On Knowledge

Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.- Samuel Johnson

I think too often our students are so focused on the first type of knowledge that they forget to cultivate knowledge of the second type. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to teach a high school student how to use a book’s table of contents and index to find information they either don’t know or have forgotten. Part of that, though, is that even once I’ve convinced the student to use these two useful resources, they get hung up because they don’t know the proper names for what they’re looking up.

My poor students know neither a subject or where to find information on it. They go to Google, type in their own wording for the topic (which may be nowhere near what they actually are studying), and then follow the first Wikipedia link they see. Several minutes later, they’re frustrated because they can’t find what they need. When I then show them how to use their textbook to help them find their information, they decide that’s too much work, even if it gives them the information they need more quickly than their fruitless web search.

Our students need to learn subjects. It’s one thing to be able to do the work. It’s quite another to be able to describe the processes and concepts involved in that work in the correct terminology.

Our students need to learn how to research, how to identify resources. They need to understand what makes a resource worth using and how to frame their queries.

Without one or the other, these students are going to flounder once they’re left to their own devices in college and beyond.


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