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Mondays with Miss Mason–On Knowledge vs. Information

February 21, 2011

Note: this post is part of an ongoing series. For more information on Charlotte Mason and Mondays with Miss Mason, please read the first post.

From School Education, Part XX:

Knowledge versus Information.––The distinction between knowledge and information is, I think, fundamental. Information is the record of facts, experiences, appearances, etc., whether in books or in the verbal memory of the individual; knowledge, it seems to me, implies the result of the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it. Great minds, a Darwin or a Plato, are able to deal at first hand with appearances or experiences; the ordinary mind gets a little of its knowledge by such direct dealing, but for the most part it is set in action by the vivifying knowledge of others, which is at the same time a stimulus and a point of departure. The information acquired in the course of education is only by chance, and here and there, of practical value. Knowledge, on the other hand, that is, the product of the vital action of the mind on the material presented to it, is power; as it implies an increase of intellectual aptitude in new directions, and an always new point of departure.

Perhaps the chief function of a teacher is to distinguish information from knowledge in the acquisitions of his pupils. Because knowledge is power, the child who has got knowledge will certainly show power in dealing with it. He will recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words. The child who has got only information will write and speak in the stereotyped phrases of his text-book, or will mangle in his notes the words of his teacher. (emphasis mine)

This week’s historic competition of IBM’s supercomputer Watson vs. two past Jeopardy champions puts Miss Mason’s words on the subject into a new light.

It is easy for a computer to acquire information. It is not so easy for one to assimilate the nuances of human language. However, with all its programmers’ accomplishments, did Watson reflect true knowledge?

More importantly, are we asking our students to reflect the attainment of knowledge or of merely information?

Are we asking them to “recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words” or are we asking them to spit back pre-chewed information?

If it is the latter, then we should not be surprised that they grow up to be unable to gather knowledge for themselves or to express it eloquently or clearly.  If all they have ever really been asked to do is parrot back the same information they were given to prove the “size of their mental hard drives,” then we can’t fault them for being unable to synthesize and draw connections on their own.

Unfortunately, synthesis and narration take time. They don’t test easily.  They can be measured, but not with the same yardsticks the Department of Education chooses to use these days. Fortunately there are a number of good teachers out there pushing on with deeper learning, but even they are fighting uphill as the testing mandate continues on.  I’m still at the beginning of our family’s education journey, but I hope I can keep Miss Mason’s ideas in view.

Of course, to get knowledge you have to be acquainting them with living books and living ideas but that is for another day.

BTW if you are feeling worried about Watson’s win and what it means for humanity, you might take comfort here.

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