Causation and Knowledge

So far I've been able to identify four key different areas of learning and understanding. The most primitive form of learning, is just factual. Just knowing facts. Like you know your name, you know which country you live in. Facts are important to some extent, because they set the context for everything else. They are limited though and we cannot consider memorising hundreds of facts to be a good standard of education.

The second of these is what I'd call "black box" learning. This is something we do every day, it's things that we know but we don't know how or why, we just know. Like many people know how to use a computer, they do not know how a computer works. They know how to drive a car, they do not know how a car works. The inner workings of the object in question are completely hidden and unknown, as if they were sealed within a black box. Again, this is a valid form of learning, as we do not all have the time to learn everything in great detail and do sometimes need to use things that we do not fully understand. We know what we need to know.

The third type of learning, I'd call just simply understanding. Like you're told how and why stuff works and what's going on "under the hood". Many people who are at this level in their field are considered experts or professionals. Take for example a good electrician. He not only knows how to wire a house, he knows the importance of the various components in the circuit, and he knows what he can do without and what is an absolute necessity. With this level of understanding, you have enough knowledge to tinker and adapt the "recipe" of what you're doing. You can predict the likely outcomes of any changes made, you can create and improve or adapt depending on the situation. I think this is important, as it allows you to be the one that makes decisions, to be the one that causes things to happen, not be always dancing to someone else's tune.

The fourth level of knowledge, I'd say comes from actually creating knowledge. Being the person that comes up with the solution or the method. Not to say that none of the other three are less important than this one, because they all have their parts to play in society, but this one can become important when a new unsolved problem arises. Before we had mains electricity, there was no textbook with the answer at the back, somebody had to figure it all out for themselves. In reality I think the cycle of knowledge goes in the reverse order to what I put here. Somebody poses and solves a problem, they develop a method of reliably handling the problem, then they teach other people to understand it. People that don't have the time or need to understand it, but do need to use it, simply "know" it on a black box level. Scientists developed or created the ideas of mains electricity, electricians and engineers understand those ideas, the rest of us simply know how to flick a light switch.

I think one of the main problems we have in the UK state education system, is that learning is largely restricted to the first two levels, of simply recollecting facts and memorising and drilling methods. Applying a known method to an already studied type of problem is called "problem solving", which I feel stretches the definition a bit. It's more of a memory test. I think the brighter students naturally develop some of the level three actual understanding, and they really do know what they are doing and why, but I think this is the minority. I know this because I regularly teach students that barely even approach this level, and interestingly enough some of them are able to get good marks on the exam without even touching it. And I think that's precisely the cause of this, mainly that teachers are under so much time pressure to get students up to scratch, that they mindlessly drill them on methods and methods until the students can reliably reproduce them in an exam.

What's quite sad is the fourth level has been completely stripped out of the national curriculum, and I think the reason is very simple - it's extremely hard to test. In fairness, it's not that easy to teach, but it is very hard to examine. But by removing it altogether, by shirking away from that challenge, we're training a nation of people only able to follow instruction. People who, for the most part, don't really understand what they are doing or why, they simply know that they're supposed to do it. The great advances in civilisation are left to chance, the shining stars among us who, for whatever reason, are capable of going against the grain. With some of the challenges we face as a society, neglecting this problem is a severe risk to take.

(Published on 1 Feb 2016)