Why do I know this?

As you know, if you’ve been reading this drivel, Im reading Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle at the moment, currently nearing the end of volume III: The System Of The World. I’m enjoying it hugely and recommend it to anyone who has time to read a 3000 page novel in three volumes. There’s some splendid stuff in it, last night I found this:

It is better to know why you know things than simply to have things revealed to you.

I think I should adopt it as a sort of motto. I have been thinking lately that this job of teaching that I sometimes try to do has two important parts:

Helping someone to know stuff

Helping them to know **that they know** it

Its one thing to have learned the answers but what if you don’t realise that you know the answer? When a the question comes, you’ll be as good as ignorant. Sometimes the answer is there, within us, but we need to struggle to find it. Sometimes the question is asked in a way we don’t expect. Sometimes there is calculation necessary (oh, don’t talk to me about mathematics!). As you know, my students here like to be given answers: they like to have things revealed to them. Its been a struggle for me to get them to know that they know what they know. Presented with a question that requires application, they are inclined to give up before they have even started. It’s very much a matter of confidence.

Now I’m thinking it would be better, as Mr Stephenson suggests, to know not only **that** I know things, but also to know **why** I know them.

I know some things because I have experienced them for myself.

I know others because I have been given the opportunity to figure them out.

Others (quite a lot, actually) I don’t really know, but I suspect, based on observation.

Some stuff Ive been told and have chosen to trust the source.

Knowing why I know things gives me a clue about when I should doubt. Often, I think, its better to have a clue than none at all. I act as if that clue is known to me, but it might just be a guess. This is usually the case when Im trying to fix someone’s PC (no, I don’t fix PCs, so don’t ask me). In my experience of education I have been encouraged to ask my teachers “why”. Why is that so?

I think it is because it enables me to make up my own mind about whether or not to believe and also so I can go with a sense of why I **know** things to be so. This questioning of teachers is not supposed to be threatening, its not intended to cast doubt on the teacher’s authority, but to stimulate a necessary process in my mind. Without it I might know but not know why.

My experience in Kenya is that students are discouraged from doing that. Teachers are stereotyped as sources of (dogmatic) truth. The answer to “why do you know” is standard: teacher (or someone of higher authority) told me so. I find this unsatisfying both as student and as teacher.

The reason (**why**) might have to do with the fact that opportunities to experience things — one of the best ways of knowning — are lacking in this country for reasons that are aligned to the general situation of disadvantage here. Once information is second or third hand in the telling it becomes harder to deal with “why is that so” sort of questions and so those questions might be discouraged. But I doub’t if that is the full reason.

What you think?

Comments are closed.