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Information and Understanding

May 17, 2011

Last time I discussed knowledge and pointed out that knowledge was often attacked as rote memorisation of facts. I accepted that if children do simply learn to recite facts it is inadequate as a model of education. However, when we look at what is missing from this model we don’t necessarily find any reason to dismiss the importance of memorisation, let alone the entire concept of knowledge.

The first point I will make is that nobody argues for rote learning in the strictest sense. If “rote” refers to the situation where information is passed on without understanding  (and “understanding” is a grasp of meaning, knowledge of underlying structures and abstract concepts and a facility that allows for facts to be applied in different contexts) then rote learning has no advocates. The most untiring advocate of memorising the spellings of individual words would still want students to be able to understand and apply the phonetic meaning of letters. The staunchest proponent of drilling times tables into kids would still want them to understand what it means to multiply and to be able to solve problems with it. The most enthusiastic supporter of chanting conjugations of verbs would still want their students to understand where each conjugation was to be used and, eventually, to master their use in actual sentences. Nobody deliberately plans to sideline all understanding.

Where approaches do differ is in how much priority should be given to understanding. Some approaches appear to suggest either that it can be taught independently of passing on information, or that the endeavour of teaching understanding is in opposition to teaching knowledge. I would reject the latter claim outright, simply on the grounds that knowledge as a concept includes understanding rather than just acquisition of facts (and in this I am simply repeating the point I attributed to Newman last time). But the more plausible argument is the former one: that understanding can occur and be taught in the absence of memorising any information at all.

The first objection to this is empirical: that it doesn’t fit what we know about how the mind works. To quote my favourite cognitive psychologist (Willingham, 2009) :

Understanding is remembering in disguise… It’s often difficult for students to understand new ideas, especially ones that are really novel, meaning that they aren’t related to things they have already learned. What do cognitive psychologists know  about how students understand things? The answer is that they understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they do know).

This is why it is easier to understand a text about something you already know about rather than something you are unfamiliar with. This is why it is often easier to learn by analogy. This is why students understand that

“How many 2 pint jugs can be filled from an 8 pint barrel?”

is a division problem faster than they realise that

“How many 1⅝ pint jugs can be filled from a 7⅚ barrel?”

is a division problem, despite the two problems being identical in their basic structure.

It is also the case that knowing information well, so that it can be recalled “automatically” i.e. without much cognitive effort, frees up the mind for other forms of thinking including those involved in developing understanding. This is because, as Willingham (2009) explains:

Finding a fact in long-term memory places almost no demand on working memory. It is no wonder that students who have memorised math facts do better in all sorts of math tasks than students whose knowledge of math facts is absent or uncertain. And it’s been shown that practicing math facts helps low-achieving students do better on more advanced mathematics.

This is worth bearing in mind when confronted with arguments like that of Gardner (2004) who identified a lack of understanding of concepts in students with an overemphasis on basic skills and rote. It is equally possible, and empirically more probable, for a lack of deep understanding of underlying concepts to result from weaknesses in basic skills and knowledge preventing any depth of thought about the underlying concepts.

The second objection to separating knowledge and understanding is philosophical. We can conceptualise knowledge in ways that are useful but incompatible with the idea that we can separate the concepts of knowledge and understanding. Two ways of doing so are described below.

Dearden (1969) describes “one’s understanding of one’s situation in the world” as being made up of a basic ingredient of ‘forms of understanding’:

 …a ‘form of understanding’, which immediately shows itself to be a notion connected with knowledge and experience… There are two aspects of forms of understanding which are important here. First, they are systems of interconnected concepts and organising principles. Secondly, they have distinctive validation procedures for determining the truth, rightness or adequacy of various statements or judgements to be made.

He clarifies this further, rejecting the idea that understanding could be “a single, monolithic and undifferentiated whole” or “a matter of good attitudes, together with possession of a universal information getting skill.” Most interestingly of all, is how he identifies and rejects a theory of knowledge which is incompatible with this.

The ‘rucksack’ theory of knowledge is the theory that knowledge is just a jumbled mass of information such as might be exhibited to advantage on a quiz programme. The two relevant features in the analogy are that rucksacks can be more or less full, and that they can be loosely carried behind. The knowledge embraced in a form of understanding, however, is organised, well-founded, and so ingredient in the mind so as to transform, not just supply more information about, one’s experience.

