What do you believe knowledge is?

I had a good clean out of my files the other day and came across a relatively old (1997), but interesting and still relevant research paper by Barbara Hofer and Paul Pintrich. It explains how our beliefs about what knowledge is affects how deeply and effectively we are able to learn.

Where does knowledge lie for you in each of these three continuums?

  1. Knowledge is made up of separate, clear facts; or Knowledge is made up of interrelated, complex concepts.
  2. Knowledge is absolute: right or wrong, true or false; or Knowledge is continually evolving and therefore uncertain.
  3. Knowledge is provided by experts; or Knowledge can be created through our own thought processes.

When your beliefs about knowledge fall on the right of those three continuums, you are able to learn more effectively than when your beliefs about knowledge cluster to the left of those continuums. Here’s why:

  1. Believing that knowledge is simple leads to simple learning strategies. You think you’ve learned something, for example, when you can remember it. When you believe knowledge is complex, you know you know it only when you can organise it, explain it to others and put it to work for you. The first belief means you stop studying when you’ve memorised the material while the second means you keep studying until you understand it.
  2. Believing that knowledge is certain leads to sweeping generalisations and absolute and fallacious thinking; using words like ‘never’ and ‘always’, for example, are signs of poor thinking based on the belief that knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, believing that knowledge is uncertain and evolving enables you to hold contradictory conclusions and ideas in your mind, think them through, and develop your own opinions based on your judgement and experience.
  3. Believing that knowledge is something handed down by experts leads to accepting what is said or written rather than thinking it through critically. Believing that knowledge comes from thinking and reflecting, experimenting, testing and assessing means that you can develop arguments and counterarguments more readily and you can accept that while experts have specialist knowledge, they aren’t always right about everything. (My post, How to get top marks on your essays, can help you develop arguments and counterarguments.)

Fortunately, we know that we can change our beliefs, or mindsets, so you may want to take a moment and think about how well your beliefs about knowledge are serving you and what you can do to alter them in order to learn more easily:

  • What do you know about your own beliefs about knowledge?
  • How do you know that’s what you believe?
  • Do you understand enough about the implications about your beliefs about the nature of knowledge?

Here are three ideas that may help you expand the way you think about knowledge so you can better understand the world around you and be a more effective learner and manager:

  • The next time something doesn’t happen as you expect it to, rather than write it off as an ‘exception to the rule’ or sweep it under the carpet, try examining it in order to find out more. That  adds to your store of knowledge and helps you understand how things really work.
  • When confronted with a ‘fact’, either one of your own beliefs or a statement made by someone else, ask yourself Why it is true? Why may it not be true? Thinking that something is true because ‘everyone says so’ or because there is no way to prove otherwise are fallacious arguments and the result of simplistic thinking. Dig deeper. Try to relate this ‘fact’ to other things you know; think about it in terms of the strategic perspective, or big picture, rather than the detail, for example.
  • To make sure you’ve really grasped a concept, theory or approach, explain it to yourself in your own words; then explain it as you would to a seven-year old; then explain it as you would to your parents.

By thinking about how we think, we can all learn to be more effective thinkers and more effective learners.

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