When my son was just two years old he considered any shape with four sides to be a square and any shape that looks like an “O” was called a circle, he was not only confident of his answers, but looked for a reward for getting it “right”. As parents, we just wanted to encourage him to keep thinking about shapes and hoped that he’d see the difference soon enough. His perception of shapes was quickly changed during playing, when his knowledge of shapes needed to be applied.
Who decides what valuable knowledge is?
The idea that knowledge has value is ancient. In the 1st century AD, Juvenal (55-130) stated “All wish to know but none wish to pay the price. In 1775, Samuel Johnson wrote: “All knowledge is, of itself of some value.” Not undermining the value of knowledge, Albert Einstein found that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
In understanding the value in knowledge we must also know that not all knowledge is good/useful and necessary, and as developed by Frederick Taylor, the theory of scientific management, which ensures that economic efficiency was of paramount importance and was maintained, we see that knowledge can indeed be useless, and sometimes just not needed.
Another important concept put forward by Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed describes banking education as “fundamentally narrative (in) character”, p.57, with the teacher as the Subject (that is, the active participant) and the students as passive objects.”
Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.
Education is thus seen as a process of depositing knowledge into passive students. Teachers are the epistemological authority in this system; students’ pre-existing knowledge is ignored, aside from what was expected to be ‘deposited’ into them earlier.
These theories all have one thing in common; that I believe might even be common in most societies today, a system deciding what knowledge is useful, what knowledge is needed or what knowledge is good. With this standard in mind, one cannot independently generate new knowledge, to be implemented into our society, without the systems’ consent.
The importance of prior knowledge
Consider what happens when children learn about fractions for the first time. Many children have trouble accepting the fact that one-fourth is larger than one-eighth because according to their previous knowledge, eight is larger than four (Natl. Research Council, p.15). In chapter 1 of How learning works, Ambrose, et al discussed the importance of teachers to recognize that students bring with them prior knowledge acquired naturally through daily life activities or in prior courses they have studied. The authors when on discussing the relevancy of the prior knowledge the student might bring.
Serious misconceptions/ inaccurate understanding of key principles can affect what the student learns next, as in the example above, a student knows that 2<1, but if you add that 1 above the 2 (1/2) it suddenly becomes less than 1. Ambrose et al emphasized the importance of connecting the prior knowledge with new knowledge in order for effective learning to take place.
In his report Robert J. Marzano said “…although it is true that the extent to which students will learn this new content is dependent on factors such as the skill of the teacher, the interest of the student, and the complexity of the content, the research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.” Ambrose et al emphasized the importance of connecting the prior knowledge with the new knowledge in order for effective learning to take place.
I believe the importance lies in skilfully leading a student to access prior knowledge and to show the important connection of gaining new knowledge for future use. In the case of my son, well, let’s just say that he figured out that a rectangle, diamond and a square are different shapes and are generally used for different reasons. Teaching him where these shapes can be used has created a learning opportunity for “Lego Building”.
Freire, P. (1986). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.
Washington: Natl. Acad., 2000.