In Dearden’s model understanding is the way in which knowledge is organised and used within then mind; it is not something that can replace the learning and recall of knowledge.

A second useful model is that of Oakeshott (1965) who identified knowledge as consisting only partly of information. He defined information in the following way:

It is a set of facts (specific intellectual artifacts), not opinions; it is stated in propositions; it is received on authority; it is capable of being forgotten and it needs to be recollected; it appears in rules to be followed-rules which must be known and recollected in order to perform…there is in all knowledge an ingredient of information. It consists of facts which may range from the recognitions and identifications in which knowledge of any sort emerges from indeterminate awareness, to rules or rulelike propositions which inform the skills and abilities in which we carry about what we may be said to know, and which are sometimes, but not always, expressly known and followed.

This is a broad enough definition of information, that we cannot easily separate information from understanding. Much of what we might class as part of understanding (abstract rules, the identification of underlying structures) fits within this definition of “information”. Oakeshott describes the remaining part of knowledge as “judgement” not understanding. This is where we “know how to do something without being able to state explicitly the manner of acting involved”. This is more clearly part of mastery of a subject than understanding is. A lot of what we call understanding can simply indicate memorisation of abstract information, or worse, repetition of a generalisation. Judgement is a far more useful concept, in that it cannot turn out to be simply another type of memorised fact, but can be readily distinguished from facts.

This is useful because we can now see exactly what difficulties we have when we try to remove facts from teaching. Whereas it might be possible to believe that a lesson with little content was teaching understanding, it is very difficult to believe that it is teaching judgement. In fact it is hard to see how judgement can be taught at all. Oakeshott’s answer is to claim that information and judgement “can both be communicated and acquired but not communicated and acquired separately”. It is taught and learned but is not part of explicit instruction, it is “a by-product of acquiring information…if it is taught it must be imparted obliquely in the course of instruction.” In Oakeshott’s model there is more to the intellect, more to knowledge than knowing information, but the teaching of information is never absent from the teaching of knowledge.

Now I realise this has been a rather long discussion of information, understanding and knowledge, but I hope I have communicated that the simplistic suggestion that we can choose between teaching understanding and teaching facts lacks compatibility with both psychological realities and with more philosophically sophisticated understandings of the concept of knowledge.

References

Dearden, Robert, The Aims of Primary Education in Peters (1969)

Gardner, Howard,  The Unschooled Mind, 2004

Oakeshott, Michael, Learning and Teaching, 1965

Peters, R.S. (editor), Perspectives on Plowden, 1969

Willingham, Daniel T., Cognition, 2007

Willingham, Daniel T., Why Don’t Students Like School, 2009

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18 comments

  1. Thanks for recommending Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School, I’ve been recommending it to all my friends who also teach. I liked that he explained how things could apply directly to the classroom and the science behind his ideas with examples you could easily identify with. It’s great to have another piece of the puzzle to fit in with my views and help explain them to people who say it’s pointless to learn things because the internet exsists.


    • See it didn’t help me spell exists!


  2. Your best blog to date. Agree with every word.


  3. A fascinating argument, and one that any person with common sense will be able to tell you is true. Here it’s presented with evidence, and I agree with every word.


  4. Of course, one needs facts to form conclusions and opinions. But when this is done, it is not longer necessary to remember each and every fact forever.

    I feel that some facts are like pebbles in a heap — the heap will remain, after you remove a few pebbles. For example if I learn names of mountains in Africa, and later I forger one, it does not make my knowledge useless, only slightly incomplete.

    Other facts are like gears in a mechanism — if you remove a gear, the mechanism will either completely stop, or loses some function. For example if I learn how to drive a car, I must remember where is gas pedal and where is brake. I should also be aware that it is possible to drive the car in reverse direction.

    When learning the “pebble” facts, first we learn them. Then we draw general conclusions. (From specific to abstract knowledge. Generalization without examples is a phrase without understanding.) But then it is not a critical problem if we forget some of the facts. We should be able to come up with an example or two to support the generalization, but the generalization substitutes the set of facts.

    When learning the “gears” facts, we need to practice them until we use them fluently. Then we are able to use the mechanism, and can aim for some more advanced knowledge. Fortunately, later repeated using helps memory retain these facts. Or, forgetting these facts brings suspicion that they were not used properly.

