I’m sure that some readers who my be otherwise sympathetic to the arguments I advance about making children cleverer will take issue with some of the points I make in this chapter, particularly as I side step some of the thorniest philosophical debates about what precisely constitutes knowledge. Clearly I’d prefer what children know to be composed entirely of justified true beliefs, but sadly our brains are as full of misconceptions, confusions and falsehoods as they are anything else. Knowledge is, in this view, structured collections of information acquired through perception or reasoning. It doesn’t have to be justified, or true, or even necessarily believed; it just has to be stored in the repository of our long-term memory.
I draw a distinction between information, which exists externally to us, and knowledge which is a function of living tissue – the product of what we know. I make clear that knowledge – whatever you think it is – is far more than facts. Instead, knowledge is both what we think with and about. As some memories are declarative, some knowledge is explicit and just as many of the things we’ve stored in memory are non-declarative, so much of what we know is tacit. But just because we don’t know we know a thing, doesn’t mean that possessing that knowledge does not shape the way we think. This may sound confused and confusing and I spend some time offering various concrete examples of how this works.
Most of the rest of the chapter is spent trying to resolve two unhelpful dichotomies: knowledge vs understanding and knowledge vs skills.
In trying to iron out the inconsistencies between the way people generally think about knowledge as opposed to understanding I make use of Daniel Willingham’s idea of flexible and inflexible knowledge; that knowing something inflexibly has limited utility but as we build upon and re-encounter inflexible knowledge it becomes increasingly flexible and able to be applied across a broadening range of contexts.
Skill – or procedural knowledge – is, contrary to the experience of anyone who possesses any degree of skill in a particular procedure, made up of many thousands of discretely learned items of propositional knowledge. We consider a range of different skills and show how each is composed of knowledge that has been blended together to the point that it becomes invisible to the skilled.
The point of trying to resolve these two tensions is that I believe trying to equip children with the where with all to become cleverer is infinitely easier if we understand that we can only directly teach propositional knowledge. Procedural expertise is only acquired through practise once the basic have been learned and tacit knowledge, upon with expertise depends, cannot be directly stated in ways that make sense to novices. If our aim is genuinely to improve children’s life chance by making them cleverer then we must know what to explain, what to practise and what to observe over children’s shoulders and say, “That‘s what I meant!”
The remainder of the chapter is spent on showing how knowing more changes and improves our ability to think, learn and perceive the world as well as the consequences of not knowing stuff.