Knowledge is created, not communicated

I love this phrase. It refers to the paradigm shift first proposed by Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) in 1968. He said that traditional pedagogy treats people like empty vessels to be filled with knowledge (the “banking” approach to education) and he called for an approach that treats the learner as a co-creator of knowledge. The book influenced a lot of adult education (‘andragogy’) practitioners.

I’m a big fan of adult learning expert Stephen Brookfield, whose great books explain why this is so important and how to put this into practice. One of his books made me change careers. Brookfield takes his role as a ‘guide on the side’ (as opposed to ‘sage on stage’) very seriously. The goal is always to empower people to make a difference. His techniques focus on facilitating groups that create knowledge together while they learn new skills.

The most important learning in our organisations is the learning that enables people to make a difference. Yet, typical e-learning doesn’t empower people. It’s often watered down to compliance or awareness instead. This is a considerable problem because it means not much is achieved with most e-learning programs.

Back to the title… what does this really mean?

We can provide learners with information, not knowledge. When information makes sense to people and it becomes meaningful, it can potentially form knowledge. For that to happen, the new information needs to fit or be processed in learners’ own frames of reference – the knowledge they have already.

So real/deep learning can only happen when that internal creation process is taking place. This is the ‘construction’ part (which is why we talk about constructivism as opposed to instructivism).

In the sectors in which I work, the ‘social’ construction is equally important. This is because there are often no right/wrong answers so it is essential that ‘constructed knowledge’ is checked against different people’s realities.

So how do we do this online?

Traditional e-learning (individual learners working through a series of screens with information/scenarios) is only useful for concept mastery. In all subject areas, there is need for some concept mastery (the basic principles of good accounting for example).

However, when we would like to take this deeper to include decision making and application, it gets messier. Much of that type of training aims at providing people with the means to shape their realities, rather than to just undergo them. In these programs, we can’t just ‘package’ the information and consider this to be good enough. This is where approaches like social constructivism will support the necessary deeper learning.

What do we do with the valuable information we would like to share?

By all means, share the information and resources with the participants in the learning event. But don’t share it upfront – which is called a ‘push’ model – because then the focus is on your content rather than on the learning activity. Turn this upside down and use the ‘pull’ model: put the activity upfront and provide some interesting information ‘just-in-time’ for people to explore when they are solving the problem in the task. Your information is fed into the process alongside participants’ experience, ideas and own research. In a ‘pull’ model people pay more attention to the information because they probably need (some of) it to solve the task.

Let’s always remember that information is just facts, data and descriptions of other people’s experiences. The learning designers’ role is to create interesting events that facilitate the building of knowledge as well as the skills to use that knowledge to make a difference in the workplace. We can’t do this for the learners – they must do that themselves… and as always, the focus of the learning event needs to be on ‘doing’ to make that happen. The information we have about the topic will probably help, but if we put it at the centre, we’re ignoring how people learn.

How do you change from being a sage-on-stage to a guide-on-the side?
Reflections on the ‘New Groupthink’ and lessons for asynchronous collaborative e-learning


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