Expert Teachers: Building Knowledge Versus Conveying Information
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we discussed the problem of being a knowledge worker in an essentially task-based education system. Teachers who are pressured into transferring information to students at a rate that supports test taking rather than knowledge building face considerable challenges. Not only does the system itself not support this approach, there are others risks to face.
Facing the Risks
What are some of the risks of knowledge work in education? All participants in the process of learning that produces new knowledge face risks of time, perceptions of success, and misunderstanding of the process. In my experience as an educator all three are difficult to face and manage but must be addressed if knowledge work is to be the outcome.
Simply put, it takes longer to build knowledge than to exchange information. That is a problem externally and internally in any course of study. There are always external pressures on teachers to cover material and test students on the material within a set period of time. But real learning, as we all know, does not necessarily fit into set time periods. Developing thinking and ongoing learning and problem-solving skills leading to new knowledge in students takes commitment to a process and a disregard for time.
Knowledge building within a relevant context of learning does require the exchange of information but must move beyond that to application quite quickly. Therefore, rather than spend all of the course time delivering information, teachers should require students to cover information but then use that information to actually learn. Students all move at an individual pace in learning, so asking students to explore and discover information for themselves is a great way to both develop thinking and study skills and use those skills to apply the information faster than if all of the information is expected to come via the teacher.
All students, even those with learning challenges, should be required to build knowledge, not just gather information. In fact, it is often an overload of information that stalls the learning process for students, not the process of learning itself.
Perceptions of Success
We live and work in a system of education that values information exchange and perceives that to be learning. Educational research has long since established the weakness of standardized testing as a record of learning. Most educators know this and have it reinforced on a daily basis as they see students progress in their learning but do not see that reflected in a final test or exam. Additionally, our system rewards teachers who transfer information to students. For example, a history teacher who covers all of the pre-set chapters in a textbook with students is perceived to have prepared students for the final test.
Is there any value assigned to the history teacher who moves students towards a mindset of applying principals learned through history to their contemporary social political mindset and participation? Is there value assigned to the teacher who produces students who are able to translate current events through the scope of historical analysis and relevant application? If not, then where is the motivation for the teacher to become a knowledge worker rather than a transmitter of facts and figures, events and happenings? While the historic facts are important, much more time and value should be assigned to the processing of those facts, the application of concepts, and the action of change that can be transformatively achieved in the student.
Misunderstanding of the Process
Most times, as an educator in higher education, I have faced students who have misunderstood their own learning process, chided me for "chaotic teaching" and grumbled about not having the teacher direction they have expected. I have also been viewed as asking too much or being a "hard" editor of papers and responses. In reality, in these cases, students have misunderstood the necessity of taking responsibility for their own learning process, making use of relevant and available information, but then working and processing that information into meaningful concepts and ideas, producing new ideas and building knowledge collectively and individually in the process. Remaining committed to the learning process and knowledge building process for each student requires running the risk of being misunderstood by students who expect something different from their teacher.
Most students have never had this kind of experience in their learning journey and think that your job as their teacher is to provide everything for them. I have even heard from students who have told me my course was their first learning experience in which they have been required to take responsibility for their own learning, apply their learning relevantly, and build new knowledge as a result. Several of my students over the years have told me that they did not appreciate the experience until much later as they then realized the skill they had developed and the level of critical thinking they had achieved. To be committed to a process means that you cannot short circuit that process for any students until they know (and students do know) that they have learned something important, relevant and useful to their own life context.
While intentionally building knowledge takes more time and intentionally than information exchange alone, true learning does not happen until students know they have learned, are able to apply what they have learned, and have gained knowledge that they will use in their life context. Freire states:
Students, as they are increasingly posed with problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasingly challenged and obliged to respond to that challenge.... Their response to the challenge evokes new challenges, followed by new understandings; and gradually the students come to regard themselves as committed. (p.75)
What is important here is that not only are students engaged in the process, but in their own solving of problems and living of life. Most teachers who are committed to the learning process, regardless of existing educational expectations and perceptions, run the risk of being called "too difficult" or "unreasonable" but who, nonetheless, remain supportive and facilitative of their students' progress in learning. We need more teachers like that; teachers who take risks.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seabury Press, NY.
Freire, A.M.A; Macedo, D. (Eds) (2000). The Paulo Freire Reader; ch. 2, "The Banking Concept of Education." The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. London, UK; Now York, USA.
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About the author: Ruth Reynard is dean of faculty for Career Education Corp. She can be reached at [email protected].
Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].
Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is a higher education consultant specializing in faculty development and instructional design. She can be reached at [email protected].