I had a wonderful meandering conversation recently with Co-op Cat, Scott Nine. We shared ideas and thoughts on a wide range of topics. But one has really stuck with me: “maybe we should be less focused on knowing and more focused on learning.” Our educational system and our culture as a whole has seriously privileged knowledge. To know things, to have knowledge of facts and to possess skills these are the goals, aren’t they? That is why we teach at, and lecture to, and test and test and test. Do the kids know the material yet? What do they know?
The more I think about it, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, knowing is less and less interesting to me. It seems that to claim “knowledge” of something is to end a process, the process of learning and growth. Some things we strive to learn are indeed arrived at via short straight paths. I want to know the state capitals, my multiplication facts, how to spell “conundrum,” how to tie my shoelace, e.g. So I memorize and I practice. It’s easy and relatively quick. I gain confidence and self esteem and a false sense of my own worth. I know stuff. But, in general, the things anyone can claim to know are either of little value (easily Googled facts) or else they are fleeting and illusory or simply not “true,” but rather represent a single perspective (“I know that Columbus discovered America.”)
In contrast, those things that I am learning, these are things that are worthwhile and will demand my deep engagement and sustained attention. Things that I don’t yet know (and may never know) often locate me somewhere along a very long and winding road towards something like…where? Wisdom? – Perhaps these paths are infinitely long, with many forks, obstacles and side roads. In many cases it seems that the more elusive the final endpoint is, the more intriguing, engaging and compelling is the journey.
Since Scott and I talked last weekend, I have become somewhat obsessed with this concept. So much so that I have shared this dialogue with my amazing class of eleven 9-12 year-old students: “So, for the moment, let’s try to forget about what you “know” or “don’t know,” I said yesterday. “Instead tell me what you think you are learning.”
It took a while for the kids to join me on this ride. We had to explore these words for a while. But what they came up with, as I scribbled furiously in my notebook was awesome. Here’s a taste:
I am learning to listen to people who are younger than me and take them seriously.
I am learning how to handle my worries and fears.
I am learning to keep trying when I don’t get something right away.
I am learning to carry peace with me in my heart wherever I go.
I am learning to trust… other people and myself , too.
I am learning when to be loud and when to be quiet.
I am learning how to listen to my body.
I am learning patience.
Wow! Okay, these examples were definitely highlights, and it is an edited list for sure, but aren’t these gems? And in each case is this not something worthy of the long and arduous learning journey?
I love the idea of valuing learning because you can be anywhere along the path, just starting out, or almost there, and you are still learning. As long as you are on the path, you are not at risk of “failure.” The work is just as valuable anywhere en route. Some of these outcomes, which the kids expressed above, will never be fully achieved or attained. That’s why they’re so hard to measure and assess, but that’s also part of their intrinsic and inherent value. It is not a reason to shunt them aside as our school system does far too often. Rather the journeys that involve this kind off learning are what give life meaning. We need to join kids on the path to exploring big questions and concepts and realize that what kids know or don’t know may be of some interest at times, but it is not what education “is for.”
Can we imagine an educational system that values learning more and knowing less? What would it look like? And what are you learning? I’d love to hear.