not traditionally been considered ‘academic’.

However, one feature of a digital society is that increasingly these vocational skills are now requiring a much higher proportion of academic knowledge as well as performance skills. For example higher levels of ability in math and/or science are now demanded of many trades and professions such as network engineers, power engineers, auto mechanics, nurses and other health professionals such as physiotherapists, as the ‘knowledge’ component of their work has increased over recent years.

The nature of the job is also changing. For instance, auto mechanics are now increasingly focused on diagnosis and problem-solving as the value component of vehicles becomes increasingly digitally based and components are replaced rather than repaired. Nurse practitioners now are undertaking areas of work previously done by doctors or medical specialists. Many workers now also need strong inter-personal skills, especially if they are in front-line contact with the public. At the same time, as we saw in Chapter 1, more traditionally academic areas are needing to focus more on skills development, so the somewhat artificial boundaries between pure and applied knowledge are beginning to break down.

In summary, a majority of jobs now require both academic and skills-based knowledge. Academic and skills-based knowledge also need to be integrated and contextualised. As a result, the demands on those responsible for teaching and instruction have increased, but above all, these new demands of teachers in a digital age mean that their own skills level needs to be increased to cope with these demands.

Activity 2.3 Epistemology and academic knowledge

Use the comment box, with the title 2.3, to answer the following:

1. Can you state the epistemological position that drives your teaching? (State your subject discipline). Does it fit with any of three epistemological positions described in this chapter? How does that work out in practice in terms of what you do?

2. Can you justify the role of ‘teacher’ in a digital society where individuals can find all they need on the Internet and from friends or even strangers? How do you think that the role of the teacher might, could or should change as a result of the development of a digital society? Or are there ‘constants’ that will remain?

3. Briefly define the subject area or speciality in which you are teaching. Do you agree that academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge? If so, to what extent is academic knowledge important for your learners? Is its importance growing or diminishing? Why? If it is diminishing, what is it being replaced with – or what should replace it?


2.5 Knowledge and new technology

To come to the crux of my argument, knowledge is being rapidly enhanced and expanded by electronic networks, but there is still a critical need in a knowledge-based society for some form of educational process that focuses on the standards and ways of thinking that are associated with academic knowledge.

The argument is whether learning can be better developed through unstructured electronic networking alone, through more structured methods, such as teacher-led group work either in a face-to-face context or online, or through a combination of both structured and unstructured learning environments. I believe there are various ways in which academic knowledge can be developed, but the most effective way seems to me to be a combination of structured and unstructured activities. The freedom and serendipity of electronic networks can add immense value to the development of academic knowledge, but only if those contributing to the network share or learn the values of academic knowledge. (I am not disputing that other forms of valuable knowledge can be created by random electronic networks without this necessity – my focus here is on academic knowledge).

What is changing then is not necessarily the nature of academic knowledge, but the nature of everyday knowledge, which is very much influenced by the explosion in communications and networking through the Internet. Also we now have many more and better ways of developing and sharing academic knowledge because of this explosion in communications.

We need then to broaden our understanding of how best to help students acquire knowledge in ways that will be useful for them, but that does not necessarily mean rejecting academic knowledge as now being irrelevant. All these methods or approaches may help create new knowledge, and should be considered carefully in terms of their implications for teaching and learning, but in my view they are still dependent on the individuals contributing to such aggregated data being educated in rationalistic, evidence-based decision-making, which requires some form of academic education, and we have seen that this is, as Laurillard puts, a rhetorical activity, that requires guidance and ‘persuasion’ from experts in their fields. The danger is that if knowledge is created by the actions of individuals without such an education, or networks based purely on ‘flows’ of opinions or data, the world becomes a slave to irrationality, prejudice, ignorance and corporate and state manipulation.

The real change then is not to do with moving from academic to applied ‘knowledge’, or abandoning academic knowledge in favour of looking solely at what happens on the Internet, but with moving away from a sole focus on teaching content, and instead on creating learning environments that enable learners to develop skills and networks within their area of study. Content is still crucial, and academic values even more so, but they are only part of the requirements now for preparing people for a digital society.

In the next chapter, I discuss different theories of learning and their underlying epistemology, and how this translates into different approaches to teaching and learning in a digital age.


Key Takeaways

1. Teaching is a highly complex occupation, which needs to adapt to a great deal of variety in context, subject matter and learners. It does not lend itself to broad generalizations. Nevertheless it is possible to provide guidelines or principles based on best practices, theory and research, that must then be adapted or modified to local conditions.

2. Our underlying beliefs and values, usually shared by other experts in a subject domain, shape our approach to teaching. These underlying beliefs and values are often implicit and are often not directly shared with our students, even though they are seen as essential components of becoming an ‘expert’ in a particular subject domain.

3. It is argued that academic knowledge is different from other forms of knowledge, and is even more relevant today in a digital age.

4. However, academic knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge that is important in today’s society, and as teachers we have to be aware of other forms of knowledge and their potential importance to our students, and make sure that we are providing the full range of contents and skills needed for students in a digital age.

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