Know-How, Know-That, and Know-Who

April 21st, 2015

There is a new report, with the snazzy title Documenting and Assessing Learning in Informal and Media-Rich Environments, that is an important resource for informal STEM education. It reframes how we conceptualize learning in informal environments, and is a must-read for those working in, or interested in our field.

For example: It was universally agreed in our expert panels and extensively illustrated in the research literature that simple declarative knowledge is only one valued outcome of learning and is too often overemphasized in assessment designs to the exclusion or marginalization of other equally or more important outcomes.

The authors (leading scholars in human development and learning) describe four types of meaningful outcomes for learning in informal environments, and demonstrate with concrete examples how they can be measured across three levels (the individual, the group, and the project). Learning, the authors argue, manifests itself in:

1. Increasing comfort with, and the ability to conduct, independent inquiry across a widening range of domains, including evaluating sources and contributions.
2. Improving the ability to learn and act collaboratively, including a relevant understanding of and support for learning partners.
3. Improving the quality of products, including the ability to critically reflect on the quality of one’s own and others’ productions.
4. Increasing the range of social resources and networking to achieve goals.

These outcomes describe a learner who is alive, engaged, and productively participating in the world. Declarative knowledge (e.g. the repetition of learned facts), on this view, is a tool for taking meaningful action. Clearly these outcomes are pertinent not only to learning in informal environments but to learning writ large, including in school and in everyday activities. Simple factual recall observed at a given moment or in a short timeframe, they write, may constitute “transitory phenomena, artificially produced by the procedure used to measure them.” Assessments that measure this type of outcome have been demonstrated to lead to teaching-to-the-test. Moreover, they don’t mean much.

The central point of the report, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is that real knowledge (as opposed to temporal recall) is working knowledge. “The learning that matters is learning that is used,” the authors write. One needs to “know” things to achieve the 4 outcomes listed above, but the opposite is not true: One doesn’t need to be able to do things in the world to reproduce isolated bits of knowledge. All of which raises the question, what are we aiming for?

These outcomes are not just another random list, but rather deeply rooted in almost a century’s work in research and theory in human learning and development. There are many useful definitions and ideas in this short report. It describes the importance not only of Know-How but also of Know-Who, the latter meaning knowledge of the social relationships and networks that are relevant to taking the next steps in one’s learning or activity. This distinction is critical for our work, especially with young people from communities underrepresented in STEM fields. Another refreshing observation the authors make is about the inherent unpredictability of learning in informal environments:

Overall, because of the flexibility involved … many significant learning outcomes may be unpredictable in advance of the learner’s participation in the central activities undertaken in nonformal environments.

The report takes one false step, in my opinion, which is to unnecessarily divide learning into cognitive and socio-emotional dimensions. While the authors acknowledge that both are intertwined in learning, in my experience once you have split the atom, the genie is out of the bottle. This isn’t my idea (Google tells me I can’t even claim the mixed metaphor): the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, writing at the beginning of the last century, described in his “germ cell theory” that you can only reduce a subject of study to the smallest unit that still represents the whole. Once you split it into parts smaller than the whole, the subject of study has become a different phenomenon. I would argue that treating human experience mechanistically, as if we cogitate independent of emotion, or emote independent of thinking (when human brilliance as well as blindness are related to the fact that we never do either of these in isolation), leads us to false understandings. This is a ripe subject for another report.

Meanwhile, read this report. Written by Jay Lemke, Robert Lecusay, Michael Cole, and Vera Michalchik, it provides useful definitions, reframes the big issues we are tackling, and provides powerful insights for our field.