Cheating and the new value of knowledge #rhizo14


Shared on Flickr by Yannis

Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self. 
~Yohji Yamamoto

In this first week of #rhizo14 we were invited by Dave Cormier to use “cheating as learning as our weapon.” As I examined my thinking around the topic, I struggled to find solid ground. All I could muster up was a pile of uncertainties. Hmm…I would prefer to find somewhere solid to stand…but as the week progressed, I realized and finally succumbed to the truth of the situation: we are at a cross roads between a historical view of acquiring knowledge and the contrasting way we acquire information in a networked world. The resulting tension has created an immense amount of uncertainty and with it a fear of standing on the unknown, just as we might fear standing on quick sand (I stand on it and I sink…yup I did).

David Weinberger explains:

“the Net can scale that large only because it doesn’t have edges within which knowledge has to squeeze. No edges mean no shape. And no shape means that networked knowledge lacks what we have long taken to be essential to the structure of knowledge: a foundation.”

In schools we ask students to copy notes, copy the right answer, and even copy trains of thought. We present “knowledge” to them as foundational and integral to everything else they will need to do cognitively in school and life. As you need bricks to build a house, students are told they need to acquire a stockpile of knowledge before they build thoughts. We use these knowledge pieces as a ticket to an event; no knowledge then no entry into understanding or synthesizing. We treat knowledge as hard-won and valuable.

Historically, as Wienberger explains In Too Big to Know :

“facts were relatively scarce both because they were hard to obtain and because they were hard to get published…The internet’s abundant capacity has removed the old artificial constraints on publishing…and this is changing the role that facts have played as the foundation of knowledge.”

Facts were once valuable and hard to acquire. Considerable effort and resources had to be expended to accumulate and publish them. Valuable items are worth stealing: the energy invested to “steal” is balanced by the potential return of acquiring something valuable (think of Watson and Crick’s use of Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images of DNA in determining DNA’s structure). Cheating (or stealing of knowledge) in a time when facts were rare and valuable, was a calculated strategy, a balancing of risk with a possible return. This led institutions to create rules around how knowledge was distributed and used. Since considerable effort and time were needed in acquiring knowledge pieces (Darwin’s spent years amassing facts), value was placed on these efforts. Cheating, was defined by our institutions, as stealing: using knowledge we had not acquired for ourselves was considered wrong.

But do we still need to expend energy to acquire knowledge? Is there in fact value in acquiring piles knowledge for ourselves, owning and hoarding it? Should children have to work hard to amass a body of knowledge before entering the hallowed halls of deeper thought? Is this hierarchical view of knowledge as foundational still relevant and useful? Or is it just a historical hangover from a time when filtering of individuals who could enter disciplines was both a quality control and a way to maintain homogeneity? As Wienberger points out the challenge lies in on the one hand:

“echo chambers are a requirement for the discussion and collaboration that advance knowledge, and even echo chambers with solid walls can serve some purposes…But we also know that we make ourselves stupid when we restrict ourselves to tolerating only the mildest disruptions of our comfort.”

And moreover:

“in this world of abundance, knowledge is not a library but a playlist tuned to our present interests. It is not eternally truthful content but subject matter good enough for our current task. It is not a realm but a path that gets us where we’re going.”

What if instead of teaching our children ways and means to acquire and amass knowledge, we need, as Wienberger suggests, to:

“educate our children from the earliest possible age about how to use the Net, how to evaluate knowledge claims, and how to love to difference.”

In this information age, he explains: “learning how to evaluate knowledge claims – is never-ending. Now that the temple priests don’t control what we encounter” we need “critical thinking skills more than ever”. 

Wienberger explains:

“The net lowers the barriers to encountering and interacting that which is different. The barriers that remain are not our technology’s but our own. We have lost every excuse not to embrace difference.”

Is our challenge, not to crack down and prevent “cheating” or to indoctrinate and inoculate our children with subject knowledge but rather as, Erica McWilliam challenges in Creativity or Conformity in Higher Education?, to create: “a pedagogy in which teachers and students work as co-creators and co-assemblers (and dissemblers) of trans-disciplinary knowledge” instead of a culture in which curriculum and pedagogy is fully ‘locked in’ in advance of engagement.”

Bring it.

Let’s: argue about whether our new knowledge will bring us closer to the truth” as Wienberger invites.

Let’s raise our tolerance to differences to create new views and practices around how we interact and portray knowledge. Let’s cheat our way forward…as we map our way through uncertainty.