    For example in computer science, when I speak about ASCII encoding, I show students the table of characters, I may give them a few exercises (find this and that), but I do not expect them to remember the whole table. Remembering the whole ASCII table would be stupid; you don’t need it, and you find in anytime at Wikipedia. Yet it is necessary to see it and explore it at least once, so you get a general idea about it: what it contains, what it does not contain, and approximately how it is organized — otherwise the student might get an inadequate image. (And the exercises are necessary lest some students say “yeah, I have looked at it” without actually doing so.)

    However, when I teach programming, it is not enough to say “yeah, I’ve heard about it” about concepts like variables, functions, structures, etc. It is necessary to understand them deeply, all of them, because only then we can move a level up, and speak about algorithms. Then later we can move another level up and speak about design patterns, algorithm complexity or programming language design. If one does not grok the concept of variable or function, all further information is unaccessible.

    When people speak about education, rote memorization is usually a red herring. It is admissible to speak about what’s wrong with teachers and lessons; it is not admissible to suggest that something is wrong with children, parents, school leadership, or government. Everyone knows that everything is a teacher’s fault. It is never a problem of discipline, divorcing parents, or whole day spend at facebook… it must be the memorization, or maybe not enough space to use creativity and express opinions.

    However, I think some teachers are really confusing the “pebble” facts with the “gear” facts, and insist that students remember each pebble forever. I have seen examples firsthand.


  5. Another excellent post, and I think I agree with most of it.

    I think it points to another reason why facts became unpopular in the first place, though: because information/knowledge does carry within it assumptions and frames of reference that we want to get rid of. I gave the example in an earlier comment of history: I know a reasonable number of kings and queens, but I don’t like it. Since school I have actively jettisoned that knowledge in favour of an economic and social history framework.
    In China I met a geography teacher who confidently announced to me that part of his syllabus (for 12-15 year olds) was to teach that “there are three races in the world, the whites, the yellow (Asians), and the blacks”. Getting rid of “fact” teaching was one way of purging the syllabus of this ideological baggage.

    This isn’t necessarily an argument against knowledge/facts, but it’s part of the historical reason why we’ve ended up where we are, and this kind of sensitivity is part of what we/Andrew has to consider if the objective is to get people to accept facts again.


  6. An interesting post. I have been researching “understanding” now for about 18 months having read Dan Willingham’s book in which he said ..”Understanding is just remembering in disguise”. BTW, it was a post on this site that put me onto the book.

    I agree with what has been said here and would give my perspective.

    * I would say learning is about being able to solve problems and develop new knowledge and ideas(of many and every kind)
    * Learning facts by rote, and by that I mean without linking new facts to existing concepts, gives the learner a fund of information to help them solve problems and develop new knowledge and ideas
    * Understanding is about links between concepts and facilitates analysis and organisation
    * Rote learning via episodic memory appears to be both simple and powerful
    * Concepts comprise facts that are linked and therefore facts and concepts (understanding) requires facts, and the links do not necessarily have to be developed at the time the facts are learned.
    * Today’s facts will probably be parts of tomorrows understanding
    * Let’s not forget the application of procedural knowledge in both familiar and unfamiliar situations which require concepts and facts
    * when learning facts by rote e.g. repetition one also has the issue of the fact that every word/symbol/idea that comprises the fact will be either fact or concept and link arise therefore maybe we might argue that as one get older and experiences more, it is less possible to learn by rote.

    I have therefore formed the view that understanding does appear to be just remembering in disguise, but not the remembering of isolated facts but of webs of connected concepts.There is however an important role for isolated facts (if there can be such a thing, perhaps they are just less connected facts) in the implementation of procedural knowledge.

    In children who are starting to form their schemas of concepts I think there will be more scope for facts but also more scope for inaccurate schemas.

    I am now starting to use concept maps to design learning so that I can gauge how students are integrating new facts/concepts with their existing concepts. Not only does it make planning, instruction and assessment easier for me it actually works including for most SEN students.


    • I think important facts are usually connected, and would be suspicious of attempts to try and reduce complex concepts to lists of discrete items.

      However, I am far more sceptical of attempts to explicitly teach “links”. This is partly because it can be used as an excuse to squeeze out actual knowledge, but mainly because the ways in which areas of knowledge aren’t connected are often more important than the ways they are connected.

