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Scholars debate the nature of knowledge

Date Released: Fri, 9 November 2012 13:00 +0200

“What is the nature of knowledge and why should we care?” was the question the four panelists from various South African and overseas institutions sought to unpack. With them, was discussant and leading thinker on the forefront of knowledge research in the world, Dr Karl Maton of the University of Sydney.

Dr Jo-Anne Vorster from Rhodes University’s Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning examined the social implications of knowledge and the ways it is used within and outside the classroom.

Explaining how social and economic factors are linked to knowledge, she asserted the need for understanding the relationship between knowledge and ‘knowers’. Distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge, Dr Vorster highlighted the hierarchical nature of knowledge. “All knowledge is social but not all knowledge is equal,” she said. Not all knowledge has the same potential to explain how the world works; some forms of knowledge have greater explanatory power than other forms. This has implications for what we choose to teach in educational institutions.

Looking specifically at knowledge in physics, Professor Delia Marshall, from the University of the Western Cape, noted how the hierarchical knowledge structure in physics is reflected in the hierarchical undergraduate physics curriculum structure, which has a certain ‘canonical’ status.

Though the curriculum is organised so that students encounter basic principles first, building up toward more complex ideas and linking concepts along the way, many students develop little sense of the unity of physics as a discipline. "They experience [physics] as unrelated bits and pieces," said Professor Marshall, pointing to the subject's high degree of 'semantic density' (the degree to which meaning is condensed in a word or symbol) as one reason for this lack of coherence in students' understanding of the discipline.

To improve access to the sciences, Professor Marshall said it was important that teaching explicitly helped students to unpack condensed meaning, to move between abstract principles and concrete particulars, and to appreciate the hierarchical nature of physics knowledge. She pointed to some international undergraduate curriculum reforms which do not solely focus on physics content, but introduce a more explicit focus on the nature of scientific inquiry and “the habits of mind, and ways of thinking and practicing of scientists”.

From the University of Cape Town, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Jenni Case, hoped to interrogate the aims of university learning. She challenged the notion that graduates must simply be able to serve in the workforce, holding that the success of a university experience is not so easily qualified.

Personal development happens through the gaining of knowledge within the university context: “The formulation of the person is through the engagement with knowledge,” she said.

Focusing on the role technology plays in the classroom was Sarah Howard from the University of Wollongong in Australia. Howard discussed the function of technology as a social equaliser and the conflicting values that arise between those who punt technology as the gateway to successful education, and individuals entrusted with educating on the ground.

Global studies found that the perceptions of maths and English teachers of what technology could accomplish didn’t resonate with what they saw as the basis of what they needed to teach in their respective subjects. Howard stressed the importance of not just expanding the use of technology but adequately “matching [it] with legitimate knowledge inside subject areas.”

Responding to the panelists, Dr Maton discussed the value of knowledge: “Knowledge is something we can plug into -- we can get more out of it than we can ever put in,” he said. The construction of knowledge is crucial however, as it possesses diverse properties and powers.

“Knowledge blindness is endemic; in the way we talk about knowledge it’s as if it’s all homogenous,” said Dr Maton. With regard to school-taught knowledge, he said studies showed that teachers were effective at presenting abstract knowledge in concrete terms, but struggled to help students think in academic and more abstract terms. If we are to improve teaching and learning it is important to recognise the importance of teachers in helping students to learn. “The internet can not replace teachers”, said Dr Maton.

Photo and story by Hailey Gaunt