Why Knowledge Is A Necessary But Not Sufficient Educational Outcome

Dec 1, 2023 | Shift, Teaching

Why Knowledge Is A Necessary But Not Sufficient Educational Outcome

by Drew Perkins, Director of ThoughtStretchers Education

First things first, I’d like to make one thing clear, knowledge is important. As an educational outcome, it is really important for a variety of reasons. That said, the range and spectrum of desirable and vital educational experiences and outcomes include but cannot be limited to the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge if we’re looking to prepare students for the modern world. Doing so is like placing a glass ceiling on the potential of students where they might demonstrate success in limited academic terms and simple quantifiable metrics but will lack the tools for growing into lifelong prosperity.

Why Knowlege Is Important

One of the common refrains of those who advocate against teaching approaches that might be labeled as more progressive, constructivist, or inquiry-based, is that students can’t think critically or ask great questions about that which they have little knowledge of. They’re 100% right. One has to have grist for the mill. I’m also sympathetic to the argument for the value of shared knowledge put forth by folks like E.D. Hirsch:

“A nation, to become a people, needs to insist on creating a public sphere with shared knowledge that unifies its population and enables its members to work together, communicate effectively with one another, and fell loyalty to one another,” – Hirsch, E. D. How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation. HarperCollins, 2021.

It’s often claimed that knowledge is power and while I’d quibble that understanding and being able to apply knowledge is power, there’s no doubt that adults lacking in knowledge, whether general or specific to their roles as parents, partners, or employees, are likely to struggle for success and effectiveness in those roles.

Knowledge can be categorized into various types based on different criteria. This infographic illustrates some common classifications but it’s important to understand that these categories are not mutually exclusive, and knowledge often falls into multiple types simultaneously. The nature and classification of knowledge can vary depending on the context and the perspective from which it is examined.

One useful way to think about knowledge in an educational context is language from John Hattie’s Visible Learning Model of learning in which he describes the three phases of learning as “knowing-that, knowing-how, and knowing-with”. These correspond to surface, deep, and transfer learning which, he notes, seems to imply an order but “surface and deep learning can be accomplished simultaneously” (Hattie 345).

Why Knowledge Is Not Sufficient

In the spectrum of desirable educational outcomes and purposes for school and education, there is a wide range of things that will empower students to succeed in life. Yes, knowledge is one of those things but so too are the abilities to do things with and extend that knowledge, to think critically, know how to learn, and problem-solve by framing and engaging through inquiry and curiosity.

There are other traits, characteristics, and abilities that could be added to this but the point is, that an overly narrow focus on knowledge-building creates a possible opportunity cost for students that includes, but isn’t limited to, an inability to find knowledge without the aid of a teacher as they will surely need to do as adults.

Balancing Surface, Deep, and Transfer 

One of the keys to teaching with intent is determining desired educational outcomes and their success criteria. Most of the time students will need significant surface knowledge to be able to move to deep and transfer learning and we should not be dismissive of the importance of scaffolding and assessing using principles of direct/explicit instruction. Not doing so appropriately is a valid criticism of constructivist/inquiry approaches in general.

To be fair, I don’t think most of those critics would actually articulate an advocacy for a knowledge-only approach but so much of their messaging focuses on things like knowledge acquisition, changes in long-term memory, and efficiency in mastery that it’s easy to perceive it that way. It doesn’t help that they tend to consistently criticize anything outside of direct/explicit instruction as ineffective and bad for kids. Usually that includes a conflation of unguided discovery learning with all inquiry and constructivist approaches but effective inquiry based learning includes loads of knowledge and effective guidance and scaffolding, often including direct/explicit instruction.

In our project based learning workshops we emphasize appropriate scaffolding and assessment as part of the 5 phases of PBL and in our inquiry professional learning we ask teachers to consider research-based criteria for when and where inquiry is appropriate.

While there are a multitude of good reasons for the inclusion of significant knowledge-building in our teaching and learning the ability to do well at Jeopardy isn’t one that’s compelling enough to make it our only goal. Sadly, it seems this issue has fallen into the familiar trap of tribalism where the Us v. Them dynamic creates defensiveness and fragility about each side’s ideas and ‘thought leaders’. A more productive approach is to have conversations that look for the complexity and nuance in determining what works best and that’s just what we’re hoping for in our ThoughtStretchers Community.

Growing students with the ability to think deeply and use inquiry and critical thinking skills is arguably increasingly more important with each passing day. In fact, I’d argue that improving our use of inquiry is an important piece in reducing polarization. It’s not really that people lack a basic knowledge and understanding of civics, too many of us have our own versions of knowledge, but more of a deficit in our ability to engage beyond ‘knowing that’ surface knowledge to using the inquiry and critical thinking skills that come from an educational experience that includes a focus on deep and transfer learning.

So let’s focus on teaching with intent by including, not excluding, a variety of teaching methods that are aimed at a wider spectrum of desirable academic outcomes than merely the acquisition of knowledge. Not being tied into a limited view of what education can and should deliver and developing our skillsets as educators is what will best serve our students to be well-prepared for the modern world.

Hattie, John. “12.” Visible Learning, the Sequel a Synthesis of over 2,100 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2023.



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