      In particular subjects things that might seem superficially similar might actually be very different (which is why I am against the teaching of “comparative religion” in RE). More generally, different disiciplines have different methods, and many misconceptions in learning can be caused by blurring the boundaries for the sake of making things apparently easier to understand.


      • Most students identify links for themselves if I have done my job correctly. As Willingham explained pretty well it is the links that are understanding.

        “but mainly because the ways in which areas of knowledge aren’t connected are often more important than the ways they are connected.”

        Why would areas of knowledge that are not connected often be more important. Have you a few examples that I could mull over?

        I think comparison as both a component of analysis and a demonstration of understanding are usually very valuable in forming knew knowledge for individuals. I believe RE is no exception. Why do you not like “comparative” studies in RE?


        • I gave you an example so I won’t give you another one, but I will explain it further.

          The problem with comparative religion is that ideas that seem similar may actually be very different and conflating them may well lead to misconceptions. So for instance, you are likely to be given a clearer idea of what the Koran is by having it explained directly in the terms a Muslim would use, than by having it compared with the Bible and then incorporating implicit pre-existing ideas about the Bible into one’s understanding of what the Koran is.


  7. “I think it points to another reason why facts became unpopular in the first place, though: because information/knowledge does carry within it assumptions and frames of reference that we want to get rid of.”

    No no no. Facts became unpopular for two major reasons. 1) Basically, it’s hard to learn them and so many students -especially those who haven’t learned a sufficient number by the time they reach secondary school -have a robust aversion to memorisation. Fearing that this might impact negatively on their panglossian scheme to create an education system uniquely -in the history of humankind – characterised by significant annual increases in attainment, UK educationalists decreed that the acquisition of knowledge was unnecessary; not just unnecessary but elitist and a remnant of a ‘fading’ phalocentric and Eurocentric hegemony.

    A brief glance at the present cabinet, the educational background of the City’s top-earners or the stagnation of social mobility might afford you a valuable perspective on the valdity of their assumptions. (and please don’t respond with the frequently asserted Cockney-barrow-boy-trader-made good trope…I dare say there are a handful but it’s a convenient myth.)

    2) The second reason was the ascendency within higher education, through the 70s and 80s of a relativist strain within Humanities, Social Studies and Educational departments throughout the Western world. A tendency that denied objective reality, substituted ‘local truths’ and as a consequence regarded ‘facts’ as value-laden and contingent; serving a particular power-structure or ideology.

    Now whether you wish to posit the primogenesis of this doctrine to Post-Structuralist, Deconstructionist, Neo-Marxist (notably Marcuse or Althusser), or neo-cultural-relativist* theories, or a combination, its influence has been profound and demonstrably damaging to the aspirations and opportunities of working class kids.

    *It’s interesting to note, although little appreciated, that cultural relativism has enjoyed at least three incarnations. Its present influence is diminishing but it had nearly died out by the late thirties. Significant numbers of anthropologits had started to vehemently reject Margaret Mead’s and Ruth Benedict’s early findings and, sad to say, it was probably the horror of Auschwitz which gave it new life. The ‘mission statement’ of UNESCO, for instance would have been unthinkable, philosophically and logically untenable, in the absence of the global trauma of the immediate post-war years. Again, its logical inconsistencies found it wearing thin before a much needed tonic arrived in the form of post-structuralist, post-colonialist and critical theories. Never sustainable for long in the face of honest logical enquiry, we again see its days numbered. Unfortunately, it’s left its mark on two or three generations for whom it represented a blight on their educational potential.

    “Since school I have actively jettisoned that knowledge in favour of an economic and social history framework.”

    Well that’s reasonable. But is this a framework in which the concept of an objective historical fact is absent? I only ask because many historians, many Marxist historians even…notably Hobsbawm…have also engaged on such a course but have never had recourse to reject facts. In fact, in at least two chapters of “On History” he goes to great lengths to stress his absolute rejection of a relativist approach to historiography.

    “In China I met a geography teacher who confidently announced to me that part of his syllabus (for 12-15 year olds) was to teach that “there are three races in the world, the whites, the yellow (Asians), and the blacks”. Getting rid of “fact” teaching was one way of purging the syllabus of this ideological baggage.”

