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    The Nature of Knowledge and Freedom

    June 7, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I received a comment yesterday on an old post, Spelling for Freedom. This post has been getting a lot of hits lately because it’s been linked by the author on his website and Facebook page, etc. I love comments. I especially love comments where I both agree and disagree with the commented. This gives us enough common ground to have a conversation, while also granting the opportunity for thinking through an issue.

    And you know how I feel about thinking…

    If you haven’t read my Spelling for Freedom post, it is basically me raving about our spelling book {wow…no wonder my husband calls me a nerd}, Sequential Spelling. This method of spelling uses word families as the common theme of instruction, rather than giving children lists of disconnected words that are “grade appropriate.” This means that a child will start with a root family–let’s use as an example, the “eat” sound. So maybe on the first day the child will spell eat, seat, meat, and beat. Then, in the days following, the child will learn to spell the various conjugations and tenses of the verbs {eating, eaten, seating, seated}, pluralities of the nouns {meats, seats}, and other variations of these roots, adding prefixes and suffixes as appropriate. The child will learn that any word which contains the root sound eat is likely spelled according to these patterns.

    In many ways, this is a backdoor to phonics. And any time a child is being taught to see the patterns in the language he is learning {if the language is inflected}, he is being helped along the road to language mastery.

    A Comment

    The comment I received yesterday was a bit mysterious to me in that I wasn’t quite sure whether the commenter agreed with me or not. However, the {anonymous} commenter presented one of the mainstream views on education and the nature of knowledge, and so I decided to use the occasion as a jumping-off point for this post. Here is the comment:

    All true knowledge is experience and everything else is just information. This is not to say that we do not need good information, of course we do. All kids and adults have their own best learning styles: listening, seeing, etc. but all learn better by Doing. You learn by doing. This is especially true for arithmetic. If you are homeschooling or teaching at all, you should Never Let a Kid use a Mechanical or Electronic Device such as a Calculator or Computer as a Learning Tool. After they have achieved 8th grade competencies in reading, writing and aritmetic [sic], then give them computers and calculators as Tools but Do Not Let the Calculators and Computers Become their Teachers as the Computers and Calculators Do the Work with the kid never understanding the Concepts. By doing Math on Paper and learning the rules, a kids mind is being programmed and his rational brain and logic is being developed. If you side track this with a calculator or computer, the child’s rational brain and reasoning abilities will not be well developed.

    I agree with the conclusion: we don’t allow tools to replace the building of skills and the exertion of mental effort in our home education. However, I’m going to now walk through the major ideas in this comment in order to illustrate just where Charlotte Mason’s method of Classical Education {and don’t let anyone tell you she isn’t classical!} parts ways with this comment.

     All true knowledge is experience and everything else is just information.

    This is a popular thing to say in our culture, for a variety of reasons that I will not explore here. What we really need to discuss is the fact that this is not true, and how we can know this to be so. In 1828 Noah Webster devised the first American English dictionary. In it, he defined knowledge thus:

    KNOWL’EDGE, n. nol’lej.

    A clear and certain perception of that which exists, or of truth and fact; the perception of the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of our ideas.

    Webster himself explains that knowledge is chiefly gained through experience and observation {though it is debatable whether those two words meant precisely what they mean today, at least in the implications of the words}, but there is an important distinction between knowledge being gained by experience, and knowledge being experience. Even modern dictionaries will state that knowledge deals with understanding or perceiving truths and facts.

    Therefore, calling something “true knowledge” is redundant, for knowledge implies that one’s mind has been submitted and conformed to truth. There is no such thing as “false knowledge,” though we do use the word misunderstanding for a reason.

    Reading, sitting under tutelage, divine revelation, observation, and experience are all means of refining our understanding of reality {i.e., gaining knowledge}, but no single item on this list can or ought to be singled out as being equal to knowledge itself. Knowledge, in other words, is not equivalent to any single means of acquiring it.

    Incidentally, information is not a bad thing, nor even really a lesser thing. Rather, information is particular knowledge, usually pertaining to sensual facts {i.e., facts that can be verified using the five senses}. Information alone tends to be a dead thing–we talk about “cold facts”–and is therefore insufficient if one wishes to offer students a living education. But education without information, devoid of any specific facts, is an impossibility.

    All kids and adults have their own best learning styles: listening, seeing, etc. but all learn better by Doing. You learn by doing. This is especially true for arithmetic.

    I have two thoughts on this.

    First, do you know one of the most remarkable, wonderful things about Charlotte Mason? Instead of deciding that each child had their “preferred learning style,” she looked at the nature of the thing at hand. She sought out the best means for everyone to learn whatever it was. She did this by, among other things, studying the best–those who were masters of something. How did they master it? she asked. When she discovered the answer, she was on the way to discerning how something ought to be taught.

    I wish I could remember which of her many volumes I read this in! Then I could offer a nice, long, Victorian quote.

    Suffice it to say that Mason {and others before her–she was the voice of classical education in the Victorian era, and it has had many voices prior} asked the question: How ought this to be taught?

