More on Rote, Knowledge and Understanding

This is an extension to my previous Knowledge and Understanding post. It caused some reaction on Twitter where I was asking what else there was. I want to hypothesise that a brain contains knowledge and links between those bits of knowledge. And that’s it in terms of learning. This has proved a little contentious but I don’t think I have been given any reason to disprove the hypothesis. I know others disagree. So say what you think or what you know.

Let me explain what I mean.

First rote: This is a thing which we have learned but have no useful knowledge of its meaning. Someone suggested this could be learning to say a word in a foreign language but having no idea what the word meant. I would add that it is impossible for our brain to learn simply rote. Whatever the rote thing is it will have some meaning. The foreign word will contain sounds, or letters/characters if we see it written. It has some degree of meaning. I believe when people talk about rote learning they are expressing, usually in a pejorative sense, learning where the usual meaning is not part of the learning of that rote item. For example learning times tables by rote. Chanting etc

Next is knowledge: Some people associate this with learning facts. Fine, let’s go with that. Remember facts can be correct or incorrect. One can learn a fact but hold it as a misconception. Knowledge will never be held as an isolated item. It will have connections to other things we know as in the case of a foreign word.

240_f_104724914_1huztt9qesx9gc8gbfk4trgmceery7gpThink about the fact “That is a bus” which is indicated by me pointing at a large vehicle. If you can reliably tell me that the thing I point at in the same circumstances is a bus then you have a piece of knowledge.

Then Understanding: When you have seen a variety of buses in a variety of circumstances you will have developed a concept of a bus. If I point at an elephant you would not see that as a bus. Although elephants have some features that are similar to buses, they are a form of transport for people, they do not have enough features to be properly called a bus.

There is clearly no absolute dividing line between knowledge and understanding. It is a gradual slope. The more features we have linked, recognised, to a piece of knowledge the greater our understanding. I don’t think it is ever possible to say that we completely understand. What would complete understanding of buses mean?

It would include knowledge like:

What a bus looks like, shape, colour, size, destination on the front

What a bus carries, people, driver, conductor (perhaps), bus inspector

And loads of other things. A complete understanding could be said to include the history of buses, how they are repaired, why they have riveted body panels and a myriad of other items. The more these different ideas are linked to the central concept of bus the better our understanding of buses.

So what else is there other than knowledge and understanding? Understanding is, in my view, knowledge which is connected, in various ways, to other knowledge. So my view and somewhat supported by what I have read is that the only thing we can do to change a brain as a teacher is to provide access to, to teach, more knowledge. The brain encodes, turns it into a form that is held in networks of neurones, and links that network to other networks.These links may link to other knowledge, almost certainly will, and to out emotional centres. The other knowledge linked to, the strength, and perhaps speed, of these links, make one person’s knowledge somewhat different to another’s. I see a yellow flower. Wordsworth sees a host of golden daffodils. The retrieval process is not a simple retrieve the memory as though it was photocopied but is reconstructed as in the retelling of a story.

Brains contain knowledge and the systems to connect, retrieve and organise that knowledge. What else is there?


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