    And indeed, that brand of racialist taxonomy has no place given our present understanding of evolution and our ever expanding knowledge of the human genome. Although, you seem to imply that you might instead like to replace his insidious classification with the following ‘fact’

    “There is no scientific basis for the concept of race.”

    You see, the above is a fact that I accept; don’t you?

    I don’t see it as a ‘contingent’ fact, or a ‘local’ fact, or a fact predicated upon a ‘Eurocentric scientific-technological paradigm’; I simply see it as a fact. So I’m quite happy to replace your Chinese acquaitance’s fact with my own. But I’m not rejecting facts.

    “This isn’t necessarily an argument against knowledge/facts…”

    There you go again…”not necessarily”..is it, or isn’t it? Are you so relentlessly indeterminate that you can’t even decide what your own post represents?

    “…but it’s part of the historical reason why we’ve ended up where we are, and this kind of sensitivity is part of what we/Andrew has to consider if the objective is to get people to accept facts again.”

    It’s like Sokal never happened.

    ..and as I’ve had to point out previously in various blogs, I don’t read the Daily Mail, I was expelled from the Labour Party in 1984 for “Trotskyist leanings”, as a committed socialist, I desire a rigorous, quality education for working class kids (all kids actually- but a lot seem to be doing fine anyway) and despair of well-meaning but deluded liberals…especially the ones who consider themselves ‘of the left’ but inadvertently follow a far more equivocal agenda.


  8. monkeyfish

    A very carefully constructed post i think.

    Funny you should mention Sokal, I could’nt help thinking “Sokal” as I was reading your post. Would it be possible (for those of us/me) who happen to be intellectually challenged, for you to clarify your position/views on the preference of the educational establishment for learning that avoids the simple acquisition of “facts”. Please could you clarify with all of those long “isms” and “ists”. Hopefully this will shorten things slightly, as I am looking for the highlights.

    I will then go back and read your post and try to pluck out the wisdom that is no doubt contained within.

    Much appreciated.


  9. “Would it be possible (for those of us/me) who happen to be intellectually challenged, for you to clarify your position/views on the preference of the educational establishment for learning that avoids the simple acquisition of “facts”.”

    Don’t worry, I’ve forgiven your sardonic tone and your faux-self-deprecation. You wish me to clarify my position on an education which tries wherever possible to eschew ‘facts’. Here goes…

    I’m anti

    Short enough for you?

    Actually, I’m ‘anti’ because I don’t think that such an education is possible. I think the term ‘education’ within such a scheme is a contradiction in terms. I don’t necessarily disagree with most of what you state in your own post.

    “Please could you clarify with all of those long “isms” and “ists”.”

    Did you mean to say ‘without’?

    If you did, the answer is no. They were fundamental to an exploration of where the philosophical ‘justification’ of an educational ideology which imagine facts to be superfluous came from. Surely you agree that it must have evolved from somewhere?

    I was trying to illustrate how such an educational environment came into being. Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it mirrors developments, both political and sociological, in a much wider sphere. Now, unlike what you might term the ‘public political sphere’ or the general Zeitgeist, primary and secondary education is heavily informed by tendencies within higher academia through it’s influence upon educational theorists. Education has therefore been far more prone to influence by currents and trends, many now discarded and discredited, which sweep through university humanities and social studies schools. Not only, that; unfortunately there is a lag, as educators who’ve made a career by peddling some of this crap rise through the hierarchy influencing their subordinates and inculcating a sort of orthodoxy based on their earlier beliefs.

    Many of the ‘isms’ you so dislike represent just those pernicious theories which brought us to such a state. Fortunately they’re waning (gradually, it seems, being replaced by other equally sinister trends -notably a quasi-corporate- business model of school management) but your ignorance of them is, frankly, part of the problem. Every time I hear a teacher complaining about a policy or curriculum development which they know to be ineffectual, time consuming, counter-productive and occasionally downright harmful, only to throw their hands up in exasperation and demand “who the hell ever thought this would work?”, they’re demonstrating their ignorance of the forces which bear upon them.

    Basically, faced with the omnipresent spectre of large scale disaffection and under-achievement which always haunts every state education system…and always has…certain, probably well-meaning, people decided to ‘liberate’ students from a curriculum which was apparently failing them; failing them, they decided because it wasn’t serving those students’ needs.