    Our friend declares that we “learn by doing.” This is true in a limited sense. My son and I recently learned to tie a series of knots. We read about them in a book, yes, but we did not know how to tie the knots until we tied them. We practiced tying them until we were good at it.

    Knot tying is a skill. Skills are important, necessary even.

    However, comma.

    Skills are not the foundation of a liberal {liberating} education.

    Current educational philosophies focus on skills. Skills can be tested and measured. Skills can be taught by doing {which comes in handy}.

    If we intend to build a humane, virtuous culture, we {1} must not focus on skills and {2} must use something other than doing as a primary mode of instruction.

    But first, let’s ask the question: Is math taught by doing? This is an important question, because math is not a skill {though calculating is}, and arithmetic is one of the seven liberal arts. The Circe Institute defines arithmetic as “the art that learns of the properties of numbers.” Calculating is a part of math, yes, and memorization of basic calculations can be accomplished through doing the calculations {i.e., adding 2+4 until the student has memorized that 6 is the result}, but adding over and over and over will not necessarily bring the student to the point of having an understanding of the properties of numbers.

    This is why, in doing math with youngsters, we always use manipulatives. Numbers are symbols representing quantities. That, my friends, is the first rule of math. Without manipulatives, only the brightest child will ever grasp this. So we see that arithmetic is not merely learned by doing {computation}, but by observing objects in the real world.

    Incidentally, higher math can also be learned by watching someone else solve a problem. I know this because this is how I learned a lot of math as a teenager. And the higher forms of math are often learned by…reading.

    When we say that all that we can know is experience, and that everything that is truly learned is learned by doing, we are requiring every single student to reinvent the metaphorical wheel. We can think about this in regard to studying science. Do we really need to do every science experiment carried out by mankind in order to study and know science? Absolutely not! The best students will be able to read scientific papers and books, understanding them and gaining knowledge through what someone else has done.

    This is how science has progressed through the centuries. Einstein read Newton who read Pythagoras and Euclid. Kepler read Pythagoras as well. My point is that the greats didn’t rely solely on experiment {the doing}. Rather, they possessed the ability to read with understanding, and they read the best works produced by mankind.

    If learning comes only from doing, books are pointless. Teachers are pointless. Sitting and thinking is…pointless.

    How a Spelling Curriculum Might Liberate

    My point in my original post was that our spelling program was uniquely liberating compared to other programs I had seen. The reason for this was that it didn’t just teach the child to spell “ate” but helped him to master the language in such a way that he could use what he knows to spell “liberate” even if he’d never been taught to spell the word.

    In other words, the students are not learning spelling by doing. They are being taught the logic of spelling so that they can become intuitive spellers. They are being taught to understand the language and use it with confidence. In this way, the spelling curriculum is freeing them. Pattern teaching means that the student does not need a teacher, nor does he need to have memorized a list, in order to tackle a new word.

    Regular spelling {weekly lists and quizzes} might open the door for a student, but pattern-based spelling gives the child the key and teaches him to open the door on his own. This is liberation–it produces a level of mental independence.

    There is a similar rationale behind phonics, where the student doesn’t need a teacher with a flashcard in order to know how to read a word. Because the student has grasped the logic of the language, he can discern new words without assistance.

    Summer Reading Project

    All of this reminds me of how little I know, and how much I want to learn before summer is over! Besides preparing for Year Three {and the accompanying new level of independence I’m going to expect of my son}, I also have A. beginning Year Zero. I read a volume of Mason before commencing with E.’s education, but I find that I have a deep desire to studying again, and do even more with A. The reason for this? Every day, I am becoming more convinced of the value of a liberating education.

    So here is my study plan {in random order}:

    Do you have a study plan for summer?

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  • Reply cglann June 9, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    I am thinking of experience in this way: We experience all things just by being introduced to them. When I am learning a new concept, I am experiencing it. When I counsel a student that is in a situation that I have not encountered myself, I am experiencing it through her/him and her/his sharing of it. I suppose there are different degrees of experience, but we are experiencing a multitude of things each and every day. How much we delve into the experience will determine the knowledge we gain from it. Watching a caterpillar crawl is an experience and if I continue to watch it I can gain knowledge of how it moves, its physical characteristics, etc. I can also get a book and learn even more about caterpillars. On the other hand, I don’t have to actually see the caterpillar in real life to experience it. I can experience it through a book or a website, for example. I may not know how one truly feels to the touch, but with the descriptions given, I will have a pretty good idea. The only thing missing in this is the tactile part of learning, but we can find things around us that might feel like a caterpillar would if touched. I don’t actually have to touch one to know how it feels on my skin. The imagination is a powerful thing and I can imagine what it feels like. So “experiential” learning is not a total necessity in all matters of learning. But I do have to say, that including all types of learning does help students to more fully understand and retain what they are learning in many instances.
    Also, in the Teaching for Understanding philosophy, it has been proven that in teaching this way, children are able to reach mastery because they DO understand. It is so exciting for them when things click and they get it!

