First, Know-What; Then, Know-How

Posted by on July 25, 2011

It is satisfying to read a book that examines education without claiming to be an education book. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered feels fresh and inspiring, despite having been around since the early 1970s. In it, British economist E.F. Schumacher attempts to address fundamental questions, as opposed to dwelling on the politics around nonessential issues, even the politics around the politics.

Schumacher argues that education will only help society if it helps that society become wiser. And we get wiser by thinking first about where we want to go (i.e., know-what), not how to get there. Today, the education world seems focused on the latter. Science, technology, engineering, all teach know-how. But who is concerned with the know-what? In my view, efforts like the Albert Shanker Institute’s “Call for Common Content” are a step in this direction.

Schumacher points out that we often look at education as the answer to all kinds of problems. “[A]ll history – as well as all current experience – points to the fact that it is man, not nature, who provides the primary resource: that the key factor of all economic development comes out of the mind of man.” If our civilization is in a state of crisis “it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education.” We believe that for every new challenge ahead there ought to be a scientific and technological solution: more and better education will solve all problems to come. Yet, with all of our scientific and technological advances, our social problems still seem intractable. Why is that?

According to Schumacher, science and engineering produce know-how, but the task of education should lie first and foremost with the know-what – the transmission of ideas of value so that we know what to do (with the know-how). Thus, Schumacher argues that a science and technology-focused education system can be like a dead-end street – “know-how is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end.”

In the Shanker Institute’s “Call for Common Content,” the signatories urge the nation to answer the question “it has avoided for generations: what is it, precisely, that we expect all educated citizens to have learned?” In other words, we need an open conversation about what matters to us substantively.

We live in a time of information overload, data-driven, evidence-based, measurement frenzy. We have become so lost in a web of technicalities that central questions often fly way below the radar. It is not so much overspecialization that is the problem; it is a failure to question and clarify our fundamental convictions and assumptions.

Without an agreement on what matters – and a curriculum based on a common core is, in essence, just that – we will continue to focus all of our education on questions of know-how. But isn’t it time to arrive at a core vision for who we are as a nation and where we want to go as a society – then to set about organizing our school systems in a manner that reflects and transmits these values and aspirations? Without this, I fear that the ideal of a quality education for all will forever remain a vague and unrealized dream.

- Esther Quintero


2 Comments posted so far

  • I agree with the main point, being we need to focus in the teaching of know-what more than we are doing it nowadays.

    However, I disagree with identifying know-how with teaching science, technology and engineering. As opposed to teaching what other things that would give us know-what? Science, technology and engineering (especially the first one) can/should be teached as a worldview that promote critical thinking and responsability rather than a collection of formulae, in the same way History can be teached promoting social awareness rather than a collection of dates and places.

    I think finding new ways of including know-what across student’s curricula is the main challenge in today’s educational system (in whatever subject that may happen).

    Un saludo!
    Kike

    Comment by Kike
    July 26, 2011 at 4:35 AM
  • Kike,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that science and engineering do not need to be exclusively about know-how. But I think the mainstream view of science is still “primitive” in a way – most people believe science is objective, dispassionate and unbiased. I think this portrayal is too simplistic.

    I don’t mention it in the post but Schumacher explains how individuals have preconceptions and assumptions, how we are not a tabula rasa, neither are scientists or science. But I agree entirely that science could and should be taught in a manner that promotes specific values – but do you think this is the case today? I don’t. The ethical discussion that we need is not happening explicitly.

    I think you make a good point when you say the humanities (often seen in opposition to science) are not always about know-what – for example, I doubt that an approach to history as collection of dates and places as you put it, will help us get any wiser either.

    Esther

    Comment by Esther Quintero
    July 26, 2011 at 10:24 AM

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