    They seemed, amazingly -given their relativist tendencies- to overlook the notion that a curriculum failing a student could equally validly be viewed as a student failing a curriculum; precisely because a) the education system was, is, and always was inadequate b) some students always will fail.

    (I’m assuming you’ll allow me ‘relativist’, at least. If not google it if you need to…and if you do need to, then I apologise for the ‘faux’ in ‘faux-self-deprecation’…you really are intellectually challenged)


    • Good day monkeyfish. I am taking a short break from DIY to pen a very quick response to the points you have raised.

      Yes I did mean “links”, thanks for pointing that out.

      This what I said….

      when learning facts by rote e.g. repetition one also has the issue of the fact that every word/symbol/idea that comprises the fact will be either fact or concept and link arise therefore maybe we might argue that as one get older and experiences more, it is less possible to learn by rote.

      You said….

      “you seem to be suggesting that as people learn more and become aware of an increasing complexity and interconnectedness between -what may once have seemed- “isolated” facts, then their ability to remember facts decreases. Can you justify this at all? You state it as though it were self-evident. It is anything but.”

      I am indeed suggesting that people build bigger and bigger networks of information as they age and develop. It suggested by cognitive scientists and others that one reason for the way that these networks develop is that they promote cognitive efficiency when retrieving existing knowledge into working memory. When someone pays attention to information that either introduces them to a new concept or refines an existing concept they have to amend their existing networks/schemas.

      I am talking about learning lists of pieces of isolated information such as Percy 5th was born in 1645. He was succeeded by Percy 6th who was born in 1688. This I find people are talking about when they talk about learning “lists of facts” rather than causation, contexts etc.

      It seems that there are ways to memorise information, and there are many theories about how this might happen. One I can make sense of is.. The main method of rote memorisation seems to be repetition. Elaboration aids memorisation but whether this is rote memorisation is arguable I think. Organisation however indicates understanding and is about integration of new knowledge into existing networks of concepts.

      As you rightly say, I would suggest that it is likely (hence I said maybe) that the more complex networks people develop the more difficult to it to commit information to long term memory without complex networks of existing knowledge being brought into working memory and organisation taking place. New concepts linked to old.

      I am simply suggesting that the older the learner (within limits), the more unlikely it is that rote memorisation will take place. Hence my saying “maybe we might argue that as one get older and experiences more, it is less possible to learn by rote”

      There will always be information that an older person must learn by rote (almost)a they have existing knowledge to link to. e.g. I might teach you the Mandarin word for the number 7 and the sound may be like nothing you have ever heard before.

      I didn’t suggest for one moment that older people find it more difficult to remember facts, jut that their ability to learn by rote might well decrease, facts or no facts.

      I do indeed think that this approach leads to teaching that promotes the development of networks of concepts in the brain. I am not sure what this contradicts. I am suggesting that we, as educators should promote the development of interconnected networks of information. The concepts are not in any way arbitrary, they are simply a conceptual representation of the percepts one will come across as human beings.

      When I wish a learner to learn a new piece of information, I do not ask them to learn it by simple rote memorisation, I help them to absorb the new information into their existing knowledge networks.

      If you ca point out the contradiction I will give it some thought.

      “Please remember that most concepts, especially those in ‘concept maps’ are particular ways of classifying various units of knowledge, often with an emphasis on, say, causation or similarity -they are certainly not unique. A different interpretation might choose to classify those units into entirely different concepts. Some concepts might disappear altogether.”

      Of course, how could one deny this. Indeed the idea that 2 people will store a concept in their brains in identical ways is a bit difficult. Also it goes without saying that any unit will potentially be an example of a number of different concepts.

      We seem to agree on this but if i have misunderstood please tell me.

      What is wrong with a concept map being a revision aid?
      What is wrong with a concept map being a representation of a syllabus?

      A concept map is really not difficult and I would never suggest otherwise.

      What would make a “concept map” a pretentious conceit I wonder.

      I do think for clarity we should perhaps define the terms we use.

      I much prefer information and understanding.

      For me the word fact just confuses things. For me information might be fact or opinion, true or untrue, controvertible or incontrovertible. As it seems that all understanding requires memorisation of information, maybe one should think of memorisation of information by rote or understanding that information. Whether the information is a fact or not is for me irrelevant.

      I think this difference is the crux of the initial post.