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts June 9, 2010 at 4:37 pm


    Thanks for your comment! I completely identify with being able to perform the functions (like calculations) without understanding why or how it works–or why it even matters. I like to refer to this as the “trick pony” approach to students. I’ve seen this in music. There is pressure put on the teacher to make the child perform, in this case make a pleasing sound on the chosen instrument. So the teacher teaches the child to do just that, and even read music. But they don’t teach the instrument, and so the student doesn’t really understand the instrument or why it works. They don’t understand the mathematical ratios involved in making the instrument work. Etc.

    It’s funny though because I think that when we teach for mastery the students appear slower in the beginning, but actually exceed expectations in the end. So if we withheld judgment until children were closer to graduation, we might be more pleased! 🙂

    I completely believe, by the way, that you can differentiate between the need for some experiences in education and experience being the total of education. However, I’ve met a number of folks who sincerely believe that all knowledge is experience, and extrapolate this philosophy to all areas of life, and so I approached the comment this way.

    I didn’t get into this in the post, but one of the reasons I’m so adverse to this belief is that it breaks down community. If knowledge = experience in an absolute, mathematical sense, then I am completely isolated from others. I can only know what I know, and no one can know me, nor understand me. I have come across this when folks have experienced something traumatic, and they push others away because the belief is that they have no knowledge because they haven’t experienced the exact same thing. We see in Scripture that this is false. Jesus, though he was sinless, has a complete ability to sympathize with us because he was human and experienced a type of humanity that is common to all men. We are told that our temptations are nothing but what are (again) common to mankind. Now, granted, a person with very little life experience at all is not the best sympathizer, but I have seen this taken to such an extreme that, for instance, someone believes that only people who have cancer can understand other people who have cancer, instead of the more reasonable position to hold, which is that we can understand each other, because most of us have been ill. Most of us have suffered loss. Most of us have tasted grief.

    Our epistemology transcends the classroom, and so we must be careful how we define it, which is why I addressed it in the post.

    ps. I am so glad to hear there is such a thing as algebra tiles! I had no idea they made manipulatives for that, but I am thrilled! 🙂

  • Reply cglann June 9, 2010 at 8:33 am

    I also have to commend you as I have been trying to get teachers to understand the benefits of using manipulatives in math at all grade levels. There are algebra tiles, fraction pies and tiles, geometric manipulatives, etc. that are of great help to students in learning and understanding math. The only time a calculator is allowed to be used is if the student is a special needs student and has an IEP that has determined the need for a calculator or in the higher grades where a calculator is required in order to do the more intricate math problems. I agree that some of the tools we have available really shouldn’t be used in the earlier grades. However, there are some websites that are great for practicing math skills and playing math games that actually enhance the learning experience. You just don’t allow the use of a calculator but scratch paper and a pencil!! I could go on and on about this!!

  • Reply cglann June 9, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Hi, Brandy
    You always amaze me with your knowledge and how you so clearly can explain your position. With that being said, I am thinking the comment you responded to was made by someone who understands the need for experiential learning. What I have learned in serving the schools here in Iowa is that differentiation is necessary in order to teach all students in a classroom. There are several ways that students learn, those being auditorily, visually, or experientially aka kinestetic/tactile. And, it will most often be a combination of these with one way being primary. In differentiation, the teacher would use a multimodal approach in the classroom by teaching using all of the above learning styles/methods in order to more successfully teach ALL students in the classroom. Statistics do show that individuals do have a particular learning style that is primary and then there are secondary ones. I think what is missing in all of this is that they are teaching for learning, so to speak, and NOT teaching for understanding. I can remember times in school where I knew the method to use to get a correct answer, would use it since I had it memorized, but did not understand it, why it worked. This was especially true in math. I was even told not to worry about understanding it, just memorize the formulas and use the correct ones to get the correct answers. What I have found, and many others who teach workshops on Teaching for Understanding, is that students (including me when I was in college) become afraid of certain subjects BECAUSE they do NOT understand the concepts behind what they are being taught to use to get the results needed. Then they can just shut down altogether and end up hating the subject and quit trying to learn it. What we have learned is that teaching for understanding will empower the student to feel confident in what he/she is learning (the knowledge), not be afraid of certain subjects and the challenges they may present, and enjoy learning much more because they are more successful. You can find all sorts of “Learning Styles” surveys on the web as they are used widely in determining how a student learns, provides the teacher with data to use to set up differentiation and multimodal teaching in the classroom, and aid in meeting the needs of all students in the learning environment. Setting students up for success is a priority, which requires teaching for understanding. The learning styles surveys are part of understanding how the brain learns, and that can sometimes be a challenge for educators. For instance, a child’s brain learns differently if the child has a learning disability and they way their brain processes information has to be understood in order to meet their learning needs. I have ordered a book on this subject and have read articles on the LD site on this. I hope this adds to your recent post and maybe helps to clarify the comment on the “doing” part of education. I agree that not all experiments, for instance, need to be replicated to understand them, but when it comes to understanding a certain concept or area, it can certainly help to perform it, i.e. Physical Science, which is currently confusing many students in the high schools I serve and has become a class that many are failing because just lecturing does not cut it.

  • Reply Rahime June 8, 2010 at 8:16 am

    I can’t begin to tell you how much of this I agree with….the saying that all real knowledge comes from “experience” or “doing” has always made me cringe.

    Excellent post.

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