On inert knowledge
Two recent incidents;
- A correspondent asked me where the "S.M.A.R.T." acronym came from. I didn't know, and that irritates me so I started to look. I still don't know the answer (suggestions welcome), although the sterling work of Mike Morrison demonstrates how hard these things are to trace. However, that is not the direct point of this post.
My investigations naturally took me back to my shelf-full of teaching textbooks, and their chapters on objectives. And since I was looking for something other than what they were intentionally about, I saw them through different eyes, through a different frame of reference.
And I found a lot of needlessly complicated distinctions without differences (frankly, I still hardly know the difference between a product and a process objective--and still less why it matters, or any evidence that it makes any difference in the real world) which serve no other purpose than to create "inert knowledge"* to be rote learned and tested as a proxy for practical proficiency which is so much more difficult to capture.
- And a couple of days ago I did a brief session on referencing (podcast version here) in which I tried hard to stick with the principles and to play down the arbitrary elaborations of the rules. One student saw through this and asked why there were so many variants. I explained it in terms of the petty power of journals to dictate their own citation styles.
"These people ought to get a life!" she declared. I replied, "They think they have."
I'm not mentioning this merely because it is a rare example of me aspiring to an approximation to repartee, but because it illustrates what happens to fairly straightforward ideas when they get elaborated by those who have a vested interest in making them seem as complicated (or profound, as possible--after all, it's the same thing, isn't it? Isn't it?).
Alongside this, the actual knowledge itself, which probably started out as being quite useful, is rendered inert and dogmatic.(See Peddiwell, 1939)
This is certainly the case in teaching, where the allocation of hours on teacher education courses no longer exhibits even the most tenuous connection with the significance or utility of what is being taught (and the practice of teaching modelled by the teacher trainers is not always up to the effective standard.)
But it has also become the case in relation to written expression--see this blog post on the deadening effect of arbitrary rules such as;
...The first paragraph of this essay contained five sentences, some run-on. The second paragraph of this essay was made up of only one sentence. It is my understanding that in many American High schools, this concise, accurate, and very clear one sentence paragraph would not be allowed in any student wiring (in English class or Science class) because it breaks a rule. The rule is that a paragraph has five or more sentences. WTF?.There are various ways in which one might profitably "reflect" on this, from spluttering exasperation to a consideration of how it illustrates the perverse consequences of a "restrictive solution"... but all of them are likely to lead to the conclusion that the supposed "knowledge base" of a discipline has totally lost touch with practice.
I find this rule to be profoundly disturbing. [...] it does symbolize much of what is wrong about our system of education in general. This rule solves a problem (students not thinking enough about what they are writing) and in the process ruins the teaching of good communication. Similar arbitrary and capricious rule making plagues each area of our educational system.
I've touched on this before, from a slightly different angle (here).
There are a few more stages to this argument, but a blog post is not an article so I'll return to them later....
* Perkins D (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in J H F Meyer and R Land (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge London; Routledge.