  10. “* when learning facts by rote e.g. repetition one also has the issue of the fact that every word/symbol/idea that comprises the fact will be either fact or concept and link arise therefore maybe we might argue that as one get older and experiences more, it is less possible to learn by rote.”

    btw…can you clarify the above…especially “and link arise”. If it is simply that you’ve omitted the ‘s’ from link, then you seem to be suggesting that as people learn more and become aware of an increasing complexity and interconnectedness between -what may once have seemed- “isolated” facts, then their ability to remember facts decreases. Can you justify this at all? You state it as though it were self-evident. It is anything but.

    Also, since this interconnection gives rise to what might be reasonably termed ‘concepts’, then surely this contradicts your later statement about the effectiveness of ‘concept maps’? Unless you’re suggesting that what we should aim at is a body of knowledge and understanding consisting, largely, in the set of relationships between abstract, fact-free (and arbitrary) concepts?

    Please remember that most concepts, especially those in ‘concept maps’ are particular ways of classifying various units of knowledge, often with an emphasis on, say, causation or similarity -they are certainly not unique. A different interpretation might choose to classify those units into entirely different concepts. Some concepts might disappear altogether.

    I’ve also seen many so-called concept maps that were little more than pictorial schemes to map out a syllabus…in many cases glorified revision aides. Although I’m quite sure yours are quite different, in such cases the term ‘concept map’ becomes little more than a pretentious conceit


  11. “I am simply suggesting that the older the learner (within limits), the more unlikely it is that rote memorisation will take place. Hence my saying “maybe we might argue that as one get older and experiences more, it is less possible to learn by rote”

    Yes…but you make a case that people organise their knowledge in a more sophisticated way, but you haven’t suggested why they might lose the ability to learn by rote. Are you suggesting that a person’s cognitive capacities are finite and that memory is effectively a zero-sum game; the sheer processing power effectively annexed by complex conceptual schema denying older people the spare capacity to engage is such mundane tasks as rote learning?

    It’s interesting that in your reply you switch to the phrase “the more unlikely it is that rote memorisation will take place”. Do you mean that despite their best efforts, the older person lacks the ability to ‘rote-learn’ or that the older person simply wouldn’t bother rote learning? It’s unclear from your post. I can see why an argument might be made for the latter but you’ve still not justified the former. If your entire argument is “Old people don’t tend to engage in as much rote learning as younger people” then I’d tend to agree…but I thought we were talking about something else.

    “What is wrong with a concept map being a revision aid?
    What is wrong with a concept map being a representation of a syllabus?”

    The terminology

    “What would make a “concept map” a pretentious conceit I wonder.”

    When it is a particular, arbitrary and possibly tendentious way of linking various units of knowledge which has been lent an air of unequivocal authority by the use of the term ‘concept map’. The phrase has connotations which suggest either a fanciful relationship with the inner workings of the brain or an idealised structure which exists outside and independent of the unit ‘facts’ which constitute the concepts which are mapped; as though the concepts, say historical, exist independently of the historical ‘reality’. An example might be an analysis of modern British society from a perspective of class struggle. I see many such analyses but see little evidence of class struggle…and what little evidence I do see is debatable and drastically reinterpreted in order to shape it to fit an inappropriate concept map of political or social change.

    Education is absolutely riddled with concepts which are variously moribund, delusional, partisan or just plain wrong. Every day I see people trying to fit ‘facts’ -statistics, incidences of behaviour, subjective reports etc- into concepts which neither mesh with the reality nor are even coherent or consistent with other arbitrary concepts.

    ‘Concept Maps’ are very very iffy tools. People internalise them and start to believe they somehow mirror reality. Most don’t.

    That is why I term some of them ‘pretentious conceits’. They are effectively the manifestation of a particular ideological schema which have been given the term ‘concept maps’ not out of considerations of synonymy, so much as a rhetorical ‘propaganda’ device.


    • “Yes…but you make a case that people organise their knowledge in a more sophisticated way, but you haven’t suggested why they might lose the ability to learn by rote.”

      I actually explained that I am not suggesting (notwithstanding the normal aging process) that a persons ability to learn by rote diminishes but their opportunity to do so in the normal course of events.

      “Are you suggesting that a person’s cognitive capacities are finite and that memory is effectively a zero-sum game; the sheer processing power effectively annexed by complex conceptual schema denying older people the spare capacity to engage is such mundane tasks as rote learning?”

      No. I will say again, the more concepts you have in your mind the less likely it is that new information can be stored without reference to previous knowledge.

      “It’s interesting that in your reply you switch to the phrase “the more unlikely it is that rote memorisation will take place”. ”

      This what I said originally ….

      ‘therefore maybe we might argue that as one get older and experiences more, it is less possible to learn by rote.’

      …I dont see a difference between ‘less possible’ and ‘more unlikely’. I simply changed the wording in case I had been unclear.

      “If your entire argument is “Old people don’t tend to engage in as much rote learning as younger people” then I’d tend to agree…but I thought we were talking about something else.”

      When you say my entire argument, I have engaged in any argument. This was simply a point (last one I think) that informs my undestanding of earning and hence my teaching. There ya go, we agree. Although I wouldnt use the term old vs younger but older vs younger. a 15 year old will learn by rote less in some situations than an 8 year old.

      “When it is a particular, arbitrary and possibly tendentious way of linking various units of knowledge which has been lent an air of unequivocal authority by the use of the term ‘concept map’. The phrase has connotations which suggest either a fanciful relationship with the inner workings of the brain or an idealised structure which exists outside and independent of the unit ‘facts’ which constitute the concepts which are mapped; as though the concepts, say historical, exist independently of the historical ‘reality’. An example might be an analysis of modern British society from a perspective of class struggle. I see many such analyses but see little evidence of class struggle…and what little evidence I do see is debatable and drastically reinterpreted in order to shape it to fit an inappropriate concept map of political or social change.”

      Using pejorative adjectives does not diminish the thing for me. Of course the concepts exist independently of the “historical reality” as per your example. Much cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience support the idea of networks of connections in the brain (nothing fanciful here methinks). As both “class” and “struggle” are both concepts we will have to defer discussion of the particular issue. However, interpretation of evidence for the existence of the concept in reality is a totally different issue. It has little or no relevance to the issue of learning and concepts or argumentation other than that learning and evidence will facilitate more productive argumentation perhaps. Whether or not “class struggle” actually exists has nothing that I can see to do with the efficacy or otherwise of knowledge described by concepts. If you don’t believe it, such is life.

      “When it is a particular, arbitrary and possibly tendentious way of linking various units of knowledge which has been lent an air of unequivocal authority by the use of the term ‘concept map’”

      You almost seem threatened by the term. Why do you say arbitrary and why do you say tendentious. I am starting to wonder whether your understanding of the concept “concept” is the same as mine. Also “concept map”.

      “Education is absolutely riddled with concepts which are variously moribund, delusional, partisan or just plain wrong. Every day I see people trying to fit ‘facts’ -statistics, incidences of behaviour, subjective reports etc- into concepts which neither mesh with the reality nor are even coherent or consistent with other arbitrary concepts.”

      I often see examples of people hitting burglars over the head with tennis rackets. Just because people use tennis rackets for purposes for which they are not suited, does not mean they are not good for playing tennis. I have to agree with this paragraph. I use concept maps to try to resolve some of these issues, concepts and concept maps do not produce these issues.

      “‘Concept Maps’ are very very iffy tools. People internalise them and start to believe they somehow mirror reality. Most don’t.”

      See tennis rackets above. If a concept map is inaccurate then it may be less valuable in some circumstances that an accurate concept map. This does not reflect on concept mas in my view. I can see no justification for suggesting they are “iffy tools”.

      “That is why I term some of them ‘pretentious conceits’. They are effectively the manifestation of a particular ideological schema which have been given the term ‘concept maps’ not out of considerations of synonymy, so much as a rhetorical ‘propaganda’ device.”

      LOL, I would at this point suggest that you are clearly a practitioner of the concept of rhetoric. You have again here clouded a nonsensical and solipsistic assertion in rhetoric that wold have done Martin Luther King proud.

      “They are effectively the manifestation of a particular ideological schema”

      As an example, this is simply rubbish. This statement for illustrates better than I could ever do the need for a emphasis on concept related learning.

      I would love to further consider the concept of class struggle but alas time marches on.

      ps….you do seem to worry excessively about ideologies and if only for this reason I would have thought you would have welcomed concept maps.


  12. I’ve just got to this for the first time. It’s brilliant and a great source of references. Thanks.



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